Book: Diane Arbus: A Biography

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Next: Part Three: The Dark World


IF DIANE LOVED ANYONE unreservedly, it was her daughter Doon. She spoiled her, catered to her, marveled at her beauty, her quirky turn of mind, her disconcerting behavior. (Once while the apartment was being painted Doon wrote succinct directions across her bedroom walls, explaining to the painters the exact colors she wanted used.) So when at the age of twelve Doon got a crush on Tony Perkins, Diane did nothing to discourage her.

Subsequently Doon discovered where Tony Perkins lived in New York and every day after school she would go to his house on West 55th Street and stand outside, looking up into his windows, hoping to see him. She returned to West 55th Street day after day, month after month. Helen Merrill, a friend of Perkins’ who lived in his house, began noticing “this exquisite golden-haired creature” staring up at her from the street. “Tony had a number of fans who camped outside his door—but never for this long, this doggedly, and this girl was so particular in her intensity and her beauty that I really wondered about her,” Mrs. Merrill goes on. Finally, Perkins went out on the street himself to ask her name, but Doon wouldn’t tell him. He persisted until she blurted out, “Both my parents are photographers.”

Perkins gave her money for a cab and told her gently to go home, which she did. Meanwhile Mrs. Merrill, who had been a photographer herself, put two and two together and phoned Diane and Allan Arbus. “Do you know where your daughter goes every day after school?” she demanded, and Diane replied, “Oh, yes, of course we know, and we think it’s fine—we trust her completely.”

Diane remembered how as a girl she’d wandered the streets with her friend Phyllis Carton, but they’d never been as adventurous as Doon. “Doon is far braver than I was as a teen-ager,” Diane said.

So Doon was allowed to continue standing outside Tony Perkins’ building until finally Mrs. Merrill and Perkins came up with a solution: if Doon would stop standing outside every day, she would be invited for brunch on Sunday morning. Doon agreed, and soon she began drifting by most Sundays for brunch, and on other days as well. “She was so bright and funny and lovely—she was impossible not to like. Tony and I adored her,” Mrs. Merrill says.

Perkins was then starring in Look Homeward, Angel on Broadway, and it was an exciting and busy time for him. Doon got caught up in it. Through Perkins she met Michael Smith, an Off-Broadway playwright, and later she worked on two of Smith’s productions at Café Cino. Throughout most of her adolescence Doon spent much of her free time at the Perkins house, and Diane and Allan allowed her to do so although they were undoubtedly aware that there was something unsettling in their own lives that she was wishing to avoid.

Allan had begun to get concerned before every fashion shooting, his assistant Richard Marx remembers. He was a perfectionist and he was sure his photographic perceptions were failing since he no longer had any interest in what he was doing. Shooting a Seventeen magazine cover, for instance, had become sheer hell for him. And there was no place to hide. A painter has a million ways of putting one color next to another; he can hide behind the richness of the painting process. But not the photographer. And in fashion photography there were so many elements to worry about: the lights might go; the film might not have been put in the camera correctly; the clothes might look lousy; the models could turn temperamental. Nor was Diane around anymore to smooth things out; to pull a sitting together. And when she did observe, she was often critical. As her own work grew more harshly realistic, she often found Allan’s images too one-dimensional and idealized. Her criticism (although asked for) could be devastating. “By the end of a session he would be snapping at me,” Marx recalls, and he would remain snappish through dinner, telling Diane and his daughters that he was in despair and could feel and express nothing. After dinner he would escape to his room, and the clarinet-playing grew so excessive that little Amy would shut the door to her room and refuse to come out. Scales and scales for hours, Diane told Cheech; she said she didn’t know how much longer she could stand it.

Everything seemed to be going wrong. Their apartment, so beautiful and serene on the surface, wasn’t working. They couldn’t utilize the space—it didn’t look lived in. Diane would murmur wistfully, “If only we had more furniture…” They still tried to entertain, but “the dinners fizzled—there was no spark,” Alex Eliot says. They now knew a great many people, but they had few close friends. They still saw a great deal of the Eliots, but usually alone. “It didn’t seem to work when we invited other people.”

Alex had just completed a huge work for Time-Life Books, Three Hundred Years of American Painting, which received an excellent review in the Times (“remarkable—contagiously enthusiastic about art and artists”) and sold very well. Alex was pleased, but he was now considering leaving Time Inc. “I’d been there fifteen years; I was safe and secure and earning good money, and so what?” He took a leave of absence for a year in 1957, and he and Jane lived in Spain. Then he came back to Time, but only briefly. “By now our offices were in a new skyscraper on Sixth Avenue with sealed-shut windows. We began breathing stale air and feeling lousy. One editor got so bugged he kicked open his window, and within seconds someone from maintenance had sealed it up with a new pane of glass.”

Finally, on assignment in Delphi, Alex had a dream “which clinched it for me.” In his dream a voice cried out, “Alex, what will you do when there are no more museums?” And he woke up realizing that for years he’d been reporting on art, absorbed with art, but not living much of a life; he’d been waiting for significance, waiting for epiphanies. “I wanted to live life more deeply before I died.” He applied for a Guggenheim to study the sacred places of the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and the Far East, and when he received the grant he and Jane and their two children set out to explore Greece and Italy and ultimately Japan.

One evening, just before the Eliots left for Greece, Alex arranged for Benny Goodman to come to the Arbus studio for a midnight drink. Allan was overjoyed, since Goodman was his idol; he’d been trying to emulate his musical style for over twenty years. Coffee and brandy were served; there was some conversation and then Goodman borrowed Allan’s clarinet and began to play. He was only going to play a few numbers, but he ended up “blowing until the early hours—gorgeous, marvelous stuff,” while Allan sat there very still.

