The stream of visitors to our makeshift gallery continues, but new names now. Walter Arensberg, Charles Sheeler, Marius de Zayas. Critics, patrons, art dealers. Arthur B. Davies, who organized the Armory Show in 1913, comes, along with Leo Stein, Gertrude ’s brother. Edward Steichen, also a photographer, brings the art collector Frank Crowninshield, who is the editor of Vanity Fair.
Crownie shakes my hand. He is as slick and elegant as the magazine he has transformed. A boutonniere bobs from his lapel. Stieglitz is elated. He shows them several of my new oils and charges in about their “savage force,” their “frankness”—the mastery I have already begun to acquire. He tells them the story of how he first discovered my art when my friend Anita Pollitzer brought my charcoal drawings to 291 three years ago on his birthday, New Year’s Day, 1916. How the instant he unrolled those drawings, he knew it was a new art. Fearless Self-Expression. An Unaffected Mind. A Woman on Paper.
I will sit at one end of the sofa, sip water, and watch, that black gleam in his eyes as he speaks of me, his hands moving through space. It is the story of my art that he is making. Only a story—I know this—but as I listen, I find it becomes more difficult to imagine another life, a different life when he was not there. My life before him. It seems almost mythic as he describes it: as if I were born out of the wind and the plains and bone-blue sky, out of the long winters spread across the rolling, frozen land.
Invariably, at some point in the evening, he will draw out a few of his new photographs. The shock hits—like a wave through the room. No one overtly acknowledges them as images of me. These fragments—face, breasts, neck, hands. Nude. Sometimes I feel like I should be ashamed, but I find it almost exhilarating to watch how the photographs unnerve them. How they just can’t reconcile my straight black dress, prim collar, with the woman in the photographs, her body, hands, hips, thighs, the taut plane of her belly, the gleam of her fingernails, the triangular thatch of black hair. The prints have grown more explicit and unrestrained.
“Astonishing,” someone murmurs, then the invariable stolen glance back toward my end of the sofa as they try to wrap their minds around the austerity of the woman sitting there, and the palladium fragments propped against the wall.
A bold glamour has begun to come into these small rooms. I’ve been here for less than a year, and already we are seen as an extraordinary couple—the two of us—the old photographer and his daring sibyl, his artist, his young muse. And I begin to see, too—as they can see—how in these deceptively simple images, he comes near to capturing some essence, some manifestation of a universal feminine.
“Revolutionary,” Edward Steichen remarks, glancing at me. “They’re really like nothing else in our world.”
“I’ve told Stieglitz that,” I say. “They’re so far beyond just photographs, aren’t they?”
Edward smiles. “Done right, a photograph can seize an era in a moment; it can touch, even, what one soul means to another.” He turns away then from the photographs, and nods to my painting Music set against the wall across the room. “But when I used the word revolutionary, Georgia, I wasn’t just talking about Stieglitz’s photographs of you. He says this often, but tonight I’ve seen it for myself: What you are doing there.” He points to my oil. “No painter in this country is making abstractions like that.”
“Crownie was floored,” Stieglitz exclaims when they are gone. “The photographs just landed him. He loved them.”
“Isn’t that what you wanted?”
“Of course, but it was effortless. Like a spell. Did you see how easy?”
I nod. I’ve begun to clear things away. I wash the dirty drinking glasses, slip into my nightclothes, hang up my dress. I dip my toothbrush into the jar of tooth powder, brush my teeth, spit, and rinse.
“It was good to see Edward,” I say. Do I know this is cruel when I say it?
Stieglitz looks at me, his eyes flat. “I saw you talking with him. What did he have to say?”
“Just that he loved your photographs—and my art.”
“He has more talent in his little finger than I’ll have in my lifetime, and it irks me, Georgia, how he ’s sold out. It’s all about money to him now.”
“He said tonight that he wants to go back to his family home in Voulangis.”
Stieglitz snorts. “That’s a whore’s fuss and fanfare. He wants to be an advertising star.”
