Authors: Alison Lurie
Tags: #General Fiction
The Truth About Lorin Jones
For Barbara Epstein
“They say the owl was a baker’s daughter. Lord! We know what we are, but know not what we may be.”
OLLY ALTER USED TO
like men, but she didn’t trust them anymore, or have very much to do with them. Last month, on her thirty-ninth birthday, it suddenly hit her that — though she hadn’t planned it that way — almost all her dealings now were with women. Her doctor, her dentist, her accountant, her therapist, her bank manager, and all her close friends were female. She shopped at stores run and staffed by women, and when she had a prescription she walked six blocks out of her way to have it filled by the woman pharmacist at Broadway and Eighty-seventh. For days at a time she never spoke to an adult male.
When her husband left eighteen months ago, Polly hadn’t expected her life to turn out like this. Miserable and angry though she was, she had looked forward to the adventure of being single again. But as her friends and the media had already warned her, there weren’t any good men over thirty in New York, only husbands and creeps. She’d refused to go out with the husbands, and her other encounters had been such disasters that it made her laugh now to remember them, though at the time she had sometimes cried with disappointment and rage. After about six months she had realized she’d much rather stay home and watch television with her twelve-year-old son, Stevie, or go places with her women friends.
Of course, until recently Polly had spoken to men at work. But now she had a half-year’s leave from the Museum and needn’t go there except to use the library. Three months ago she had lucked out: she’d been awarded a grant and given a publisher’s advance for a book on the American painter Lorin Jones, born 1926, died 1969 almost unknown; now — partly thanks to her — becoming famous.
As it turned out, this commission had a striking, almost supernatural appropriateness. Though Polly had never met Lorin Jones, she’d been following in Lorin’s path all her life. Lorin had grown up in a New York suburb; Polly (twenty years later) in a neighboring suburb. Both of them went to school in Westchester; both, after college, lived on Bank Street in the West Village. Their paths must have crossed, probably many times. When Polly was a toddler, she and her mother might have passed Lorin and hers on the street in White Plains. Or, on some steamy summer afternoon while Polly made castles in the sand at Rye Beach or waded in the warm ebb and flow of the Sound, her subject may have been sunning or sketching nearby. Later, when she began to visit museums and galleries in New York, Lorin might have been among the other spectators; she could have been buying pantyhose at the same counter of Bloomingdale’s, or sitting next to her future biographer on the Eighth Avenue bus or at a Museum of Modern Art film showing.
Photographs of Lorin Jones from that period showed a strikingly beautiful young woman, in the French beatnik fashion popularized after World War II by Juliette Greco: ghost-pale, with heavy waves of shoulder-length dark hair, thick bangs, high cheekbones, and huge silk-fringed dark eyes. She had a Modigliani figure, long-limbed and high-breasted, and was dressed usually in black. Whenever Polly looked at these photos she had a sense of déjà vu. Damn it, she knew she’d seen this woman somewhere, at some time. If only there had been a sign: some loud clanging bell, some flash of light to warn her that their lives would be intimately connected!
The flash of light came later: in the summer of 1970, a year after Lorin Jones had died. It happened one morning in a Cape Cod guest house when Polly was on her honeymoon. She came down to breakfast, and there on the wall over the knotty-pine sideboard, lit by a silvery wash of reflected light from the bay, was one of Lorin’s semiabstract landscapes. “Yes! That’s it!” she had cried half-aloud, her gaze, her whole consciousness, drawn into the veils and swirls of color.
“That’s how I’d like to paint,” she told her new husband later over the muffins and beach-plum jam. “He sees the world the way I see it.” Stupidly, though she already considered herself a feminist, Polly had assumed that “Lorin” was a man’s name; she still believed that a great painter must be male. How much time had been lost through that ignorant error! If she’d known the truth she would probably have tried to find out more about Lorin Jones then, and Lorin’s submerged reputation might have been retrieved years sooner. The idea still made Polly angry.
But then a lot of things made Polly angry. Since childhood her short-fuse temper had got her into trouble. It flashed out suddenly and unpredictably, and usually extinguished itself just as fast, leaving her to flush and apologize. But sometimes, even after she’d calmed down outwardly, she was still hot inside, and a deep fuming stubbornness prevented her from admitting that she’d been rude or wrong.
One of the things that continued to make Polly furious was what the male establishment had done to Lorin Jones while she was alive, and for years after she was dead: how it had exploited her as a woman and neglected her as an artist. The most infuriating and saddest thing of all was that Lorin had never realized she was going to become famous. She didn’t foresee that she would be the surprise star of Polly’s first Museum exhibition, “Three American Women,” and that the prices of her paintings would rise astronomically. She didn’t know now that she was soon to have a one-woman show at a major New York gallery and be the subject of a full-length biography.
Instead, Lorin Jones had died in 1969 of viral pneumonia in a hospital in the Florida Keys, more or less forgotten. If only she could have seen what was coming! Or if only she could have lived a little longer! The new feminism would have saved her; she would have found friends, allies, supporters, courage to go on. Every time Polly thought of this she felt rage and a painful, wrenching regret.
