Book: Diane Arbus: A Biography

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THROUGHOUT THE THIRTIES AND forties Esquire, “the magazine for men,” had been distinguished for publishing Hemingway and Faulkner and for its sexy drawings by Varga. Recently, perhaps out of a reaction to the banality of the fifties but more probably due to the increasing success of its fleshier rival Playboy, Esquire had been trying to change its image. In order to do that, publisher Arnold Gingrich had just hired a number of talented young men to revamp the magazine, among them an editor from Life named Clay Felker, and writers Robert Benton and David Newman.

Newman recalls, “We were developing off-the-wall takes editorially—Nabokov on nudists, Mailer writing about the political conventions. Later Gary Wills and Gore Vidal took on the assassinations of the Kennedys and John Sack covered Vietnam. A lot of it was smart-ass stuff—like the Dubious Achievement Awards. Some of it was shocking—remember the Lieutenant Calley cover with the little Vietnam kids? But the underlying message—defining the cultural climate of the sixties—was important.”

Journalist Tom Morgan had suggested that Diane show her photographs to Harold Hayes, the articles editor who went on to be editor-in-chief. Hayes recalls being “bowled over by Diane’s images—a dwarf in a clown’s costume, TV sets, movie marquees, Dracula. Her vision, her subject matter, her snapshot style, were perfect for Esquire, perfect for the times; she stripped away everything to the thing itself. It seemed apocalyptic.”

He took the portfolio to Robert Benton, who was then Esquire’s art director (long before he went on to win two Oscars for writing and directing Kramer vs. Kramer), and Benton agreed. “Diane knew the importance of subject matter. And she had a special ability to seek out peculiar subject matter, and then her way of confronting it with her camera, well, it was like something I’d never seen before. She seemed to be able to suggest how it felt to be a midget or a transvestite. She got close to these people—yet she remained detached.”

But, despite their enthusiasm, neither Benton nor Hayes could think up what to assign Diane, so she suggested Joan Crawford’s closet—having heard that Crawford owned an enormous array of clothes, all labeled “pretty good,” “fair,” “sensational,” and all wrapped in plastic. Hayes gave her the go-ahead, but she was unable to obtain an appointment with Crawford without submitting samples of her photographs, and she was afraid to do that. For a while she considered passing off one of Allan’s celebrity portraits of Tony Perkins as her own, but Allan wouldn’t hear of it, so she abandoned the idea.

Nevertheless she and Hayes met for lunch several times that fall to try to think of something else for her to do. Hayes remembers Diane at that time as “very sexual, very feminine—tentative—charming—fey. She wore marvelously cut linen suits—no other woman I knew wore linen suits.” He remembers her loving references to her daughter Doon. “Diane was so pleased her daughter confided in her, trusted her.”

By October of 1959 Hayes, Benton, and Clay Felker had come up with the idea of devoting an entire issue of Esquire exclusively to New York. Gay Talese, a young reporter from the New York Times, was going to write the lead essay; there would be contributions from John Cheever and Truman Capote, among others. Hayes told Diane he wanted her to do a photographic essay on the night life of the city, contrasting surprising events and people and places—events, people and places nobody knew about.

Diane was intrigued. “Let me waste some film!” she exclaimed to Benton, adding that she planned to photograph River House, drug addicts, Welfare Island, Roseland, and the Bowery News newsroom “for starters.” She went on to tell him that she’d been “peering into Rolls-Royces, skulking around the Plaza Hotel.” She’d also thumbed through the Yellow Pages under “CLUBS,” since Harold Hayes wanted something “respectable” like the Colony Club and the Union League; she’d found ones called “The Rough Club” and “Ourselves Inc.” She reminded Benton that Mathew Brady had once photographed the DAR and that the results had been “formidable.” In a note scribbled to Benton, she asked for “permissions both posh and sordid… I can only get photographs by photographing. I will go anywhere.”

Diane began the Esquire assignment by visiting the morgue at Bellevue, a cavernous building at 29th Street and the East River that was a place of dank tiles and refrigerated corpses. In the autopsy room the air was heavy with the smell of decomposing flesh, of viscera open for examination. Diane got to know some of the forensic doctors and she was allowed to photograph there. She began to collect information about death and dying.

