[This post is a reblog of post #147, another of the most visited posts of this blog.]
She is 23, dark-haired, beautiful, with big brown eyes, and wants to know about art. He is 64 -- old enough to be her father and then some -- with deep-set, piercing eyes framed by glasses, his hair and mustache gray and bristling, and he knows all about art. She encounters him in a shabby little gallery on Park Avenue where he holds forth daily in a resonant voice, telling visitors that the world of our dreams is more real than the world that exists, and that art, like all love, is rooted in heartache. He makes the first satisfying statements about art she has ever heard and speaks with total conviction; she is entranced.
The young woman goes back to the little gallery again and again, listens to the man talk to others about art, learns his name, writes down afterward what he has said. The paintings shown there fascinate her, as does the man himself. Finally she speaks to him, talks with him about art. His words pour forth, don’t explain anything, but change something indefinable inside her. Though the paintings exhibited are available for purchase, he isn’t selling them, just talking about them, about art. He says the very things about art that she has been waiting to hear from someone knowledgeable and mature. Finally she writes him a breathless letter, says she can’t keep away from the gallery, loves what he is doing there, would like to help him do it. Answering her letter in bold black strokes of a pen that are almost chilling in their beauty, he tells her to feel free to come to the gallery and ask all the questions she likes. She does. She talks with him, looks at his photographs, feels his attraction like a great force of nature.
One day they find themselves alone in the gallery; a tense silence, as they look at each other intently.
“I want to say something to you,” she whispers.
“Say it,” he says. His voice is encouraging, but she holds back. “Say it.”
She makes a great effort. “I love you.”
His face softens. “I know – come here.”
He kisses her. Their lives are changed forever.
She is Dorothy Norman, a young woman from an affluent Jewish family in Philadelphia who is now living in New York. He is Alfred Stieglitz, a renowned photographer and fervent advocate of contemporary American art. The year is 1928. She has met the man who, more than any other, will profoundly influence her life. There is just one problem: they are both married, but not to each other, and feel a loyalty to their respective spouses. And she has just given birth to her first child. So begins a long, fervent, but complicated relationship that could have happened only in New York.
Born Dorothy Stecker to an affluent Jewish family in Philadelphia, she grew up surrounded by privileges that puzzled, then annoyed her. At a party in New York in 1924 she met Edward Norman, the son of a wealthy Sears Roebuck heir and they fell in love; overcoming opposition from both families, they married in 1925; she was 19, he was 25. On the wedding night he was dismayed, then angry, to learn that her parents had told her nothing about sex. When he entered her, she felt agonizing pain, bled, sobbed; in the morning, apologies on both sides, tenderness, assurances that all would be well.
They moved into an apartment on East 52nd Street in New York, lived well but not lavishly, traveled abroad, became involved in progressive causes, advocated reform, not revolution. Though given at times to outbursts of anger, her husband was intelligent, knowledgeable, idealistic; she admired him greatly. She did volunteer work for the ACLU, visited art galleries and then, at the Intimate Gallery on Park Avenue, she met Alfred Stieglitz.
A strange but passionate relationship developed. Stieglitz was wise, informed, mature, yet possessed a youthful vigor and sense of fullness about life unlike anyone she had ever known. She didn’t see in him a father but a lover and mentor; they wrote, phoned, and saw each other daily, experienced physical love that she found breathtaking, almost frightening, in its intensity.
And the spouses? She still loved her husband, but in a different way, had no thought of divorcing him. They lived, vacationed, and traveled together, but the relationship must have been altered since he surely knew of her affair with Stieglitz almost from the start. How did he feel about a wife who, to be sexually and emotionally fulfilled, needed both a husband and a lover? Candid as her autobiography can be, of this she says almost nothing. She and Edward shared much, and yet …
As for Stieglitz, he was married to the artist Georgia O’Keeffe, 23 years his junior, and likewise had no thought of divorce. He had discovered her years before, a talented young artist who had yet to make a name for herself, and had divorced his first wife to marry her and promote her work. To judge from Dorothy Norman’s memoir, one might think that O’Keeffe and Stieglitz were by now estranged, but O’Keeffe’s biographer, Hunter Drohojowska-Philp, tells it differently: O’Keeffe was heartbroken by her husband’s open affair with Norman but endured it until 1933, when she suffered a nervous breakdown that hospitalized her for two months. After that there was indeed estrangement, as more and more she pursued her art in New Mexico, far from Stieglitz and Norman.
A personal note: I first heard of Dorothy Norman when, as a freelance editor in the early 1980s, I was hired by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich to edit the manuscript of her memoir, Encounters. I worked with an in-house editor from whom I learned certain things about Norman not mentioned in the memoir; I will introduce them when and if relevant.
