A History of Great Friendships – The New York Times

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A Shared Devotion
With good friends, as with great art, our sense of the world is challenged and transformed.

STORIES OF FRIENDSHIPS between artists are often told as love stories: the chance meeting, the electric first encounter, the mysterious mutual recognition that would change everything. That summer day in 1967 when Robert Mapplethorpe ran into Patti Smith in a New York City bookstore, both 20-year-olds craving beauty and immortality — “I thought to myself that he contained an entire universe I just had to know,” Smith wrote in her 2010 memoir, “Just Kids.” The afternoon in 1940 when a teenage James Baldwin knocked on the door of Beauford Delaney’s Greenwich Village studio (“the first walking, living proof, for me, that a Black man could be an artist,” Baldwin wrote in his 1985 essay “The Price of a Ticket” of meeting the painter). But lightning doesn’t always strike on initial acquaintance. In a 1917 diary entry, a 35-year-old Virginia Woolf didn’t mince words in her impression of the New Zealand-born Modernist writer Katherine Mansfield at a dinner party: “She stinks like a … civet cat that had taken to streetwalking.” Despite Mansfield’s shocking “commonness,” Woolf went on, “when this diminishes, she is so intelligent and inscrutable that she repays friendship.”
Woolf couldn’t have known then how quickly that seed of admiration for Mansfield, who was younger and, at the time, a more established writer, would grow, and how much she would cherish their conversations and letters, passionately intellectual exchanges in which they hashed out their literary ideals. In 1918, Woolf’s own Hogarth Press published “Prelude,” Mansfield’s masterpiece about an uprooted New Zealand family, in which the point of view floats between the characters’ consciousnesses. And so it pained Woolf when Mansfield fell silent, and even more so when her erstwhile friend authored a tepid review of Woolf’s second novel, “Night and Day,” in 1919. Mansfield wrote that a new world order put new demands on authors, obliging them to forge “new expressions new molds for our new thoughts and feelings” — implying that Woolf had failed to do just that. To Woolf’s credit, once the sting had faded, she sought an explanation from her friend. Her next novel, “Jacob’s Room” (1922), marked her transition to the fragmented, interior style she’s become known for, followed by “Mrs. Dalloway” (1925) and “To the Lighthouse” (1927): novels in which World War I looms perceptibly, the violence off-page finding its echoes within the characters.
I’ve come to believe that friendship — not the Facebook kind, but the real kind — is a kind of romance, and that its resilience to such unadorned truths is its test of strength. (“Better be a nettle in the side of your friend, than his echo,” as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it.) At the same time, a real friend can also be counted on to tenderly shelter our idealism in a transactional world: That person who might help us believe, against all odds, in our own consequence as we go about the delicate business of composing a self — an act of imagination in large part, after all. The moral anxiety of any creative practice — standing, as it does, uncredentialed and fiscally insecure, in dubious relation to necessity — can be acute, and it does something to you when someone else believes in you. I think of Margery Williams’s 1922 children’s book, “The Velveteen Rabbit,” in which a young boy’s devotion makes the titular stuffed animal believe itself to be real — despite what the rabbits in the forest, the kind that hop nimbly about on their hind legs, might say. We all know the pain of having our dreams dispelled by things like pedestrian day jobs, student loans, family obligations and amiable philistines. An artist’s self-conception depends on the durability of our private mythologies, our sense of the possible ignited by those who believe in it, and in us.
According to Smith, her connection with Mapplethorpe felt destined, rooted in their sense of themselves as outsiders — and their mutual determination to forge alternative lives in art. (Smith and Mapplethorpe were lovers, too, even while the latter was coming to terms with being gay; their friendship flourished long after its erotic aspect ended.) “By his example,” Smith wrote in her memoir, published nearly two decades after Mapplethorpe’s death, “I understood that what matters is the work: the string of words propelled by God becoming a poem, the weave of color and graphite scrawled upon the sheet that magnifies his motion. To achieve within the work a perfect balance of faith and execution.” That faith and discipline got them through the lean years: the cockroaches in their shared apartment, the stale bread for dinner. In my favorite passage in the book, Smith recalls how they’d take turns seeing museum exhibitions, saving up for a single ticket. “One day we’ll go in together, and the work will be ours,” he told her. It was Mapplethorpe, of course, who shot the cover of her 1975 debut album, “Horses,” on which Smith appears, instantly iconic, in a crisp white shirt with the French cuffs cut off (“Make sure it’s clean,” he’d told her).
