Sunday, November 21, 2021

The dynamics of friendship: Carolyn Heilbrun my friend

For 26 years, when we were both here in New York, Carolyn and I walked every Tuesday at exactly 10:15. It remained a duty as rituals do, and among the deepest of my delights. I would meet her at just the same bench at 79th street just off Fifth Avenue, with her dog – the last one was named Lucy -- and if sometimes it turned out to be 10:16 when I got there, well, alright, but at 10:17 it was a bit of not good… Forget anything like 10:20… She was exactitude itself as well as friendship itself. 

Before more about Carolyn, whom I miss walking and being with more than I could say or show, I want to speak of another meticulous friend. She was a glorious painter, the Roumanian Hedda Sterne, the only woman among “The Irascibles,” gathered as painters of that largish group in their irritation at the art world, and, on a stool behind them, she stood taller than all the men in the famous photo. Hedda was also Saul Steinberg’s wife, yet would not use that name to profit from his fame, although they never divorced and always remained close. When she phoned me about his death, I was in the Museum of Denver with the poet Charles Simic, who had loved him also. An unforgettable moment, that phone call: what to say to Hedda, who hated wasted words? 

Hedda would make supper for me for years, every Wednesday evening, and was amazingly like Carolyn in her impatience and, indeed, irascibility. I would bring the white wine and was supposed to arrive at 6:15. By 6:17 she was anxious and by 6:20 I was certainly not going to get there, and was I ever going to get there for her supper from her red stove again? We would have our wine and something or other she would make superbly, and she would counsel me about how I should meditate by counting backwards and should be more myself, or whatever I was being timid about. We would have our supper until late and talk about her work I would have seen upstairs above the reading/dining room, and we would look together at her immensely grand painting with the meeting of stars she would talk to me about, in the years before a museum curator came to take it away. We never spoke of it again. I would look at the blank wall nostalgically, when she was turned away toward the red stove. Nostalgia, like other weaknesses, had no place in Hedda’s agenda. 

Hedda sent me many written messages about her dreams, which I treasure and will eventually give to the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale with my other papers and letters. Over the year we knew each other, she introduced me to several artists and writers. She departed at 100 years of age, surrounded by friends. She left me several of her works, which I value intensely, and had her lawyer save some of her books for me, for we had shared so many over the years. We spent several evenings discussing Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, a copy of which I had taken her, and we would linger our diverging opinions about surrealism, various painters, and Duchamp’s influence on art, that she found nefarious. 

By her intensity, Hedda intimidated those I took to meet her, including my two children and my husband, all at different times; never mix friends, I was to learn, with the kind of friend who is Hedda or Carolyn. I went to see Hedda very often in her bed when dinners could no longer be the case. We would usually speak French, as I now remember. She was the most present-feeling painter I ever felt close to, although she certainly did not take to some of the others I knew and loved. Her judgments were never veiled in politeness. Or wraparound style. Just like Carolyn again, to whom I never spoke of others, except when gossiping, for which we both had a certain talent. 

But how is it, I marveled sometimes, that those two rightly celebrated friends I met every week for 26 years, who were both remarkably time-conscious and so elegant in their very own ways were accepting of a close and permanent friendship with someone as chaotically imprecise and definitely un-meticulous as myself? Now that really is what friendship is about – you don’t really choose, you just are. Like the overquoted statement from Montaigne: "parce que c'etait lui, parce que c'etait moi /because he was him and I was me." 

 What we talked about, Carolyn and I who loved her, was sort of everything but generally not other people or dull things: “Well,” she once remarked, “if we are going talk about shoes…”. So we didn’t. We talked about our adventures and misadventures, and assorted academic and less academic things. In Carolyn’s living room a self-portrait of Vanessa Bell hung across from one of Duncan Grant, and it seemed uncanny how Carolyn resembled Vanessa in that picture. When I was writing on various Bloomsbury subjects, I spent a year at the University of Cambridge in 1986, as a Fellow of Clare Hall. I was writing about Vita Sackville- West, to whose papers her son Nigel gave me total access at Sissinghurst, as well as making me a tomato omelet, and walking with me in her White Garden. I edited Vita's writings of all sorts for Palgrave Macmillan, and when Nigel took me upstairs to her study in the tower, it was moving beyond words written or spoken to see the photograph of Virginia Woolf on her desk. My favorite Bloomsbury friend was a very great memoir writer -- older than me then, probably about my age now-- Frances Partridge, with whom I would spend much time in London on Cadogan Square at every chance I had. We would go to things together, like the English National Opera, and could speak about everything imaginable and often unimaginable., personal and less so. I loved everything about Frances and her home and we were enthusiastic together about Roger Fry, whom she assured me as being the one person who was the most interesting in any room. 

