In the bright, beautiful gem of a book The Art of the Affair, author Catherine Lacey and illustrator Forsyth Harmon trace the many—mostly amorous—connections between some of the 20th century’s most renowned artists, writers, musicians, and other creative geniuses to great effect. Comprising delicately rendered illustrations of some of the most famous (and, in some cases, infamous) creatives with fascinating blurbs about each person and their connection with one another, The Art of the Affair is full of discoveries—both large and small and often incredibly intimate. There are, of course, plenty of deliciously scandalous revelations, like the fact that after Madonna and Jean-Michel Basquiat broke up, he made her return all the paintings he gave her and then painted them black (!), but there are also the poignant, bittersweet ones, like the fact that painter Lucian Freud never got over the heartache he suffered at the hands of his wife, writer, and muse, Lady Caroline Blackwood, of whom he painted many paintings, one of which is said to have been clutched close by poet Robert Lowell—another of Blackwood’s husbands—when he died in a cab on his way to visit his first wife, critic, and author, Elizabeth Hardwick.
If that sounds complicated to you, don’t worry: The layout of The Art of the Affair and the spare, lucid writing makes following along the winding paths that these many brilliant men and women took to and from one another actually quite simple. The ease with which the reader can navigate even the most tumultuous of love affairs is part of the fun of the book; it’s with no small amount of amusement that I found out that Anaïs Nin had an entire fold-out page to herself and her sundry lovers. Beyond just the vicarious enjoyment of reading about many of the past centuries greatest love affairs, The Art of the Affair offers another important gift to readers: Among the prominent names and faces in the book lie many lesser-known, though no less brilliantly talented, artists, all of whom are ripe for discovery. It was with great pleasure that I went from reading about the love affairs of Beauford Delaney, Margery Latimer, and Romaine Brooks to then finding out everything I could about them and their work. And it was a wonderful thing to be able to read about the transgressive lives these artists lived and the way their commitment to exploring, pushing against, and ultimately breaking the barriers of convention extended past their artistic mediums and into their regular lives.
But, as Lacey writes in her forward to the book, “what is so compelling about these connections, ultimately, is their unknowability.” While it can feel like we know that much more about Billie Holiday because we know about her relationship with Tallulah Bankhead, all we really have is but the smallest glimpse into the private life of a very public figure. Like life itself, these details of love and loss are essentially ephemeral; yet the art remains, in some cases, stronger and more powerful than ever. (Truly, there is no better time to listen to Holiday singing “Strange Fruit.”)
Below, I spoke with Lacey and Harmon about the impetus behind The Art of the Affair, what it was like in their own artistic collaboration, and what they learned in the process of making the book.
What was your initial inspiration for this book?
Catherine Lacey: While reading a book of letters between Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller, I started wondering about the relationships that had most impacted other artists and writers. In the case of Miller, he wouldn’t have had a career if he hadn’t met Nin—she paid to have his first novel published—but I also think their relationship had an impact on the content of both of their works. This wondering devolved into a constant form of procrastination from my own work, complete with a conspiracy theorist’s whiteboard and bizarre, multi-page Venn diagrams. Eventually, I approached Forsyth to help me make sense of it all.
Forsyth Harmon: Catherine and I first met about the project in Washington Square Park, on our way to a Leslie Jamison reading. I loved Catherine’s first novel, Nobody Is Ever Missing, and was thrilled at the prospect of a collaboration. At the risk of sounding a little grandiose, when she walked me through the concept, this vision of a constellation of portraiture sort of opened up before me—a kind of reeling relational database of artistic affairs—and I was inspired to work with her to illustrate it. I thought almost immediately of Andrew Shurtz, the brilliant graphic designer—I knew he’d find a way to unravel our tangled web of text and images across the pages, and I was delighted when he agreed to work with us.
Who were some surprising connections you found?
CL: Peggy Guggenheim and Samuel Beckett. She was apparently very frustrated by their eight-month entanglement. He seemed pretty nonplussed by it.
FH: I’d recently finished an illustrated piece about Coco Chanel for Sonya Chung’s website Bloom, and, in reading about Chanel, had come across a bit about Mercedes de Acosta. I guess, de Acosta’s better known for her affairs than her work as a poet, playwright, and novelist. I was fascinated to learn about her relationships with Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and, although unsubstantiated, Alice B. Toklas. Her memoir Here Lies the Heart is on my to-read list.
Who were some of the artists you were most excited to highlight?
CL: Three extremely under-appreciated painters, Beauford Delaney, Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita, and Romaine Brooks. All three of them were hugely talented and at least partially recognized during their lifetimes, but their work, for a variety of reasons, did not figure into the prevailing art histories of their era.
FH: I hadn’t even known I was familiar with Foujita’s work until we came across his arrangement with Isadora Duncan: Champagne for dance lessons. I didn’t have much access to art as a kid, but I did have this one book, Metropolitan Cats, which I looked at relentlessly, in which Foujita’s cats appeared. If you’re a cat person, look him up. You’ll fall into a most pleasurable Google image search results hole. Couturier Cat, from 1927, is an especial favorite.
