Beauty Doesn’t Seem to Go Anywhere: An Interview with Catherine Lacey and Forsyth Harmon

There’s a sort of guilty pleasure that comes with reading a book illustrated on every page. Even more delicious is an illustrated book filled with exposed affairs, connected relationships, and literal-drawn-out lines of influence exposing our favorite artists from the decades gone by. When these elements come together in The Art of the Affair: An Illustrated History of Love, Sex, and Artistic Influence, the result is the most electric read with which to start the new year.

I had the chance to ask writer Catherine Lacey and illustrator (and Weird Sister contributor!) Forsyth Harmon more about their new book, their favorite tidbits of gossip, and more:

Kati Heng: I know you had to cut down and leave out sooo much to include so many of these relationships in your book. If you were to write and illustrate a single book about the intermingling affairs of one couple or group (since it seems like every didn’t just settle for one partner!), who would you focus on and why?

Catherine Lacey: Anaïs Nin was a big inspiration for the early research and looking back, she was also one of the most prolific characters in the book as far as friendships, affairs and alliances go. Her diaries and letters reveal a sort of fervency she had about the people in her life and she left troves of writing about her relationships.

Forsyth Harmon: Mercedes de Acosta was an American poet, playwright, and novelist, but she was probably better known for her affairs than her work: Eva Le Gallienne, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Ona Munson, Isadora Duncan,Tamara Platonovna Karsavina and (although unsubstantiated) Alice B. Toklas. It’s been rumored that she once said: “I can get any woman away from any man.”

And Josephine Baker had a fascinating sex and family life. She was married four times—the first time at thirteen years old—and had several same-sex partners, the most prominent of those being (allegedly) Frida Kahlo. During her work with the Civil Rights Movement, she adopted several children, forming a family she often referred to as “The Rainbow Tribe” in the hopes of proving that “children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers.”

KH: Going through the book, it seemed like, even in the 1920s or 30s where many of these relationships were focused, conventional attractiveness and gender/sexual orientation didn’t matter in terms of mating. Do you think this is a trait that falls onto artists? Do you think these people were more attractive in person, in presence, than they seem today? And as far as sexually liberation… Why have we not heard about so many (especially) female artists having female lovers on the side?

CL: It’s difficult to say with any certainty, since many of these people are long since dead, whether they had some sort of magnetism in person that perhaps did not come through in pictures, but I feel that when a person has a refined sense of their artistic objectives life this tends to translate to the way they occupy space. Similarly a person can have a very obvious physical beauty but without some other driving force beneath it, that beauty doesn’t seem to go anywhere. It just sort of stays within the person.

Portrait of Catherine Lacey, illustrated by Forsyth Harmon

FH: Same-sex lovers no longer need to be taken “on the side,” do they? Even the most mainstream artists’ same-sex affairs—think of Lindsay Lohan and Kristen Stewart—are covered by TMZ. Miley Cyrus defines herself as pansexual and gender-neutral.

KH: If there is one point your book drives home, it may be that art lives in circles of influence. Sometimes, we don’t even realize these circles until decades later. What circles of artistic people do you think people in the future will look back on when they remember the 20-teens?

CL: Oh it’s very hard to say, isn’t it? And really none of the good shit will be revealed until people die anyway and leave behind their collected emails and texts. Personally, I would love to know what (if any) effect Bjork and Matthew Barney have had on each other’s work.

FH: I wonder how history will look at Beyoncé and Jay Z. And I’d be fascinated to see whether the Kardashians are remembered. But post-election, I believe those who make their work a form of activism will be most influential. I’m interested in how artists are re-calibrating their practices for the Trumpocalypse.

KH: It was hilarious to read your book and learn how many standards of film, literature, art and music were made in butthurt response to people that were rejected or turned down by other artists! So, I would like to know each of your favorite pieces of media that was made by one of the butthurt artists in this book telling the story of another artist that may have shown them in a less-than-lovely light.

CL: I had to look that word up. Butthurt. OK. Well I never knew that Miles Davis made so much of his best work after he and Juliette Greco split up. But neither of them were really dumped. They had to part ways because of all those awful anti-miscegenation laws and America’s shitty attitude was making it impossible for them to be together. Same for Canada Lee and Caresse Crosby. You could see Kind of Blue as a way for Miles Davis to say, “America, you make me sad.”

FH: Robert Lowell’s marriage to Elizabeth Hardwick was characterized by The New York Times as “restless and emotionally harrowing.” His 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning sonnet sequence, The Dolphin, created a controversy when he admitted to having not only incorporated but changed some “restless and emotionally harrowing” letters from Hardwick. He was rebuked by friends and critics alike. Prior to publication he’d received a warning from Elizabeth Bishop: “One can use one’s life as material—one does anyway—but these letters—aren’t you violating a trust? IF you were given permission—IF you hadn’t changed them…etc. But art just isn’t worth that much.”

KH: So, your book brings to mind that Hollywood connection game “6 degrees to Kevin Bacon.” Taking a chance here since you two are not actresses (that I am aware of), but can either of you connect yourselves to someone that has met or worked with Kevin Bacon?

CL: Actually my friend Kaija is an actress and was on a show called The Following until her character was killed off by a character played by Kevin Bacon.

FH: Well, I guess that makes me three degrees from Kevin.

An Illustrated Self-Portrait of Forsyth Harmon

KH: Tell me about your bookshelves! What room in your home are your books kept in? Are they in any kind of order? What books have you had since you were a teenager? What books are you most excited to read next? What book in your collection has the best cover?

CL: I just moved and gave away or sold every book I wasn’t sure I was going to re-read. I have moved so much in the last 15 years, that I had to stop fetishizing my book collection. I had one really beat-up copy of The Hero with a Thousand Faces from high school, but I think I may have given it away. I have a very worn out copy of Mrs. Bridge. It is hideous and falling apart. I love it.

FH: Similarly, I’ve probably lived at twenty different addresses over the past twenty years; only a few books traveled with me. One is Edie: An American Biography, which was given to me by my art teacher in high school. It’s a tragic account of Edie Sedgwick’s brief life formed entirely of quotes from her family and an impressive list of friends including John Cage, Patti Smith and, of course, Andy Warhol. It was published in 1982, and the cover is this amazing ‘80s re-imagining of the ‘60s: it’s bright aquamarine, and Edie lies flat on her back on pink and melon floating parallelograms in a white shift dress and big cocktail rings, her body stretched out around the spine, her legs tapering into pointy silver flats on the back.

At the moment, I think a lot of us are probably deeply immersed in a perpetual New York TimesWashington PostGuardian reading rotation, although I do make a point of setting aside the news for other reading in the evenings. I recently devoured everything of Yoko Ogawa’s that’s been translated into English—I’m impressed with how much she’s able to accomplish with so few words. I just finished Roxanne Gay’s Difficult Women and was particularly moved by the story “Requiem for a Glass Heart.” I loved Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and am just beginning Human Acts, and I’m curious about Ayelet Waldman’s A Really Good Day. I’m a big Alexander and Ann Shulgin fan ;).


Leave a Comment

Filed under Art + Comics, Books + Literature, Interviews

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *