What you make of “The Art of the Affair” will depend partially on how you define “affair” and partially on how you define “art.” Novelist Catherine Lacey and illustrator Forsyth Harmon have created a guide to some of the more avant-garde relationships of the past century. Here you will find painters, writers and dancers, as well as the inventor of the modern bra. (More on that in a moment.)
Affairs can be hushed midnight trysts, but they also can be “collaborations, friendships, mentorships, and rivalries,” Lacey writes. “The relationships in an artist’s life . . . create an unseen scaffolding of their life’s work.” So this is the book for a quick accounting of, say, Marilyn Monroe’s relationship with Arthur Miller but also of that time she went for Chinese with Truman Capote, planning to go to the dock afterward and toss fortune cookies to the gulls.
We also see more baffling connections. What to make of Frida Kahlo’s fling with Leon Trotsky, or Peggy Guggenheim’s “eighteen months of frustration” with Samuel Beckett? Mercedes de Acosta had affairs with both Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, forever validating my sense that the two actresses were vaguely indistinguishable. It’s a loose science but charming. As Lacey writes, “I am still not over the fact that there is a single degree between Salvador Dalí and Black Sabbath.”
Not a collective biography so much as an illustrated index of relationships, “The Art of the Affair” is organized into six sections (including “The Stud File” and “Music Is My Mistress”), each closing with an amuse-bouche: the relevant books inspired, letters exchanged, even Smiths album covers posed for.
But one of the book’s best assets is its sense of flow. Some of the fun lies in its choose-your-own-adventure structure, following arrows back and forth across decades and marriages. It is all cleanly organized, but Lacey and Harmon are aware that the details can overwhelm. Humor helps. The writer Natalie Clifford Barney “had so many lovers” — including Oscar Wilde’s niece — “that Alice B. Toklas once quipped she must have been picking them up in department store lavatories.” Anaïs Nin’s section requires a pullout.
Martha Gellhorn famously spoke little about her relationship with Ernest Hemingway, unwilling to be “a footnote in someone else’s life.” But that’s part of the defiant charm of a book in which everyone is a footnote, from Gellhorn and James Baldwin to Josephine Baker and Coco Chanel. And, of course, Papa himself. The result is more or less the perfect coffee-table book for the starving artist in your life. I also recommend trying some of the more writerly endearments on your own partner. “Romaine Brooks, lover to Natalie Barney for over fifty years, said she slightly preferred being with Natalie to being alone.”
In general, the book recalls the gossipy bits of Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” the sense of listening in, a little knowingly, on a cocktail party to which one has not been invited. We see Isadora Duncan giving dance lessons in exchange for champagne and flirting with F. Scott Fitzgerald, much to Zelda’s dismay. Although Scott did not like it when she flirted, either (Oscar Wilde’s niece again).
Harmon’s illustrations, modeled on iconic photographs, are charming, although sometimes — as with Scott and Zelda — oddly stiff. Then it is less like a cocktail party than walking through Madame Tussauds. Even then, I encourage you to consider every lovingly rendered curlicue on Zelda’s head or to follow the maze of in-folding squiggles that trace Tallulah Bankhead’s trysts. (“Straighten up and fly right, Banky!” lover Billie Holiday warned her in a letter, although this probably was not what she meant.) Check out the cigarette hanging down from Camus’s mouth like a snaggletooth; or Capote, looking blank and boyish as part of what Tennessee Williams called “the spiteful sisterhood”: Capote, Williams and Gore Vidal.
It’s important to note that there’s as much spite here as there is love. Williams called Capote “a sweetly vicious old lady”; Jean-Michel Basquiat forced Madonna to return the paintings he had given her and painted them black; bra inventor Polly Peabody and her husband, Harry Crosby, “vowed to commit a joint suicide on Halloween 1942 by jumping out of a plane, but Harry beat her to it, shooting himself and his lover” in a hotel room, 13 years ahead of schedule.
All of this leaves a lot of unanswered questions. “What is so compelling about these connections, ultimately, is their unknow-ability,” Lacey suggests. “The real space between people is always private. These loves always vanish, leaving us with the work they inspired.” In that light, consider the book’s closing section, on endings. There’s Larry Rivers expressing his disbelief over Frank O’Hara’s death “in the soft, safe sand of Long Island.” And a scarf, in all its lavish folds and billows, stands in for Isadora Duncan, who died when her scarf got caught in the rear wheel of a car. It’s not a bad way to symbolize these connections. And awfully romantic. It’s ribbons all the way through.
Jamie Fisher is a freelance writer and Chinese-English translator.
By Catherine Lacey and Forsyth Harmon
Bloomsbury. 96 pp. $20