Polly Alter is through with men. Recovering from her divorce, she has taken a year off from her museum job to write a biography of Lorin Jones, a sensitive painter who died young and nearly forgotten. Polly is determined to bring the artist the public acclaim she deserves, making up for the neglect and exploitation Lorin suffered from the men in her life.
The only problem with the story of Lorin’s victimhood is that it may not be true. And as Polly wades deeper into her research, growing more attached to her subject, and more lost in the world of two decades past, she begins to realize that no life story is as simple as a biographer might wish.
The National Book Award–shortlisted author of Foreign Affairs writes a daring and “relentless comedy” that novelist Edmund White calls “one of the most entertaining novels I've read in a long time” (The New York Times).
This ebook features an illustrated biography of Alison Lurie including rare images from the author’s collection.
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About the Author
Hometown:Ithaca, New York; London, England; Key West, Florida
Date of Birth:September 3, 1926
Place of Birth:Chicago, Illinois
Education:A.B., Radcliffe College, 1947
Read an Excerpt
The Truth About Lorin Jones
By Alison Lurie
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1988 Alison Lurie
All rights reserved.
Polly 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.
Though Jeanne also distrusted men, she disagreed with Polly on the proper method of dealing with them. If avoidance was impossible, she counseled guile. Polly's instinctive preference, on the other hand, was for confrontation. When she did those interviews, she said now, she wanted to be open about her own feelings.
"Yes. Of course, you would want that." Jeanne gave a small indulgent sigh. She had once suggested — and maybe correctly — that it was Polly's openness about her feelings that had kept her an assistant curator for five years.
"That's what seems natural to me."
"Sure, it seems natural," Jeanne agreed; her intonation suggested that there wasn't all that much to be said for nature. "Confrontation is always natural for you. But if you want results, you've got to keep your cool."
Jeanne often urged Polly to keep her cool, cool off, or simmer down — not always with success. Outwardly she herself was not particularly cool, but rather mildly warm. She appeared to most men to be a sweet, pretty, easygoing sort of woman. Inwardly, however, she concealed a revulsion that went back to her deprived and abused childhood.
"Look, Polly," she reasoned, dragging on her cigarette. "You know you're going to have to spend hours, perhaps days even, with those people. If you want them to talk to you, you'll simply have to prevent them from guessing what's in your mind."
"I'm not sure I can do that."
"Of course, it's not going to be easy," Jeanne continued. "I know you." She smiled. Though several years younger than Polly, she habitually took toward her (and toward all her close friends) a stance of maternal experience. "I think maybe the best thing for you would be to resolve right now to say as little as possible. Next time, simply turn on your machine, ask your questions, and whatever they answer, you just nod and grin. Let them blather on and condemn themselves.... And they will, I'm sure of that."
"I don't know." Polly frowned and shoved her heavy mug away, splashing the table with lukewarm coffee.
"What don't you know?"
"What you said — it just sounds wrong to me. I mean, women have been smiling and lying to men for centuries. I figure it's time for us to stop all that crap. I want to make it clear that I know what those guys did to Lorin Jones; then they won't be able to waffle."
"Waffle?" Jeanne laughed. "They'll waffle whatever you do. But the proper way to treat a waffle is with syrup."
"I can't sweet-talk people; it's not my thing. I've got to let them see where I'm coming from."
"Oh, Polly." Jeanne sighed. "You know what your problem is? You still believe deep down that if men really understood how we felt they'd be surprised and sorry. They'd repent and reform, and we'd all live happily together ever after. You've got to realize that they already understand quite well how we feel. And none of them give an S-H-I-T. " Jeanne never uttered an obscenity; she preferred to spell out the words as if some invisible child were listening.
"Mm," Polly murmured, accepting Jeanne's account of her views but not Jeanne's conclusions.
"You'll have to be on your guard every minute. And prepared for the worst."
"Yeah? And what's the worst?"
"I know what men are like." Jeanne put down her cigarette and turned to look at her friend. "I know they'll all try to seduce you, figuratively. Or even perhaps literally."
"Aw, come on." Polly shook her head.
"It's true. And for two reasons: first, because they're all going to be in your book. Naturally they'll want to go down in art history as good guys."
"Well, maybe so," Polly said, suddenly feeling powerful. "But that doesn't mean they'll make a pass at me."
"I bet they will," Jeanne said. "Some of them, anyhow. That's the way men's minds work. And second, they could try to seduce you just because that's the traditional male response to an attractive unattached woman. It doesn't matter if she's gay or straight. A woman who doesn't need men — they'll do anything to destroy her, prove she doesn't exist. When they hear of someone like you, or me, they say to each other: 'All she needs is a good lay.'"
"Sure, some men do, but —"
"You remember what happened to Cathy when she was up in Vermont? If Ida hadn't come back from the village in time, their redneck neighbor, that Cathy thought was such a nice guy, would have more or less raped her. He would have told himself she was asking for it, because she always invited him in and gave him a cup of coffee after he finished mowing their field."
"Yeah," Polly said. "Still, I figure I'm pretty safe. Paolo Carducci is over seventy and has a heart condition, and Garrett Jones is over seventy and married." She laughed.
"Yes; but from what you told me, he used to have quite a reputation. All I'm saying is, watch out." Jeanne extinguished her cigarette delicately in her saucer.
"Okay, I will."
"That's right. Well, I guess I better be getting back to Brooklyn before the muggers start their night's work." Jeanne gave a long sigh.
"You could stay over if you liked," Polly said. "Stevie's room's free now." She sighed in her turn; Stevie, now thirteen, had just left to visit his father in Colorado.
Excerpted from The Truth About Lorin Jones by Alison Lurie. Copyright © 1988 Alison Lurie. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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