Biographies are such arduous and long term investments in writer’s lives that it’s almost a cliché by now that writers either end up loving or hating their subjects when the book is done. Philip Gefter unquestionably fell in love with his subject from the beginning and the amour lasted throughout the long research and writing. What’s not to love? Sam Wagstaff was upper crust, rich, privileged, intelligent, able, tall, slender, handsome, casually yet openly gay years before it was accepted, and he traveled in some of the most interesting of the cultured crowds of his period.
Also, and more importantly, Wagstaff was in many ways a visionary: seeing photography fairly early on for the art that it actually can be in the right hands. Eventually, his enormous collection of photographs, including many French, British and American pioneers of the mid-nineteenth century, ended up in the Getty Center Museum, a few miles from where I live. I appreciate that fact and those photos every time I see an exhibit there.
As the title after the colon points out, Wagstaff is best known as the “discoverer” of photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe, with whom he seemed to have an odd, mostly love but along the road love-hate, father-son, student-teacher (feel free to add in more dichotomies) relationship over a period of decades until their deaths a few months apart from HIV-related illnesses. But long before he encountered Mapplethorpe, Wagstaff was already seeing the value and acquiring the 1960’s “pop” artists. Then, he latched onto the 60’s-70’s Minimalists, curating a ground-breaking exhibition in a Detroit museum long before the New York galleries and curators got hip to the work.
In his last year,s he sold his vast photo collection, which by then had become not merely a golden but at least a diamond parachute, and he had begun collecting American silver—another area pretty much ignored until then.
Gefter does an excellent job of bringing Wagstaff’s life and times into some sort apparently real life quite similar to what I remember from “in the day”—I knew Robert and socialized with Sam a bit. The book is chronological and so the reader gets the same sense of forward motion as Wagstaff and his closest colleagues must have experienced during that heady period when New York City became for a decade or two the center of art and culture in the world. Concentrating upon the best known art world gallery owners, museum curators, artists and collectors, as he does however, means that the author doesn’t really have room nor inclination to look at what else was going on in the bohemian gay art world of lower Manhattan where, after all, the two men resided and played out most of their lives.
That world provided the context and the energy that levitated Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe. So, for example, Gefter mentions Peter Hujar, but not his lover/pal/colleague David Wojnarovich. Warhol is noted everywhere, and, oddly enough, my friend painter, Norman “Billiards”; but not Ondine, nor director Paul Morrisey, nor the Velvet Underground, nor any other art or writing that exploded out of The Factory. Those and the theatre and music and literary worlds were all commingled together: that was what the Red Room at Max’s Kansas City that Gefter mentions so often was all about. Not being there, he doesn’t get that you could be applauded for your poetry, sucked off by Charles Ludlam a few minutes later, and have voyeur “Drella” Warhol screen test you right afterward, “to capture the post-orgasmic glow.” The entire mixture was needed to perform, do art, and emerge to various levels of celebrity and artistry. Gefter is so busy gazing up at the “name” art stars that he misses the far more interesting gutters.
He does a pretty good job, however, of limning the over-privileged, off-beat and original character that Wagstaff actually was. More than one person described him as “organically eccentric.” And Gefter captures his busy and wayward romantic life. Long Island bred, working class stiff Mapplethorpe was anything but Sam’s masculine ideal. Most of his lovers were blonde, slim, handsome, un-intellectual, and with zero interest in the arts. But, as Gefter hints at but never comes out and says, Mapplethorpe was the ultimate hustler of fin-de-siecle America. He could assess in an instant what and how much you could do for him and his career. He then exploited you so nakedly that you had to laugh. He was always on the make, and when he laid eyes on Sam, it was like sighting the Annapurna of sugar daddies. Also Robert held on to everyone he ever used; after all, you might still be exploitable. When Sam died, guess who was heir to his millions?
So really large and full is this biography that it might seem churlish to point out several odd errors: he describes the film Fitzcarraldo as about a steamboat going up a mountain. It was actually about making that ship into an opera house in the depths of the Amazon jungle and then hoping Enrico Caruso would come sing to the Indians. Gefter writes that Larry Kramer founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. I was present in late 1981 with twelve other men at the apartment of Paul Popham, who became GMHC’s president until his death in 1993, when the idea was first discussed and the first steps were taken to raise money to financially launch GMHC. Kramer arrived, ranted about the presence of Enno Poersch, calling him a Nazi, and was asked to leave. In fact, the Poersch family were religious activists, fugitives from Germany in the 1940’s and Enno’s lover, Nick Rock, and friend Rick Wellikopf (close friends to the rest of us) were the first two known AIDS deaths on the East coast. What Gefter writes is “Kramer summoned sixty prominent gay men to his apartment at 2 Fifth Avenue.” But Kramer had recently published Faggots, a book loathed in the community as virulently homophobic. I doubt if he could have summoned sixty prominent gay men to his funeral.
There is also one real missing piece of the puzzle. As part of the Violet Quill and the Christopher Street/New York Native writers in the late 1970’s, I recall attending several art show/parties at the Robert Samuel Gallery on Broadway across from the Episcopal Church between 11th and 10th Streets, a gallery that Wagstaff put together especially to first showcase Robert’s art to the gay media. He did so in a series of photo shows in which Mapplethorpe’s works hung alongside what many of us accepted as established homoerotic photos by Platt-Lynes, Georges Dureau, Von Gloeden, Charles Demuth, et al. Another Sam who worked there eventually left to open his own gallery in Provincetown. and their bookkeeper Stephen Myrick is still alive to tell of this gallery and of its early influence in the gay community. The author never even mentions it.
One has to wonder, did Gefter interview anyone outside of Manhattan? If so how did he miss this?
Reviewed by Felice Picano