Commission: Donald Urquhart
When I was selling beer a couple of years back I concocted an imaginary ad for an imaginary product—an unrealised dream of a thing called CRYALLNITE mascara. For this image I needed to draw a lustrously lashed eye, and one that didn’t look as though it had been crying all night. I drew the exuberant eye of Nina Simone. You may not know the eyes of Nina Simone, for her famed voice, tantrums, song writing, piano playing and politics are what she is known for. She was never really considered a beauty. Often she was simply never considered. ‘Everybody took a chunk of me’, she said. Ripped-off, bootlegged, cheated, abused—Simone’s notorious fury and bitterness was justified, searingly heart-felt and painfully evident. Few artists have ever had such a raw deal but la Simone shrugged off her leeches, would-be fleecers and swindlers with dignity and style. But never forgot them.
Nina Simone lives in my mind slamming down keyboard lids and shooting at her neighbours with a revolver through a hedge for being noisy: scrubbing the floors as Pirate Jenny, full of murder, crying out at injustice, a high priestess in ceremonial robes exiting grandly, wearing a hurt as old as time. But oh no, don’t you cross Nina. She angry. She mad. She gonna twist you around real bad. Pit snake with see-in-the-dark eyes and a thrashing tail make Godzilla seem like a timid snail. Towards the end of her life she insisted that she would never return to the United States because (among many reasons) she did not believe in mixed race marriages, HATED rap music (me too!), and felt that the civil rights movement had got nowhere and wasn’t going anywhere.
Yet Nina could always laugh. I was watching a dvd of her concert in 1976 at Montreaux a couple of weeks ago when we had all that rain. All THIS rain. What was Nina singing? ‘Be My Husband’ (eventually she wanted Nelson Mandela to be her husband, for which occasion she kept a special dress ready—however, as we know, that did not happen). She broke off: ‘I went to see Janis Joplin’s film—and what distressed me the most... it pained me to see how hard she worked—because she got hooked into a thing... and it wasn’t on drugs. She got hooked into FEELING. And she played to CORPSES!’
Nina clicks, clucks, chuckles and then (BANG! at the same time as a huge bolt of lightning) laughs in a high sarcastic howl. Surprised by her own crazy nasty mouth (as I often am). Like she never knew her black dark humour could come up with such a wild mad image. Corpses... an audience of paying corpses... HAH!
Nina’s bleak vision of the future, as told in her song ‘22nd Century’ is that the end will come in that century: baldness and lack of oxygen are the results of our decadent ways, ‘your heart is a plastic thing that can be bought—there are no more diseases that can be caught’—and facing certain death the human race attempts to unite? Nina shrugs. Nina closes the piano lid.
In Albert and David Maysles’ 1975 documentary Grey Gardens, 56 year old recluse Little Edie Beale steps out in a brown ensemble she has devised using an upside-down skirt, and wearing a sweater knotted around her head as a snood.
LE—This is the best thing to wear for today, you understand.
LE—Because I don’t like women in skirts, and the best thing is to wear pantyhose or some pants... under a short skirt, I think. Then you have the pants under the skirt, and then you can pull the stockings up over the pants, underneath the skirt.
LE—And you can always take off the skirt and use it as a cape. So I think this is the best costume for the day.
LE—[Laughs] I have to think these things up, you know. Mother wanted me to come out in a kimono, so we had quite a fight.
Mother, ‘Big’ Edie Bouvier Beale liked her daughter to entertain her by changing her outfit as often as ten times a day. They lived together for over 25 years in an increasingly derelict house on Long Island, watching it fall down around them as their funds depleted. Grey Gardens became home to dozens of stray cats, racoons, sloths, badgers and various other vermin, and the Beales found themselves living in shockingly squalid conditions. They were eventually rescued (after a ‘raid’ by local authorities who declared Grey Gardens unfit for human habitation) by little Edie’s cousins Jackie Kennedy and Lee Radziwill who had the house cleaned up and repaired after the scandal hit the headlines.
