What Would Lynne Tillman Do? (7 page)

A record of himself is all any man records

Being jerked off—if done by the right person—leaves no regrets

Characteristic of our age (Henry James
’ The Turn of the Screw
a forerunner)—more and more interest in the perversity of children…to shock now, the child must be involved—Example in painting: Balthus, more shocking than Dali…The child is all

The contemporary reader may be surprised by Ford’s anxiety over the effects of masturbation—“I recover from self-abuse”—or disturbed or pleased by his ecstatic evocations and lust for teenaged boys, by his openness about his desires generally. Maybe the only thing in life that doesn’t change, apart from the certainty of death—though these days that seems to be changing—is desire. Only its articulations and the environment in which it is felt shift. Ford’s freedom or constraints, his prejudices or lacks, gauge his moment and ours.


But I look too good to ruin: I wish my twin would come along and I’d kiss him.

I don’t know how my character will come out in these notes and memories, but I think we usually are to others what we are to ourselves.

The literary diary is a strange form. Was it written to be read? Maybe. Probably. Is it self-conscious? Necessarily. Ford’s diary was written to examine himself and others, and in a way, its self-consciousness is its raison d’étre. Preciousness is stripped from its self-consciousness by Ford’s sardonic, unflinching self-criticism—he’s regularly concerned with his character as well as Pavlik’s. (The diary pulses, too, with the impact of psychoanalytic theory on contemporary thinking.) But Ford is unself-conscious about his devotion to the cause of aesthetics and the examined life. And is, in his fashion, devoted to love, writing a love story with its own deliberate ideas about heart.

No one will ever mean more to me—inspire me more—than Pavlik

The fatal image: Vito’s profile as he looked over the terrace yesterday. There it was and there’s nothing one can do about it. I wasn’t born to live alone

Pavlik’s great heart stopped beating at ten to eight (July 1957)

Ford’s diary ends with questions. Does he love Vito? Does Vito love him? Anyway, what is love. Pavlik has died. Ford’s days will change. His life has come to the reader in bits and pieces, a collage, or, like his poems, a cut up. It ends the same way.

This ravaging sense of the shortness of life. . . .” (V.W). I don’t have that. I sense, rather, that life will be long—too long

Charles said something, on that brilliant fall day, about being fortunate or having had good fortune. I teased him about becoming soft. He said, I think a little sheepishly, “Well, it’s the right time, isn’t it?”

I shall continue this document until the end of next year, then I vow to continue it no longer. It’s a secret vice. Vices should be public

Object Lesson

Houses and people remind me of each other. Both have facades behind whose stone and brick, smiles and frowns, lie other, often hidden aspects. The Hughes house on Lexington Avenue is covered in wisteria. I’m told the massive vine blossoms purple for one week in the spring, and now its gnarly brown branches are naked, obscuring the house, insinuating mystery—it is winter, when nature is under attack by its own elements, stripped to a raw, needy-looking state.

Fred Hughes has lived in the house on Lexington Avenue since 1974. Built in 1889, the four-story house was designed by Henry J. Hardenbergh, who also designed the Dakota, an uncanny actor in Roman Polanski’s modern gothic,
Rosemary’s Baby
. Hughes’s house once belonged to Andy Warhol who, for thirteen years, shared it with his mother. From 1967 until 1987, Hughes was Warhol’s business manager, friend, confidante and fellow avid collector. He helped Warhol build upon his fame and realize financial gain from his paintings, for one thing by introducing him to socialites and collectors who commissioned portraits at Hughes’s instigation. After Warhol’s death in 1987, Hughes played a fundamental role in developing the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. He was executor of Warhol’s estate, chosen by Warhol to be king, steward
of all that Andy had achieved in his lifetime. But fate often treats kings poorly; many suffer and fall. Hughes fell to multiple sclerosis, which was diagnosed in 1984 but did not become active until after Warhol’s unexpected, unnecessary death. Hughes has been bedridden since 1998.

