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Writing a Life

November 5, 2014 | by

On reimagining what a biography can look like.

From Tennessee Williams: Notebooks. Copyright The University of the South; Courtesy Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library

From Tennessee Williams: Notebooks. Copyright the University of the South; Courtesy Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library

In December 2012, I spent several days in Laurel, Mississippi, with my wife, researching her grandmother’s family history and childhood. I also did a lot of thinking about Stella and Blanche DuBois, the sisters who, as imagined by Tennessee Williams in A Streetcar Named Desire, also hailed from Laurel. They would have been roughly the same age as my wife’s grandmother. When we left Laurel, we followed Stella and Blanche’s path down to New Orleans. While in the city, we made several visits to Faulkner House Books in the French Quarter; I’d seen a brick of a book there called Tennessee Williams: Notebooks, edited by Margaret Bradham Thornton, and couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Williams has been on my mind for the nearly two decades I’ve been researching W. Eugene Smith, who declared that the plays of Williams were a major influence on his photojournalism. I thought I knew the names of all the prominent Williams scholars, and I’d heard in 2011 that John Lahr was working on a major biography for Norton. So this huge volume of Williams’s notebooks (it weighs close to four pounds; Lahr’s recently published Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh weighs just over two, by comparison) and its editor were a bit of a mystery. A one-line bio on the jacket flap simply describes Thornton as “a writer and independent scholar,” with no other credentials and no photograph.

The book was puzzling in structure and detail, too. Williams’s handwritten diary entries are transcribed in chronological order on the right side of each spread—on the odd-numbered pages—in a font that couldn’t be larger than eight or nine points. On the left side of each spread are meticulous annotations by Thornton in an even smaller font, maybe six points, that correspond to numbers on the opposite page. The results are parallel tracks of text: one, a series of odd, cryptic personal notes jotted by Williams over the course of his life; the other, 1,090 annotations, occupying equal space, that contextualize Williams’s arcane references many decades later. All told, I later learned, the book contains 265,000 words. Read More »

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The Way of All Flesh, Etc.

April 28, 2014 | by

The New Orleans Advocate reports that “Mickey Easterling, a New Orleans socialite known as much for her grand lifestyle and outlandish hats as for her civic, cultural, and political activism, died Monday at her Lakefront home.” Easterling was a character of the old school: a generous benefactor of many charities who wintered in Morocco and was given to sweeping pronouncements.

Her family honored her wishes by throwing a festive wake-cum-cocktail party. The centerpiece of the shindig was the deceased herself—propped up in full regalia and makeup, just as in life. Reports the Daily Mail, with photos,

The consummate hostess, she was never without her glass of champagne or cigarette holder, and wore a flamboyant feather boa, bonnet, and a diamond-studded brooch that said ‘Bitch’ … To Easterling’s right, on a small table, sat a bottle of her favorite Champagne—Veuve Clicquot—as well as a pack of American Spirit cigarettes, and in her right hand was a Waterford crystal Champagne flute, the kind she used to carry around with her sometimes when restaurant glassware wouldn’t suffice.

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Pirate Queen: In the Studio with June Glasson

August 1, 2012 | by

Years ago, while biding my time at a doctor’s office, fortuitously flipping through a stack of well-exhausted magazines, I spotted an article on affordable portraiture. June Glasson was one of the featured artists, and I scribbled her name down and contacted her later to do a drawing of my better half as part of her “Near and Dear” series. My husband and I had many times joked about how we wished we were royalty, deserving of grand portraits. June captured my husband so completely that I’m sometimes taken aback by the likeness. My twin toddlers frequently point to it and announce “Da-da!” with great delight.

June was a natural choice to do illustrations to accompany Rich Cohen’s “Pirate City” essay in the current issue. I’m drawn to her gorgeous layers of colored ink that make using this unforgiving medium look easy. She paints landscapes and people with equal charm and interest. As June lives in Wyoming, she was kind enough to be interviewed via e-mail and to send photographs of an enviable studio space filled with natural light and plenty of inspiration.

