Book: Diane Arbus: A Biography

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BY 1958 DIANE AND Allan had moved again—this time to a triplex in Averell Harriman’s townhouse on East 68th Street. Their studio had once been the grand ballroom and was replete with marble floor and ornate fireplaces. Downstairs were the living quarters, including a kitchen and a little garden where the family could eat during the summer. As with all their places, the new Arbus home was sparsely furnished.

Their daughters were growing. Amy was a plump little thing; Doon—quiet, withdrawn—was breathtakingly beautiful and, Jane Eliot says, wonderfully protective toward her little sister. Every morning Diane accompanied Doon to Fifth Avenue and 68th Street, where she caught the bus to the Rudolf Steiner school.

Doon’s classmate Jill Isles recalls, “Diane always wore her camera around her neck, rain or shine. She looked bedraggled, but she was cheerful and every day she’d ask me politely, ‘And how are you?’ and she’d keep us both company until the bus came.”

In the afternoon Diane often took Amy to the park, roaming with her across Sheep Meadow and Cherry Hill, around Belvedere Castle and the Glade. She loved the ruined beauty of Bethesda Fountain, the bird sanctuary, and Gapstow Bridge.

Renee Philips, an illustrator of children’s books, used to bring her daughter to the park and she would often find Diane wrapped in a blanket, her nose in a book, while Amy played fearlessly on the swings. Renee had never seen such concentration. She was always so worried about her daughter hurting herself she could never concentrate on anything, but Diane just read and read, never looking up. Finally the two women got to talking and Renee asked, “Aren’t you ever worried about your daughter? She may fall—skin her knee—something.” And Diane said no, she wasn’t worried, and besides Amy had to find out about life—she had to learn how to be courageous, how to survive. Diane couldn’t teach her that.

With Renee, Diane talked mostly about what she wished for her daughters: “Independence and purity, if that combination is possible.” She said once about growing up: “It’s a testing of the thousands of prohibitions that are put in front of you. I mean, can you go out without rubbers? And not catch pneumonia? I mean, I’ve done it! It’s terrific to find out you can, and then you don’t know what to say to your children about going out without rubbers. You know damn well it doesn’t matter, because you know colds don’t come from that.”

During this period Diane was still going up to Condé Nast periodically, lugging the Arbus portfolio into the Vogue or Glamour art department, hoping to convince an editor that Allan should be booked for another editorial spread. Ever since they had stopped collaborating in fashion, it was no longer any “fun.” It was more difficult to go after jobs alone, and without any of Diane’s imaginative suggestions, let alone her companionship, it was now simply a way of paying the rent. He could hardly wait to leave the studio at the end of a sitting and rush off to mime class. He had bought a Vespa and would zoom around the city on it.

His friend Bob Brown kept encouraging him to audition for the theater. Off-Broadway was flourishing—Circle in the Square had given actors like George C. Scott, Jason Robards, and Géraldine Page their “big break.” True, Off-Broadway didn’t pay—Robards was being paid $25 a week to play Hickey in The Iceman Cometh—but Allan should try it before it was too late. He was almost forty—a fact that drove him into a deep depression whenever he thought about it. For a while, to divert himself, he took piano lessons from a young jazz musician, and on an impulse he cut off Doon’s hair. “Oh, she is gorgeous,” Diane wrote to the Meserveys, who were now in Boston. “Like an available angel.” She added that she was terribly behind in photography. “It’s almost as if I’ll never know how to do it.”

But when she did photograph, it intoxicated her. Then she floated in a “sort of weird rarefied air” and she felt “in danger of never coming home…it’s like being in the ocean when the waves make you feel so strong [you believe you can] swim to Europe…there’s an illusion involved which could prove its own trap.”

Diane and Howard didn’t see much of each other during this period. “I think it was hard for her to be so cut off from her brother,” Peggy Nemerov says. “We’d keep on inviting Diane and Allan up to Bennington to see our garden, but they never came.”

