by Tara Rose Stromberg
I was looking for Samuel Bernstein’s novel, Lulu, at The Strand, a giant stack of books teetering in the crook of my right arm. My recent fascination with the Roaring Twenties had led me on a quest to read everything I could about Louise Brooks. It wasn’t her acting I was interested in, but her writing. Brooks stopped making movies in the Thirties, dropping out of notoriety and later retreating to Rochester as a recluse. I wanted to know what kind of person lay behind that seductive stare, so iconic now for its blatant sexuality, and what had driven her to give it all up for the pen. The Bernstein novel was just a fictionalized account of her life and wasn’t even supposed to be very good, but I would read anything if it could help illuminate some new understanding of what it meant to be a writer.
I bent my body over into an upside-down L in an effort to read the spines more clearly. Then someone said, “Excuse me,” and thinking I was in their way, I bolted upright with an apology. It was an Indian man, young, I assumed, if not for his receding hairline. Instead of moving on, he simply stood there, staring at me.
“Are you an artist?” he asked.
“I’m a filmmaker,” I answered, glancing to either side of the aisle. This was half true. “Why?”
He gestured to my arm. “It’s the way you carry your books, with your finger, like this, holding the weight. Like an artist would.”
“Oh, really?” I said. Ever since I’d been in a committed relationship, I seemed to attract the strangest men.
“May I see your hand?” he asked. I never really understood the deer-in-headlights thing until that moment. A young doe, having lived a life in the woods, doesn’t know she should fear man until it’s too late. Even the primitive brain, its memory of memories transcoded through all of time, is no match for the dazzling light, the imminent doom.
He re-phrased the question. “Do you believe in the power of positive energy?”
He asked to see my hand again, this time with more sincerity, as if he knew his intentions were for my own good, even if I didn’t. My right hand was slowly being crushed under the weight of books, but I managed to stretch my palm out, embarrassed by the flush of red that quickly spread to my fingertips. One glance at my palm and he was gently applying pressure to my fingers, muttering an affirmative on each.
“I can tell by your fingers that you’re a good writer, the way this middle finger is longer than the others, it shows your skills.”
I’d never mentioned being a writer, though I had, just a few weeks before, applied to a graduate writing program. I didn’t have the confidence to admit I was something without knowing that I was; ironic, considering it’s the only thing I’ve ever known myself to be.
In thirty seconds he learned how old I was and stared upwards, mouthing calculations of my age from 26 to 37, the year he said I would reach the height of my creativity. “Don’t cover your forehead,” he said, reaching out to part my bangs slightly. I let him, unsure of what else to do. “Keep them open, and part your hair on the left side, like this. You wouldn’t believe the difference it makes.”
“Thanks,” I managed, and he replied with a brief nod. There was a pause while I wondered if the spell might be broken, but before I could find out, he walked past me and was gone.
Is she a great artist or only a dazzling creature whose beauty traps the viewer into attributing complexities to her of which she is unaware?…The answer to this question came to me soon afterward…she no longer wore the bangs that had become so famous during the twenties. Quite the contrary: she systematically skimmed her hair back, off her still pure forehead.”
– Lotte Eisner, on Louise Brooks¹
I never did find the Bernstein novel. But there was a single collection of Brooks’ essays, published three years before her death. She wrote about fame and success, and how those shaped the people she observed around her, or destroyed them. It was her strength as both spectator and performer that allowed her to then write about her experiences with such clarity, which suggests that all the while she was on set, weary after a long night of drinking, waiting for the director to call “Action,” she was listening attentively to the world around her, filing it into her memory in order to one day process the deeper meaning of it all.
* * *
That strange day at the Strand marked the one year that had passed since I’d weaned myself off anxiety medication, and with it went my sense of self control. All that was coiled up inside me had suddenly sprung forth. At the age of 27, I was just starting to realize how much autonomy I did not possess over my own life; I had only ever known how to push on, blindly. My morning ritual was a slow awakening to the perils of the day, and once I’d managed to drag myself out of bed, there would sometimes be tantrums, slamming of doors and punching of pillows, over trying to find a decent pair of socks. Even deciding what to eat had became agonizing. Words eluded me. My ability to articulate had been whittled down to a babbling mass of incoherence, all the thoughts that once had a shape collapsed under the stress of getting them out, the urgency to utter them. I could no longer deny the many parts of myself that, like a cat caught in a sheet, could no longer be contained.
