From A Complicated Marriage
. . . A man enters. He is with a small frenetic woman carrying a small frenetic dog. A dachshund, not a breed the girl fancies. The couple, she assumes they are man and wife, are of an age—old, at least in their forties, maybe older. The dog is what he is. Not long after they arrive, she is startled to see that the man has sat down next to her. As she turns and looks at him there on that paisleyed couch, she falls into the rest of her life.
That is how I envision the party where I met Clem. Those are the images, old and familiar, that have taken root in me over the years. Yet as familiar as the images are, there always seems to be something "other" about them. After all, those two could be any girl and any man meeting at a party. A random collision. All so ordinary. Isn't that how so many people first meet? But of course it wasn't ordinary at all, because the images were of me, me and Clem.
. . . We sat around with his [Barnett Newman’s] pictures for several hours. I was still in a daze from the initial impact they had had on me. I had been taken unawares. I had never dreamed that art could exert such power, such full sensory power. Barney’s pictures made me realize that the only certainty was that there were no rules. And if I learned to open my eyes wide and get my mind out of my own way, art would just happen to me. No wonder I was in a daze. I knew that what I was seeing that day would change forever the way I looked at art.
. . . Ah, the Cedar. Whether in a city, a neighborhood, a restaurant, a party, a school, an apartment building, I didn’t like being any place that was homogenous. That was the Cedar--wall-to-wall artists. For me, I might as well have been a vegetarian walking into a union meeting of meat packers. For me, it meant washing the smoke out of my hair and brushing the stubborn bits of sawdust off my shoes the next morning.
We would slowly thread our way past the bar jammed with the regulars and the girls who wanted to hook up with the regulars. Pollock, Kline, de Kooning, Smith, Guston, Held, Cherry, Tworkov, Leslie, Goldberg, Marca-Relli . . . any roster of artists would do. Those who would become big names, and a lot who wouldn’t, they were all at the Cedar one night or another.
Finally making it to a booth, I would inevitably find myself squeezed into an inside spot. The drinks would arrive, the cigarettes would be lit, and the talk, talk, talk would go on as people drifted by, drawing up chairs, leaning over the seats, then drifting off, only to be replaced by others, everyone half in the bag and bleary, as I smeared condensation from my glass, making endless designs in the ashes on the tabletop, thinking, When can we leave, when can we leave?
. . . One night we were invited to one of Mary Lasker’s parties in her all- white house, this time a dinner party, and I was seated next to Truman Capote. Why I had been singled out for that honor, I’d never know. My admiration runneth over. He had just published In Cold Blood. What to say, what to say? Somehow we soon stumbled onto common ground— diet pills… The Rainbow guy had determined that my goal should be 125 pounds. I was gung-ho; at five-foot-eleven, I would put Twiggy to shame. The weight poured off. Why not? Food never passed my lips. That night, Capote and I, twittering maniacally and building sand castles out of our food and telling each other every other minute how divine we looked, had a high old time.
. . . Clem never really enjoyed staying with people, but visiting Lee and Jackson was different. Clem felt at home there. . .Once we arrived at the house, the routine was set in stone. No hi- how-are-you, no formalities of any kind. We would sit down around the small, beat-up kitchen table a few feet from the back door where we had entered. And that was that. Conversation would pick up as if the time lapse had been three minutes, rather than weeks. Coffee and gossip wrapped in cigarette smoke. Who was doing what, which shows were good and which bad, which paintings worked and which didn’t and why, which reviews and reviewers passed muster and which were full of shit, who had sold what, for how much and to whom, who said what about who, who was being fucked over by their dealer and who was just plain fucking who. Business as usual. All the stuff that artists have probably talked about since the first cave painting. But in that house, with Lee at the helm, no matter how mundane, there was always an impending drama to be hashed over.
I see Jackson white-knuckling his coffee mug, kept full to the brim by Lee, both stalling minute by minute the switch to beer and then, if it is one of those days, eventually to the hard stuff. During our visits that winter and spring, Jackson never tips into a full-out binge. Lee is taut, at high voltage, her eyes darting, animated, and compelling despite themselves. I try to measure her appearance by ordinary standards but fail. And her lack of vanity confuses me. I care too much about what people think of me and am envious of her “fuck everyone” arrogance. I am envious, too, of the passion that animates her: her love of art, and her commitment to the genius of “Pollock.” She always refers to Jackson as Pollock, whether he is across the table or on the moon. She is never in repose. Arms spread out on the table, she stretches into the conversation, thirsting for it as if she has been through a drought. She always thrusts herself into the action, into the talk.
