MEDITATIONS ON A PHOTOGRAPH
by Erik La Prade
Soon after we moved into the building and the first floor was operational, Andreas Brown began to decorate the place with photographs and Gorey prints. He wanted to create an aesthetic as he would say. So, the familiar faces of famous or once famous and now unread writers were hung on the walls of the new Gotham Book Mart. On the first floor, by the pillar next to the cash register, above Michelle’s desk was a large, high school photograph of John Updike and below him was a large photograph of Gertrude Stein by Carl Van Vechten. The photographs would go up as they were found, taken out of the boxes and chosen to be displayed in a prominent place.
The large poster-sized photographs have been hung on the wall above the stairway. As customers ascended to the second floor, they would find themselves standing next to a wall of large, wooden framed images. But in order to see them properly, they would have to step away from the wall about ten feet, and then they could get a clear view of who was hanging there.
The largest photo is the famous group shot taken in the back room of the old Gotham Book store in November 9, 1948. It was a party for Dame Edith and Sir Osbert Sitwell. The story according to Ms. Steloff’s version is “one day during the summer of 1948, Charles (Henri Ford), came in and announced that Edith Sitwell and her brother Osbert were coming to America for a series of readings. In the same breath he asked, “Why don’t you have a tea for her?”
“Oh,” I said, “she would have far more important engagements than coming here for tea.”
But Charles insisted. “She’d love it, and why don’t you invite her?” So, Ms. Steloff sent her a letter and the rest is history. Amusingly, Life magazine sent a photographer and “picked the people who were to be in its photographs, and some of those who were left out.” The ones left out were William Carlos Williams, William Saroyan and Alfred Kreymborg. I’ve also heard the story that John Berryman wasn’t speaking to Randall Jarrell at the time and ended up going to a bar instead of getting into the picture. Why isn’t Ms. Steloff in this photograph? Is it because she didn’t write poetry and didn’t feel she belonged in the picture? It was her bookstore. She should have been included in this group picture.
Andreas Brown liked to tell the story of how Ford tried to get Gore Vidal thrown out of the photograph by claiming Vidal wasn’t a poet. But Brown defends Vidal and says he had written poetry when he was about nineteen years old. I’ve never read any of Vidal poetry if it has ever been published but by the time this photograph was taken, Vidal would have written three published novels, and this achievement alone, by someone younger than Ford would have been enough to make Ford extremely envious.
In fact, I once showed a copy of this photograph to Ford and asked him about it. He immediately related the story of how he tried to get Vidal thrown out of the shot by saying to him, “You can’t be a poet, you have beautiful legs!”
Apparently, Vidal was insulted by this remark and wanted to punch Ford, but whether he did or not, I’ve never been able to find out. Obliviously, Ford’s comment didn’t work since Vidal is in the shot. But Ford’s comment to Vidal has a curious origin. It was originally said to Djuna Barnes by Gertrude Stein. In Phillip Herring biography of Barnes, the incident occurred in the early 1930s. Herring relates how when Barnes was visiting Stein, during the course of the visit, Stein said to her, “You can’t be a writer, you have beautiful legs.” Insulted, Barnes left and went home to her apartment she shared with Ford at the time and she related what Stein had said to her. Since Ford had the memory of elephant, it’s the kind of comment he would have cherished and used again and again. Certainly, the kind of thing he would have said to Vidal in an attempt to piss him off. So, here’s a footnote of how gossip becomes literary history; from Stein to Barnes to Ford to Vidal in the Gotham Book Mart in New York.
Customers enjoyed looking at and commenting upon this photograph. Generally, they would stand in front of it and try to identify who the writers were. Of course, I’d stand nearby, watching them. Sometimes I’d tell them how only one writer was still alive and if they could guess who it was, they’d get a free drink.
Surprisingly, some people would guess it was Vidal, while at other times they would pick Delmore Schwartz. Originally, when we moved into the new building, there were two writers in the photograph who were still living: Richard Eberhart and Vidal. But Eberhart died about a year after we moved in, so that leaves Vidal as the lone survivor.
After studying the group photograph, customers would then peruse the other large pictures showing scenes from famous GBM book signings. Strangely, these other photographs included Ms. Steloff standing with the writer, whether it’s Cocteau, 1948, or Anais Nin, 1968, or Dylan Thomas, 1952. In another version of the Thomas photograph, there is a glass of beer on the table and sitting next to Thomas is John Malcolm Brinnin. In the large poster photograph, Brinnin has been cropped out.
When business was slow, I would sometimes study the group photograph. I found it curious that Elizabeth Bishop has one glove on (her left hand) and one glove off, (her right hand), whereas, Marianne Moore is holding both of her gloves in her lap. Bishop looks away from the camera as does Marya Zaturenska, who sits on the opposite side of the room. What are they looking at? A book or a customer, or were they wishing it was over? Of course, Ford is smiling, happy as a pig in shit because he’s the center of attention, sitting at the feet of the Sitwells, whose poetry he didn’t much care for then. Who reads them now?
"MEDITATIONS ON A PHOTOGRAPH" is an excerpt from Erik La Prade's forthcoming memoir on working at Andreas Brown's Gotham Book Mart, published here by permission of the author.