I don’t agree, but I don’t argue. Alfred’s fury with Edward Steichen seems to weigh in direct balance with the fiercely close bond they once shared. In the good years of 291, Edward was the young protégé—one of the true and adored. When Stieglitz started his magazine Camera Work, it was Edward who made the first cover design. They were inseparable. But then Edward grew up: He entered a war Stieglitz did not believe in, directed aerial photography for the Allies, and now there are rumors he ’s flirting with a position at Condé Nast, which Stieglitz deems rank commercialism. I’ve always liked Edward—the strength in his face, that slight amused smile. His eyes are penetrating, but kind. He is never thrown by any tirade Stieglitz happens to be on, but is so gentle with him, grateful and indulgent as one might be with an aging father. Edward’s own respect for the man who was once his master does not seem to diminish, but he is strong-willed—he does not let anyone pull him off course. Once when I ran into him at a gallery opening, I mentioned it. “Were you always this way, Edward?” I asked. “So sure but so compassionate as well.”
“I saw too much in the war,” he answered simply. “Too much afterward. Burnt villages. Children. Things like that set your course once you have seen them, and no one—not even the inimitable Stieglitz—can steer you from it.” He smiled, his voice sad, but with a clarity I wanted to touch.
That night, as Stieglitz and I lie together on our beds side by side, mine under the skylight, the sound of his breathing deepening toward sleep, I think back over the evening—Edward’s remarks about my art, the expression on Crownie ’s face, how he and the others could not stop staring at the photographs—and lying there, I am aware that we have begun to be swept up in some silent transformation of the world that we belong to.
The following winter, 1920, we learn that our apartment building on 59th Street will be razed. Stieglitz’s brother Lee offers us rooms in his house.
“I suppose that’s what we ’ll do,” Stieglitz says. “Given how things are with money, there ’s really no choice.”
“There’s always a choice,” I say. “I’ve known poor. I’ve always managed to live on my own.”
“But we could never afford as much as Lee and Lizzie are willing to give us.”
A twist in my stomach—how strange it will feel not to have our own space, living with his family, first at the Lake, now here.
* * * *
We go to see the rooms. It’s a dreary day. The whole building feels like a damp cellar. Lizzie ’s mother, ninety years old, can’t quite grasp the idea of an unmarried couple living together, so Lee has arranged that we ’ll keep rooms on separate floors. We ’ll have our own sitting room. We ’ll use their kitchen to fix our own breakfast, and plan on eating out for dinner. Lizzie shows me a sunny back room where the light is good and I can paint. She’s a mousy woman, kind, but she always seems a little downtrodden, like marriage has wrung her right out. She and I climb the stairs together to the top floor where Lee is showing Stieglitz an alcove that he can use as a darkroom.
“I don’t like feeling so dependent,” I murmur to Stieglitz as we follow them back downstairs.
“Shhh,” he says. “It’s only for a while.”
At the door, he shakes his brother’s hand, profuse with thanks.
* * * *
By summer, our living arrangements at the Lake have changed as well. The family has sold Oaklawn. Too expensive to maintain. Stieglitz alone fought the decision for more than eight months, but as he ’s the only one among them who can’t afford to chip in for its upkeep, at last the decision is made: The mansion and the waterfront property have been put on the market. The family will keep the thirty-six upland acres and the white clapboard farmhouse on the hill that was once a pig farm. By the time we arrive, the renovations to the farmhouse are in the final stages: a few carpenters still bungling about; banging, hammering.
When they are finished, the tennis court is gone. Hedwig’s servants, gone. She brings her maid from the city, and there is the local help. Stieglitz’s sister Selma arrives, all in a huff because we snubbed her, she claims, through the winter. Despite her numerous invitations, we accepted only one. The walls of the new house feel unusually thin. I can hear her in the room next to mine, roaming around, rattling the drawers. She moves a chair, moves it back. I hear the swish of her skirts, the chatter of Rippy’s terrier nails on the floor behind her. Within two days of arriving, she starts harping on about how she wants the desk that’s in my room moved into hers.
At first it ’s a casual remark, made over dinner, but soon it seems all she can talk about is the desk. Georgia doesn’t need a writing desk. She is busy with her painting. Stieglitz counters, You only want that desk because you don’t have it. The argument between them ramps up, and finally I tell him to please just let her have it, but he doesn’t want to give it to her—it is the principle of it.