I had left my position as an advertising producer just a few months before, and my new day job consisted of cold calling strangers to sell footage to people who didn’t need it. It took me weeks to get up the courage to pick up the phone and attempt a conversation, even though this had been common practice in my last role. I was terrified of rejection. But the job gave me the time to write and take classes in the evenings, a reminder that I was capable of achieving something more than just my next commission, that my aspirations to create were a worthy endeavor. Yet, I still felt I was lacking something vital to my creativity.
Each month I was given a sales target that seemed impossible to make, and after a few months I was called into a routine review meeting with three male superiors. They expressed disappointment in my numbers and urged me to work harder to reach my goal for the next month. I swear that my heartbeat, quick and heavy, pulsed visibly beneath my skin. I quickly brushed my hand to my chest to conceal it.
“We’re really glad to have you here working with us,” one of them said and it was then I knew they could sense my fear. When the meeting was finally over, I nearly ran to the door, hoping to slip out for lunch for some much-needed solitude. Somehow, we all ended up in the same cramped elevator. I was wearing a summer dress as the weather was very warm. A doe in the woods. There was an awkward silence for a bit and then one of the men looked me up and down. “You look nice,” he said. “If I wasn’t married, I’d take you out for a bite.”
* * *
A year later, I was on one of my lunch breaks from work, my head buried in a piece I was workshopping for class that night, when a man approached my table. I pretended not to see him and kept reading.
“Excuse me,” he asked. “Are you Russian?”
He wore sunglasses and a black trench coat. His beard was long and pointed and flaming red, like that portrait of Vincent Van Gogh. He wore a black newsboy cap with a small, silver dragon pin above the brim. His lips were drawn into a tight line of inexpression. I thought he must be mad.
“No,” I replied.
“Oh, really? I thought you might be Russian or European.” His voice was quiet and melodic, with a trace of a Californian accent.
“I’ve seen you here a few times,” he continued. “And that’s when I knew I had to come talk to you. I was like, man, this girl is really beautiful. You have a very mysterious look.”
To flee would have been inconvenient. It had taken me so long to find a free table. Considering my discomfort in most social situations in the absence of medication, I thought it possible that I might be overreacting. He told me his name. He was an artist who specialized in portraiture. “Do you know what that is?” he asked. I played dumb. He compared his work to that of John Singer Sargent, even though he was a photographer, and mentioned, in a way that suggested he was trying hard not to sound arrogant, that he had done some videos for Kanye West and portraits of other famous people I might know. He asked what I did and I told him I had studied film and that now I was learning to write. He nodded. “I could tell you were creative the moment I first saw you. You have an old soul, like someone from another time.” As he spoke, his words became softer and softer, so much so that I wondered if I were the only one who could hear them at all. He was like an apparition.
“I’d love to take your portrait if you’re interested,” he finally pronounced. “I can have my assistant take down your email and we can set up a time to meet, so I can show you my work.” He gestured to a young man I hadn’t noticed standing a few tables behind him. The assistant was struggling with a handful of notebooks and folders, but cast a friendly smile my way. What would I lose by sharing my email? It was my decision, and I was entranced by the serendipity of the encounter.
A few weeks later, I brought a friend with me to meet the Artist and his assistant at a Barnes and Noble café. They bought us warm drinks. His assistant kept my friend engaged in conversation about his aspiring acting career while the Artist drew me aside. It was obvious the Artist wasn’t used to being in public. His manner was secretive, as if what he had to tell me should be heard by no one else. On an iPad, he showed me a few photographs he had taken of a very famous model back when she was just a teenager; he claimed he’d been the first to photograph her.
The photos had a grittiness that aged them. I asked if he still shot on film. “Always,” he said. “But no one else shoots on film anymore, and that’s why I don’t work for the machine. Photography is an art form, like painting.” He showed me his recent project on the pyramids of Bosnia. He had traveled there recently to photograph the strange stones, which seemed to have surfaced out of nowhere, and suggested they may have been erected by some ancient race as a tribute to the occult.
