Stephenson has been blogging for The Daily about W. Eugene Smith, the subject of his forthcoming biography. Here, he writes to managing editor Nicole Rudick from Okinawa, Japan.
Today is my fourteenth day in Japan. The first nine days were in Tokyo, followed by four in Minamata, and now Okinawa. In a few days I’ll leave here for Saipan, Guam, and Iwo Jima, all part of my month-long Pacific tour on Gene Smith’s trail.
Smith often said he felt like he was from Japan in a former life. His second wife, Aileen Mioko Smith, was Japanese American, and he made three extended trips here: beginning as a combat photographer in World War II, then to Tokyo in the early sixties, and Minamata in the early seventies. I spent my first two weeks interviewing his former associates through my interpreter, Momoko Gill. The prevailing responses—some of them wordless, from body language to tears—were similar to what jazz pianist Freddie Redd once told me: “Gene Smith is just a sweet memory.”
In New York, Smith’s appeal wore thin among those that relied on him or expected things from him—publishers, gallery owners, benefactors, people from the “official” side of things. I don’t blame them. He couldn’t finish anything he started. He wrote long, complaining letters to people he barely knew, copying paragraphs verbatim from letters he’d written to others. He’d fake injuries for sympathy. His quixotic grandiosity—linked to feverish moral imperatives, alcoholism, amphetamine addiction, and bipolar disorder—went from valiant to insufferable. But over the past two weeks, I haven’t heard anything that indicates he behaved like that in Japan. Nor did he with jazz musicians and underground characters in the New York loft. He drank heavily in both places, though. I’m left wondering about the relation, for Smith, between people in Japan and the transient loft figures.