The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Robert Mapplethorpe baffled conservative critics — and his own father

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The new HBO documentary about Robert Mapplethorpe has renewed interest in the provocative art photographer who became a sensation before his early death and a flashpoint for controversy after it.

A year after he died — and in the months after the name “Mapplethorpe” became synonymous with a raging debate over arts funding that inflamed congressional leaders — Washington Post writer Kim Masters (now with the Hollywood Reporter and KCRW) tracked down the artist’s father in the spring of 1990 for one of the few interviews he ever gave. At 71, Harry Mapplethorpe was a retired electrical engineer and stolid conservative who was baffled by his son’s homosexuality and bohemian lifestyle. It’s a compelling portrait that’s worth reading today.

Harry Mapplethorpe, a father’s tale: The artist son who grew far from home

By Kim Masters
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 3, 1990

NEW YORK — Harry Mapplethorpe lives alone in a house once filled to capacity by his wife and six children. His place is one in a long line of boxy brick squares surmounted by white aluminum-siding triangles. The Mapplethorpe family moved to this house in Floral Park, Queens, 41 years ago. But the trees are still skimpy in this pallid suburban neighborhood and on weekdays, the street is quieter than a country road.

The living room is filled with chairs done in apricot brocade and velvet, and a flowered couch in autumnal tones. The carpet is burnt orange. There is bric-a-brac everywhere: Hummel figurines, a ceramic swan, family snapshots, potted plants and vases of artificial flowers. In the midst, a swooping black geometric coffee table with a triangular glass top. Robert’s work.

“It’s a little too modern for my tastes, but it looks good in here,” says Harry Mapplethorpe. The estimated value of his son’s work, he adds dispassionately: somewhere between $5,000 and $7,000.

At 71, with most of his hair, a florid complexion, a bulbous nose, Mapplethorpe doesn’t resemble his famous, sensuously handsome son. And the dissimilarities extend beyond the physical. Harry Mapplethorpe ushers at Mass every Sunday, has never voted for a Democrat, is a member of the National Rifle Association. He enjoys target shooting; the bedroom that belonged to Robert as a baby now contains a glass case holding four rifles.

The rest of the family, too, appears ordinary enough. Mapplethorpe’s wife, Joan, died of emphysema just a year ago, but he remembers her as a shopper so dedicated that she packed up her oxygen tank and struggled through the malls in a wheelchair in her final years. Three of his four surviving children are married and live on Long Island. Even the less conventional Eddie, a photographer living in Manhattan, hopes to start a family one day.

Mapplethorpe wanted his boys to become electrical engineers. But they had different ideas — none more different than Robert, the third born.

Now, Robert has been dead for more than a year. But the Mapplethorpe name may be immortal. It is hissed as a synonym for pornography and perversion. It is invoked in the cry for artistic freedom. And what does Harry Mapplethorpe make of the weighty debate over censorship and free speech?

“I could care less,” he says.

In many ways, Robert Mapplethorpe is as baffling and mysterious to his father as he is to much of the rest of the world. Harry Mapplethorpe regards his son as some kind of spontaneous mutation, an apparition that appeared only after his son left the house in Floral Park forever at 16.

He has no idea why Robert was a homosexual. “Here he’s got three other brothers and they’re all perfectly ‘normal’ in my mind,” he says. But Mapplethorpe suspects the homosexual impulse was nurtured after Robert started living in Manhattan. “I think it’s the group of people he was with,” he says.

Mapplethorpe doesn’t reproach himself. “From all the things I’ve heard and the articles and programs I’ve seen, I never felt that any of this was any of my doings at all. It didn’t bother me from that standpoint.”

The father and son never talked about Robert’s sexual orientation, much less Robert’s impulse to photograph and display the harshest aspects of homosexual life. Even when Robert was dying of AIDS, the topic was never broached. Clearly, Robert needed no discussion to anticipate his father’s disapproval. Though Harry Mapplethorpe says he suspected the truth, he admits he wouldn’t have been prepared to hear it from Robert. “I’d have been floored, I guess, if he came out and actually spelled it out for me,” he says.

