Subscribe to our RSS feed:

RSS Feed Button

by Peter Plagens
What’s the story with Helen Issacson?" Sharon would eventually ask, uncharacteristically naïve. Later, she’d kick herself in the ass for having been so cheerful -- feeling her postcoital oats in bed -- when she’d put the question to Tom. How could she have been so gullible, when all along she’d had a hunch? Down deep, she knew, she knew.

The story with Helen Issacson was both deceptively simple and woefully complicated. The simple part consisted of the fact that Helen Issacson was the beautiful daughter of a very wealthy, extremely powerful man. Corollaries to that state of being included Helen’s being drug-free except for ingesting moderate amounts of alcohol and enjoying an occasional social toke off somebody else’s joint, her status as legitimately single (no quickly annulled first marriage, no hidden ex-husband, no lurking / stalking former boyfriend), and having a mind bereft of any major psychological problems. Her weekly visits to a psychiatrist amounted to nothing more than mere standard operating procedure for someone of her socioeconomic class.

The many complications began with the fact that Mel Issacson owned a majority interest in both New Century Media and Winningham Communications. Together, the two companies owned seven profitable mass magazines, including one of the two glossy weeklies titularly devoted to New York (but read by as many latté drinkers, personal trainers, and small-dog owners outside the city limits as within them). Winningham by itself held several specialty periodicals: Southern Dining, Amateur Hockey Today, Word Out!, Shortwave Review, Full-Figured Bride and Art Discourse. All but Art Discourse, with its miniscule actual circulation of 11,782 (often inflated in B-to-B advertising to 22,000), turned a small profit.

Issacson had structured Winningham, however, so that Art Discourse continued as his own sacrosanct, personal "executive project." Whatever deficit the magazine ran, Issacson made it good at the end of each fiscal year. Art Discourse also carried its own separate libel insurance, at Issacson’s personal expense. In return, Issacson enjoyed complete control. But he used his complete control of Art Discourse to leave it entirely alone, editorially speaking. Which was probably why it had remained, since its apogee in the heyday of mid-1970s "postminimalism," the most influential contemporary art magazine in both America and Western Europe. Art Discourse’s fewer than 12,000 readers packed a heavy, collective art-world punch.

Art styles and art fashions came and went. Editors came and went (though only six at Art Discourse in thirty years -- moderate turnover in the magazine business). Through it all, Art Discourse retained its credibility because readers knew it to be the one contemporary art magazine that didn’t bend editorial content -- let alone create it -- to suit the short-run interests of the art dealers who were its main advertisers. True, the magazine featured essentially the same mix served up by its competitors: glossy, big-illustration puff pieces on photogenic "neo-conceptual" videttes, smart-sounding but essentially toothless reviews, all of which seemed to conclude with the hedge that this promising artist’s next show would tell the real story, and bulletins of two-month-old "breaking news" from places like Rotterdam, Bratislava and Northampton, Massachusetts. These bulletins usually involved either personnel changes at contemporary art museums or transatlantic commissions won by "post-conceptual" artists. But within that workable formula, Art Discourse’s monthly table of contents nevertheless stayed consistently quirky enough for its cover stories to flutter the hearts of the contemporary art demimonde ten months out of the year. The magazine didn’t publish in July and August, when the art world hibernated.

Helen Issacson was born to Mel Issacson’s second wife, Andrea. At the time Helen came into the world, via a caesarian section scheduled to blend seamlessly with Andrea’s social calendar, Mel already owned NCM. Winningham plopped into his portfolio a few years later, when Helen had just entered kindergarten at The Gilbert Academy. ("She’s just started The Lower School," Andrea preferred to say.) From that point until Helen completed her sixth grade curriculum and sang the part of Marian the Librarian in her graduating class’s production of The Music Man, Mel’s controlling the then-money-losing Winningham constituted only a miniscule drag on Helen’s childhood standard of living.

Not that little Helen ever knew it. Only Mel and Andrea did, and only Andrea cared. Andrea complained loudly about it. She complained so loudly, in fact, that Mel divorced her and had his lawyers lean on Andrea hard enough to wrench custody of Helen away from her. Not that Andrea was distraught about being leveraged out of most of her daughter’s life. Mel’s settlement was generous and the visitation privileges’ necessary travel expenses were fully underwritten by him. The arrangement was also wonderfully opt-out flexible. Andrea didn’t have to visit Helen if she didn’t feel like it. On average, Andrea didn’t feel like it about three out of five appointed times.

