Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Little Orphan Archive?

Well, it looks as if Bayo Ogunsanya’s suit against Bob Langmuir will have its day in court. That is, the presiding judge in Brooklyn has not thrown it out. But when the busy New York Eastern District Court actually gets around to hearing it is anyone’s guess.

Meanwhile, Phillips de Pury has purged all traces of the scuttled auction of Bob Langmuir’s Arbus/Hubert’s archive from its website. And the auction catalog, a lovely document, is no longer available for sale. Either canny speculators snapped up the remaining copies, or Phillips is holding onto them, knowing they have an instant collector’s item.

A journalist friend, researching a piece for the Village Voice, interviewed Jeff Rosenheim of the Metropolitan Museum, and spokespeople for the Arbus estate and the Fraenkel Gallery. When asked about their possible involvement in Phillips’ last minute cancellation of the April 8 auction, they all said NO WAY. Phillips, true to form, had no comment.

So maybe all my conspiracy theories about the Arbus archive are wrong. Maybe the Arbus estate and the Metropolitan Museum could care less about what happens to the photos that Diane Arbus took of performers at Hubert’s Dime Museum, or the dream journals of Charlie Lucas, the African American performer who managed that venerable Times Square institution.

Maybe Phillips de Pury is just waiting for everyone to forget about the whole strange affair. Maybe they’re banking on the fact that the Bayo lawsuit will exhaust Bob’s resources and that they’ll then be able to strike a more favorable deal with Bob than their original guarantee promised. (They estimated the Arbus/Hubert’s archive would sell for a minimum of $1.75 million. So far, they’re $1.75 million shy of that number.) And then, if they ever settle with Bob, who’s to say they won’t just put the archive away to ripen? Or, worse, disperse it quietly, in dribs and drabs.

This is precisely what Bayo would have done if left to his own devices. He’d have sold the photos and documents on eBay and at various paper shows, piece by piece, thereby destroying the integrity of this unique collection, and the scholarly uses that might have been made of it.

Bob rescued the archive, and made the public aware of its importance. Now he faces a court date, a nasty battle with a well-funded auction gallery, and the disturbing possibility that all his labors might have been in vain.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Grind

The image is of a flat stone skipping across the water. Each skip gets a little shorter as the stone loses energy. Then a brief last slide, and the stone disappears.

Unless you’re Malcolm Gladwell or Stephen King, or the author of a top ten bestseller (the odds on this are about like a ghetto kid making it to the NBA), that’s the way it is when you publish a book. A couple of months of interviews, signings and reviews, and then the world moves on in its ceaseless quest for the New. Your beautiful book sinks like a stone. Or at least it feels that way – Goodbye book! Nobody loves you anymore! When my first book, GONE BOY, came out, I didn’t understand what was happening. At this point in the process for the second book, DEMON OF THE WATERS, I understood all to well, and became depressed. This time I’m philosophical.

HUBERT’S FREAKS hit bookstore shelves mid-March, and now I can feel the attention beginning to wane. But instead of considering suicide or drinking myself into months of oblivion, I’ve come to realize this is when the real work begins. My baby is out there on its own now, but there might be things I can do to help it.

So I’m writing a lot of emails. I’m trying to be helpful to movie people. I’m feeding journalists who are interested in following the story of the art world shenanigans that have fouled things up for the book’s protagonist, Bob Langmuir. I’m visiting bookstores and I’m reaching out to niche markets, just like it says to do in all the books that tell you how to publicize your own bestseller. I’m loading the website with HTML content and soon I’ll get it all tricksy with Java and Flash, so that when – IF – the paperback comes out interested browsers will have a sticky destination with click-throughs to Amazon, B&N, and me.

I’m starting to feel a bit like Charlie Lucas on the Grind Tape he made in 1965, trying to lure customers to the ticket booth at the back of Playland on 42nd St.

“Come back here, in the rear, where the show is going on right now. Hurry along, hurry along, hurry along. Come on in. You are just in time. It is show time. It is show time in Hubert’s Museum. A real live show… There is no waiting. There is no delay. Oh yes. This is a continued show… This show is for ladies, gentlemen and children… We have six live acts. They are alive, living, breathing as you or I. Hurry along. This show is for ladies and gentlemen, children. Hurry along, come on in…”

Maybe nobody buys the pitch. Maybe tens of thousands of people walk past that fantastic doorway - where Joe Buck stood, trying to work his innocent hustle in “Midnight Cowboy” - oblivious of the wonders within. But it beats getting depressed. And it gives me something to do while I’m stewing over the proposal for the next book. You’d think I’d learn.

Hurry along, hurry along. This is a continued show...

Friday, May 2, 2008


In my book HUBERT’S FREAKS Bob Langmuir has an important meeting with Jeff Rosenheim, curator of photography at New York’s Metropolitan Museum. Jeff clears up some preliminary misunderstandings on Bob’s part by telling him, “We’ve already done an Arbus show. I want to do a Hubert’s show.”

It’s a critical moment in the story, as Bob comes to understand another aspect of the archive he’s discovered. But it also speaks well for Rosenheim’s curatorial insight and intelligence. The strange subculture of freak shows and sideshows, and how Diane Arbus interacted with it, would indeed make for a fascinating exhibition.

Now, whether by means I’ve speculated about in earlier blog entries, or through some yet-to-be-discovered scenario, it seems at least possible that Bob Langmuir’s Arbus/Hubert’s archive might wind up with the rest of the Arbus Estate’s holdings – in the care of the Metropolitan Museum. Such an outcome would probably be satisfactory to the Estate, who would once again have control over the rogue archive thrown before the public by the intractable Langmuir. But it might also result in the Hubert’s exhibition Jeff Rosenheim has been longing to assemble at the Met, which would be a terrific thing.

Such were my thoughts as I finished a long phone conversation yesterday with a man named Preston Mardenborough. Preston had run away from home and, at the age of sixteen, wound up spending a lot of time at Hubert’s, eventually finding part-time employment there. He remembered Charlie Lucas, Woogie, Sealo the Seal Boy, Congo the Jungle Creep and Andy Potato Chips - all subjects of Arbus’s photographs - and he asked after them as eagerly as someone at a high school reunion might ask after absent friends.

Preston is just one of a number of surviving Hubert’s alums. Jack Dracula, Presto the Magician, Richard del Borgo, Ward Hall, and Bobby Reynolds are still with us, and who knows how many others might be out there somewhere – alive, kicking, and full of stories about Hubert’s and maybe even about Arbus?

I hope Jeff Rosenheim gets to do his Hubert’s show at the Met, and I hope all the old freaks go to see it. Wouldn’t that be a lovely scene – giants, midgets, tattooed men and bearded ladies trooping through those hallowed halls? Can senior citizens still eat fire? Swallow swords? What happens to tattoos after 50 years? Does anyone still remember how to train fleas?

It would make a great panel discussion on the night of the opening. Surely the Met would give it a dignified, academic-sounding title. And they’d have to get phone books for the midgets to sit on, low chairs for the giants, and translators for the wildmen and geeks, but it would be a splendid event, well worth the extra effort.

Give me a call anytime, Jeff. I've got their contact info.