Tag Archives: New York

Diane Arbus: Describing the Loneliness that Shames Us

With the publication of two books and new gallery showings featuring photographer Diane Arbus, Hilton Als explores her work, writings, artistic motivation, and uncanny ability to capture on film the humanity of the “freaks” — the marginalized people — who were the subjects of her work. Read his piece at the New York Review of Books.

Arbus’s photographs were elegant, too—classically composed and cool—but they were on fire with what difference looked like and what it felt like as seen through the eyes of a straight Jewish girl whose power lay in her ability to be herself and not herself—different—all at once. The story she told with her camera was about shape-shifting: in order to understand difference one had to not only not dismiss it, but try to become it. “I don’t like to arrange things,” Arbus once said. “If I stand in front of something, instead of arranging it, I arrange myself.”

As Arbus went on, though, she became more and more interested in the drama of the self as it appeared not only to her through her lens (her magic portal) but to her subject. No visual artist of the twentieth century has described with more accuracy the enormous pride her characters, certainly in the early pictures, feel at having risked all to become themselves—selves they could not lock up, or hide, or resist being recorded despite the pain of being marginalized in their daily life.

Arbus made pictures that grew out of and described the loneliness we are all taught to be ashamed of and should try to “fix” through conventional connections—marriage, children, and so on.2 Arbus’s “I”—the eye behind her camera—was unabashed loneliness, looking to connect, if only because she understood what it felt like not to. She wanted to see the world whole, which meant seeing and accepting the fractures in those connections, too, along with all that could not be fixed. When she started taking pictures of drag queens and interracial couples, homosexuality was illegal, and miscegenation was still met with violence or derision.

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Postwar New York: The Supreme Metropolis of the Present

David Reid | The Brazen Age: New York City and the American Empire: Politics, Art, and Bohemia | Pantheon | March 2016 | 31 minutes (8,514 words)

 

The excerpt below is adapted from The Brazen Age, by David Reid, which examines the “extraordinarily rich culture and turbulent politics of New York City between the years 1945 and 1950.” This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky

* * *

Probably I was in the war.

—NORMAN MAILER, Barbary Shore (1951)

*

A hideous, inhuman city. But I know that one changes one’s mind.

In march 1946 the young French novelist and journalist Albert Camus traveled by freighter from Le Havre to New York, arriving in the first week of spring. Le Havre, the old port city at the mouth of the Seine, had almost been destroyed in a battle between its German occupiers and a British warship during the Normandy invasion; huge ruins ringed the harbor. In his travel journal Camus writes: “My last image of France is of destroyed buildings at the very edge of a wounded earth.”

At the age of thirty-two this Algerian Frenchman, who had been supporting himself with odd jobs when the war began, was about to become very famous. By 1948, he would become an international culture hero: author of The Stranger and The Plague, two of the most famous novels to come out of France in the forties, and of the lofty and astringent essays collected in The Myth of Sisyphus.

Camus’s visit to the United States, sponsored by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs but involving no official duties, was timed to coincide with Alfred A. Knopf’s publication of The Stranger in a translation by Stuart Gilbert, the annotator of James Joyce’s Ulysses. In the spring of 1946 France was exporting little to the United States except literature. Even most American readers with a particular interest in France knew of Camus, if at all, as a distant legend, editor of the Resistance newspaper Combat and an “existentialist.”

Reviewing The Stranger in the New Yorker, Edmund Wilson, usually omniscient, confessed that he knew absolutely nothing about existentialism except that it was enjoying a “furious vogue.” If there were rumored to be philosophical depths in this novel about the motiveless murder of an Arab on a North African beach, they frankly eluded him. For Wilson the book was nothing more than “a fairly clever feat”—the sort of thing that a skillful Hemingway imitator like James M. Cain had done as well or better in The Postman Always Rings Twice. America’s most admired literary critic also had his doubts about Franz Kafka, the writer of the moment, suspecting that the claims being made for the late Prague fabulist were exaggerated. But still, like almost everyone else, especially the young, in New York’s intellectual circles Wilson was intensely curious about what had been written and thought in occupied Europe, especially in France.

“Our generation had been brought up on the remembrance of the 1920s as the great golden age of the avant-garde, whose focal point had been Paris,” William Barrett writes in The Truants, his memoir of the New York intellectuals. “We expected history to repeat itself: as it had been after the First, so it would be after the Second World War.” The glamorous rumor of existentialism seemed to vindicate their expectations. Camus’s arrival was eagerly awaited not only by Partisan Review but also by the New Yorker, which put him in “The Talk of the Town,” and Vogue, which decided that his saturnine good looks resembled Humphrey Bogart’s. Read more…

Going Underground into New York’s Tunnels: A Glimpse at Life in the Dark

“You’re the first person to visit this week,” he says. “People don’t want to speak to me when they come here. I don’t know, man. They’re scared or something. I can get why, it’s a spooky place when you don’t know it. But people, they like it when it’s scary. They like it when it’s dirty, right? It makes them feel alive. That’s why they make up these stories about cannibalism and stuff. Like alligators in the sewers.”