I can’t think of how many times I have watched the documentary over the years. Dozens? Hundreds? I think I first became aware of it in the early 1980s when I moved to London. It seemed like every time you went to someone’s flat to get drunk before going out, GG would be on the video. We would all quote from and imitate the Beales—singing ‘Tea For Two’ in Big Edie’s shrill soprano, or tying a tea towel round our heads and doing a Little Edie: ‘Mother’s giving her all this S-H-I-T, so I went and told her some things about the family. But, you see, in dealing with me... the relatives didn’t know... that they were dealing with a staunch character. And I tell you, if there’s anything worse than a staunch woman S-T-A-U-N-C-H. There’s nothing worse, I’m telling you. They don’t weaken no matter what.’
Edie’s story is a sad one—she never married although she was once engaged to Joe Kennedy Jr and was courted by Howard Hughes and Paul Getty, among other prominent millionaires: she had tried to establish a stage career in New York, but had to go back to Grey Gardens to look after her mother in 1952. ‘She just didn’t want to get married. That’s all blamed on me’, says Big Edie. Bickering and yelling at one another throughout the film, the Edies nevertheless love one another, and enjoy their unique situation (although Little Edie constantly grumbles that she has to get away). Theirs was a relationship of mutual manipulation and co-dependent independence. Big Edie was satisfied with her riches-to-rags life because she had always done as she pleased, she had Bohemian inclinations and very hippy-like ideas. Her daughter’s non-conformity was similar, but with punk overtones that bordered on anarchic. She loved to rebel against fashion, yet knew better than to wear her ‘revolutionary’ costume in ‘mean nasty Republican’ East Hampton. I remember when I was in my early teens I made my friend Gordon play a game where we pretended to be girls. We didn’t have wigs so we used sweaters for hair and glamour-posed for passers-by in a local park. Kids play-acting is one thing, but the sight of a middle-aged woman doing the same thing is a bit too radical for small-minded townspeople. Edie could cut a dash but she was no Leigh Bowery.
Now a posthumously verified fashion icon, Little Edie’s style manifesto has been celebrated on international catwalks and on Broadway, and there is talk of a film starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore. I recall people going out to clubs in the 1980s wearing jackets and sweaters as skirts, and skirts worn over shorts or as capes. Those were the days of DIY styling; making-do and mending because nobody wanted the ridiculously over-priced ‘designer’ gear that was out then. You wouldn’t be seen dead in it. That was O-U-T. Surely a lot of what people went out in those times was due to the influence of Grey Gardens. People were on the dole, but with a little bit of Little Edie-type ingenuity you could turn a fishing cape into a ballgown. What is it about Little Edie’s character that endears so many to her? She is sweet and innocent, yet worldly and defensive... she can bitch back, but has a certain purity and (mostly) a lack of malice. What charm! And she really is funny, but she’s funny with—perhaps dignity isn’t the right word, but it’s nearly right—funny with pizazz. Little Edie had many opportunities to become a gold digger, or at least very comfortably married. Isn’t that the same thing? She could even have been Countess Edith if her mother hadn’t stepped in. She wanted freedom.
BE—Well, you can’t get it, darling. You’re being ah, supported. You can’t get any freedom when you’re being supported.
LE—Yeah, but... You can’t?
BE—No, you can’t.
When I was thinking about writing this piece about four women I wanted to find somebody really nasty as well as some of the staunch and stellar characters I admire. Oh there have been some nasty women you know. I then decided to pick a fictional nasty woman: Becky Sharp, the most monstrous of all gold diggers. You know Becky Sharp, latterly Madame Rebecque who scored a booth at
the Vanity Fair?
