With a little help from Kay Boyle, I had come to Paris to talk to Man Ray about his old friend, Henry Miller. Ray’s memories of the times they had spent together would enrich the biography of Miller I was writing. But after Man and his wife, Juliet, greeted me in the rue Férou, and we sat down in their wonderful studio-home there to talk, I found that I, not Man, was the one being interviewed.
Whom had I already seen in Paris?
“Raymond Queneau in his office at Gallimard,” I said.
Yes, good, and who else?
“Oh,” Juliet responded, “the Paris photographer.”
Yes, this Hungarian’s photos of Paris scenes were exhibited on every newsstand and bouquiniste along the quais.
Meanwhile, Juliet’s husband understood that, as important as Queneau’s surrealist writing might be, my crowning conversation would, of course, be the one with Man Ray.
So, he switched the topic to himself. “My photograph of Duchamp’s ‘Big Glass,’” he said, “is one of my best-known unconscious creations. But all of my creations are unconscious. I just let things happen, you know. So with the ‘Bride,’ I set up the camera to take a photo of it, and then Marcel wanted to go to dinner, and I forgot—or my unconscious remembered the opposite of what I intended—I didn’t close the shutter, and when we came back, there was the plate for the picture. It was chance, but not chance. I rely for everything on my unconscious. The picture was a perfect representation of moving dust. ‘Raising Dust,’ as Marcel called it.”
Minutes later he came back to another of the glass-plate constructions that he and Duchamp built together. When a belt in one of them broke, a piece of glass spun from it and almost took Ray’s head off.
The conversation turned back to Miller.
“So you’ve talked to Henry in California,” Ray sort of asked.
Before I could answer, Juliet sighed. “How I long for California’s warmth sometimes when it’s freezing here.”
Man brushed her comment aside, thinking his own thoughts, which weren’t at all concerned with warmth. “What are you writing about him?” he asked me. “Henry has told his own story, the story of his life, in countless books, hasn’t he?”
“What you say,” I admitted, ”is also Henry’s point of view. What he’s written about himself is what should count—the intentions, not the actualities. It’s precious to him, and I understand that. His books, he’s always said, are his life, an idea he got from Walt Whitman. He even told Edmund Wilson, who praised his ‘novels,’ ‘I don’t write novels, I write about myself.’ I’d call his works ‘autobiographical romances; part life, part romance. So I see his point.”
"But I don’t agree with him. For instance, he has never written about you. Aren’t you part of his life too, even if he left you out of his ‘life’ in his books?”
Shamefully, I realize this last comment was an appeal to Ray’s ego. He said nothing, however, only nodded his head.
“Yes,” I continued, “his life has been fabulous. In the UCLA Special Collections there are many thousands of letters to him expressing gratitude for the sexual—and also the spiritual—revolution he’s prompted in the lives of countless ordinary people. But, as I’ve said, there’s much about his life he hasn’t written. These are equally worthy of interest, and only his biographer can recreate them. Biographies are about creativity, how a writer or artist turns a sometimes messy existence, or a simple experience, into something sharpened and formed that can last. Biography is the re-invention of a life.”
I looked at Man. “You do that all he time, don’t you? Making violins or scales or doorbells into something with a different meaning, objects that last. Here I am asking about Miller as you saw him. I’m reading his manuscripts and talking to his friends. Maybe, putting all this together will help us understand how creativity happens. We go behind the curtain to see the process of invention.”
I see now that this last conceit of mine probably came unconsciously from the curtains at the far end of Ray’s room. The biographer always wants to get at the hidden. “The biographer’s madness,” I said, is to uncover all the secrets, to draw the curtain open upon the unseen.”
“But this curiosity?” said Juliet. “Aren’t some things best left hidden?”
“Probably,” I said. “But Henry has written such fabulous stories about ‘himself,’ isn’t it worth knowing the real—often mundane—people on whom his stories are based, to see how he remade them? Did he really work as a Personnel Director for Western Union, or did he invent the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company?”
“You’re a detective,” Juliet said. “Yes, I see how fascinating it could be.”
A little later, after all this defensiveness on my part, I admitted that Henry had many more doubts about my book than they did. “He called me his ‘greatest enemy,’” I told them.