The language associated with royalty and lineage fits Fred Hughes like the English custom-made suits he once wore. He venerates the royals, and stories circulate about his English accent—he was born in Texas in 1943—scathing wit, dandyism, elegance, savvy, temper, eloquence and pretensions to being a royal. Like other people who collected around Warhol, or whom Warhol collected like art, Hughes made himself a legend and a superstar. He invented himself much like a novelist might a fictional character. But instead of writing his character, he lived it. Taken up by art collectors Dominique and Jean de Menil, who recognized his astute eye when he was twenty and sponsored his entry into the art world, Hughes gave birth to himself, left Texas and family, and maybe, as in fables, never looked back.

An abundance of desires and tastes overwhelms me upon entering this house. On the first floor, Warhol’s portrait of Prince Charles appears to greet if not oversee the visitor. When Warhol painted him, the prince was young, unblemished; but recent history has cast its shadow, and the image is now marked by trouble. Turquoise-green, the portrait’s background, is the color Hughes selected for the adjoining room’s walls—“the arsenic room,” he calls it—where the Tudors dominate. A naive portrait of Queen Elizabeth I claims center stage, while a Duncan Phyfe card table, with ornate legs—“dolphin supports”— stands decorously in one
of the corners. In the other room on this floor, where Hughes now rests and sleeps on a high-tech hospital bed, a Warhol “blue Jackie Kennedy” in a gilt frame hangs above a Tudor portrait and, separated by a great, elaborate mirror, the pair repeats on the other side. The American and English royals keep Hughes company, their coupling a visual pun that might amuse him.

Objects—Russian, English, Mexican, Native American, or hailing from New Orleans—fraternize in the house, sharing space across time and culture. Near the staircase, a twentieth-century American naive or outsider painting of a snake charmer stops me: She’s a black woman, in a green leaf-skirt, with a green snake clenched ferociously in her teeth and another wrapped around her arm. But my eyes dart everywhere, and everywhere there’s something unusual. I’m drawn to some pieces more than others, or perhaps must simply focus my eyes someplace.

In Hughes’s former bedroom on the second floor, a Northwest Indian spoon and a mask from a Jemez Indian tribe arrest me, then a cabinet—bursting with too many Mickey Mouses, a Pee Wee Herman—almost screams with plaintive joy. Arranged or deranged, crammed together behind glass, the toys are poignant. They seem like effigies—George Washington on a horse, Mortimer Snerd. The cabinet holds a menagerie of memories and gives a sense of how, when recalling resonant childhood, associations overflow uncontrollably.

Moving away from the colorful old toys, I spy a silver bowl containing antique magnifying glasses. I love magnifying glasses and wonder why Hughes does. A man who treasures detail might cherish an object that can make the finer things in life bigger.
Yet the glass also exaggerates flaws. Hughes is a person, I’ve read, who sought and demanded perfection; the magnifying glass suggests the scrutiny necessary to achieve it.

Everything has a place here, a reason to be where it is, selected for its color, shape, design, history, visual pleasure and, like a writer spinning a story, Hughes knows that each object in its place makes, like every sentence and word, a world unto itself, but juxtaposed with others, cobbles together new worlds. Looking at the three pieces of statuary near the bed—a Chinese or Japanese Genji, made of wood; and two female figures, nineteenth-century English, cast from Canova originals—I think: Maybe he didn’t become a novelist because he loves excess. Nothing succeeds like excess. But a writer throws away so much; one excludes, pares down, crosses out. Omissions are as significant as what’s on the page. Hughes wanted everything around him, all his ideas and possibilities, and he bought and exhibited as much as he could. About his wishes and hopes, he was voracious.

From Hughes’s room on the first floor, the voice of his registered nurse travels in and out of earshot. He’s reading to Hughes from a biography of Napoleon. Of all his senses, Hughes’s hearing functions best now, and the nurse reads to him daily. Hughes likes biographies especially. From them, perhaps, he can get a person’s measure, learn how others’ beginnings and ends may have been radically different, hear how they failed or thrived, and lose himself in details of lives he might have written—collected—for himself.

On the top floor, in the study, is a magnificent Wooton secretary, a desk from 1876, with many compartments and divisions,
a warren for secrets. Near it hangs Warhol’s
Portrait of an American Male
, an unknown and typical Midwestern-looking American man. Hughes calls him “Mr. Nobody.” Perhaps it’s on the wall in deference to Warhol, whose fascination with the rich, famous and powerful was matched by an equally strong interest in anonymity and powerlessness. For a time, the Automat was Warhol’s favorite restaurant; and according to Bob Colacello, former editor of
magazine, he wanted his early work to be called “Common Art,” not Pop Art. But “Mr. Nobody” might also be hanging in Hughes’s study as a reminder: A fictive fellow knows how fragile identity is, how difficult to maintain, and that the possibility of failure hangs over any self-creation.