With Stieglitz’s help, as well as her own beauty, intelligence, and charm, Dorothy Norman expanded her horizons and deepened her understanding of art. At a party she met the artist John Marin, whose work she particularly esteemed, and the sculptor Gaston Lachaise, and became good friends with both. She met Georgia O’Keeffe, a handsome woman strikingly dressed in black with a touch of white, though for obvious reasons the acquaintance could only go so far. In 1929, when Stieglitz learned that the Intimate Gallery must vacate the premises, she and O’Keefe and others helped finance a new and better gallery, An American Place, at 509 Madison Avenue. There Stieglitz, who disapproved of the recently founded Museum of Modern Art’s emphasis on “French Old Masters” (meaning Impressionists and Post-Impressionists), could continue to exhibit and promote American art. At his insistence the walls were painted white and gray and were unadorned, so as to convey an atmosphere of austerity, nor was it listed in the phone book. But right from the first – even in the wake of the Crash – people flocked to it.
Among those she came to know at this time, whether at An American Place or elsewhere, were the poet Hart Crane and the young theater director Harold Clurman. Clurman, who always enjoyed the company of attractive young women, took to her at once and expounded excitedly on the American theater’s need for direction, for a philosophy of life, and she helped raise funds so he and his colleagues could found the Group Theatre and put these ideas into practice. Through Stieglitz and her own social connections she was now well on her way to becoming the self-assured and knowledgeable young woman who knew everyone.
And her husband? She continued to admire his honesty, intelligence, and integrity, but realized with great regret that they were growing differently, and apart. Further endangering their relationship were his irrational outbursts of anger and her increased awareness that he was psychologically disturbed. Concern for their two children and a persistent devotion sustained their marriage, and every year they summered together in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. But their youthful hopes and dreams were fading fast.
Stieglitz photographed her repeatedly and taught her to become a photographer herself. And in 1932 he arranged the publication of her poetry, which she herself feared was too immature. In her memoir she tells how she sent the volume to her British friend Dorothy Brett, an artist and onetime associate of D.H. Lawrence living in Taos, New Mexico, and was amazed by Brett’s enthusiastic response, which proclaimed the poems “beautiful” and “incorruptible.” Yet in the manuscript I edited, as I recall, it went somewhat differently. Yes, Brett praised the poems, but only after Norman waited anxiously for a response and finally queried Brett about her reaction, thus putting Brett in an awkward position, torn between candor and the claims of friendship. Was Brett’s response the response of friendship or was she truly impressed? And wasn’t Norman a bit of a dabbler here? Serious poets work at their craft for years. Norman didn’t pursue her poetry, having other and stronger claims on her attention. Throughout her life she had so many interests, and went in so many directions, that she risked – perhaps unfairly
-- the label of dilettante.
Indeed, she had so many commitments and knew so many people, only a few of her “encounters” can be chronicled here. She helped Henry Miller financially so he could return from Europe and, when she met him, was surprised to find, not the sensual, rather ferocious man she anticipated, but a modest and proper individual who resembled a preacher. Through him she met his inamorata the author Anaïs Nin, who struck her as almost nunlike in her simple gray coat and hat, though her small mouth was carefully painted, and her mascaraed eyes stared at Norman ecstatically. Norman soon realized that Nin was slowly drifting apart from her wealthy banker husband, just as she was drifting apart from Edward.
In 1937 she began publishing Twice a Year, a journal of literature and art, which she herself financed; well-known writers, including European expatriates soon displaced by the war, appeared on its pages: Sherwood Anderson, Richard Wright, Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, and later Sartre and Camus. Then in 1942 she began writing a column for the New York Post entitled “A World to Live In,” commenting on social welfare issues and politics. The column would continue for seven years, and she became involved in city and state politics, even to the point of being offered political positions and a chance to run for Congress, invitations that she always turned down, knowing that politics and the compromises it entailed were not for her.
Neither she nor her husband liked living ostentatiously. Their Park Avenue apartment building was designed to look imposing, with a gloomy and pretentious entrance hall, a uniformed doorman and elevator man, and an apartment with ugly windows, false moldings, and sconces with pointed light bulbs absurdly imitating candles. So the Normans engaged a large real estate firm to find them an unrenovated house no wider than twenty feet, with no tall buildings in front or back, the rear facing south, and not near an elevated or bus line, since they both slept badly. And it should not be above 79th Street or below 68th Street on the East Side of Manhattan. Rather strict requirements for a couple in search of something simple, but they found it: a Victorian brownstone at 124 East 70th Street, nineteen feet wide with a high front stoop, in dire need of renovation. Months of work followed as the front of the building was moved forward, the rear slanted to admit the most daylight possible, and the interior reorganized imaginatively to create spare, clean lines throughout. Finally, in 1941, they moved in. The building was voted one of the two best new buildings of the time; photographs of it were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art; and architecture students gathered outside to sketch it and often asked to be shown through. Simplicity had been achieved.