Howard, meanwhile, was resigned to academia. “A fairly agreeable way to make a dollar,” he would say; “a perfect place to hide out.” Between his classes he could write, dream, play the piano to his heart’s content. He and Stanley Edgar Hyman helped build a strong literature department, inviting novelists like Barnard Malamud to teach.

When his work wasn’t going well, Howard still suffered from acute depressions which he could sometimes talk himself out of during long strolls with Malamud across the Vermont hills. Malamud would usually begin the conversation, often completing a veritable monologue before Howard would abruptly respond. Then he would describe his nightmares, his dreams. He would tell Malamud about his sister Diane (“They were obviously very close,” Malamud says); he would describe her ghostly photographs, her sly way with words.

In his novel Federigo, or the Power of Love he had drawn from Diane and Allan’s fashion world and had characterized some of the people he’d met through them—sex-obsessed couples who were having affairs without conviction. He imagined his sister and brother-in-law leading a fabled, bittersweet existence—“modern—chic—the kind I imagined Daddy lived, in a way. Diane and Allan made so much more money than I did, and I envied their money and what I thought was their glamorous life style.”

Diane, for her part, envied her brother’s literary versatility, his growing reputation. She still scribbled in a journal, still had fantasies of herself as a writer. In fact, some years later when she published her first photographs in Bazaar accompanied by her own text, she described herself as a “writer/photographer.”

She was pleased when Howard won the Kenyon Review Fellowship in fiction, and when his third book of poetry, The Salt Garden, was published to uniformly excellent reviews. These poems, about man’s divided nature and the workings of the human mind, are filled with images of reflecting mirrors, cameras, and the inside of dreams. The New York Times called The Salt Garden “important and beautiful.”

Howard hoped he would capture some of the major prizes, but Wallace Stevens’ Complete Poems won the Pulitzer. He tried not to be bitter, but he was. He yearned for applause, for more recognition. He felt he was being overlooked, ignored, because he wasn’t writing in the present mold. He no longer measured himself against Auden or T. S. Eliot—Blake and Robert Frost were his guides, and while he still valued irony, he now regarded simplicity as the most vital element in a poem. He continued to work slowly and carefully and often drank far into the night. In Howard’s world—the world of John Berryman, Delmore Schwartz, William Carlos Williams—the failure to obtain money, let alone recognition, was almost intolerable.

Occasionally Howard would read his poetry at seminars and colleges around the country, and this gave him some feedback. He enjoyed the fuss that was made over him—admirers holding out his books for him to autograph. Elbert Lenrow remembers going to a reading at the 92nd Street “Y” in New York and afterward a line of people stretched down the aisle toward the stage, where Howard stood graciously greeting everyone. And Diane was there, too, watching silently nearby. Except for these readings, Howard did not travel much. He would always return as quickly as possible to Bennington after any public appearance—home to Peggy and his sons. He saw Diane and his parents infrequently. He assumes his father was aware of his published novels and poetry, but “he never made comments about anything I did, possibly because I’d made no money from my writing.”

As usual, David Nemerov was busy with another new Russeks—this one opened at the Savoy-Plaza Hotel in 1955. Nemerov had always wanted to be in this area: “You get the out-of-town tourists and the rich New Yorkers,” he said at one of the Friday-night dinners. He loved the elegance of 57th and Fifth—the presence and competition of Bonwit, Bergdorf, Bendel, and Jay Thorpe. The new Russeks was furnished with French antique furniture, dark blue walls; the outside was tinted concrete.

Russeks Fifth Avenue, the flagship store, was still operating, but at a $120 million deficit. The Russeks empire (stores in Chicago, Brooklyn, Cross Island Shopping Center) had been bought by a group of Chicago investors, among them the Pritzcy brothers, who maintained that they were going to modernize and expand. They owned controlling stock, but Nemerov remained chairman of the board.