Diane was starting to develop and print some of her most recent pictures in John Stewart’s East Side darkroom. (Stewart, an English cosmopolite and memorable Vogue still-life photographer, lent Diane his studio whenever he traveled.) It was another small step toward independence, moving through a strange borrowed space—turning on lights, coming upon an unrecognizable chair, pillow, or dish. And then she would labor over her contacts in the darkroom, trying to decipher which were the most dramatic stances, the most peculiar evocative expressions, expressions that were at once familiar and strange.

Allan meanwhile had enrolled in Mira Rostova’s acting class and he started doing scenes from Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. At first, he seemed constricted with emotion as he stood on the stage, and he would hide behind his rich, mellifluous voice. He was ten to fifteen years older than most of the other students, so he was self-conscious and refused to go out with them afterward. But in time he did, and then everybody treated him with great deference because he was a well-known photographer. He kept insisting that he hated photography and wasn’t much good at it; his wife, Diane, was much better, he said.

Gradually Allan got more caught up with acting; the classes with Rostova were stimulating, and he made friends with a few of the students and listened to them talk about auditions, rehearsals, the electric performances of the moment—Colleen Dewhurst and George C. Scott in Children of Darkness. Such talk only dramatized the fact that he loved show business, make-believe, the theater, more than anything else. He had to be an actor! he kept repeating.

He and Diane would go over and over again the pros and cons of his quitting fashion photography once and for all. But it was the same old problem: how could he support the family? Most of the actors he knew lived on unemployment insurance. He was afraid to take that chance—he couldn’t bear to be without money—and Diane could do nothing to help since she was earning almost no money at all. Whenever she took her portfolio to a magazine, she would be dismissed. No art director warmed to her images of sideshows or “headless” men. Her close-ups of children—usually giggling hysterically, their bodies distorted by a kind of curious foreshortening—were like El Greco paintings. It upset her that she couldn’t contribute to household expenses and she felt even more helpless when she confided to Lisette Model that on top of everything else she and Allan seemed to be growing apart. It was happening to several of her friends—working women like herself who had also been “child brides,” had had babies in their teens, and now some twenty years later suddenly found they had very little in common with their husbands.

And yet in spite of this Diane was determined to stay married. Allan was decent, good, supportive, and he had helped to create a comfortable, well-run little nest for their family.

But nothing seemed right anymore. The days and evenings seemed bleak. They were starting to have little to say to each other, and Allan became, as time went on, increasingly unreachable.

He continued to seem miserable until he started rehearsing a scene for class with a young actress. They worked so well together he couldn’t stop talking about the experience, and Diane grew uneasy, but she didn’t show it; she behaved very politely even when the young actress visited their studio.

Weeks went by. Allan seemed happier. He had always worn his hair slicked back, but now he began to wear it wild and curly around his head. The young actress had told him how terrific it looked.

This upset Diane. She confided to a friend she thought Allan might be falling in love. Days passed. Allan said or did nothing out of the ordinary—he just seemed happy now and Diane felt increasingly betrayed. Her identity seemed to evaporate. A possible sexual involvement didn’t bother her—at issue were her emotions. She couldn’t believe he would fall in love with someone else—that it was possible for him to fall in love with somebody new. Eventually she phoned Cheech terribly distraught and asked to see her right away.

Cheech says, “I told her to meet me at the Baths on Monroe Street. The walls were blistered from decades of steam, the place was dank—water dripping everywhere; the boards were rotting from so much water. I remember that the carpet was soaking wet and the flowered patterns had faded from so much extreme moisture. We sat fully clothed in the steam on the stairs and there were elderly Jewish women surrounding us—wrinkled old crones with hanging boobs and stringy hair wrapped in sheets, murmuring to each other while Diane poured her heart out to me, rocking back and forth.”

She cried with great moans and sighs, tears streaming down her face. She had believed in their love, she cried, in their deep attachment—she believed that love between a man and a woman was the significant and all-encompassing experience and should be treasured. She had loved Allan since she was fourteen—loved him, revered him, trusted him, depended on him. Her own infidelities were unimportant—she had never loved these men or said she loved them! But she was sure Allan had fallen in love with another woman, head over heels, and she could not accept it. He was withdrawing his love from her, and that withdrawal was so powerful it was crushing the potential in her for feeling. “I am going to be numbed!” she cried. Finally she said, “I can’t talk about it anymore!” And then, idiotically, “I’m going to take pictures!” With that, she took out her camera and began snapping away at the women lolling around in their sheets in the cloudy steam.

Cheech told her not to—it wasn’t proper, it wasn’t the time—but she kept on photographing—click! click! click!—as if her life depended on it. The women seated on the steps told her to stop, but she wouldn’t. Instead, she crept around and squatted close as if she were trying to kill them with her camera. And suddenly en masse these old women rose up in their sheets screaming and began to attack her. They tore her camera away from her and tossed it into a bucket of water and “We were thrown out on the street by the management,” Cheech says.

“Suddenly it was insanely funny. We came out into the day and collapsed into a cab, and although Diane’s face was ugly and strained—her skin ashen—we laughed hysterically, uncontrollably, all the way back to East 68th Street. When we reached the studio, we were still laughing and Allan greeted us at the door and we kept laughing at him and he kept asking, ‘What is going on between you two? What in God’s name is so funny?’ ”

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Next: Part Three: The Dark World