As for the work itself, Mapplethorpe is again baffled by the “X Portfolio,” which includes his son’s graphic depictions of homosexuality and sadomasochism. These are the works that caused the Corcoran Gallery of Art to cancel a Mapplethorpe exhibition last summer, that led to an obscenity indictment in Cincinnati, that have generated an emotional struggle in Congress that continues today.

[Here’s what the dazzling 1989 Robert Mapplethorpe protest at the Corcoran looked like]

Once, Mapplethorpe stayed up late watching television, an overwrought congressional debate in which his family name punctuated every other sentence. “I finally turned it off,” he says. “Making mountains out of molehills, as far as I’m concerned.”

Despite his conservatism, Mapplethorpe doesn’t think his son’s work should be censored. “If that’s being liberal, I guess I’m liberal,” he says. He was never aware there was any federal funding of the arts before his son landed in the midst of the controversy. And he isn’t sure how he feels about it now. “I’m noncommittal on it, myself,” he says. He’s never heard of the Rev. Donald Wildmon, who is leading the fight against the National Endowment for the Arts. And he’s only vaguely aware of John Frohnmayer, the NEA chairman. “I wouldn’t want to be in those people’s shoes, sometimes,” he says.

What led Robert to create the work? “I haven’t got the slightest idea,” Mapplethorpe says. “I was talking to Ed the other day on the phone. He said, ‘Dad, they were all taken over 10 years ago.’ . . . All the articles play up is these few pictures.”

Mapplethorpe had no idea that Robert was taking such pictures. “The first we saw of his work, other than getting individual gifts from him, was when we saw it at the Whitney Museum,” he says. He and his wife attended a 1988 retrospective of their son’s work. They had heard of the controversy and looked through the museum twice. “We didn’t know exactly what to expect,” he says. “I expected to see a lot more. A greater number. . . I thought there would be a roomful. They were so outweighed by the other portraits and flowers and things of that sort. I thought they must have taken some down because they knew we were coming.”

But he wasn’t relieved, either. “I wouldn’t want any of those pictures on my walls around here,” he says. “And I wouldn’t go up to any of the pictures at the Whitney Museum and say, ‘Hey, that’s my son’s picture.’ ”

Robert’s Boyhood

A row of six portraits adorns the wall of Mapplethorpe’s bedroom — the Mapplethorpe children. Most are routine head-and-shoulders shots. Second from the left is Richard, in Marine uniform. He was an engineer in suburban California until he died four years ago, at 41, of brain cancer. Fourth from the left is Susan, in a nurse’s uniform. And in between is Robert, a gaunt figure in black trousers and turtleneck, perched on a flight of steps somewhere on the Pratt Institute campus.

For years, before the series of illnesses struck his family, Harry Mapplethorpe’s life had seemed like a monument to stability. He married his high school sweetheart. He worked for Underwriters Laboratories for 35 years. He lived in the same house for more than 40 years.

An electrical engineer, Mapplethorpe did a stint with the Navy Department in Washington during World War II, when housing was scarce. “I got out of there fast because I hated the place,” he said. “I used to spend every Sunday looking for rooms to rent, apartments to rent, but nothing was available. I learned to hate Washington.”

He retired 10 years ago. He played tennis three times a week until he broke his wrist and realized that he was becoming frail. Then, his wife was an invalid who needed constant nursing.

Now he leads a quiet life. “I go and I visit the kids, visit the neighbors. I just took a refresher driver education course for older citizens. I find enough to do. I used to do a lot of bowling, but I stopped when Joan was sick.”

Harry Mapplethorpe never sensed anything extraordinary about Robert as a child. “He was typical of any boy. He was in Scouting, in Little League baseball. Then when he was in high school, he got into the ROTC. He had a lot of buddies around the neighborhood and he played like any kid. . . . He gave us no problems whatsoever.”

No one in the family ever showed any artistic inclinations. And none of the kids was athletic, although Mapplethorpe remembers Robert as the neighborhood pogo champion. He had pet snakes. He loved to go fishing.

He was a good student and finished junior high in two years. Other than that, nothing was unusual about Robert or his life. Robert dated girls. Robert went to the prom.

“Normal. Normal. Typical, I would say,” Mapplethorpe says. “Everything was typical.”

