Artists Produce Great Works — And Great Romances
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Love is the greatest inspiration for art - songs, poems, novels, movies, operas, stories that soar but also sometimes soothe hearts and settle scores. Love with entanglements may be at the heart of a lot of artistic experience. Catherine Lacey, a novelist, and Forsyth Harmon, a writer and illustrator, have put together a book that traces some of the illicit and/or interlocking, but often intended, relationships that have been formed, inspired or otherwise impelled the lives of artists - "The Art Of The Affair: An Illustrated History Of Love, Sex And Artistic Influence." Catherine Lacey joins us from Mexico City. Thanks for being with us.
CATHERINE LACEY: Thanks for having me.
SIMON: And Forsyth Harmon is in our studios in New York. Thank you very much for being with us.
FORSYTH HARMON: So glad to be here.
SIMON: I don't want to lay the good stuff, so let's begin by tracing the line that leads from Colette to her 16-year-old stepson to Martha Gellhorn to Hemingway towards all kinds of interesting people.
LACEY: Well, this is actually one of the first connections that I thought maybe there was something to maybe putting a book together. Colette had an affair with her 16-year-old stepson, Bernard (ph) de Jouvenel. And he grew up to marry Martha Gellhorn, who was previously married to Ernest Hemingway.
LACEY: So this kind of overlaps different time periods because I think Colette's affair with her stepson happened in maybe the '20s, I want to say.
SIMON: But then this gets to Ford Madox Ford and Robert Lowell. I mean, we could go on. I don't know where to start or stop.
LACEY: (Laughter) Well...
HARMON: I have to say, these were some of the first portraits that I drew. And as I was drawing, I read a bit about each of the individuals and their relationships. And I was quite recently married at the time and suddenly became sort of terrified. Is this what the artistic life is like? The stories were quite overwhelming to me.
SIMON: Can we...
LACEY: Very few people in the book actually have marriages that lasted their entire lifetimes.
SIMON: Forsyth Harmon, as the artist, did you find your knowledge of the figures sneaking into the way you portrayed them?
HARMON: Absolutely. I took as much time as I could to learn more than I knew. I tried to read the books, listen to the music, think about how the work might sort of inflect itself in the features or in the mood of the source images that I drew from.
HARMON: So, for instance, with James Baldwin, I was listening to "Giovanni's Room" on audiobook while I worked on him and was listening to "Potato Head Blues," I believe, when I worked on Tallulah Bankhead. She was a fan of that album.
SIMON: Catherine Lacey, can I give you another lineage to trace for us?
SIMON: Mercedes de Acosta to Greta Garbo to Isadora Duncan to F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
LACEY: Yeah, so Mercedes de Acosta was living in Hollywood at the time when she fell in love with Greta Garbo. And their letters between each other are just - you know, they're just so young and so in love. And it's just - they both can portray that feeling so beautifully. I'm getting chills just thinking about it. But, of course, it wasn't OK for a woman to be in love with another woman at the time. And so Greta Garbo, being very famous, had to keep it very under wraps, and Mercedes de Acosta was sort of frustrated by this. So there was a lot of struggle over many years, but they were together on and off for a really long time.
Mercedes de Acosta also had an affair, I think sometime before, with Isadora Duncan. And then Isadora Duncan flirted one time with F. Scott Fitzgerald within shouting distance of Zelda Fitzgerald, who made a big fuss of it and threw herself down a flight of stairs in protest of this flirtation. And then once you get into the Fitzgeralds, then you're connected to Gertrude Stein and then there's just a bazillion connections off of that.
SIMON: And Hemingway all over again, you know? It all traces back to Hemingway.
LACEY: Oh, right. We're right back to where we started.
LACEY: All the way back to Colette.
SIMON: Forsyth Harmon, there's a wonderful illustration of Isadora Duncan's scarf...
HARMON: Thank you.
SIMON: ...Toward the end of the book. In and of itself, that's an important object. But it begins to embody a whole lot more, doesn't it?
HARMON: Certainly, in terms of the story behind it. Isadora Duncan's scarf got caught in an Amilcar, I believe, if I'm remembering the story correctly.
HARMON: It was assumed that she was on her way to consummate an affair and said - I believe the words were, off to love. And then the scarf was caught and she was killed, so quite a loaded object. And then I believe from there - and, Catherine, maybe you remember this quote - Gertrude Stein had something, I guess, quite funny and a bit harsh to say. Yeah.
LACEY: Yes. Affectations are dangerous.
SIMON: Yeah. That's creative. Like, it's all in the accessories, right? So be...
SIMON: So be careful. Do we understand art a little differently after we've been through this book, do you think?
LACEY: I hope so or I'm - I've still kind of - you know, there's still threads of people's connections that I am still sort of researching and fascinated by. You can't ever really know what's transpired between two people. You know, relationships are just inherently a private thing and can't really be, you know, explained. But I think the art that does result from these relationships is sufficiently compelling. And, you know, I think it's that little bit that you kind of can't see that keeps you looking at art in different ways.
SIMON: Catherine Lacey and Forsyth Harmon, their new book, "The Art Of The Affair: An Illustrated History Of Love, Sex And Artistic Influence," thank you so much for being with us.
HARMON: Thank you.
LACEY: Thanks for having us.
(SOUNDBITE OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG'S "POTATO HEAD BLUES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.