Jon offers me a sip of vodka. We drink together. He tells me to stay safe and to watch out for trains when I go back walking into the tunnel. I hear him talk to himself as I go away from the entrance and from the white sky.

The smell down here is the one of brake dust and mold. I can see rats scouring for food and drinking from brown puddles in the tracks ballast. EXISTENCE IS FLAWED, a graffiti inscription reads.

The city growls over my head — a distant growl muffled by the concrete, almost a snarl, like something cold and foul spreading over the long stretches of stained walls, like a dark and wild beast curling up around me and breathing on my neck. A dark and wild beast silently trailing me.

— At Narratively, Montreal-based freelance writer Anthony Taille takes us into New York’s underground among “Mole People,” the Amtrak tunnel residents under Riverside Park. Taille has spent time with people who have lived under the city for many years, from Bernard Isaac, a legend among Mole People, to longtime resident Brooklyn, who has lived underground since 1982.

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A Very Brief History of Americans Playing Softball with Their Co-Workers

Americans have been playing softball with their co-workers since the game grew out of several variants of baseball in the late 19th century. In 1895, Louis Rober, a lieutenant in the Minneapolis fire department, organized games of “kittenball” to entertain firefighters between runs. Blue-collar company teams proliferated over the next half-century. Office workers joined in later, in the 1970s and ’80s.

Ira Boudway writing for Bloomberg Businessweek about how the High Times Bonghitters (yes, that is the team’s official name) became “the Yankees of New York media softball.”

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The Cult Could Become a Church: On David Foster Wallace

I once dated a David Foster Wallace fanboy. You know who I mean: He’s white. He’s straight. He went to a small liberal arts college. He interrogates you on which DFW books you’ve read—the novels, or just the essays? He’s read Infinite Jest probably more than once. He thinks he has a unique take on the author’s work and the man’s life (and death).

My ex isn’t alone; DFW fanaticism swept the literary States in the early to mid-aughts. Prepare for the fans to be flamed (or the flames to be fanned): The End of the Tour (based on an account of Wallace’s Infinite Jest book tour) stars Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel and hits theaters on July 31. If you’ve never heard of this acclaimed author, treasure your last moments of innocence; then, read this primer at Vulture on DFW’s contested legacy.

David Foster Wallace has always been an unstable commodity. For two decades, the writer and his writings have been at the center of a cult with several branches. The first branch is other fiction writers, who also tend to be the most serious readers. This makes a certain obvious sense. ‘Infinite Jest’ is, on its face, the most daunting of novels; 1,079 pages, 96 of them endnotes; text in small type pointing you constantly to text in smaller type, necessitating multiple bookmarks; an immersion in two subcultures, junior tennis and addiction recovery; a time commitment to be measured in weeks, not days — two months for serious readers, Wallace thought…

The second branch are the magazine writers for whom his essays renewed the possibilities of a fast-aging New Journalism by clearing away Tom Wolfe’s cynicism and replacing it with a dazzling faux-amateur act.

The third are the academics; English professors hadn’t received the gift of fictional worlds so rich and susceptible to their hermeneutics since Nabokov, Beckett, or Joyce.

But before his suicide he compared his own fame only to that of a high-profile classical musician. 

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The Perils of Writing About Your Own Family: A Conversation with George Hodgman

Sari Botton | Longreads | April 2015 | 15 minutes (3,752 words)

 

Sometimes life’s most inconvenient surprise detours ultimately yield great rewards we never could have predicted. For writer George Hodgman—who’s been whisked away indefinitely from his tidily self-contained life in New York City to care for his ailing mother—one of those rewards was a chance to better know and appreciate Betty (now 94) before she’s gone. Another benefit: the conditions he hadn’t even known he needed to finally, at 55, write and publish his first book. The New York Times Bestselling memoir, Bettyville, is the result. Read more…

For the Love of Lettering: Stories About Typography

I didn’t pay attention to font until I worked for my college newspaper. After months of poring over proofs in InDesign, I realized I was learning the differences between fonts, their specific names, where they fit best. I’m no typographer—I don’t have the patience—but I’m fascinated by the subtle ways type entrances us and the absolutely grueling work that goes into its design and placement. Now, not only do I know the difference between type design and typography, but I try to make an effort to appreciate the work that goes in to the books I love, the gig posters for my favorite bands, the fonts on my blog.

1. “Praise the Colophon: Twenty Notes on Type.” (Nick Ripatrazone, The Millions, March 2015)

Colophon: a statement at the end of a book, typically with a printer’s emblem, giving information about its authorship and printing. You know: the details about the typeface, the typographer, the publisher, the who, what and where of the book’s creation. Nick Ripatrazone researches the colophon’s history and its artistic purpose. He concludes, “I call for the return of colophons. The battle of the book is not to be won or lost in preferences of print or digital. The page will always remain. Letters will always remain.” Read more…

Why We Dream About Our Childhood Homes

Sigmund Freud called dreams ”the royal road to the unconscious” and theorized that they reflected highly individual unconscious wishes. His student Carl Jung, who later broke with him, thought the recurring use of enduring symbols in dreams, like mazes, mirrors and snakes, reflected something more collective and universal.