I said his work was really beautiful, and it was, but perhaps the other part of it was that I imagined he could make me this memorable as well. “Listen, I just want you to know that I think you’re really gnarly,” he said, coming in close. “You have a very sensual look, and I don’t mean that in a sexual way. You’re very regal, like that Klimt painting — you know that one, of the woman in gold?” I knew of it. “Your eyes remind me of hers: dark, intelligent. Your aura is very strong. You’re becoming a woman, but I can still sense your innocence. Every time you look at me, your desires are being communicated, your past lives.”
The Artist told me this was the reason he was drawn to me, that I was experiencing a block and needed a creative release. I was amazed he had picked up on this, and admitted that writing had been difficult for me lately. Perhaps this could be the experience that would force me out of my comfort zone and open my mind to whatever inspiration the universe had to offer.
“Trust me,” he said. “These photos are going to live forever. They’ll be part of history.”
That night, I recounted the experience to my boyfriend, now husband, who thought the whole situation incredibly weird, but unsurprising. “You’re a beautiful girl, of course he wants to photograph you,” he said.
I rolled my eyes. “I do wonder if he’s putting me on, but he said he never makes the photos public unless his models give the okay, and he doesn’t seem to care too much about the fame.”
“Are you really gonna do it?” he asked.
I had been mulling it over and felt that I’d be missing out if I didn’t. The promise of immortality was a seductive one. I imagined someone many years from now, perhaps when I was already gone, unearthing weathered photographs of my face and wishing they could know what was going through my mind. I could not deny that I longed for some moment of self-actualization. Through this portrait, I wouldn’t just be some woman, but a source of power, with a face that conveyed a certain timelessness, like a memory still rapt with anticipation.
* * *
The next time I met with the Artist, I went alone. He was private about sharing his work so he invited me to his apartment in Brooklyn, a new condo that had been built in accordance with the gentrification of the neighborhood. The place was spotless, clean and bare. There was no furniture aside from a desk with a single chair, a computer, and a long wooden dining table with benches that he had built himself. “I gotta get rid of these Jetson lights and put in a wine and pot rack,” he joked, gesturing to the recessed fixtures above us.
He asked if I wanted a glass of Jameson, but I declined. I still felt a little uneasy and thought it best to stay alert. The Cocteau Twins were playing and he said the music reminded him of me. It was loud, too loud, but I was too shy to say anything about it. He seemed livelier than the other times we’d met, almost giddy, though I couldn’t tell if this was due to nervousness or manic excitement. We sat at the table and he immediately started talking about his work. At his last art installation, guests had climbed a ladder to sign a wall on which he had stenciled the words, “The art gallery is dead.” In the nineties, he had lived in an old temple in Hollywood with a very tall, sturdily built Icelandic girl he had met at the grocery store.
He disappeared for a moment into the bedroom and returned with a black velvet bag, closed with a drawstring. It was nearly the width of the table. “This is where I keep my work,” he said, and began to take the photos out one by one. Some were polaroids, pasted into small, hard covered notebooks. Others were loose and fell out each time I flipped a page. He explained where he had taken each photo and who was in it. In one, the Icelandic girl was lying naked on the stone floor of the temple, next to a plate of pomegranates, one half of her body bathed in light from the outside, the other in darkness.
“We created such amazing art,” he said of her. “We would get up, eat, make love, take photos, then make love again.” I shifted uneasily in my seat. “We become each other when we make art.” There was another photo of her face; her head was tilted slightly upwards and the light did not reach her eyes. Instead they were black holes, her face like a kabuki mask. “I did that all with light,” he said. “Nothing else.”
He handed me a larger photo of a woman with her legs and toes pointed straight like a ballerina’s. The absence of light in the background made it difficult to tell where she was. Her head was flung backwards and her arms stood out; their exposure looked superimposed, like a flutter of gauzy wings or some ghostly being shifting beneath her body.
“You should see this,” he said, and carefully produced a large folder from the bag. “I was outside the temple one night and knew that if I didn’t get the shot, I would lose my chance.” He picked the photo up by its corners and held it for me to see. The film looked blue, which he said was the result of a special kind of silver process he used to develop this photo. It was a close-up of a tree branch with a dragonfly in mid-flight, its wings translucent against the empty sky. He was able to get so close with his camera that the dragonfly seemed almost prehistoric in size.
“I communicated with the little guy, cause you know, you can communicate with nature,” he said. “He landed on me and at one point he was smiling, smiling, and I was actually petting his wings.”