Few of us, I think as I leave his house and look back, live out our fantasies as fully as Hughes has lived his. Now housebound, unable to move, often unable to speak, he’s visible in what he’s collected. These things are who he is now. Hughes resides in his portrait of the Duke of Buckingham by Daniel Mytens, Indian masks, carved human skull, Stieff Mickey Mouses, Lichtenstein painting of George Washington, stuffed reindeer head, Cecil Beaton self-portrait, dressing table by Quervelle, Zuni Pueblo masks, early-nineteenth-century American silhouettes, wreaths of dried flowers, nineteenth-century Russian sofa (purportedly once owned by Tsar Alexander I), photograph of art dealer and friend Thomas Amman, nineteenth-century mahogany sideboard, twenty-seven pairs of shoes neatly arranged in his dressing room, silver collection, Wedgwood vases, Audubon prints, eighteenth-century costumes (which he once wore), black painted wooden screen, nineteenth-century petit point Aubusson pillows, photograph
of his father as a young man, twentieth-century African funerary marker, Venetian glass . . . If things could only speak, I think.

C is for Cool

White Cool

Chet Baker could break your heart with his romantic trumpet sound and melancholy way of phrasing a ballad. With his
Rebel Without a Cause
looks, Baker’s sound and image could hook you “in about 20 seconds,” an ex-girlfriend tells Bruce Weber in
Let’s Get Lost
. Photographer/filmmaker Weber, who was 16 when he became a Chet Baker fan, calls his movie “a loving record of the time” he and his crew spent with Baker. A compelling and disturbing homage to a jazz great who got hooked, in his twenties, on heroin,
Let’s Get Lost
also celebrates the American jazz scene of the 50s and 60s.

Weber’s eye fixes on beauty and style in the movie as it does in his art photography and his commercial work for Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren. In those ads, young men very much like young Chet Bakers flirt with young women—images that evoke time passing and the heartbreak of romance. A sense of the fleeting moment and the vulnerability to heartbreak pervade
Let’s Get Lost
. With Baker as its enigmatic star, the movie follows beauty and brilliance turning tormented, distorted and sad. Baker is the cool, romantic guy who stepped from day into night to live in semi-darkness. Shot in black and white, sometimes with a hand-held camera and always with startling immediacy by cinematographer Jeff Preiss, the movie lingers with Baker in
film noir
Preiss recalls, “When Chet didn’t want to be filmed, he’d just walk into a spot that wasn’t lit.”

To Weber the film is “about that thin line between love and fascination. We take into our own lives what the people we admire give us and we fantasize about it. Sometimes the fantasy is so far out of reach that when we meet that person he can’t live up to it.” Bruce Weber realized a fantasy. He filmed Baker in recording sessions, interviewed his ex-wives, children, lovers, the musicians he played with. He collected footage and thousands of stills of Baker, created scenes with actors and actresses for Baker to star in. Says Weber, “We spent a lot of time with Chet. And when we first met we were taken in by the romance of his music and the way he looked, and a little bit of his lifestyle when he was young. Then we realized we took it on ourselves because we kind of fell for him and we wanted to change him. But Chet never disappointed me, personally or musically.”

Weber’s fascination with Baker showed itself in his first film,
Broken Noses
(1987). Its protagonist, Andy Minsker, a young boxer, looks just like Baker when he was Minsker’s age. Minsker appears in
Let’s Get Lost
, too, sitting next to the jazzman, who, at the age of 57, shows the results of a lifetime of addiction in 1968. Baker was badly beaten up and lost his teeth—a disaster for a trumpet player and an event talked about several times in the film. His damaged mouth affected his career as well as his looks. It was three years before he could play again. According to Weber, Baker’s image “helped him get by when nobody listened to his music. There was a mystique around this guy, who was incredibly good-looking and cool, especially for a white musician. He was vain but he never wanted anyone
to know it. He was the kind of guy who would never look in a mirror if there was anybody slightly in the neighborhood.”

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