Jackson slumps back, alert but at a remove. He never says much around that table—alone with Clem, that was something else. When Jackson speaks, it is in the muted mumble of a sober Jackson. His voice reminds me of David Smith’s, both so surprisingly soft-spoken for such über-men in the studio. I never say anything at all.
. . . I hadn’t begun to figure out what my role was in Clem’s world. I dog-paddled my way around in a pool of artists’ wives who seemed to me to be accomplished, happy campers. Although it was still early days for me, somehow I already suspected that I would never get the hang of it. As ungrounded as I felt in the art world, I was also unclear about how to “be” a wife. Oh, I did what I called “nesting” and I puttered, but I certainly never gloried in it, nor felt accomplished at it. Sometimes I thought it wasn’t in my nature, that I must be missing a link. Other times I hoped maybe in time . . . And every day I managed as best I could. And I watched the art wives and hoped that what they seemed to do so well might rub off on me.
. . . Later we went back to Franz [Kline] and Betsy Zogbaum’s, where the drinking began. As the afternoon drew on to evening, Mel and Mark Rothko, Sam Francis, and others dropped by, and I helped Betsy miraculously improvise something to eat. Then it was on to Fritz and Jean Bultman’s, where at one point a fiercely drunken and competitive game of charades took on a life of its own. Only art-related clues allowed, as one might expect. I was on Franz’s team; Bob Motherwell headed up the other. How is it possible that I still recall one of my charades, Delacroix’s Horses Coming Out of the Sea? Probably because I can still feel my panic. Who the hell was Delacroix? Had I ever seen a painting of his? I also remember the charade because Franz guessed it quickly and made me feel quite clever about my swimming-horse performance. Later, we all went to the Madeira House for dancing, followed by, as Clem would note in his daybook, “sundry parties.” And so it was.
. . . What an extraordinary decade to be in New York and in the theater. It wasn’t about Broadway anymore: theater was happening uptown, downtown, East Side, West Side; anywhere there was a loft, industrial space, church, storefront, café; anywhere there were a few chairs and a few bucks to pay the light bill. And it all fell under the new catchall of off-off-Broadway. At St. Mark’s Church in the East Village, in a protest play by Sam Shepard, I writhed on the floor in the finale as smoke was pumped into the dark space, sending the audience groping in panic for the exit while we held our collective breath and our eyes teared.
. . . No more hunching over bars, no more jazz. Dancing was all. Most late nights on the town Clem and I ended up at the Dom on St. Mark’s Place. One of the first incarnations of the disco, the Dom was improbably situated in the basement of the erstwhile Polish National Hall. In that sweaty, steamy, smoky, low-ceilinged dance dive that never stopped smelling like the basement it was and that made the old Cedar look like a palace, we would hook up with fellow rock-addict regulars to gyrate the night away. In awe of the black dancers there, Clem soon eased off the gyrating and devoted himself to perfecting “cool.” He would barely move; all it took was a twitch this way or that as he worked his way through the Twist, the Mashed Potato, the Swim, the Frug, whatever. Just a twitch. Me, I was feeling too good to be “cool.” I discovered my hips—hell, my whole body. Sadly, the days of the Dom were numbered. Two years later Warhol’s Electric Circus opened in the soaring main space of the building, a place where the maestro’s extravaganza of pink-strobe, gay, high glitz reigned in the center ring and where dancing was relegated to a sideshow. The disco era was spawning. The Dom whimpered away, leaving the basement to its silence.
. . . I was wearing pale peach toweling fabric, a meager shift, midthigh, meticulously frayed and fretted by the costumer for me, Eve. My hair, tawny and very long, flowed down my back. I was still bone skinny from the Rainbow Doctor. I was radiant, soaring on the power of knowing I was beautiful and that I was about to sing for the first time to a large audience. I launched into “Here in Eden,” the opening song from the musical The Apple Tree. When I hit the line “I was meant to rejoice in the round vibrant sound of my own voice,” my toes twitched, the hair on the back of my neck tingled. With the final note I sent myself beyond the walls of the Woodstock Playhouse.