Becky Sharp was surely the combined original of Lorelei and Dorothy from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, indeed she was also a tastefully re-worked Clytemnestra, and for me the most entertaining literary anti-heroine I ever came across besides Miss Jean Brodie. Thackeray was praised by Charlotte Brontë for his ‘Vanity Fair’ in this way: ‘His wit is bright, his humour attractive but both bear the same relation to his serious genius that the mere iambent street-lighting playing under the edge of the summer cloud does to the electric death-spark hidden in its womb.’ That lady could fucking write. Where were we?
Apparently Becky Sharp was based in part on Thackeray’s maternal grandmother Harriet Becher. She was a lady who repeatedly married well, but through Thackeray’s pen became a wanton vampire who would stop at nothing (not even murder it is said) to get what she wanted. Thackeray’s best non-description of Becky comes in ‘A Vagabond Chapter’ where he skirts around her scandalous misdeeds by comparing her to a siren ‘singing and smiling, coaxing and cajoling [on the perilous rocks]’ without revealing the ‘monster’s hideous tail above water’.
‘Those who like may peep down under the waves and see it writhing and twirling, diabolically hideous and slimy, flapping amongst bones or curling round corpses...’
Wearing ‘rouge up to her eyelids’ Becky’s antics worsen and she is condemned to travel shadily from town to town by moralising society folk. You really end up feeling sorry for the wrong girl when you read Vanity Fair. And really detesting the sweet do-gooder Emmy.
Such is life.
I was saying earlier that Nina Simone was never considered a beauty. That’s what they said about Barbara Stanwyck. That, and that she was the star who never won (an Oscar). But just you look at her in her early roles. She was hot. The roles she played were mainly that of a faded beauty, a tarnished... Oh no—here I am swinging into Campland. Doing exactly what is expected of me. A jaded old drag queen pays homage to tired old stars. I should leave THAT to the likes of Rufus Wainright. But let us proceed: momentary glimmer of doubt banished.
Barbara Stanwyck played an Art Deco Becky Sharp in Baby Face, 1933, all fancy collars and skyscrapers, wrecking the lives of a string of suckers as she flees life with her pimp father who has rented her out since she was 14, to lavish in the luxury diamonds-and-furs’ lifestyle she feels she deserves after all she has endured. I met a really snobby little queen a while ago. He said he was getting into debt because of his love of antiques and luxury goods. I think word has got out about my increasingly Spartan or hermetic or Grey Gardens’ lifestyle because he told me this so that he could lead up to asking me: ‘Do you like buying luxury goods?’
I think he was trying to find out if I was into the snob thing like he was. No, maybe he wanted me to pelt him with savage retorts so that he could retell them later. It was kind of a test. He wanted something and I hoped it wasn’t a punch as we were in company. I told him I was decreasingly concerned about possessions (which is true)—at this point I am more worried about re-possessions! Then I thought he may have been asking me whether I, as an older man/Daddy figure, would be interested in buying HIM luxury goods? Kind of a kindly benefactor who could bail him out of problems at the auction house. He might have thought that since I did those beer ads I had some extra cash. He was certainly thinking of something Becky Sharpish as his pale dead eyes widened and his mouth showed as many teeth as it possibly could. ‘I mean do you like luxury goods?’ he continued unsurprisingly with a little wibbly-wobble of his head. ‘I do like luxury goods’, I returned, staring at the premature crows-feet around his eyes like an Elizabeth Arden salesgirl. Some people have a fathomless shallowness.
I named this piece after a Nina song, ‘Four Women’. This was kind of a follow on to the title of my forthcoming show at Maureen Paley Gallery London 52 GIRLS after a B-52’s song (and no there are not 52 girls in the show). In ‘Four Women’ she announces ‘my skin is brown, my manner is tough... I’m awfully bitter these days...’—and you know she really means that. I often think I’m bitter—I have plenty to be bitter about—we ALL do. I think it’s trying to direct the bitterness in another direction that keeps the bitterness from turning us sour. Nina took it out on a piano. I draw and paint and get dressed up like Little Edie. I like to inhabit an imaginary place. I used to sing in drag quite a lot. My signature song was ‘Is That All There Is?’