There’s more than a little bit of Doe in the barefoot, sure-eyed model standing on the ersatz beach—game for some new excitement. Her unaffected spontaneity is a quality that came to characterize the Avedon woman throughout Dick’s entire career. “Avedon’s real fascinations,” Bassman said, “were androgyny and theatricality,” referring specifically to her impressions of him on Fire Island. In fact, Dick created the Harper’s Bazaar cover less than three months after his and Doe’s first glimpse of Cherry Grove, and it is not a stretch to suggest that the narrative dreamscape it depicts is also an exacting portrait of his soon-to-be failed marriage. (The couple’s marriage ended in 1949, and Avedon began sessions with a psychoanalyst whose specialty included “curing” homosexuality long before the practice of conversion therapy was uniformly debunked. While Dick would marry Evelyn Franklin in 1951, and would have a son, John, he remained closeted for most of his life. He would have occasional affairs with men, but, as a man of his generation, these relationships were clandestine and few.)
In February 1947, Dick was assigned to photograph Jerome Robbins, the choreographer, for a profile in Bazaar’s April issue. Robbins had already been anointed a young nobleman of dance for his brilliant ballet Fancy Free, with music by Leonard Bernstein and inspired by a Paul Cadmus canvas entitled The Fleet’s In, which culture writer Anna Kisselgoff once referred to as a “typically erotic painting of sailors having a good time.” Fancy Free premiered at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1944, and the New York Times dance critic John Martin singled out Robbins as a first-class artist: “It was only Jerome Robbins’ ‘Fancy Free’ that saved the season from being predominantly dull…. It is a beautifully built little ballet, gay in spirit and genuine in substance.” Dick had some familiarity with Fancy Free, since the ballet’s run coincided with the end of his military service, when he had been taking modern dance classes alongside John Butler and Tanaquil Le Clercq (who would later marry George Balanchine). Dick would have recognized himself in the three sailors, and his eye would have been attuned to their graceful physical charm, which used pure gesture to articulate pride, bravado, infatuation, sexual desire, and jealousy. The dance was underscored by Bernstein’s mournful music, with its urgent rhythms and strains of melancholy in what is essentially a modern mating ritual.
While Robbins and Bernstein were virtual unknowns when the show premiered that April, “these new kids on the block,” the Times noted, “were overnight sensations, the proverbial talk of the town.” Later that year, On the Town, the Broadway production that Robbins, Bernstein, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green created out of Fancy Free, opened on Broadway. Both productions would go on to become milestones in American musical theater, as well as the ballet.
Jerome Robbins, né Jerome Rabinowitz from Weehawken, New Jersey—a darling of the stage and merely five years Avedon’s senior—would serve as a kind of beacon for Dick’s unbounded ambition, not least because he would find surprising similarities in their backgrounds. Like Dick, Robbins had an unforgiving father, a small-business man who did not want him to go into the arts. Robbins, likewise, had had to extricate himself from the family business in order to commence his study of dance, writes Terry Teachout. “I didn’t want to be like my father, the Jew,” Robbins would later write. “I wanted to be safe, protected, assimilated, hidden in among the Goys, the majority.”
Dick would recognize Robbins’s self-contempt, and not only about his Judaism. “Robbins’s attitude toward his ‘queerness’ (as he referred to it) was equally conflicted,” writes Teachout. Though he readily declared his sexual orientation to avoid serving in World War II, he also had involvements with women, then and later. “Please save me from being ‘gay’ and ‘dirty,’ ” Robbins wrote in a 1942 diary entry, not long before his draft board classified him as 4-F.
People close to Robbins and Bernstein acknowledged that their professional relationship was like a marriage; they were very close, and their interactions could be stormy. Both were bisexual, and it’s possible that they were once, briefly, lovers. Avedon would photograph Bernstein the following year, another beacon that brought the reach of his own driving ambition a little closer to the realm of his own daily reality. All three men had grown up as middle-class Jews, each one driven by an internal imperative to create something of meaning out their own exigent talents and give it significant cultural form.
Richard Avedon would later come to realize that it generally took a decade or two for the future to happen. Prescient artists would foresee shifts in the culture and then express—and in many cases precipitate—those changes, using their artworks as auguries for what would later transpire in society at large. Such was the case in 1945, when Dick was first getting his footing at Harper’s Bazaar. That spring, staffers at the magazine were all abuzz about a short story called “Miriam” that had just been published in rival Mademoiselle, the first piece by a precociously talented 21-year-old author. With her canny intuition, Carmel Snow, the editor in chief, declared that the writer’s next story had to be published in the Bazaar. And so it was. “A Tree of Night” appeared in the October 1945 issue, and Avedon found himself in the same freshman class as Truman Capote.
At one of Mrs. Snow’s parties that year, at which Dick may have been in attendance, Mary Aswell, the fiction editor, brought along Capote. Carmel, who had not yet been introduced to the new young writer, spotted this boyish creature standing by himself and assumed he was the younger brother of someone on her editorial staff. She offered him a glass of milk. In his high, nasally voice, Capote introduced himself. She burst into uproarious laughter at her mistake, apologizing profusely and fetching him a martini. She then introduced him around, repeating the story of her blunder to everybody, relishing the rounds of laughter each time. “The first of many [martinis] that Truman and I have downed together over the years,” Carmel would go on to say.
Near the end of the decade, after Capote’s first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, had been published, he told Gore Vidal that he was working on his next one, about a beautiful New York debutante. “What on earth do you know about debutantes?” Vidal said. “Everything,” Capote countered. “After all, I am one.” Elinor Marcus, soon to become the Baroness de la Bouillerie, was a debutante of that era and one of Capote’s earliest “best pals” in Manhattan, his adopted home after growing up in Louisiana and Alabama. On several occasions she went with him to visit a woman she described as the “actual inspiration for Holly Golightly,” an unconventional blonde who lived in a small studio in a brownstone near Capote’s apartment on Lexington Avenue in the East 90s. Meanwhile, Elinor’s older sister, the stage actor Carol (Marcus) Grace—a friend of Avedon’s long before she married William Saroyan (twice) and, later, actor Walter Matthau—told people that she was the inspiration for Holly Golightly. After late evenings of rehearsal, followed by wee-hour drinking in a private nightclub on West 55th Street, she and Capote would end up having coffee together in front of Tiffany’s in the silvery light of dawn. “Every morning about 7:00, we left the Gold Key Club and walked to Fifth Avenue, where there was a man with doughnuts and coffee,” she wrote in her memoir. “We’d buy some and continue to Tiffany’s, where we would look in the windows and fantasize.”
Ann Woodward, a model and fashionable showgirl in the 1940s, who married the very wealthy and socially prominent William Woodward Jr., a scion of a banking fortune, was yet “another of the many Holly Golightly figures who make their appearances throughout Truman’s oeuvre,” Sam Kashner has observed in Vanity Fair, “beautiful, social-climbing waifs from the rural South who move to New York and re-invent themselves, not unlike Truman’s own personal journey.” And then there was Dorian Leigh, one of Dick Avedon’s favorite models, who believed herself to be the true inspiration for Holly. She, like the fictional character, had left her husband behind and her children in the care of her parents in search of a glamorous, carefree life as a model in New York. She lived in Capote’s neighborhood and received her telephone messages from “gentleman callers” and her modeling agency at the candy store across the street, a ritual Capote often observed while buying his cigarettes. Capote himself started calling her Happy Go Lucky in the 1950s.