I’ve always had a tender spot for Edie Sedgwick, so I was probably annoyingly adamant that we include her. Edie: An American Biography is an incredible account of her brief life formed entirely of quotes from her friends, family, and an impressive list of luminaries including Gore Vidal, John Cage, Patti Smith and, of course, Andy Warhol. Around the time I painted her portrait, I read a piece in Art Forum about Warhol’s film Lupe, in which she starred. You can see clips of it online—it’s pretty devastating, the way it seems to foreshadow her tragic demise.
Is there something inherent to the creative personality that makes complicated romantic entanglements so common?
CL: Yes. I think it’s all the feelings.
FH: Is it that artists involve themselves in more complicated romantic entanglements or is it that, as persons who seek expression, they’re simply more likely to make those entanglements public?
CL: Probably a little of both. Maybe the average person’s romantic life is actually more entangled that it seems.
What was your artistic collaboration like? Did the choices you both made inform either of the other person’s process?
CL: Forsyth spotted blind spots in my research and helped find some connections she wanted to include. Thankfully, I was not asked to draw anything.
FH: Catherine handed her research over to me as it was completed, piece by piece, and it was a delight, and sometimes a nightmare, to learn about the loves and losses of the 20th century’s greatest. I tried to absorb as much as I could about each of our subjects before painting their portraits. When Catherine sent over her write-up on Basquiat, I revisited the Schnabel film and, for the first time, watched The Radiant Child. I finally read Giovanni’s Room, Tender Is the Night, In Cold Blood, Swann’s Way. I listened to “Down Hearted Blues” and “Potato Head Blues.” This project was an education.
Catherine first mentioned The Smiths “cover boy” phenomenon to me over drinks at the Brooklyn Inn. I was an obsessive Smiths fan as a teenager, but it had never occurred to me to question who appeared in the film stills on their album covers: Jean Marais, Joe Dallesandro, Truman Capote, Candy Darling. Catherine and I became dead set on finding a way to include them in the book, and, as I painted the covers, I relished re-immersing myself in The Smiths’ discography. After learning it was Shelagh Delaney’s face on the cover of Louder than Bombs, I watched A Taste of Honey and caught some of the lines Morrissey had lifted for lyrics. Comb through the footage on YouTube: Morrissey is hilarious in a 1985 BBC Whistle Test video. And on a 1984 episode of Data Run, he and Marr are interviewed by English schoolchildren—it’s brilliant.
All of these connections existed pre-internet and, of course, social media. Nowadays, we have the ability to connect in more ways than ever, but sometimes those connections feel superficial. How do you think social media influences artistic connections like the ones in the book? Does it facilitate them? Or transform them in some other way?
CL: I think when a person is accustomed to writing and documenting their life in a private or semi-private way—like in letters and diaries—a different and possibly more realistic image of a relationship can be found. The instant and public documentation of something as impossibly private as a relationship or friendship just doesn’t do it justice. In 100 years, will biographers have access to Matthew Barney and Björk’s texts and emails? Or just their images from their public appearances?
FH: Social media absolutely influences artistic connections. Facebook isn’t so different from LinkedIn. How many times have you attended a reading or an exhibition and found yourself shaking hands for the first time with someone you not only recognized but were already “friends” with? You might’ve said, “I know your work,” but you also knew what they’d done the previous night because you saw the photo they posted! But social media is a part of the performance, too. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the best people on Twitter are poets like Diana Hamilton, Sophia Le Fraga, and Ben Fama—just search #GetaBookHigh. On SoundCloud, I learned about the 333 Boyz from a MOM RADIO mix. Because of Instagram, I’m inspired by illustrators I’ve never met including Grace Miceli, Laura Callaghan, and Jillian Tamaki.
Were there any particularly compelling connections that didn’t make it into the book for one reason or another?
CL: I remember finding out that Marlon Brando and James Baldwin had been roommates in their youth; we didn’t include it because Brando ended up not making the cut.
FH: We tried to stay away from the living, out of privacy concerns. There were a few exceptions—Juliette Gréco, Laurie Anderson, Madonna, Patti Smith—but in those cases, we didn’t cover anything that wasn’t already public. Wasn’t Madonna’s recent Billboard acceptance speech incredible? For her portrait, I savored working from those fabulous 1982 Richard Corman photographs of her in Alphabet City.
I had really wanted to find a way to include folk blues vocalist, guitarist, and banjoist Karen Dalton. Bob Dylan has referred to her as his favorite singer from the ’60s Greenwich Village scene, so we thought we might connect Dalton with Dylan by bringing in his alleged affair with Edie Sedgwick. But Dylan was so angry over the way his connection with Edie was portrayed in the film Factory Girl that he attempted to halt its release. Have you heard Karen Dalton’s 1971 album In My Own Time? It’s exquisite.
What is it, do you think, about discovering these connections between artists that is so interesting to people?
CL: Encountering a piece of art—especially a book, I feel—can give one the sense that we are inside another person’s head. We’re not, of course, not really, yet we feel we understand something vital about whoever created this song or painting or text or what have you. It’s only natural then to wonder what or who might have inspired that work.
FH: Leo Braudy said, “We live in a society bound together by the talk of fame.” Celebrities are so deeply entrenched in our cultural memory. Understanding their histories is a way of coming to terms with our own.