Diane frequently dropped by the Fifth Avenue Russeks to visit her father. She often brought her daughters along and the three of them would remain in Nemerov’s office until conversation lagged or he was called away. Then they might ride up and down the elevators, stopping at various floors to try on the latest sweaters or blouses or shoes, but Diane would quickly tire of shopping (it reminded her of the hours she’d spent shopping with her mother when every purchase became a drama), so she would hustle her daughters home and cook supper—usually chili. It was so often chili, in fact, that Allan would groan, “Oh, no! Not chili again!” every time the dish appeared on the table. Diane no longer wanted to spend time in the kitchen, so she usually served her family “poor food” (her term)—Spam, hot dogs, and spaghetti didn’t take long to fix. However, when they had guests, she would broil a chicken or prepare a vegetable stew. “She could be a terrific cook when she felt like it,” Tina Fredericks says. Tina would come to the Sunday-night suppers at the Arbuses’ which had become almost a ritual for special friends in the mid-fifties—friends like the Eliots, like Cheech, like a new friend, the actor Robert Brown, “who was so handsome you’d gasp when you saw him,” says actress Tammy Grimes, a friend of Brown’s who would occasionally accompany him to the Arbuses’ along with her then husband, Christopher Plummer.

Brown was then going out with an ethereal-looking nineteen-year-old actress named Sybille Pearson (who is now an award-winning playwright). Sybille has never forgotten those suppers. “They seemed glamorous and folksy at the same time.” Beautiful glassware glittered on the pink marble table. A huge green tree stood in one corner of the high-ceilinged room, and photographic equipment—lights, camera—was propped in another. Amy and Doon would be padding around in their bathrobes trying to attract everybody’s attention while Allan put another Benny Goodman record on the phonograph. He didn’t say much, so Bob Brown talked—mainly to Diane—about the Off-Broadway shows he’d been appearing in. They seemed to have great rapport.

Sybille couldn’t stop looking at Diane’s tawny skin, at the thick blonde down on her upper lip. Her buttocks moved back and forth, undulating under the loose folds of her skirt as she walked barefoot across the room to fuss over her two daughters—tenderly smoothing their hair, buttoning their nightgowns.

“She was so sensuous! A mystery mother. I wanted her to be my mother and love me,” Sybille says.

After the children went off to bed, Diane turned her attention to Sybille, directing gentle questions at her until she almost forgot her shyness. “She related to my sullenness—my insecurity. She accepted me as a person with an identity; she treated me like an adult.”

Diane adored the story Bob Brown kept telling about how Sybille had auditioned for Arthur Miller and his play A View from the Bridge. She’d gotten the part, but she’d been so terrified, so sure she’d been awful, that she’d run out of the theater as soon as the audition was over without giving the stage manager her name or her phone number, so nobody could find her to tell her she had won the role. The producer, Kermit Bloomgarden, searched for weeks trying to track her down and finally had to cast another ingénue. Diane thought that was a marvelous story.

Sybille says, “I always felt wanted and loved and accepted by the Arbs.” One Sunday she got the flu and phoned to say that she couldn’t make supper. Within hours a present was hand-delivered to her apartment. It was a gift from Diane, beautifully wrapped, with a little note: “I hope you feel better.” Inside a box was a paperback of The Wanderer by Alain-Fournier and a packet of mouches. “You know, those little stars and half-moons you stick on your cheek? The gift was so special—so Diane. I was very much moved. I still have those mouches.”

Diane loved giving presents. She gave Cheech a warped green glass bottle she’d found washed up from the sea (Cheech has it still on her fire escape); she gave Cheech a lovely copper lampshade, a string of fat brown wooden beads. Once she lugged a heart-shaped waffle iron out on the train to East Hampton for Tina Fredericks’ birthday, and Yamashiro recalls receiving a globe of the world with a ticket to Haiti attached when he was about to go out on his own as a photographer. The film-maker Emile de Antonio remembers receiving a book from Diane called Flatland, “which was a geometric study of the universe told in the form of a fable. I tried to read the thing and I thought, ‘What the hell does Diane mean by this?’ Because everything Diane did seemed to have meaning.”

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