***

Many people interviewed said they dreamed about their childhood homes, especially if they were from neighborhoods that had changed radically over the years. ”It’s like a lost civilization,” said Professor Marcus of Columbia, who grew up in the Bronx and often dreams about it. And since living space might be described as the sex of the 90’s — everyone wants it and nobody can seem to get enough — it is fitting that such space was the subject of several city dwellers’ dreams.

Janet Allon, writing for the New York Times about how New Yorkers see the city in their dreams. Allon’s piece, “Streets of Dreams,” ran in July 1998.

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‘I Feel Very Strongly That Almost the Entire City Has Copied My Glasses.’

I feel very strongly that almost the entire city has copied my glasses. I went to a fashion show during fashion week, and everyone there had on my eyeglasses. Warby Parker has also copied my eyeglasses.

Here’s what started happening: A few years ago, kids—and by which I mean, my friends kids—started coming up to me and saying, ‘Fran, where’d you get those vintage glasses?’

And I said, ‘They’re not vintage. I’ve just owned them for a long time. They are vintage in the way I am.’

I’m not unhappy that everyone has copied me. There was a period when everyone was wearing those black, oblong glasses. These are better.

As with my perfect white shirts, it never occurred to me that they’d stop making my original tortoiseshell eyeglasses—the ones I started with—but then they did. So now I have glasses that are like the originals, sort of like the originals, kind of like the originals…I have made several attempts to recover what I once had.

Fran Lebowitz, talking style with Elle’s Kathleen Hale. Other highlights of the interview include Lebowitz’s thoughts on Hillary Clinton’s style (“She has no style, zero”); men in shorts (“disgusting”); and what would happen if women tried as hard as drag queens (“We’d be a much more attractive culture”). For more of Lebowitz’s wonderfully singular take on the world, see this 1993 interview with the Paris Review.

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How Truman Capote Compiled the Guest List for His Famous Black and White Ball, According to Gloria Steinem

Truman Capote’s legendary 1966 Black and White Ball still stands as one of the greatest parties of all time. Hot off the success of In Cold Blood, Capote billed the party as an “all-time spectacular present” to himself, inviting everyone who was anyone and demanding they appear in masks and black-and-white attire, a color scheme inspired by Cecil Beaton’s Ascot scene for My Fair Lady.

What gave the Black and White Ball “its intoxicating piquancy,” according to Amy Fine Collins, was the fact that Capote’s guest list had “flung together, in a gilt-edged melting pot, the most alluring power brokers in the worlds of high society, politics, the arts, and Hollywood—disconnected universes that collided, if not for the first time that evening, then at least with unprecedented force.”

The Ball also found an unlikely chronicler in Gloria Steinem, an invited guest who had made Capote’s acquaintance after she interviewed him for Glamour the year before. Steinem wrote a feature on the party for Vogue in January 1967 in which she described the luminaries, feathers, masks, ball gowns, and jewels all whirling around the room: “The effect was like some blend of Hollywood, the Court of Louis XIV, a medieval durbar, and pure Manhattan.” (The full article is not online, but is excerpted below.)

Descriptions of unlikely collisions between worlds are one of the highlights of Steinem’s piece: the detective hired to guard the ladies’ jewelry asking Lee Radziwill to dance; Lynda Bird Johnson’s Secret Service men looking unmistakably Secret Service-y despite their black tie attire and requisite masks; and Beverly and Norman Mailer creating a dance move that involved balancing on an invisible tightrope. Also of particular interest is Steinem’s description of how the party’s legendary guest list came together:

The guest list of five hundred and forty—inscribed painstakingly and by hand, like all his writing, in a ten-cent lined notebook—reflected the full range of twenty years’ writing and travel: one Maharajah, a Kansas detective, half a dozen Presidential advisors, businessmen, editors, a lot of writers and performers, some artists, four composers, several heiresses, one country doctor, and a sprinkling of royalties, with defunct titles attached to very undefunct people. Thunderous publicity which leaned heavily on the Maharajah-heiress side of things, soon made it the Party of the Year—possibly of Several Years—leaving the host and everyone involved some combination of pleased and stunned.

As the day approached, there was a growing conviction—false but intriguing—that the invitation list was not just friends but a new Four Hundred of the World. Pressure from would-be guests became enormous, especially from those who were strangers to the host but felt their social status alone entitled them to go. Truman resisted, but the requests, even threats, finally forced him to cut off his phone and retire to the country.

The week before the party, international guests began arriving in New York like family-of-the-groom for a wedding and caused the same string of accommodation problems and pre-party parties. A whimsical rumor that we were all being called together for some purpose—probably the announcement of the End of the World—spread by magic or telephone. Jerry Robbins wondered if we weren’t the list of those to be shot first by the Red Guard. Kenneth Galbraith said no, not as long as he was on it.

See Also:

1. “A Night to Remember: Inside the Black-and-White Ball” (Amy Fine Collins, Vanity Fair, July 1996)

2. “A Brief History of Epic Parties: A Reading List” (Michelle Legro, Longreads, December 2013)