We used to laugh at our small selves, saying that I was a bad girl trying to be good and that he was a good boy trying to be bad. Through the years these roles would reverse, then reverse again, until we came to accept our dual natures.
I had found solace in Arthur Rimbaud … …He possessed an irrelevant intelligence that ignited me, and I embraced him as compatriot, kin, and even secret love. Not having the ninety-nine cents to buy the book, I pocketed it.
Rimbaud held the keys to a mystical language that I devoured even as I could not fully decipher it. My unrequited love for him was as real to me as anything I had experienced. At the factory where I had labored with a hard-edged, illiterate group of women, I was harassed in his name … … It was within this atmosphere that I seethed. It was for him that I wrote and dreamed. He became my archangel, delivering me from the mundane horrors of factory life.
I would often stop before a grand hotel, an alien observer to the Proustian lifestyle of the privileged class, exiting sleek black cars with exquisite brown-and-gold patterned trunks. I was another side of life. Horse-drawn carriages were stationed between the Paris Theatre and the Plaza Hotel. In discarded newspapers I would search out the evening’s entertainment. Across from the Metropolitan Opera I watched the people enter, sensing their anticipation.
The city was a real city, shifty, and sexual. I was lightly jostled by small herds of flushed young sailors looking for action on Forty-second Street, with its rows of X-rated movie houses, brassy women, glittering souvenir shops, and hot-dog vendors. I wandered through Kino parlors and peered through the windows of the magnificent sprawling Grant’s Raw Bar filled with men in black coats scooping up piles of fresh oysters.
The skyscrapers were beautiful. They did not seem like mere corporate shells. They were monuments to the arrogant yet philanthropic spirit of America. The character of each quadrant was invigorating and one felt the flux of its history. The old world and the emerging one served up in the brick and mortar of the artisan and the architects.
I walked for hours from park to park. In Washington Square, one could still feel the characters of Henry James and the presence of the author himself. Entering the perimeters of the white arch, one was greeted by the sounds of bongos and acoustic guitars, protest singers, political arguments, activists leafleting, older chess players challenged by the young. This open atmosphere was something I had not experienced, simple freedom that did not seem to be oppressive to anyone.
One Indian summer day we dressed in our favorite things, me in my beatnik sandals and ragged scarves, and Robert with his love beads and sheepskin vest. We took the subway to West Fourth Street and spent the afternoon in Washington Square. We shared coffee from a thermos, watching the stream of tourists, stoners, and folksingers. Agitated revolutionaries distributed antiwar leaflets. Chess players drew a crowd of their own. Everyone coexisted within the continuous drone of verbal diatribes, bongos, and barking dogs.
We were walking toward the fountain, the epicenter of activity, when an older couple stopped and openly observed us. Robert enjoyed being noticed, and he affectionately squeezed my hand.
“Oh, take their picture,” said the woman to her bemused husband, “I think they’re artists.”
“Oh, go on,” he shrugged. “They’re just kids.”
Robert was not especially drawn to film. His favorite movie was Splendor in the Grass. The only other movie we saw that year was Bonnie and Clyde. He liked the tagline on the poster: “They’re young. They’re in love. They rob banks.” He didn’t fall asleep during that movie. Instead, he wept. And when we went home he was unnaturally quiet and looked at me as if he wanted to convey all he was feeling without words. There was something of us that he saw in the movie but I wasn’t certain what. I thought to myself that he contained a whole universe that I had yet to know.
Sometimes, during lunch break at Scribner’s, I would go to St. Patrick’s to visit the young Saint Stanislaus. I would pray for the dead, whom I seemed to love as much as the living: Rimbaud, Seurat, Camille Claudel, and the mistress of Jules Laforgue. And I would pray for us.
Robert’s prayers were like wishes. He was ambitious for secret knowledge. We were both praying for Robert’s soul, he to sell it and I to save it.
In early June, Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol. Although Robert tended not to be romantic about artists, he was very upset about it … … He respected artists like Cocteau and Pasolini, who merged life and art, but for Robert, the most interesting of them was Andy Warhol, documenting the human mise-en-scene in his silver-lined factory.
I didn’t feel for Warhol the way Robert did. His work reflected a culture I wanted to avoid. I hated the soup and felt little for the can. I preferred an artist who transformed his time, not mirrored it.