Baldwin, the stepson of a preacher, found in Delaney an alternative father figure and model of perseverance and integrity, not to mention courage; Baldwin, in turn, inspired Delaney with his social conscience and commitment to civil rights causes — and perhaps, in later years, when Delaney’s mental health began to fray, a steadying hand. In an oft-quoted passage from a 1984 interview in “The Paris Review,” Baldwin recalled standing on a street corner in the Village with Delaney, waiting for the light to change: “He pointed down and said, ‘Look.’ I looked and all I saw was water. And he said, ‘Look again,’ which I did, and I saw oil on the water and the city reflected in the puddle. It was a great revelation to me. I can’t explain it. He taught me how to see, and how to trust what I saw. Painters have often taught writers how to see. And once you’ve had that experience, you see differently.”
To think of the people who have taught me to see the world in a way less filtered — that is, to trust what I see rather than altering my view to appease or cater to expectation — is to think of the people I’ve come to depend on most to level with me. To be unlocked from the prison of one’s subjectivity is surely rare, mimicking our best encounters with art itself: the shock of recognition in another’s thoughts, turns of phrase, perspectives. Stories like these make me believe that genuine creative communion between people is possible. Think of Cy Twombly and Sally Mann, artists of different generations and genre who found a common pull in their hometown, Lexington, Va., far from urban art circles. Or Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, initially lacking a common language but recognizing at once their shared passion for mischief. Sometimes, such a bond can be literally lifesaving: In 1967, Robert Rauschenberg flew to the Denver hospital where his friend and collaborator the dance visionary Yvonne Rainer was recovering from emergency bowel surgery. When she was finally released, he put Rainer up for her long convalescence. Where health insurance failed, friendship stepped in.
THE MYTH OF the solitary creative genius dies hard, and yet the story of Western art and letters is largely told in schools, groups and movements. From the Impressionists to the Harlem Renaissance, Fluxus to the Hairy Who, the L.A. Rebellion to Act Up, our aesthetic history is founded on shared sensibilities and inside jokes, on heated debates over dinner parties, on the common desire to burn down the house of our elders. We read their letters and diaries and manifestoes, observing the hand they had in the creation of their own legacies, and they become as real to us as the characters in their novels or plays or films. Even Emerson, of all people, known for his championing of self-reliance and solitary contemplation, believed that “our intellectual and active powers increase with our affection,” as he declared in his 1841 essay “Friendship.” “The scholar sits down to write, and all his years of meditation do not furnish him with one good thought or happy expression, but it is necessary to write a letter to a friend, and, forthwith, troops of gentle thoughts invest themselves, on every hand, with chosen words.” It’s hard to imagine Emerson existing in literary history in quite the same way without Henry David Thoreau, his friend, fellow Transcendentalist, and disciple; in the same way, it’s hard to imagine Romy without Michele, Frog without Toad, Charlie Brown without Linus van Pelt or Thelma without Louise.
I think of Emerson’s words whenever I find myself on deadline, dashing off an email to a friend rather than getting down to business. Art, like a conversation with a friend, opens a space for a certain kind of reflection, in which we might draw a line between the world and ourselves. And while the legendary bromances are justifiable in their fame — Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock or Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat; the rivalrous intellectual exchange seemingly crucial to the other’s great leap forward — it’s the friendships between those people no one expected to become artists in the first place that move me most. I like to imagine the poets Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton, who met in a writing class in Boston in 1957, casting off their duties as midcentury suburban moms for a few hours while the kids were at school, workshopping the morning’s first drafts on the secret second phone line they’d had installed. That phone line was a lifeline; the voice on the other end an essential affirmation. Friendship, like art, afforded them a powerful opportunity to move margins to the center. It still does: Just read Cathy Park Hong’s 2020 essay “An Education,” about two close friends at Oberlin — all three were the aspiring artist daughters of Asian immigrants, young women intent on making creative work that wasn’t an echo of established white taste. “We were the only ones who demanded that we be artists first,” Hong writes. The essay captures the vertiginous stakes of such alliances, which can feel nothing less than existential.
