My first wife, Mary Ann, was a dedicated and passionate artist, my partner in marriage, parenthood, and creativity. She was diagnosed with cancer in 1985, shortly before the tenth anniversary of our moving in together. Mary Ann was 40, I was 35, and our daughter, Eve, was two. We all joined in the battle against cancer, a prolonged and often harrowing experience that struck our family at its core. We still feel its impact today, long after Mary Ann's eventual death at the very end of 1998.
I have several goals in creating this book. I want to provide as honest an account as possible about this trying time in my family's life, because I think it can offer some insight to those who find themselves going through similar experiences; I want to prompt readers to ask profound and personal questions about this story and their own; and I hope the book helps my children understand who they are.
In creating this book, however, I've found that the "truth" in family stories can be elusive. The stories people tell about their lives are loaded with whatever remains unresolved in their relationships with their spouses and children and parents and siblings. The following is an excerpt from the soon to be published book.
I'm a rock in a landslide
Rolling over the mountainside
How deep is the valley?
How deep is the valley?
—from 'til I Die, by Brian Wilson
From Chapter 01
The first time I saw her was at a job interview. I’d applied at a photo library to be a researcher, and to my surprise, the librarian put me right to work. In an office too cramped for all its prints, slides, staff, and visiting photographers, I was asked to go through all the photos from a magazine assignment on Los Angeles and decide which to include in the library’s collection. As I spread the slides on a long light box, a woman emerged from a back room carrying a book of contact sheets. She had short brown hair, dark eyes in a round, intelligent face, and full breasts, braless under a thin jersey. It was impossible not to be distracted by her. She was full of energy and purpose, and as I took all this in, she gave me a jolt of pleasure when she aimed her smile straight at me. I got the job, and I got to see this woman every day. Her name was Mary Ann.
It was the summer of 1975. I was twenty-five years old, tall and thin, with wire-rimmed glasses and an already-ebbing hairline, and I had moved from Boston to New York to pursue a career as a photographer. The library job provided stability while I made my own pictures and put together a portfolio, planning eventually to quit and seek assignments from magazines and newspapers.
Mary Ann and I were two among a crew of researchers who pulled photographs to meet client requests—a lot of politics and news, and a lot of historical and cultural esoterica: Do you have any shots of the runs on the banks when Mao was taking over China? Do you have any pictures of Elvis smoking a cigarette? The staff joke was that one day we’d be asked for a picture of a multi-racial couple making love on the back of a whale—but it had to be “a black and a Japanese.” I got to see the good and not-so-good pictures that photographers made on assignments all over the world, and I got clues about what it would be like to live my life doing those assignments. Mary Ann specialized in filling anthropological requests, vicariously traveling around the world: What pictures do you have of tribal life in Papua New Guinea? Can you show us photos of ethnic dance from thirteen different countries?
She knew a lot about shamanistic practices and ritual objects, and her insights were often startling.
It was a convivial group in the library, photographers and artists supporting their own pursuits, attracted by a job that, although low paying, had an interesting and unusual connection to creativity. Some days we brought bag lunches and ate on the roof or in one of the nearby parks, other days we went to a restaurant or deli. I remember Mary Ann laughingly boasting that she’d figured out the cheapest nutritional lunch: a can of Coca-Cola and a Hershey Bar with almonds, a rush of sugar that also managed to be sustaining for the afternoon.
I found myself paying particular attention to her, managing to have one-on-one conversations even in the middle of a group. I learned that Mary Ann was five years older than me, that she had a graduate degree in sculpture from Columbia, and that she’d traveled widely. She knew a lot about shamanistic practices and ritual objects, and her insights were often startling. She pointed out, for example, that sculptors and photographers shared the challenge of confronting three-dimensionality, an observation I thought delightful because it taught me something about photography and created a link between me and this woman I was flirting with. We were linked too by our optimism about the creative life: we believed that our dedication to making art would make us happy.
A month after I started at the library, I asked Mary Ann to my apartment for dinner. She brought along Larry, an older artist friend, and a big bottle of wine, and the two of them talked about art and the art world, recognition that appears and disappears, and Larry’s late-career concerns about what would happen to his paintings after he died. Although their conversation surpassed my knowledge or reference points, Mary Ann could tell I was listening; I was being pulled into her orbit, and she knew it. The conversation turned to other subjects and my attention wandered, but I remember suddenly sitting up when she said something about blow jobs. I was nervous—and flattered. It was a gambit to get Larry out of the apartment, and it worked. He quickly left, and she stayed the night.
That night was followed by another, then more, and we started going out for workday lunches just the two of us. Mary Ann was my senior in age and experience, and our affair turned serious for me before it did for her. I remember leaning across the table at a deli booth and telling her a story about my mother, an intimacy that she recognized as pulling her deeper into my life. She let me know where I stood: “I’ll never meet your mother,” and I cringed. These women were already linked in my mind. To begin with, they shared a name. My mother, Anne, had a similarly dominant personality, and she also had a wide knowledge and keen appreciation of the arts. I made do at the deli booth with a mild protest: “You never know,” and lunch continued. Still, Mary Ann must have seen that I was really interested and done some reconsidering, because she soon started to get more interested herself. It wasn’t long before we were spending not just our lunches, but all our time together too.
We both lived downtown. Her Lafayette Street apartment was just a few minutes walk from my place on Elizabeth Street, and we split our time between the two. She got to see my photographs that I’d made for my college paper and of the places I’d been afterwards; I got to see her sculpture, mostly in pictures, since almost all her work was too large to be kept in an apartment. She loved my documentary approach, directly responsive to the real world; I loved her sculpture, which she told me was “anthropomorphic abstraction”—shapes that did not represent anything real yet nonetheless looked alive.