One of the highlights of our days was our trek to the American Express office to send and receive mail. There was always something from Robert, funny little letters describing his work, his health, his trials, and always his love.
He had temporarily moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan … …
His first letters seemed a bit down but brightened when he described seeming Midnight Cowboys for the first time. It was unusual for Robert to go to a movie, but he took this film to heart. “It’s about a cowboy stud on 42nd street,” he wrote me, and called it a “masterpiece.” He felt a deep identification with the hero, infusing the idea of the hustler into his work, and then into his life. “Hustler-hustler-hustler. I guess that’s what I’m about.”
We headed home holding hands. For a moment I dropped back to watch him walk. His sailor’s gait always touched me. I knew one day I would stop and he would keep on going, but until then nothing could tear us apart.
I always loved the ride to Coney Island. Just the idea that you could go to the ocean via subway was so magical … …
Nothing was more wonderful to me than Coney Island with its gritty innocence. It was our kind of place: the fading arcades, the peeling signs of bygone days, cotton candy and Kewpie dolls on a stick, dressed in feathers and glittering top hats. We wandered through the last gasp of the sideshows. They had lost their luster, though they still touted such human oddities as the donkey-faced boy, the alligator man, and the three-legged girl.
One time, when I was sitting in the lobby reading The Golden Bough, Harry noticed I had a beat-up two-volume first edition. He insisted we go on an expedition on Samuel Weiser’s to bask in the proximity of the preferred and vastly expanded third edition … …
It seemed like we milled around in there for hours. Harry was gone for a long time, and we found him standing, as though transfixed, in the center of the main floor. We watched him for quite a while but he never moved. Finally, Robert, perplexed, went up to him and asked, “What are you doing?”
Harry gazed at him with the eyes of an enchanted goat. “I’m reading,” he said.
We met a lot of intriguing people at the Chelsea but somehow when I close my eyes to think of them, Harry is always the first person I see. Perhaps because he was the first person we met. But more likely because it was a magic period, and Harry believed in magic.
Newly inspired, we walked back to Twenty-third Street to look at our space. The necklaces hung on hooks and he had tacked up some of our drawings. We stood at the window and looked out at the snow falling beyond the fluorescent Oasis sign with its squiggly palm tree. “Look,” he said, “it’s snowing in the desert.” I thought about a scene in Howard Hawks’s movie Scarface where Paul Muni and his girl are looking out the window at neon sign that said The World Is Yours. Robert squeezed my hand.
The sixties were coming to an end. Robert and I celebrated our birthdays. Robert turned twenty-three. Then I turned twenty-three. The perfect prime number. Robert made me a tie rack with the image of the Virgin Mary. I gave him seven silver skulls on a length of leather. He wore the skulls. I wore a tie. We felt ready for the seventies.
“It’s our decade,” he said.
Robert was devastated that Tinkerbelle had told me not only that he was having an affair, but that he was homosexual. It was as if Robert had forgotten that I knew. It must have also been difficult as it was the first time he was openly identified with a sexual label. His relationship with Terry in Brooklyn had been between the three of us, not in the public eye.
Robert rarely spoke to Tinkerbelle after that. David moved to Seventeenth Street, close to where Washington Irving had lived. I slept on my side of the wall and Robert on his. Our lives were moving at such speed that we just kept going.
Jim and I spent a lot of time in Chinatown. Every outing with him was a floating adventure, riding the high summer clouds. I liked to watch him interact with strangers. We would go to Hong Fat because it was cheap and the dumplings were good, and he would talk to the old guys. You ate what they brought to the table or you pointed to someone’s meal because the menu was in Chinese. They cleaned the table by pouring hot tea on them and wiping it up with a rag. The whole place had the fragrance of oolong. Sometime Jim just picked up an abstract thread of conversation with one of these venerable-looking old men, who would then lead us through the labyrinth of their lives, through the Opium Wars and the opium dens of San Francisco. And then we would tramp from Mott to Mulberry to Twenty-third Street, back in our time, as if nothing had ever happened.