The last photo he showed me was of himself, seen through a crystal ball. His face was clean-shaven and he shared the frame with an old dress mannequin and something I couldn’t make out, as if it were only just slipping into vision at the moment the shutter clicked.
As he gathered his photos back into the velvet bag, I excused myself to the bathroom and locked the door. I noticed there were hardly any toiletries on the sink or in the shower, no soap or shampoo. All of his photos were of nudes, I thought.
I decided to ask him about it, cautiously, when I returned. “Of course I would photograph you nude,” he answered, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. I told him I would have to think about it.
“He made the photographs himself, instructing me to forget that there was a man in the room and to lose myself in an artistic thought. I did.…and when I was dismissed, hurried into my clothes and felt none the worse for my experience.”
– Louise Brooks²
At nineteen, when she was still a dancer in the Follies, Louise Brooks had posed nude for a photo session with popular New York portrait artist, De Mirjian. In one of the photos I was able to find, she posed sideways against a black backdrop. A long, brocade fabric draped from one outstretched hand and in the other was a Chinese paper fan that concealed her breasts. It was hardly risqué by today’s standards.
* * *
My boyfriend didn’t think my being photographed was a good idea. “I’m not going to stop you from doing what you want to do — it’s your body, but I just know it’s going to upset you.”
I was irritated by the certainty with which he assumed my feelings. I thought there was a part of me that he didn’t know, that perhaps even I didn’t know. My own trepidation was not from fear; perhaps it should have been. I didn’t see the session as a possibility to be exploited, but as an opportunity to exert some authority over my body, to cast away anxiety over the question of being an artist and to be inspired to coax out that hidden spark of confidence I could not seem to free from myself. I would become the work of art I so fiercely desired to achieve. I knew it was a lofty desire — selfish, even — but I had to try. And if for some reason I couldn’t go through with it, I would learn something about myself, about my own limits. I would at least have something to write about.
* * *
The Artist had offered to let my boyfriend accompany me for the photo session, and though I declined, it did help to solidify my hope that this would, in the end, stay strictly professional. I felt I needed to do this alone.
When I arrived, the Cocteau Twins were playing again and the Artist offered me whiskey. This time I took some. He asked how my writing was going, but interrupted before I could answer to tell me that his mother had been a writer and known Salvador Dalí. He thought that the next time we shot, I could write something while he took my photo, that it would be a great way for us to collaborate. I hadn’t realized he was planning on there being a next time.
The Artist decided to shoot me in his bedroom. The windows were blocked with cardboard and paper to keep the sun out — without them, he said, the light burned his skin. There was just a twin mattress on the floor and a low table of drawers, decorated with velvet, beads, and an old camera, the kind that flipped open at the top like a periscope. He showed me how to take a few photos with it, reaching his arms around me so that he could hold it steady as I worked the shutter. I didn’t like him touching me, so I put the camera down.
He lit some tea light candles and placed them on the top of the drawers. “This is the only light I use,” he said, dragging the mattress over. This is where I’d be lying. He asked me to get undressed. I was surprised when he didn’t leave, but instead waited nearby as I folded my dress and bra and placed them neatly beside me. I took off my underwear last. “Those are really nice,” he said. His comment took me off guard. I thought that as the photographer he might make himself invisible so that it would feel as if I were alone. His presence made me self-conscious. Before we began, he took off his sunglasses and asked me to look into his eyes, which seemed to shrink in the dim light of the room. “I want us to really see one another,” he said, and proceeded to stare at me for an excruciating minute.
He instructed me to lie down, which wasn’t so bad, only I could now feel how much my sense of control had drained just from this new vantage point. He told me to arch my back and spread my legs out a bit, to feel the contours of my body. But I was not a dancer nor an actress, and my body was as graceful as a roach on its back.
“Keep you eyes closed so you’re not distracted by me,” he said. As soon as I closed them, he tried to position my body himself, spreading my legs wider, then tracing a line up my leg and over my stomach. “Allow yourself to be aroused,” he whispered, and when his hands reached my breasts, my body seized up like a padlock, every muscle strained to its tightest in an effort to close myself off from the sensation of being touched. Through gritted teeth, I told him I would rather position myself.