Both our apartments were small. Like most artists in New York City, Mary Ann wanted a place big enough to both live and work, and since she liked to make big sculptures, she needed a lot of space. On her salary, this was a tall order. She walked up and down the streets in our neighborhoods, on the hunt for a large empty space. She entered likely-looking buildings to ask the supers if anything was available, and shortly after we met, acting on a tip from an avant-garde theater friend, Mary Ann ferreted out space in a nine-story light manufacturing building, half empty and half-occupied by other artists, located just off the Bowery on Third Street. She had a whole floor, raw and filthy, where there had once been a factory that produced perforated metal balls for making tea.
We were naive and still full of the invincibility of youth. Neither of us could yet envision a future life where safety would be an important consideration.
The block itself was uniquely wild in the already dicey East Village. The building was two doors down from a federal prisoners’ halfway house and faced a large men’s shelter, a former YMCA. More than 700 homeless men took up temporary residence on our block each day, bused in for “processing” from other shelters around the city. The men were given vouchers for housing and clothing and were served lunch, which they brought outside and threw on the ground when they didn’t like it. Typically the men had nothing to do, so they would stand, sit, or lie on the sunny side of the street, our side. The street theater ran the gamut from incoherent babbling and racial taunts to drug dealing, prostitution, beatings, and murder. Mary Ann was desperate for the space to work, so it was worth it to her. And at the time, many of our friends and fellow artists were living on blocks like this, if not quite so extreme. We were naive and still full of the invincibility of youth. Neither of us could yet envision a future life where safety would be an important consideration.
In the meantime, Mary Ann saw no reason to keep her apartment while she fixed up her new place, and I was happy to have her move in with me. By then I was smitten by her fearlessness, her sensuality, her intelligence, and her commitment to her art.
She stacked her stuff in my apartment and began going every day after work to clean out the space on Third Street. Mary Ann had the entire eighth floor to herself, nearly 2,000 square feet with beautiful light from windows on all four sides—it was also filled with machinery, smelled of oil, had two stall toilets, walls that were pocked and peeling, and a disintegrating floor. I was happy to help clean and repair, Mary Ann was appreciative of my eagerness to pitch in, and we decided to extend our living together. When the loft was just barely habitable, we put a mattress on the floor and called it home.
We lived 123 steps up, and our elevator was only in service from nine to five, Monday through Friday. In the basement was a coal-fired furnace that had to be stoked regularly to keep the building heated. The super only worked weekdays, and although the artist occupants banded together and hired a handyman stoker to fill in, he was not reliable, making weekends and holidays polar experiences to be survived with piles of blankets and mugs of steaming coffee. Because the loft was still more factory than residence, there was no buzzer or way to reach us from the front door. Our friends would call from the pay phone at the corner and we’d toss down the keys rolled in a pair of socks. The inconveniences, though, were well worth the incomparable space, perched two stories higher than the surrounding tenements, suffused with light all day and with long views of downtown and midtown Manhattan, Greenwich Village, the Lower East Side, Brooklyn, Queens, and even a piece of New Jersey.
The City of New York owned our building—it was part of a fizzled urban renewal project—and the rent was low. The proviso was that we had to pay for the seemingly endless renovation work. Our families expected us to be self-reliant, we agreed, and our scanty salaries were our sole source of money, so we were left with no choice but to do the work on the loft ourselves. That was fine with us. It fit with my romantic ideas about being bohemian and an artist, and Mary Ann relished the opportunity to demonstrate her capabilities.
As a sculptor, Mary Ann knew tools and structure, and her father, Bill, an engineer and a true Mr. Fix-It, regularly made the trip in from New Jersey to help out. A stocky man with an enormous head, capped by white hair and a beard, Bill would come with tools and supplies, and though he didn’t talk much, he was a patient and generous mentor. We ran wiring and installed plumbing, built walls and bookcases, replaced the semi-opaque window glass, and created a full bathroom. I had little experience with power tools, much less designing and building my own home. Yet working with Bill and Mary Ann, I was remade in their image, proud of my new skills in carpentry, electricity, and plumbing. And Mary Ann was ingenious in extending our dollars. We scavenged boards and wooden food crates from the street to construct kitchen counters; we ducked under a chain link fence and climbed to the third floor of an abandoned Bowery flophouse to pry tiles off the bathroom walls for our tub enclosure. Mary Ann took advantage too of her Dad’s love of food gadgets, which included a deli slicer: she came up with the idea of buying five-pound boneless canned ham and slicing it into sandwich meat in her parents’ kitchen. We tolerated our co-workers amusement at our monotonous lunch diet—it saved us forty dollars a week, enough to buy the lumber to frame out a wall, the metal to begin a sculpture armature, or a couple of hundred-foot rolls of Tri-X film. As much as we were building a home, we were also conjuring Mary Ann’s improbable vision—a space big enough for us to live and for her to work, right in the city, at struggling artist prices. We devoted the largest portion of the space to Mary Ann’s studio, and we carved out a darkroom for me too.
Settling into the home we had made together, I had no doubt that Mary Ann and I were together for the long term. It was my nature and personality to want someone to live with, in part my way of compensating for the lingering insecurity of my parents’ divorce when I was a toddler. I needed somebody to love. Mary Ann was having a good time, but she had a more worldly attitude—she’d had multiple lovers and was enjoying me, but didn’t know yet how long she wanted to stay together. She liked to say that she’d realized I could be her partner for life late one night, when some glass seltzer bottles next to the stove exploded, and, jolted from sleep, I leapt up—naked and without my glasses on—and ran blindly across the room, yelling and waving my arms to scare away the intruder. With clear amusement in her voice, Mary Ann would recount being propped on one elbow, astonished at my recklessness and saying to herself, “That’s the man for me.”