Observing people taking in the work I had watched Robert create was an emotional experience. It had left our private world. It was what I had always wanted for him, but I felt a slight pang of possessiveness sharing it with others. Overriding that feeling was the joy of seeing Robert’s face, suffused with confirmation, as he glimpsed the future he had so resolutely sought and had worked so hard to achieve.
One by one, he shared photographs forbidden to the public, including Stieglitz’s exquisite nudes of Georgia O’Keeffe. Taken at the height of their relationship, they revealed in their intimacy a mutual intelligence and O’Keeffe’s masculine beauty. As Robert concentrated on technical aspects, I focused on Georgia O’Keeffe as she related to Stieglitz, without artifice. Robert was concerned with how to make the photograph, and I with how to be the photograph.
I never anticipated Robert’s complete surrender to its powers. I had encouraged him to take photographs to integrate into his collages and installations, hoping to see him assume the mantle of Duchamp. But Robert had shifted his focus. The photograph was not a means to an end, but the object itself.
Our social differences, however exasperating, were tinged with love and humor. In the end, we were more alike than not, and gravitated toward each other, however wide the breach. We weathered all things, large and small, with the same vigor. To me, Robert and I were irrevocably entwined, like Paul and Elisabeth, the sister and brother in Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles. We played similar games, declared the most obscure object treasure, and often puzzled friends and acquaintances by our indefinable devotion.
He had been chided for denying his homosexuality; we were accused of not being a real couple. In being open about his homosexuality, he feared our relationship would be destroyed.
We needed time to figure out what all of this meant, how we were going to come to tears and redefine what our love was called. I learned from him that often contradiction is the clearest way to truth.
We were leaving the swirl of our post-Brooklyn existence, which had been dominated by the vibrating arena of the Chelsea Hotel.
The merry-go-round was slowing down. As I packed even the most insignificant of things accumulated in the past few years, they were accompanied by a slide show of faces, some of which I would never see again.
There was the copy of Hamlet from Gerome Ragni, who imagined me playing the sad and arrogant Danish prince. Ragni, who co-wrote and starred Hair, and I were not not cross paths again, but his belief in me bolstered my sense of self. Energetic and muscular with a wide grin and masses of curly hair, he could be so excited about some crazy prospect he would leap onto a chair and raise his arms as if he had to share his vision with the ceiling or, better yet, the universe.
A rag roll with hair of Spanish lace given to me by Elsa Peretti. Matthew’s harmonica holder. Notes from Rene Richard scolding me to keep drawing. David’s black leather Mexican belt studded with rhinestones. John McKendry’s boatneck shirt. Jackie Curtis’s angora sweater.
As I folded the sweater, I could picture her under the filmy red light of Max’s back room. The scene there was changing with the same speed as the Chelsea, and those who had attempted to imbue it with a Photoplay glamour would find the new guard was leaving them behind.
Many would not make it. Candy Darling died of cancer. Tinkerbelle and Andrea Whips took their lives. Other sacrificed themselves to drugs and misadventure. Taken down, the stardom they so desired just out of reach, tarnished stars falling from the sky.
I feel no sense of vindication as one of the handful of survivors. I would rather have seen them all succeed, catch the brass ring. As it turned out, it was I who got one of the best horses.
Often as I lie awake I wonder if you are also lying awake. Are you in pain or feeling alone? You drew me from the darkest period of my young life, sharing with the sacred mystery of what it is to be an artist. I learned to see through you and never compose a line or draw a curve that does not come from knowledge I derived in our precious time together. Your work, coming from a fluid source, can be traced to the naked song of your youth. You spoke then of holding hands with God. Remember, through everything, you have always held that hand, grip it hard, Robert, and don’t let go.
The other afternoon, when you fell asleep on my shoulder, I drifted off, too. But before I did, it occurred to me looking around at all of your things and your work and going through years of work in my mind, that of all your work, you are still your most beautiful. The most beautiful work of all.
There are many stories I could yet write about Robert, about us. But this is the story I have told. It is the one he wished me to tell and I have kept my promise. We were as Hansel and Gretel and we ventured out into the black forest of the world. There were temptations and witches and demons we never dreamed of and there was splendor we only partially imagined. No one could speak for these two young people nor tell with any truth of their days and nights together. Only Robert and I could tell it. Our story, as he called it. And, having gone, he left the task to me toe tell it to you.