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PRINT October 1997

Isabel Eberstadt

It was the end of a long summer afternoon in the early ’60s and I was sitting with Jack Smith in his loft on Grand Street. That is, I was sitting, he was lying on the floor, limp as an abandoned marionette, looking as mournful as only Jack could when he was completely out of dope, having exhausted even such tried-and-true bummers as catnip and oregano.

“Do you think I should go to an anal-yst?” asked Jack, pronouncing it as “anal.”

I was much taken aback, the idea was so alien to Jack’s secretive and paranoid nature, but I was warmly enthusiastic. Jack was tormented by so many things, by his loneliness, what he called his “sorry relations with women,” his “sick relations with men.” His life had been so relentlessly awful. A “Hungarian Hill-billy,” he called himself. His father was cut in half by a shrimp boat when Jack was a child. His mother, “an ogress,” was a trained nurse who specialized in isolating her dying patients and extracting large bequests from them.

I thought of some of Jack’s fantasies: “I have this obsession with cunts and the insides of things. When I was alone in New York, I used to walk down the dark streets and stare at the buildings. I wanted to ravish them. Feel and explore every nook and cranny.”

“Yes, Jack, please. Please, let me help you out with this.” I said.

“It shouldn’t be very expensive,” said Jack, “because there is only one question I need to ask. But I need to ask it to an anal-yst so I can straighten out my life.”

One question?

The next day I arrived with the name of a therapist. Jack was playing the sound track of the Entrance into Baghdad. “I’ve been thinking,” he said. “If I’m going to go to a doctor, it would be more important for me to go to a plastic surgeon.”

“Why on earth?”

“How can you ask?” Jack shrieked in his Renata Scotto timbre that contrasted so alarmingly with his usual moon-creature whisper. “My nose!”

Jack did have a very big nose, but it gave his face tremendous style and, I thought, beauty.

“Jack, you have a wonderful nose.”

“You were never called Banana Nose by every kid on the block. Besides I want to play Hamlet, and how can I play Hamlet with this nose?”

Among all his other talents, Jack happened to be a marvelous actor, but my sympathy faded over the course of the afternoon and our visit ended rather crossly.

I had been close friends with Jack for two years at that time, and our relationship had gone through many stages, all intense. When I first saw Flaming Creatures, I felt I had found the person I had been looking for all my life. I had always been drawn to people who were intelligent misfits, breakers of rules, and disrupters of what I felt was a depressingly conventional social order. Most of these people I loved were very unhappy, despite their bravado. My deepest desire was to help them express their most outrageous fantasies and understand that they could be admired and loved just as they were. When I saw Jack’s bunch of grotesques and how he made them shine, I thought he could change the world.

The sight of Jack’s leading “Cinemaroc Superstar,” Mario Montez, decked out in his blond wig and ghastly finery with a two day’s growth of beard under pounds of pancake was touching. I assumed that Jack loved Mario protectively, that what he was working so painstakingly to present was the Inner Mario, Mario In Excelsis.

It did not take me long to realize that Jack and I had decidedly different attitudes. Jack actually found his transvestites, pansexuals, and mentally retarded bag ladies hilarious. Sometimes he would have to stop shooting, he was so doubled up with silent laughter, and the more seriously his stars took themselves, the more he became convulsed. But what at first I chalked up to an attitude of callousness on Jack’s part, I later came to see as a product of my own sentimentality. Jack was bent on producing strange and shocking images where mysterious beauty was mixed with a hideousness on par with Goya’s most vicious etchings. Jack’s art was disturbing and disorienting—as well as utterly original—and that was all he cared about. (As for the creatures, they loved to perform, and I never talked to one of them who felt mocked or debased by Jack’s work.)

My bigger mistake was to think that Jack was seriously ambitious and that the intensity of his obsessions would propel him to do prodigious things if only he had a little support. But what would make Jack famous immediately?

Fashion photography, Jack suggested.

My husband was able to get him an appointment with the art director of Vogue. Jack was very excited. He had already approached without success this woman, whom he always referred to as the Purple Wool Dyke. Now, with a real appointment, she suddenly took on magical properties in his eyes. I was worried that he was a little too elated. I think my last words to Jack were, “Remember to be very Zen,” a phrase I had picked up from him.

I waited. It seemed as if hours passed, a good sign, I thought. Then the phone rang. The extraordinary meekness in Jack’s voice immediately told me the worst.

“I’m afraid I blew it.”

Apparently Jack had begun showing his photographs to the Purple Wool Dyke, who had made some “totally inane” comments. “I just raised my voice a little. And apparently she thought I was going to attack her or strike her or something. Anyway, she ran out of the room.”

“What did you do?”

“Well, of course, I ran after her, trying to tell her why she was so full of shit. So she ran into the ladies’ room and slammed the door. And then I made a mistake.”

“Oh?”

“I followed her in. That was not a gentlemanly thing to do.”

“What happened?”

“Well, she was making a lot of noise and some people came and I thought I ought to leave. I don’t think it’s going to work out at Vogue.”

As time passed, Jack either stood up or insulted anyone we had managed to interest in his work. Eventually I had to realize that Jack would not and could not be helped. He was like a precocious and insanely talented little child who would work all night on a project and lose interest the next day. Still, I felt that I had raised false hopes, and I tried to placate Jack by at last agreeing to pose for a series of photographs. For weeks I stood in a white dress surrounded by changing crowds of Jack’s “creatures,” extravagantly decorated. While exotic music blared, a fog machine, of which Jack was inordinately proud, blasted us with acrid fumes. We all began to suffer from persistent coughs and reddened eyes. However early we gathered, Jack was never ready to shoot before midnight. My home life deteriorated. At last, I told him I had to “break my contract with Cinemaroc.” Jack was surprisingly gentle.

“I could have made you a goddess,” he said. (The pictures were ravishing.) “But then you never did any of the things I really wanted you to do anyway.”

“Never did anything you wanted?” I cried. “My God, what the hell did you ever want that I didn’t try to do?”

“I always wanted,” Jack said, “for you to obey my unspoken thought commands.”

Jack, you are dead, and I miss you. But I still wonder what were your unspoken thought commands? And what one question would you have asked the anal-yst to solve your life problems?

Isabel Eberstadt is a writer who lives in New York.