“Yes, I know what you mean,” Man said. “I’m an outlaw too.”
They asked me if I‘d seen the photos that Man took in the 1940s, during the war, when Man and Juliet lived in Hollywood. I told him, yes, his photos of Miller were well known, adding that I had walked Bunker Hill, where they were taken, looking back beyond the present to see what it must have been like when Miller lived there.
Man said, “That one Miller photo, with a very German, very bourgeois Henry with a nude girl hovering over him in a papier-mâché mask—that was Margaret Nieman. A lovely, beautiful human. I liked her. Both she and her husband, Gilbert, were friends I met in Los Angeles. I actually met them first, before Henry. Later they told me that their friend Henry Miller wanted to meet me. I read one of his books, and so I told them to bring him around. Do you know the photo I made of Margaret and Juliet, both wearing masks I made for them, both beautiful? Isn’t it so, Juliet?”
But Man didn’t pause for an answer. He was talking now. We listened.
“You two girls looked stunning, dancing around the room together, nearly nude.”
“You’d suggested it,” said Juliet. “It excited you.”
“The sexual—yes, yes. But remember I first attended to business. I got the camera out and set it up. I got the pictures.” He reminisced. “I liked the Niemans a lot. I always thought Gilbert would write a great book. But I think he never did, did he?”
I said, “He didn’t do the work that many people thought he had in him.”
“There was that one marvelous book he wrote,” Ray said, “something about a tyrant in every country. But nothing else. Too bad. An artist can’t stop. He must keep creating. I’ve always done that.”
The conversation turned to the work of Man Ray. (Had we ever really left the subject?) He declared himself to be “an artist who was not an artist.” Especially, he said, because he wandered from one style to another, he couldn’t be pinned down—this, he insisted, was his great innovative talent. He refused to conform, had never conformed, all his life. But the commercially-minded American critics treated him badly because he didn’t produce the same sort of work over and over again. He was always ahead of the crowd.
“My present work,” he said, “is always advanced. It does not resemble any previous work. The critics have a problem when they can’t immediately identify a ‘Man Ray.’ Because I’m always changing. It’s always a new ‘Man Ray.’
“For instance,” he said, “I’m showing in Rotterdam next year, and now I’m gathering the pieces for it.”
“New works?” I asked, just to keep him going. But he didn’t need my help, and he surprised me.
“No, no new works. Privately, I call all my exhibitions ‘retrospectives.’ I never show any works until they’re about ten years old. They’d be too advanced for the public, or the curators and critics. They wouldn’t appreciate them. These lazy dummies need about ten years to catch up to where I’ve already been.”
Briefly he paused as if deciding something. “I’m writing a foreword for the Rotterdam catalogue,” he said, “to explain my position up front. Would you like to hear it?”
“Very much,” I replied.
Juliet went to a cabinet and brought back a sheaf of papers.
“This is a first draft, unrevised,” he said (probably expecting the academic response of a tedious “professor”).
“This show,” it said,
is not addressed to the masses or even to a select few, but only
to one individual, to each one who as an individual looks at my
work. I do not wish to think beyond one person at a time. Each
individual must view my work with mutual confidence, one
person to another.
I felt, yes, he never wavers from the idea that one’s art “selects” each individual who sees it. But I didn’t, for the moment, know what to say, more intrigued by what strange wonders he might be producing here and now.
Before I gathered my thoughts, though, he announced: “I’m going to take a nap, and you’ll probably be gone by the time I wake up. So I’ll say goodbye now. Give my regards to Henry.”
He pivoted and headed toward the curtain, with one friendly salute in our direction before he disappeared. Just like that.
He was about eighty, I knew that. And we’d had a fresh Vouvray with our plain omelette and salad at lunch. He had stayed up a little late for our talk, probably out of kindness to me. After all, he was a polite American.
Juliet, who’d gone with him, then came back to me. I said to her, “Let me help you clean up.” She let me go only far enough toward the kitchen to help carry a few dishes, which she took from me and went in.
Then she reappeared quickly and asked, “Would you like to see the new work?”
I was stunned. Somehow, without realizing it, I had yielded to Man’s view of the utter inaccessibility of his newest work --to ordinary mortals. Juliet’s simple question came unexpectedly. I barely managed to breathe out, “Yes.”