Robert started college at 16. His father still wonders whether that somehow harmed his son. “We always said we thought he was too young — to get into college at 16,” Harry Mapplethorpe says. “Whether that had anything to do with it, I don’t know.”

Soon after he enrolled in Pratt, Robert moved away from home. Harry Mapplethorpe wasn’t happy about Robert’s interest in art. “Such a small percentage make the grade,” he says. Later, Mapplethorpe remembers, Robert promised to become the greatest photographer in New York. “I guess he got the name, anyway,” he says now.

When Robert decided, without discussion, to switch majors in college — extending his studies an extra year — his father was particularly annoyed. “I said, ‘I’ll pay for four years of college. . . . After that, you’re on your own.’ ”

And he was. After a while, Robert scarcely visited at all. “Any time we had a family gathering, we’d ask him to come. But he wouldn’t come. Now, he got to Richard’s wedding, and we were very surprised. Because usually, he’d have some excuse.

“When he got into this homosexual business, I think he felt he couldn’t divulge it to the family. Although I suspected it for some time, my wife would say, ‘No, no.’ . . . She wouldn’t accept my word for it. She’d disagree with me. . . And I didn’t pursue it.”

When Robert finally visited, he had undergone a transformation into a black-leather-clad New York bohemian. And he brought his good friend, rocker Patti Smith. “The way she used to dress and the way he used to dress — I used to think, ‘How have they got the nerve to come here like that?’ This is a quiet neighborhood. I used to get so aggravated. [But] I kept it to myself,” Mapplethorpe remembers. “I never blew my top. I probably passed some remarks about his dress and things of that sort, but never got any satisfaction.”

Smith’s presence lulled his suspicions about Robert. “We were of the understanding that they were married, but actually they never were married,” Mapplethorpe says. “They told us that. That was before all of this living together came about. . . She was a very likable person but I always said she looked like a mess. To me, she always looked so sloppy, as though her hair hadn’t been combed in a month.”

Joan Mapplethorpe was more accepting, and once went to a Patti Smith rock concert with a neighbor. “That’s not for men,” Mapplethorpe says scornfully. “I could care less about Patti Smith.”

He saw Smith a year ago at a memorial service for his son at the Whitney Museum. “She gets out of the cab and she comes over and she puts her arms around me and she was all tears,” Mapplethorpe remembers. “That’s the way she was, there’s no two ways about it. . . I excused her for that.”

Growing Alienation

Once a year, Joan and Harry Mapplethorpe used to visit their son Richard, who was living in a Los Angeles suburb. They’d stop in Las Vegas to gamble and spend time with friends in Northern California. But the trip became too difficult for Joan.

Richard’s cancer struck suddenly — within weeks of the 1986 diagnosis, he was dead. Joan’s illness kept the parents at home but most of the kids went to the funeral. Not Robert. “He knew about it,” Mapplethorpe says. “We told him about [it] but no attempt on his part was made to go out there.”

The family wasn’t surprised. Robert had been absent for years. His parents would call, and he’d brush them off. He never came home; they never ventured to Manhattan. When Robert’s former lover, best friend and patron, Sam Wagstaff, died of AIDS in 1986, his parents had never heard of Wagstaff.

Then, in 1987, Robert’s illness became serious. His brother Eddie came back to New York from Los Angeles to visit, but finding Robert sicker than he had expected, he stayed. Several months passed before Eddie told his parents he was in the city — at Robert’s request. Now, Eddie says he’s glad he didn’t have to answer his parents’ questions about his brother. “I would have felt uncomfortable saying he was fine when I knew he was dying,” he explains. But eventually, Eddie had to tell his siblings that Robert was ill, and they told their parents. Harry Mapplethorpe remembers the night.