In the case of Audre Lorde and Pat Parker, poets and public intellectuals, a friendship to a great extent epistolary flourished despite the geographical distance — Lorde was in New York City, Parker in California. In 15 years’ worth of letters, they traded advice, discussed writings and readings (but also things like money and their health) and their sense of purpose as Black, queer feminists, committed in equal measure to lyricism and activism. “We’re both very vulnerable women, Pat,” Lorde wrote to Parker in February 1988, a year before Parker’s death, at 45, of the breast cancer they each were battling. “The fact that we used our vulnerabilities to make our greatest strengths makes us powerful women, not failures. I love you.” At this point, her sentences breaks into verse: “And in case you have ever tried / To reach me / And I could not hear you / These words are in place / Of the dead air / Still / Between us.”
Filled as they are with references to other writer friends and lovers, their letters suggest a truth about friendship that highly crafted memoirs do not: that it operates for most of us as part of a shifting universe of relationships, rather than as a single fixed star. Forget “You are the wind beneath my wings”: The friend who comes over with bags of groceries in a snowstorm after you’ve just delivered a baby isn’t necessarily the same friend who will give you notes on your screenplay; the friend who tells you that you might want to rethink your outfit may not be the one who reminds you who you are after your grant application is rejected. As life as we know it is torn asunder by a pandemic and rampant inequities, as the desperate and disconnected fall prey to rage or to conspiracy theories, we’ve come to depend on each other more than ever.
Another thought: We don’t always appreciate the symbolic position we occupy in each other’s lives until the moment all of that shared history and intimacy come knocking on our doors. This is why we look up old childhood friends to see where the arc of the plot has led. This is why we often experience a close friend’s losses almost as if they were our own: When we bear witness to another life to a degree that they come to feel like an alternate self, a moral responsibility comes attached. This means having to level with your friend when she asks you if you think that her partner, hospitalized with a rare form of brain cancer, is going to make it. It means you listen to them and mourn with them and make the necessary arrangements with them, because sometimes knowing you’re not alone in your grief is the only solace available. Here you are, and you wouldn’t be anyplace else, because it’s entirely possible that the shoe might have been on the other foot, such are the contingencies of fate.
WHILE FRIENDSHIP HAS become a big theme in fiction (this trend is largely credited to Elena Ferrante’s 2012-15 Neapolitan Quartet, though Toni Morrison’s 1973 novel, “Sula,” got there first), the subject has long belonged to television. Shows like “Laverne & Shirley” (1977-83), “Will & Grace” (1998-2006), “Living Single” (1993-98) and “Sex and the City” (1998-2004) prepared us for what in the 21st century would be a given: that life was not a sitcom centered around the nuclear family, but that our formative experiences, safety nets, frames of reference and so forth, would be shaped by friends and neighbors and roommates, former classmates and the people with whom we work. Friendship, which creates its own benchmarks, suits the serial quality of television. It goes on for many seasons in different contexts and tones. It doesn’t end in a wedding. “Although only rarely do friends consciously imagine themselves, as lovers regularly do, instruments of one another’s salvation, unconsciously they share a longing that comes pretty close,” Vivian Gornick wrote in a 2008 article for Poetry magazine. Intimacies fail, TV shows are canceled, but something of that other person’s belief in us remains in our rewired emotional DNA.
That so many stories of friendship between artists are written posthumously by the surviving friend, bequeathed with all of those shared memories, accounts for their elegiac tone. If you’re like me, you read them and wonder to what extent our friends really can save us, stepping in where our families and cultures fall short. At a time at which it can feel as though the embers of creativity have been tamped down, or beauty has been gated off by the very wealthy, can art redeem us? The extraordinary body of work left behind by Lorde, Delaney, Woolf, Mapplethorpe, Sexton and so many others who left us sooner than we might have wished suggests that the answer is yes — for a time, with a little help from our friends. The truth is, none of us do it on our own. Transcendence requires human scaffolding; immortality, a benevolent witness: that fellow traveler holding a lantern in a dark wood, telling us like we are.
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