By my enormously good fortune it was Frances who had in her living room the superb portrait of Lytton Strachey by Dora Carrington, and we would look at it together, as I was then attempting to write about Carrington’s art and letters and life. The National Portrait Gallery had turned this portrait down, because it was only by a woman painter, about whom I loved everything, paintings, writings, and stories. Relevant here, amazingly, is this letter from Desmond MacCarthy, quoted by Frances about Carrington’s suicide after her beloved Lytton Strachey's death, in her Love in Bloomsbury. This important reflection was and just now shared with me by my cousin Deborah Gage, who is, as Quentin Bell told me, the person who saved Charleston Farmhouse for us all. It helps me even now to consider this text : 

Their death was not the characteristic thing about them. It was their response to life, and it is by living oneself again that one meets them as they were and keeps in closest touch with them. 

I am quoting this now in order to say that after Carolyn’s suicide, when I lost my voice for a while and just about my wits, I wanted to write about Carolyn’s response to life, rather than her death, answering her response now as best I can. 

Ralph Partridge had loved Carrington always, and after her suicide over Lytton’s death, had married Frances, whose very beautiful daughter-in-law, Henrietta Garnett, Carolyn had just seen at a Virginia Woolf conference. The very beautiful Henrietta had left Charleston with a highly talented gardener from that famous farmhouse in Sussex, and the couple had come down to my old ramshackle cabanon near Mormoiron in the Vaucluse, where he planted my just purchased olive tree, to replace the little cluster of ancient olive trees taken from my overgrown grounds (someone had, in some nighttime, taken just the central root or motte which nourishes all the roots around it, the old wood of which can earn a not-inconsequential sum ). My classicist friends from Paris, Philippe Heuzé, and Montreal, André Daviault, and Vera and Don Murray from the ancient Vauclusian Pope’s palace St. Félix outside the nearby village of Malemort had recited Latin odes as we gathered around it. 

* * * 

 Carolyn and I absolutely loved gossip, much more fun than any other topic in which we could indulge ourselves. We talked about operas and art and ballets- she wanted to give Jim her husband (for whom I had to bring back the Sidelsky biography of John Maynard Keynes from England, then not available in the US) the great ballerina Suzanne Farrell’s toe shoes the ballerina herself had signed. These were shoes we could indeed speak about. My favorite topic, apart from gossip, was art. Carolyn was particularly fond of impressionism, and she wanted to talk about Manet’s painting with a woman and a young girl at the Gare St. Lazare, a train station I know well from my 49 years of going to the Vaucluse and back to Paris. She wondered about the girl child who seemed to be waiting: for whom? We were going to write about it together… 

We spoke frequently of what we were writing or reading: I would bring poetry books for her, and she especially loved those of Grace Schulman. We do well to have wise friends, some of whom are, thank goodness, poets. 

* * * 

You knew when you went anywhere with Carolyn, that she would be taking notes as Amanda Cross, whether under the table or on the bench or whenever and wherever. This happened at Modern Language Association meetings, where she and I coincided as a president and one about to be. She was always taking notes everywhere else, in meetings and over drinks, as she would serve her pistachios and a strong something, usually a martini I think, like Kate Fansler her detective heroine. Or perhaps a strong scotch. I, being a southerner, would have preferred bourbon, but this was not a relationship in which you discussed such trivial topics. She always wanted to know what I was writing or teaching at the Graduate School of CUNY. Carolyn was especially interested in my complications as a Southerner over Faulkner. Carolyn knew about teaching and about living. 

She was particularly fond of my chaotic experiences with banks – such as having my identity stolen, twice, once when I was away in France and once right here in New York. She loved hearing about travails such as having all my French money lifted off to Kuala Lumpur, and about how I had to go to the main police station in Paris to declare it. Once there, I had made the crucial mistake of being relieved at the word “vulnérable” on my record. Oh, nice, I thought, they think I am vulnerable, and want me to be protected, but of course it simply meant I wasn’t right in my noggin, being so old and all. My French bank took notice, finally. Now Carolyn LOVED this story, and was especially fond of giving me comfort over many crises, both foreign and domestic. 

 A three-time encounter with the professional psychotherapist I saw at her suggestion was totally dreadful. This very well-dressed (I didn’t ask the designer, although I was tempted) and no-nonsense type shrink, whose name I have happily forgotten, insisted I arrive exactly on time (shades of my beloved Carolyn and my beloved Hedda Sterne, both of them had great laughs: this woman had none, scarcely a smile). Since she had no waiting room, I had no place to sit or even stand before my appointment. She insisted that I tell her exactly what I had done that very day, and where I had gone, which I never really remembered, and on top of that, advised me never to have more than one friend, as she herself had only one. Ouch, I thought, but I tried my sweetest smile. Well, that encounter was never going to work out, and it was not just the expense, or the time, or the inconvenience. 