“One night, the other kids — Susan, Nancy and James — came around specifically for the purpose of telling us that he had AIDS,” he says. “Now, that was the first we knew about it. They were all tears and everything else. Apparently he had known about it for a couple of years before that. . . Not too much publicity had been given to AIDS at that time. Some, but not too much. It was basically a homosexual disease. I remember saying, ‘I’m not too surprised, knowing the life that he was living.’ ”

But of course, Harry Mapplethorpe didn’t really know, because the subject had never been discussed. That didn’t change when he packed Joan and her wheelchair into the car and went on his first trip to the artist’s loft in Manhattan. “I was very impressed with it,” he says. “I said, ‘You could spend hours going around the place, just looking.’ ”

But his admiration was tempered by other feelings. Both mother and son were on oxygen. Robert was bedridden. “I was kind of, how would I say? I don’t know what word to use but resentment,” he says finally. “From the standpoint of the type of life he had led. Because it led up to this AIDS problem.”

Still, the silence was unbroken. “What’s the point of aggravating him at that stage of the game?” his father asks. “He coughed almost continuously.” Instead, they talked about Robert’s art collection, his work, his health, his cameras. “He was so sick, you couldn’t help but feel sorry for him,” Mapplethorpe says.

Robert died in a Boston hospital in March 1989 at 42. He left some money to his brother Eddie and his sister Nancy. “Other than that,” says his father, “the family was left out completely.” Most of Robert Mapplethorpe’s millions went to establish the Mapplethorpe Foundation, which promotes the arts and AIDS research.

Mapplethorpe says he was hurt by his son’s will. “We had to sign off on it,” he says. “And I showed it to a lawyer.” But the will was properly executed. “There was some resentment on the part of myself,” Mapplethorpe says. “But I didn’t need [the money].”

Puzzling Exclusion

Why did Robert shun his parents? “There must have been resentment on his part but there was no cause for it,” his father says.

Eddie, who says he was the closest to Robert, says his brother knew their father would never accept him. “My father was very, sort of — just the fact that it was the ’60s, the long hair, the beads, the leather — my father had a hard time understanding him,” he says. The atmosphere at home was airless. “I felt it a bit myself. When you’re brought up isolated like that, and finally you’re out on your own. . . I think some people will go sort of overboard with it. I don’t want to say that’s what Robert did. . . He just felt sheltered.”

Eddie is a photographer, opening his first show Tuesday in Manhattan. He tries to escape his brother’s shadow by using the name Edward Maxey. Naturally, his father was worried. “He says, ‘There aren’t going to be any of those objectionable pictures, are there?’ I laughed. I said, ‘Not this time.’ ” His subject matter is portraits and female nudes. “Nothing hard-core,” he says. “I’m not going to say ‘pornographic.’ ”

Eddie has stayed much closer to his father than Robert did, but he understands his brother’s desire to stay away. “Considering the options, there wasn’t much of a choice on his part. . . knowing my parents and knowing how difficult they could be. . . I remember explaining to my father that I was going to be an art major in college and him giving me a hard time. . .  He had me in tears. He was just being fatherly. I think he had my best interests in mind, but I think they lacked on supporting the children in whatever they wanted to do.”

Still, Eddie says he can’t explain his brother’s decision to exclude most of the family from his will. But he assumes that Robert harbored some resentment toward his parents. “Robert has told me. . . he said, if he had listened to my parents, then he would never have gotten to where he had gotten. . . Maybe my father’s opinion is different than mine, but I think the years that Robert lived, he lived fully.”

A Son Is Mourned

As soon as Robert’s mother heard of his death, she asked for the black coffee table that had been in his loft. “I didn’t even remember what it looked like, but Joan did,” Harry Mapplethorpe says. The settlement of the estate took time, and within two months, Joan was dead too. “We only got it after she died,” Mapplethorpe says.

Having lost two sons and a wife in three years, Mapplethorpe had the fewest tears for Robert. “Now, Richard, although we saw him about once a year for a week, 10 days — we didn’t see that much of him — but losing him meant a lot more to me than Robert because I felt a lot closer to Richard,” he says. “Even though he was much farther away. But nothing is like losing your wife. I can accept the other two easily as compared to losing your wife of 47 years.”

Mapplethorpe would have been happier, he says, if Robert had led a more ordinary life. “Yeah, married and raised a family and had a 9-to-5 job,” he says. But Robert Mapplethorpe had no interest in middle-class life. “I know what that’s like,” Robert once told an interviewer. “And it’s not interesting.”

His father hears the quote, nods and says softly, “This is why he drifted away from us, I think.”