“Odious,” he says to me. “She is odious.”
“And I need peace and quiet.”
The following morning the desk is moved into Sel’s room, torqued at every which angle to get through the door. It is heavy and dark and swallows the space, but she is satisfied for one entire day, and then in the evening after supper, she mentions that perhaps we should have the desk switched back. Stieglitz will have nothing more to do with her.
* * * *
By July, the farmhouse is stuffed with people. I take longer walks, past the driveway oval and the ring of the lawn dotted with fruit trees, past old outbuildings, roofs caving in—barns and a chicken coop, an icehouse, a stable. This was all once farm, I remember, pushing through the rusted fence that separates the fields. I climb up to the woods, past the sand cliffs and the boulders to the upper meadow full of sour grasses and wildflowers. The canna lilies I split and planted last summer have bloomed. Such a plain red flower. Thin stem, the bloom like a splayed hand—aureate, stunningly bright. I clip one and set it in a plain jar on the desk in the bedroom upstairs. I dip my brush into a bowl of water, then swirl it through red paint—that quick thrill of the first mark of color on blank paper, the brush’s point to cut that outer edge, the petals opening, their redness thinned in places, pale sunlight shining through. I don’t fill in the frame of the paper around them, so it is only the flower without reference—a rupture of color, in disembodied space.
On my way back from a walk one afternoon, I spy a one-room unkempt building. It has sagging doors and a window looking out onto the first meadow.
That evening I tell him I want it. “For?”
“A space to work.”
He walks up the hill with me to see it. “It needs a new roof.”
“And a new window.”
“That one there can be repaired.” He looks at me doubtfully.
“You think I don’t know a fixable window when I see one?” I say. “Will you get a bid for the roof?”
He nods. “Very well.”
But he throws up his hands in disgust when the quote comes in. “Prohibitive!” he exclaims. I don’t answer. “So discouraging,” he says, “I’m sorry, Love.”
When Lee ’s daughter Elizabeth arrives, I ask her for help, and along with Stieglitz and her new husband, Donald, we spend the next few weeks making repairs. In August, it grows too hot for Stieglitz. He retreats indoors, but Elizabeth and I continue to work, nailing shingles to the roof, frying up there like strips of bacon. I wear my large floppy hat and peel down to chemise and bloomers. One afternoon, Alfred comes out to find us. He ’s carrying his Graflex and triumphantly brandishing a newspaper.
“Historic day!” he cries with delight. “Ratified! Women have won the right to vote.”
“Joy!” Elizabeth says. “I can’t wait for the dinner-table scuffle tonight. You will be our champion, Uncle Al. How dull it would be around here if you were as conventional as the other males in this family.”
“Alfred isn’t one for dull,” I say.
“I hear it already,” Elizabeth says. “Father’s dismay, his very serious concern.” She drops her voice to a low somber tone to imitate her father, Lee. “I’m afraid it will skew the upcoming election.”
We erupt into giggles. Stieglitz throws us the paper. Reaching to grab it, Elizabeth nearly loses her balance off the roof. I grasp her arm and pull her down. She lies there, laughing, then spreads the newspaper out to read the lead article, her round cheeks flushed.
“Now I can be finished wondering why it took them all so long to see what was always clearly right,” Stieglitz says.
“Men can be stubborn,” I say.
“Ha! Look at me, Georgia. Look now.” He has the camera raised. I smirk and he frowns. “Please,” he says sweetly. I shake the hammer at him, then smile, the shutter clicks. I turn away, slip a square ticket of wood against another, set a nail to the shingle, swing the hammer and hit it squarely on the head.
* * * *
When the shanty is done, Alfred spends the day inside it with me. I retrieve some bits of molding from the trash and make a frame. He builds a stool from a cast-off piece of wood.
“This side of the room will work for me,” he says, pacing out one end.
“Oh no.” Shaking my head.
“What do you mean, no?”
“Just that.” I come close to him, touch the V point where his shirt opens, the top button undone, my fingertip light on his chest, tracing the bone. “You have the run of everywhere else,” I say. “The shanty is mine.”
From GEORGIA. Used with permission of Penguin Random House. Copyright © 2017 by Dawn Tripp.