I saw 12 therapists in all, and Carolyn said, quite rightly, when you write about it, I of course did, in To the Boathouse, and Carolyn was usually right . You should just say” four therapists “, in order to be believable. I saw Rogers-type, Freud- type, Lacan-type, cognitive-type, etc. etc.. After a number of difficult times here and there, I had lost my personal pronouns and so on and on. After trying various hospitals, I saw Rogers-type, Freud-type, Lacan-type, cognitive-type, etc.. After trying various hospitals and conuolting friends for recommendations, I resorted to a horrendous Dynamics Pyscho-Therapy place on Madison. ( now fortunately gone). Best thing about this was that I could relish telling Carolyn about it later, the only joy about that beyond creepy place. There, a very handsome male psycho- therapist said, "ah, we will videotape you to examine your case among ourselves," and I said, "no way." As I was angrily leaving, a sympathetic female therapist said, "I am at Columbia, and you are teaching at Barnard, I will see you at any hour," and she did, being kind to me without videotaping my despair. 

So I listened to Carolyn’s warning about my writing and trying to be believable, and stuck to four names among the 12 when I was recounting my mis-adventures off and on. As for that memoir, To the Boathouse, named after The Boathouse in Central Park, there is on the cover Renate Motherwell’s photo of me at the very place, The Boathouse. Carolyn was greatly amused by this story about it: when the publishers sent me the proofs, kindly pointing out that they had sent me the proofs of To the Lighthouse. I greatly enjoyed replying, just as kindly, that I thought those particular proofs had already been done rather well, and actually a few years back. However, we all know that not all publishers are into irony. Happily, mine all are, thanks be. 

* * * 

One thing about my walks with Carolyn around Central Park was not just the timing, which was essential, but our path. For each time, we would retrace exactly our same steps as before, down one path, up another, over here and then there, and we would part, saying “until next Tuesday.” Importantly, we were always just two, for she hated being with more than one person at a time. Once a very impressive (and not un self-impressed colleague) had pleaded to come along with us, when she had somehow found out we two maintained this long and unbreakable habit. Needless to say, the threesome was a total disaster all around. No need for further discussion. Carolyn always knew what she wanted and could do happily: for a meeting or repast or walk, two at a time, not three. 

* * * 

I hadn’t known in Carolyn’s lifetime, that 300 years ago, said the find-your- family test, the 123 thing, that our family had had an Ashkenazy heritage, and so enjoyed telling her about the Seder I would attend every year. (Hedda Sterne taught me never to say Jewish, “I am a Jew”, she would say, not “Jewish. No ish about it.”) Carolyn would not attend a Seder, saying how misogynistic they were. How patriarchal. "Ah, but we had a Miriam’s cup this year, "I said, "at Ronnie Scharfman’s." "That is just watering it down," said Carolyn. Never good at arguing, I didn’t find an answer. I often didn’t. 

As for celebrations of any kind Carolyn, was not in favor. Not rituals, except the meetings of the persons she chose. Take Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse: she was the character Carolyn could not abide. Not even at Thanksgiving did she want to prepare a family meal of a joyous or any other sort. Every night one of the children or the parents prepared the meal, sometimes a sandwich; they took turns, and no one ever complained. 

* * * 

As for the way Carolyn chose to end her life, she had always said she would do that, and I feel blessed I didn’t have to find her, after seeing her the last time. Carolyn wanted to write about science and didn’t find it working. People kept asking me after her suicide: "you saw her every week, why didn’t you ask her to see someone?" Clearly, they did not know Carolyn. She always knew quite exactly what she wanted As I read in a New York Magazine interview a few years ago between Vanessa Friedman and myself about her suicide, it happened because I was the last person who saw Carolyn alive. I remembered how Carolyn had said, on the last day I saw her, that she was sad about everything. There was in the magazine the picture of the two of us side by side, at a Modern Language Association meeting, and we look happy in it. So much is always about appearance. In her note she left by her body, she wrote: “The journey is over. Love to all." We now see that she was speaking more universally than selfishly: not “my journey” but “the journey”.. She always knew she was speaking for all of us and knew absolutely how we would read her. Just as we do right now. 

That final day, Carolyn did not have Lucy, her dog of those last years. And she didn’t answer when I said, “see you next week.” I don’t wear a lot of memories outside, just inside, where I always remember Carolyn. She has always endure for me as the realist of friends, Her radiant intelligence continues to shine through everywhere and everything else I read and write. Here’s the true thing: I find her memory constantly joyous and wanted to share it with anyone who might read this.

1 comment:

Paige said...

O my you're such a beautiful sharer and writer and friend. This is truly touching. Much love, love, love always and am so glad to know I know you as a friend.