As he crouched around me, snapping photos with the same camera I had picked up before, I tried to transport myself into another state of being, someplace that was familiar and right, but it was of no use. I wondered how I’d ever convinced myself I could do it in the first place. I turned my head to stare into the glow of the candles, my limbs still heavy with the weight of my shame. I was trying to establish a connection with this body of mine, to give it the same unabashed wildness I had seen in his photo of the woman with the wings. Instead, I felt like an idiot, thinking that I could achieve some level of creative transcendence by lying naked on a mattress in some guy’s apartment in the middle of Brooklyn. I wished that he would leave me alone for a moment, that he would stop trying to insert himself into the experience and just let me be. But that was the problem — he was trying to possess me and I did not want to be possessed.
Suddenly, his finger jabbed at my mouth, trying to slip inside, and with a tone that was impatient, even excited, he urged me to “touch my cunt.” The word seared me like a hot poker. My body jerked from his grasp and in a deep voice, like a growl from the depths of my stomach, I told him to stop.
“I was just trying to help you relax,” he said and apologized, but I had already made up my mind to leave.
He walked me to the train. One part of me kept up a friendly conversation, while the other, still conscious of his touch, counted the minutes. I could have run all the way back home on pure adrenaline. At one point, I brought up my boyfriend and he asked if we lived together. I said yes, even though I’d told him this already. He asked how long we’d been a couple.
“Six years,” I replied.
“Oh,” he said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you guys had such a serious relationship.”
He gave me a hug and we agreed to keep in touch, though both of us knew it would be the last time we saw each other. When I reached the platform underground, I was relieved to be alone. Fear did not seem the right word for what I was feeling; after all, I was safe and had not been threatened. But my body felt manhandled. My assumption had been that I was the artist in this situation, and that he was the muse, not the other way around. I knew that in his pride the Artist would develop the photos. It seemed unfair that he should own them and that I should not, that I would likely never get to see them at all.
It was only later that I learned an older cousin of mine had once shared an elevator with Salvador Dalí in New York. His wife Gala had passed away and he was looking for his next muse. Dalí turned to my cousin and asked if she would come to his studio the next day so that he could paint her. “No, I don’t think so,” she had replied.
“Just as Louise Brooks is sometimes pitched as a woman alone but triumphant — no matter that her life seems to have been at the behest of men who owned, directed, or kept her — so on the screen Lulu is a powerhouse commanding the camera and the moment, and yet she is helpless in the plot…”
– David Thomson³
”Some kind of torment, deep down, made this woman what she was. What was the terrible thing? What was this self-destructive urge?”
– Lawrence J. Quirk, on Louise Brooks4
I’ve always remembered something a professor once said, or more accurately, hollered, in response to a piece I’d been struggling to write: “You don’t get to choose what the story is about!” Perhaps one cannot intend to be an object of expression, nor can one embody the muse, or even hope to choose her. Like Louise, who did not find fulfillment despite acquiring a taste of fame for her beauty and talent, I would have to work harder. I would have to assert myself, without the aid of mysticisms, as an artist and as a writer, and I would have to believe it.
Before I left his place, the Artist asked me to write something in his notebook, which is where I assume the photos of me will be placed. I couldn’t think of anything profound or clever, and though I didn’t really owe it to him at all to do so, I felt I should leave something that was truly mine, even if it was silly. It does seem silly now, but maybe that’s what I really am: a silly, naïve girl, with dreams of crashing the gate. In the corner of the page, I wrote one line: “I am a little like this blank page.”
¹Eisner, Lotte. “A Witness Speaks.” Lulu in Hollywood. By Louise Brooks. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.
²Paris, Barry. Louise Brooks. New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday. 1989.
³Thomson, David. “The Actress Taking the Part of Lulu.” Threepenny Review, Berkeley, California, Spring 1983.
4 Quirk, Lawrence J. “Lulu in Hollywood” Quirks Reviews (two parts). nos. 41 and 42. June and August 1982.
Tara Rose Stromberg is a Brooklyn based writer and graduate of The New School MFA program. Her work often bridges the visual and literary realms, focusing on the personal themes of identity, anxiety, and family trauma. She is also the Head of Production at Dress Code, an animation and production studio, and has produced films that have been recognized by The Webby Awards, Tribeca Film Festival, and Vimeo Staff Picks, among others. She is currently writing a memoir about the experience of shooting a 35mm film in Prague during a nervous breakdown.
Featured image courtesy of Michael Donovan.