Then there were the unclaimed bodies (one of which she photographed), bodies that landed in potter’s field. Some fourteen thousand adults and more than four thousand babies died anonymously in one year, she discovered. She read the yellowing police records: “William Harrington, sixty-five. Tailor. Had prison record. Found with fractured skull. Five feet six, slender gray moustache. Harmonica in pocket.”

After photographing in the morgue Diane roamed in and out of Manhattan’s flophouses, brothels, and seedy hotels, the little parks in Abingdon Square and Union Square, the parks near the Brooklyn Bridge and Chinatown. Soon her address books bulged with an unbelievable record of names with scribbled identifications next to them: “Detective Wanderer—West Side homicide…subway brakeman, Kass Pollack…Vincent Lopez, band leader…Flora Knapp Dickinson, DAR…” “I own New York!” she exulted to her sister, Renée. Ultimately Diane would say she was “collecting things”; she defined her special interest in photography as a sort of contemporary anthropology.

She placed a blackboard by her bed with a list of places and people she wanted to photograph: “pet crematorium, New York Doll Hospital, Horse Show, opening of the Met, Manhattan Hospital for the insane, condemned hotel, Anne Bancroft in The Miracle Worker.”

K. T. Morgan, Tom’s daughter, would visit the Arbus house in the evening and sit on Diane’s bed while she pinned up her latest picture still damp and curly from the darkroom. “It would quickly mingle with the other objects and artifacts she kept around her bed—a wooden poster from an old bed, a California job case filled with tiny mementoes, a Bellocq photograph, a European postcard. There was always something new, whether it was something she made or something she collected. What I saw as a child were, as Susan Sontag says, ‘the Halloween Crowd.’ Diane’s photographs showed me people who were unordinary, extraordinary or people I might never see otherwise.” Like muscleman Kenneth Hall (who in his spare time played the bongos and married a dance-contest winner); like female impersonator Mickey Marlowe, age twenty-eight, who specialized in feather fan dances à la Sally Rand; and then there was Jack Dracula, “the Marked Man,” whom she photographed in the tall grasses of Central Park, counting with care his 306 tattoos. “There are 28 stars on his face,” she wrote later, “as well as 4 eagles in varying postures, 6 greenish symbols shaped like donuts, a Maori moustache and a pair of trompe l’oeil goggles…”

In contrast, she photographed Moss Hart’s daughter, Cathy, getting out of a shiny limousine; she photographed a Boy Scout meeting, the Police Academy, elderly people on Welfare Island. She went down into the sewers and she visited a slaughterhouse: the scene reminded her of a drawing by Piranesi; she could hear the animals roaring before they came out to be butchered—the smell and sight of so much blood, steaming rivers of it, almost made her vomit.

Out of anxiety, she shot hundreds of rolls of film on the Esquire assignment. Robert Benton and Harold Hayes were so excited by the raw images she kept bringing in—Roseland Dance Palace, the men’s detention house, a pet funeral, a condemned Broadway hotel’s tenants—that they considered illustrating the entire New York issue with Arbus pictures. “I foolishly decided against it,” Hayes says now. “The pictures were such an indictment.”

He and Benton finally chose six—among them, Flora Knapp Dickinson of the DAR; an unknown person in the morgue at Bellevue; beautiful blonde Mrs. Dagmar Patino at the Grand Ball benefiting Boys’ Town of Italy; and Walter Gregory, whom Diane had developed a particular fondness for. Gregory was an almost legendary Bowery character known as the “Madman from Massachusetts.” She was very upset when he was run over by a bus not long after she had photographed him.

For four months Diane had thrown herself into this assignment for Esquire, living in an almost constant state of euphoria—pedaling about on her bicycle, jumping in and out of cabs, cameras always weighing her down. She invariably wore a raincoat. “I feel like an explorer!” she would say.

Often Robert Benton and his girlfriend, Sally Rendigs, going home from a party, would see Diane coming up out of the subway. “It would be two a.m.,” Benton says, “and she’d be running up from the station, eyes sparkling, not at all tired. I’ve never seen anyone work so hard.”

“I was often frightened by her capacity to be enthralled,” her daughter Doon has written, “by her power to give herself over to something or to someone, to submit. But it was the very thing that made her photographs possible.”

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