Then I thought I might be violating Man’s hospitality and kindness, transgressing his rule that work so astonishing should not be seen for a decade.
Juliet, however, was already walking toward the curtained shelves against the wall, I following behind her like a puppy.
“Are they very new, very different?” I asked, before the curtains were pulled aside. I tried not to seem stupid, about to confront unimaginable experiments by this great innovator —to see one more leap of art history before almost anyone else had had a chance to. I had thoroughly absorbed Man’s personal myth --that everything he touched was new, and unprecedented.
“Oh,” said Juliet lightly, but with a shade of secrecy, “perhaps not so ‘very.’ Actually they’re like the old ones.”
After all these years, it’s the centerpiece of my remembrance of that day—“Oh, actually they’re like the old ones.”
She uncovered a piece. “Here is a portrait, an ‘autoportrait’ he did. We stood before a collage in plexiglass. It had a bell button and doorbells, and between them the inked impression of a left hand. On each side toward the bottom, drawn gracefully in ink, was a violin f-hole.
“His hand, of course,” she said. “No other hand exactly like it in the world.”
Foolishly I felt challenged to say something profound: “His individual being, like no one else’s.”
Silence would have been better.
Looking at this “autoportrait,” I thought of perhaps Man’s most famous photo, "La Violon d’Ingres," the one that modernizes Ingres’ “Le Bain Turc.” I also thought about the Mafia’s “black hand,” which warned of danger when Man was a boy. If that hand was an allusion to the Mafia, I thought, Man was probably implying, ‘I’m a gangster, a creative outlaw, a rough guy in the art world. Beware of ringing my bell and coming face to face with me.’ But I thought better of it now, and said nothing.
It was the first moment I realized that Juliet was also a recreator. She kept her own counsel until the moment came when she could express her astonishing assessment.
Juliet was right. Not only did the new works accord with the old, several of the pieces she showed me were actually reenactments of works he had done long before. Two bronze constructivist sculptures had first been executed fifty years earlier. Several other re-doings were so old they would have been forgotten long ago by the public and critics, and remembered only by Man Ray devotees. Even the priapic paperweight now sitting here as small sculpture had once appeared mounted on the pedestal of Saint-Sulpice in his mocking photograph.
These once-done objects were really new after all, now twice done and made new again for the upcoming Rotterdam show. There were also a few pieces, Juliet told me, that had actually been done ten years before, such as the blue baguette. I guess he thought the public was ready for them now. But among these re-creations—which were, for him, recreations—there were also, indeed, some new pieces, such as his scale for weighing feathers, or the gold and lapis pendant made for Juliet only weeks before.
“Would that piece go in the show?” I wondered aloud.
“Nothing he makes is ever left unused,” she said. “There’ll be several examples made of it—one for the show, some for his dealer in Milan, and one for me. This one is for me.”
So the old things were, after all, new ones, even as the new ones were “like” the old ones. For Man, it seemed, time didn’t really exist. Or, he made his own time. Happening was all.
This day, he and Juliet had recreated themselves for me.
And when I left rue Férou, the sky was piercingly bright, the doors of all the shops were opened wide. There, in the dusty square, the old and worn had become fresh. Even the old church of Saint-Sulpice was bold and elegant. It had been an astonishing day.
I realized that after all we had spoken very little about Henry Miller, the purpose of my visit. But I liked that. My "plan" for the day had been disarranged and rearranged by the great reconstructor, Man Ray. I didn't really get a workaday interview, but instead (and far better) a complete and perfect performance of one more piece of Man Ray's uncanny art.
JAY MARTIN is the author of Always Merry and Bright: The Life of Henry Miller, as well as biographies of Nathanael West, Conrad Aiken, Alexander Cartwright, and John Dewey. The Dictionary of Literary Biography has called him "one of the ten leading literary critics in America." He is also a practicing psychoanalyst, and Edward S. Gould Professor of Humanities at Claremont-McKenna College. This two-part essay will be included in Prof. Martin's Recollections in Tranquillity: An ABC of Literary Memory, a work in progress. The exhibition, "Man Ray's Portraits," at London's National Portrait Gallery, continues until May 27. See: www.npg.org.uk//whatson/man-ray-portraits/exhibition.php.