Sometimes she had a fantasy in which she traveled back into 1968 or 1969 to find Lorin Jones. She imagined flying to Florida, driving down the Keys, locating the cottage on Aurelia Lane, rapping on its door. Lorin would come out, looking like that last sunstruck black-and-white snapshot: still beautiful, but pale and wasted; her face white within a blurred moss of dark hair, the expression of her eyes concealed by a blindfold of shadow. She would lean against one of the sun-blistered pillars of the porch, her bare thin forearms crossed over a man’s white shirt, one long hand holding a cigarette from which a smudge of smoke rose. “Goddamn it,” Polly would say to her. “You’ve got to take more care of yourself. You’ve got to quit smoking, get more sleep, eat better, see a doctor about that cough. You can’t give up now; you’re a very great painter. You’re going to be in art history. Please, Lorin! You’ve got to hold on.”
But Lorin Jones would not answer. She was dead and gone; and all Polly could do now was to find out everything about her and tell it the best she could, sparing no one. Then the truth would be known, and not only Lorin’s life but Polly’s too would be justified and made whole. And maybe, even, no other American woman artist would ever again have to suffer what Lorin had suffered.
If Lorin Jones had had loyal women friends, like Polly’s friend Jeanne, one of them might really have done what Polly had imagined doing. But so far Polly hadn’t been able to locate any woman who knew Lorin well in her later years. It was beginning to be clear that after her marriage she didn’t have many close friends of either sex; that she was, or rather became (Polly largely blamed Lorin’s husband for this) a shy, solitary person — in the end, almost a recluse. Not only had this probably contributed to her untimely death, it had made the task of her biographer much more difficult.
Though Polly hadn’t had much to do with men lately, all that was about to change. Over the next six months she would have to interview several of them — and not just any men, but the exact same ones who had discouraged and denigrated and exploited and neglected Lorin Jones. It was their fault, ultimately, that the world would never see the beautiful paintings Lorin would have made if she’d lived.
Among them were:
1. Lorin Jones’s dealer, a suave elderly person named Paolo Carducci, founder and owner of the Apollo Gallery, which after 1964 had refused to show Jones’s work.
2. Professor Leonard Zimmern, Lorin’s half-brother, who seemed to be more or less devoid of feeling for his sister, since he had by his own admission hardly seen her over the last few years of her life. After she died, though, he had been quick enough to go down to Key West and collect her unsold paintings, of which he was the legal owner.
3. Lorin’s ex-husband, the famous art historian and critic Garrett Jones, who had been all gracious elderly charm at the time of Polly’s show, eager to lend pictures and photographs, to locate and speak to other collectors. To hear him talk now, Garrett had always done all he could for Lorin and her career. But the record suggested otherwise. While they were married, Lorin had paintings in group shows at the Apollo Gallery in 1954 and 1955, and in 1957 and 1960 she had two successful one-woman shows. She had another show in 1964, the year after she and Garrett separated, and then nothing. Polly had no proof that Lorin’s former husband had deliberately wrecked her career, but it would have been pretty damn easy for him to do so.
4. The man with whom Lorin Jones had lived after her marriage broke up, an unsuccessful ex-hippie poet called Hugh Cameron, who took Lorin to Key West and then left her when she was ill and dying. Polly had never met Cameron, but she had heard plenty about him.
Of course, there was no guarantee that any of these men would even begin to admit their guilt; probably they would lie like hell in order to protect their own self-esteem and reputation. If Polly had any choice in the matter she would have had nothing to do with them. But because no one else knew the facts, she would somehow have to get them to tell her the truth about Lorin Jones.
How this could best be accomplished was now being discussed by Polly and her friend Jeanne, in Polly’s untidy New York apartment on a hot late-summer evening. Polly was still sitting at the round oak table, her elbows on either side of a handmade brown pottery mug, her small square chin propped on her fists. Jeanne, who had made the tasty supper (cold chicken, tabbouli, and cucumbers in yogurt, followed by lemon sherbet), was sunk among cushions on the sofa, smoking one of her endless cigarettes. She never stood when she could lounge, or sat when she could recline.
If an uninformed observer had been told that one of these two women was a lesbian, Polly would have been the natural candidate. Though she had hardly thought about what it might be like to make love with another woman until she became friends with Jeanne, her short untidy hair and face scrubbed clean of makeup suggested scorn of feminine artifice; her checked workshirt and jeans and scuffed Birkenstock sandals, the uniform of both male and female gays in New York that summer, gave her a definite tomboy look.
On the other hand Jeanne, who had been erotically interested in her own sex since she was eight, was soft and generously rounded — an Ingres blonde, delicately powdered and rouged, in a scooped-neck pink T-shirt and a rose-flowered Laura Ashley skirt. Her voice was high and gentle, and none of her lovers had ever thought of calling her Johnnie, or even Jan. Lesbianism for Jeanne meant moving as far and fast as possible away from bisexuality, not toward it. In her view, it was natural for a woman who loved women to recoil physically from the masculine in any form. As a separatist she avoided the opposite sex whenever she could; she was still very disappointed that the Long Island college where she taught history and women’s studies had recently agreed to admit males.