Joining the newly established Liberal Party in 1944, she found herself involved in debates as to who the party should endorse for mayor. The feeling against William O’Dwyer, a former Brooklyn district attorney, was strong, since he had Tammany backing, but she decided to interview him for her column. Since he was off in seclusion in California planning his strategy, she made a long-distance call and, to her surprise, reached the man himself. A candid conversation followed, and an invitation to meet him in New York. He proved to be a ruddy-faced man, well built but hardly handsome, with an Irish sense of humor, and she urged him to run for mayor and be a great one. Leaving the Liberal Party, she supported O’Dwyer and was delighted when he won. From then on she called him daily at 8:30 a.m. on a private line and had talks with him that were often hilarious. He read passages from Yeats to her, then they talked politics; he listened to her suggestions about health and hospitals, day-care centers, delinquency, whatever. Knowing she was “in” with the mayor, people played up to her, hoped for an introduction. “Of course you’re having an affair,” a journalist friend told her. “Everyone knows it.” Which made her furious, since she never saw O’Dwyer alone, was most definitely not having an affair with Hizzoner, and had even declined positions that he and others offered her.
In July 1946, while summering in Woods Hole, she got a phone call from a friend informing her that Stieglitz had had a stroke and was in a hospital, and she must come at once; O’Keeffe was in the Southwest. Her husband was kind and understanding, had no objection to her going. She rushed back to New York, went to the hospital, found him in a coma but with a look of peace on his face; later she broke down, wept. O’Keeffe arrived the next day, their paths didn’t cross; Norman made no further attempt to see him, knew that he was dead. Harold Clurman phoned her in sympathy, found her a typewriter so she could do a brief obit for the Post, then accompanied her to a restaurant for dinner. They were sitting at a table outside when suddenly, quite by chance, Eleanor Roosevelt walked by with a companion and saw her. The former First Lady approached and greeted her graciously and in a warm and cordial voice asked what she was doing in New York in the miserable summer heat.
“I’m here because a great friend, Alfred Stieglitz, has died. I’ve come down for his funeral.”
Eleanor Roosevelt looked at her, perplexed, not having the slightest idea who Stieglitz was. Norman wept, uttered a perfunctory wish that Mrs. Roosevelt was well.
Did Norman and O’Keeffe encounter each other at the funeral? Her memoir doesn’t say, but one suspects that Norman maintained a discreet distance. Back in Woods Hole, having read again the last note Stieglitz had sent her the day before he died, she wrote a poem that she could show to no one.
Stieglitz’s death, however shattering, did not keep her from being Dorothy Norman, the woman who knew everyone. Her “encounters” continued: Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Richard Wright, D.T. Suzuki, Osbert Sitwell and his sister Edith, Saint-John Perse, Jawaharlal Nehru – the list is endless.
When her husband became stern, dictatorial, harsh with the children and her, Dorothy Norman, fearing sudden violence on his part, went to Reno in 1953 and got a divorce. They both were heartsick. She then went on to make more friends, develop an interest in myth and symbolism, and work on her memoir, which she told her in-house editor could never be published while Georgia O’Keeffe was alive. O’Keeffe died in 1986, and the memoir appeared in 1987 with a dedication “To Edward, my first love.” It does not chronicle her later years, and with a single exception includes only photographs of her in her youth. She died in 1997 at age 92.
What is one to make of this woman who knew everyone? Limousine liberal, do-gooder, dilettante – she can be stuck with all these labels, but I think it would be unfair. She served the great without herself attaining greatness. She never worked a day in her life, in the sense of a salary-paying job, but she was constantly busy, never idle. A doer, she made things happen. What was it that let her bond so easily with others? Her beauty, her charm, her intelligence. And from that bonding came results: books, articles, exhibitions, her biography of Stieglitz, her collection of Nehru’s writings, the Alfred Stieglitz Center in Philadelphia. And if her later turn toward myth and symbolism gets a bit vaporous and “New Agey,” that is probably the case with most Western followers of the great traditions, which for deep understanding require a focused lifelong commitment that few of us can offer. But Dorothy Norman lived intensely, lived meaningfully. May we all do as well.
Coming soon: Tammany, the tiger whose claws got clipped.
© 2016 Clifford Browder