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The Topographical Soul

March 5, 2012 | by

I was at the last show of the night in a movie theater in New Orleans, and I stepped out midway to go to the bathroom. The movie was loud, cacophonous, upsetting—a documentary about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. As I peed, I stared absentmindedly at a tile in the wall in front of me.

There was nothing remarkable about this tile, but I felt an involuntary shiver. I was alone in the bathroom, but it occurred to me that the bathroom itself had once been alone and empty—for days, weeks, maybe months during the hurricane and evacuation. It had been frozen in time like the figures in Pompeii but without any bodies to be captured in mid-life, mid-gesture. Instead, what had been captured, what resonated, was a stillness that persisted even now, after the city had ostensibly come back to life.

Cities are not meant to be emptied. Most of them never are. Even in their quietest hour they have a rustling sense of breath. But I had once spent time in another city that had also been emptied: Phnom Penh, which was evacuated under the Khmer Rouge.

Phnom Penh was, from the moment I saw it in 1994, a place that refused comparison. At first I accepted this. I had come for new experiences and I was happy, if often unnerved, to let new experiences prick me with their unfamiliarity. But then I began to feel a certain resistance in me, an effort to corral all the stimulation and make it adhere to a context with which I was familiar. I was trying, as I always did, to see Phnom Penh through the lens of my hometown, New York. Read More »

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The Wedding Party

January 5, 2012 | by

As Kim Kardashian recently reminded us, marriage is no longer the inevitable result of a wedding; the ritual is easily divorced from the institution. This is a source of some comfort to the single person approaching thirty, bombarded by engagement announcements and Facebooked wedding photo albums. Just a few more years of this, you tell yourself, and people will start getting divorced.

So this fall I was tickled to receive an invitation to a fake wedding in New Orleans. With all the phoniness announced up front, there was no need for jealousy (I’ll die alone!),  anxiety (She’s making a terrible mistake!), or expensive gifts (But I can’t even afford health insurance!). Read More »

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Part 3: To the Mandarin Oriental

June 15, 2011 | by

Last we checked, Martin was about to close a deal in New Orleans for a twenty-two-karat rose-gold cuff by Van Cleef & Arpels. He was wearing the trousers of former Parisian Nathaniel Rich after being booted from his hotel room. Martin needs to return to New York so he can resell the cuff and pocket the difference, but he’s running out of time. Click here to start from the beginning.

At $11,000 he said, “Mazel.” I paid him the cash on the spot, right there in the restaurant, counting out each hundred dollar bill into his moist palm.

“I am giving you this piece, my dear,” he said, when he rolled the money in a gray rubber band—he had an even thicker roll from which he’d removed one of the rubber bands—and stuck it into his pocket. “Because I have heard of your troubles. Our friend Nick Mehta speaks of you often, and not without sorrow and concern. If you should ever come back to our business, you know you could find a helping hand there. The gold market in India is booming. All of the software money from Mumbai is going straight into wedding jewelry.” Nick Mehta had known me since I was doing the runs at Fort Worth Gold and Silver Exchange when I was fifteen years old. The first time I ate poori bhaji it was made for me by Mrs. Mehta at ten o’clock at night on a dark, icy Friday in December. At that time I was picking up a seven-karat, half-million-dollar ruby for a client that was viewing it at nine the next morning, before we opened the doors for regular business. They officed in one of the big diamond buildings off of 635 in North Dallas, and it would take me two hours, on those winter roads, in my little nondescript Toyota truck (when you’re doing the runs in the jewelry business, you don’t drive a car that attracts attention) to get back to downtown Fort Worth.

I did not know what stories Drew might be referencing, and I chose not to ask. I paid the check and left him there, finishing the last two inches in that lovely bottle of Roederer, and took a taxi straight to the airport to catch the next flight back to New York.

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