Fiction and Fame: Miriam Sommer and Georgia O’Keeffe

In the early eighties, I traveled to Los Angeles on business and spent a few nights at a motel in Santa Monica, on the ocean. One morning, at the local coffee shop I noticed that the man standing in line in front of me looked very familiar. For a few seconds, I thought he was a coworker, or a neighbor from Maryland, and I was tempted to approach him, and say hello. Then I realized it was Dustin Hoffman. So I stood there, and tried not to stare at him. It was hard. That day, and several days after that, I felt special. Look at me: I waited in line next to one of the greatest actors of all times. My story made the dinner circuit with my friends.

Writers use such props in literary fiction, to add spice and a touch of trivia to their writing, and raise the interest level in their characters. The last example of this that I read was in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am, when one of the book’s protagonists meets Steven Spielberg in a public bathroom. I remember Doctorow using Houdini, Sigismund Freud, and Emma Goldman in Ragtime to anchor the early 20th century feel of the story. And the master of weaving celebrities into his prose is Kurt Vonnegut, in that quirky and attractive way of his.

I used this artifice in my latest novel No Portrait in the Gilded Frame. To better define Miriam Sommer, the ever-aspiring artist, I compared her to Georgia O’Keeffe.

A short excerpt is included below. Please let me know if it works for you, and if doesn’t, why not.

…I spent time studying her Black Irises, especially Black Iris III. It was a perfect representation of the center of an iris, the purity of it. I didn’t think she intended for it to have a double meaning. She simply painted the way she saw. As Stieglitz had put it, her work was sincere, but the critics were hateful. They always found something to say. I, for one, preferred painting people to still life. O’Keeffe must have been very shy. Stieglitz had photographed her hundreds of times, and when I studied some of the photographs, I realized that she and I looked alike. A little. We shared those elongated features that people called elegant — long narrow faces, small chins, thin noses, long necks. We had charcoal hair. We were slim. I thought I was taller than she was but couldn’t be sure. Her eyes seemed blue. My eyes were sky blue, but in a black-and-white photograph they would appear darker. Where we differed was the countenance. She seemed severe, profound. Unhappy, perhaps. Her skin had a grainy texture to it. I took her photographs to the mirror. My skin was white with slightly pink undertones. My lips were sensuous. I saw myself as playful, as healthy and warm.

…I went back to the exhibit and to see Marina at her house.

“O’Keeffe is the originator of female iconography,” Marina said. “She has a place at The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago, near Virginia Woolf.”

I felt as if I was coming from a different world.

“Feminist art in the Age of Revolution,” Marina continued. “You know, there are many facets to feminism. It’s so much more than free love, bra burning, or the right to vote.”

In the world I came from, free love wasn’t a concept. Women did it, if they did it, because it was in their genes. Ceaușescu had forbidden abortions. My mother had worked her entire life. She had raised three children on her own. There was nothing revolutionary about that. Had she had a choice, she’d have looked the other way when my father cheated on her. Forgiving him would have been the practical way out. I despised my mother for begging him to return, and now I also understood her. It wasn’t about the equality of the sexes. As I saw it, it was normal that a woman wanted to be a pilot, or to fight in war side by side with the men. But deep inside, women were like O’Keeffe’s flowers, and men had to treat them as such. A woman was delicate and fragrant and hidden by layer upon layer of petals. She needed to be tended to, nourished, moved away from the sun and the wind, dressed, undressed, caressed, spoken to, and told she was beautiful.