Friday, July 28, 2006

(photo: Dorothy Dean and Jackie Curtis)

Let’s begin at the end, shall we?

----"Dorothy Dean, a former editor for The New Yorker and for such publishers as Times Books and Harry N. Abrams, died of cancer Friday at the Hospice of St. John in Denver. She was 54 years old and lived in Boulder, Colo.
Ms. Dean had also held editorial positions at Vogue magazine and at Harper & Row. From 1963 to 1964, she was a member of The New Yorker's research department - then called the fact-checking department. At her death, she was a proofreader for The Daily Camera newspaper, published in Boulder.
Ms. Dean was born in White Plains. She was a graduate of Radcliffe College, and earned a master's degree in fine arts at Harvard University. She also studied art history on a Fulbright scholarship in Amsterdam.”

As these things go, fairly accurate. But not accurate enough for Dorothy, the ultimate “stickler for details.” So let’s turn the floor over to my long-time saddle pal Bill Reed who writes of her in his matchless memoir Early Plastic (o.o.p., but available on eBay):

----The following definition of the genus fag hag (you won't find the term in Webster's) appears in The Queen's Vernacular: A Gay Lexicon, by Bruce Rogers:
"Some are plain janes who prefer the honest affection of homoerotic boy friends; others are on a determined crusade to show gay boys that normal coitus is not to be overlooked. A few are simply women in love with homosexual men; others discover to their chagrin that their male friends are charming but not interested sexually."
All of which-and much more. except for the chagrin part-was true of my friend Dorothy Dean. The Mother of All Fag-Hags, she felt the term had an ugly ring to it, and much preferred "Fruit Fly." I didn't get to know her until some time after her mid-1950s glory years during which she was the Queen Bee of a Harvard set that operated out of the Casablanca bar (where Edie Sedgewick later came to shine). And where the men that she hung with ---none of whom had any notion that there was anything coming down the line called gay lib---looked to her as a kind of ultimate arbiter of style, attitude and taste. She was an outrageous woman who would say things that no one they had ever met before would dare utter. She would tell people to their face exactly what she thought of them and continued to play this role later on in a number of different contexts. It was almost inevitable that Dorothy would become part of Andy Warhol's Factory circle, where it was demanded that people be outrageous and try to top one another. But that scene had pretty much disappeared by the time my boyfriend David and I met her in the Seventies. Her breakup with longtime closest friend Arthur Loeb was indicative of a lot of dissolutions and changes that were going on within the social scene. Gay militancy had to some degree turned the fag-hag into a symbol of the past, both in its traditional cheer-leader style and even in Dorothy's overwhelming she-who-must-be-obeyed approach. In addition, unlike your garden variety fag-hag who fears sex, Dorothy wanted to get it on with her boys-she wasn't afraid of anything-and was equally inclined toward heterosexual inamorata.
Complex to a fault, Dorothy was the sweetest, brightest, and most frightening woman I have ever known. I met her in 1970 while working at a bookstore owned by her friend Arthur, the inspiration for the Dudley Moore movie of the same name (or so it has always seemed to me) and a member of a prominent New York family long perched in the more vertiginous heights of New York's 400. In exchange for their son's pledge to put aside his legendarily dissolute lifestyle, Arthur was being backed to the hilt by his parents in this literary emporium that advertised itself as "a carriage trade" operation in the classified ad that I answered for a job. I was on staff when the place opened, and although Dorothy wasn't an employee, she was so omnipresent a fixture that she seemed like staff. My boyfriend David was dazzled when he found out she hung out at the place.
Working for Arthur was not at all like work. A past master of the zippy comeback department, one day an East Side matron came into the store and with a totally straight face asked him what might he suggest for "a man who has everything and is going on safari." Without missing a beat, he replied: "Have you considered giving him Deborah Kerr?" An avid reader of the New York Times, who always first read the bridge column and obituaries each day before getting on to the day's less important news, Arthur said that his memoirs were going to be called (in a play on the Rocky Graziano autobiography), Somebody Down There Likes Me. I was surely as good an "audience" as Arthur was ever likely to get.
While she may have been black and a woman, in the final analysis, she wasn't black and she wasn't a woman: she was Dorothy Dean. Slight, ferret-like, and possessing coffee-with-cream skin, Dorothy wore horn-rimmed coke bottle lens glasses, usually dressed in a simple, tasteful shift dress; and was, without question, New York's most incurable diseuse. Nearly every time I was with Dorothy, she happened to be drinking; she would invariably ask me the same question: “Did I ever tell you about the time I once danced the 'Tennessee Waltz' in Tennessee with Tennessee Williams?" (Which was true.) She claimed that it was one of her proudest accomplishments in life. I don't think she was joking.


Blogger David E. Patton said...

I lived in Boulder when I was a student at Naropa back in the early 80s.. Boulder has the distinction of being the place where I have been called nigger more time then any other city and I have been to and I have been to all but five states. As a kid my mother would pack us all off to spent the summer on big mama’s farm out side of Brookville Mississippi and not once was I called nigger in all that time. As a side note, I remember that once we went to the nearest movies house that was in Macon we had to sit in the black section which was in the balcony. As a kid from the north I was not use to that kind of treatment. This was in the mid 50s. most of the name calling I believe was from students at CU but one took place at a housing party for students and faculty of Naropa held at the house of the poet and teacher Larry Fagen. I’m glad to say that my time in Boulder was on the whole positive thank to the kind heart of Allen Ginsburg and friends that I met. In Aug. I will be back there reading at The Laughing Goat.

7:04 AM  

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