Helen loved her mother, though. Or at least she liked her well enough so that she never really questioned whether she loved her mother or not. This made Helen something of a likeable oddball to her middle-school classmates at Gilbert. These girls constantly discussed their mothers, both moms in residence and a few who shared custody, nominally or not. Half the girls professed to loving their mothers more than Jesus loved Mary, while the other half, squealing with expertly performed envy of those able to love their mothers at all, said they hated their mothers more than. . . well, more than they hated a lot of things they really, really hated, like tofu and matte lipstick. But both the mother-lovers and mother-haters genuinely envied Helen’s calm, moderated affection for Andrea. Something about Helen’s honestly qualified love for her mother seemed authentic, and untheatrical. For almost all the other Gilbert middle-school girls, swearing off affected melodrama was something impossible for mere mortals. To them, Helen became a skinny little goddess.

If Helen also owed her mother love for anything, it would have been for having contributed, as far as the naked human eye could decode the human genome, so much to her daughter’s beauty. Andrea Sanborne Issacson was what the tabloids liked to call "a stunner." She wasn’t just attractive, not merely beautiful, but rather a phenomenon: a noticeably tall, strong-boned woman whose beach-volleyball body and sharp, elegant features could turn heads at thirty yards. The way she dressed didn’t hurt, either. The second Mrs. Issacson’s unerring fashion sense (which consisted of profound self-knowledge about her corporeal persona, and a budget to do something with it) never failed to concoct perfect combinations of scandalously expensive designer couture, merely high-end off-the-rack goods, and startling thrift-shop finds. Photographers loved Andrea because she turned every glitteringly noxious party shot into a page-maker. Andrea didn’t love photographers, whom she thought were the ultimate "desperate graspers" (her term for anybody who had to perspire for a living), but she loved the attention they brought. She coldly calculated that attention paid to her, especially in photographic print, equaled attention paid to Mel’s businesses, which in turn equaled a better spousal standard of living for her.

At the moment when Helen -- a dewy, charmingly unformed iteration of her mostly absent mother -- waxed eligible to begin "The Upper School" of the freshman-through-senior years at Gilbert, Winningham turned its first overall profit. Mel celebrated by sitting down with his daughter to help her pick out "the most delicious boarding school in New England." Although tuition and fees at The Gilbert Academy amounted to no less than an upper-crust boarding school’s, and Helen’s living at home certainly cost Mel more (he insisted she take taxis everywhere in New York and that she never eat in a restaurant without white cloth tablecloths) than he would have to pay for a dorm, meals and a live-away allowance, money was not an issue. Mel Issacson could have sent ten children -- retail, with a heavy tip -- to Ridley / Marble Hall  in Stonington, Massachusetts.

Academics weren’t a problem, either. Even if Helen had been the daughter of a hod-carrier who needed a ton of financial aid, she probably could have gotten herself into practically any fancy prep school in the land. Helen was dizzyingly personable in an interview, conspicuously intelligent in the classroom, impressively industrious in her off-hours, and had earned grades at Gilbert just enough short of absolutely perfect to signal that a reasonable young lady and not a monster of juvenile overachievement stood behind them. And Helen certainly wasn’t a social problem. By the conclusion of eighth grade, Helen had not yet tasted hard liquor, had her budding breasts squeezed by a pimply boy, or come home from a movie with girlfriends more than twenty minutes past curfew.

In short, she didn’t need to change schools owing to the belated appearance of a major character flaw or academic lack -- the usual reasons why the parents of any Gilbert girl would make a switch. Mel simply thought that Winningham’s getting a tootsie into the black -- his never-ending, eyebrow-raising subsidy of Art Discourse notwithstanding -- was an occasion to be honored. His honoring gesture to the god of reader-demographics was sending Helen to Ridley. Helen’s homage to her father was going off to boarding school in good cheer.

Helen had a much older brother, who was actually an ex-stepbrother. Kendall had been brought into Mel’s first marriage at age three by his first bride, Naomi, who’d been married and divorced once before. Helen liked Kendall very much, and would have loved to have had him in her life. But he was six when Mel divorced Naomi and married Andrea in a sequence as fast as a bang-bang play at first base. He was going on thirteen when Helen was born. When Helen reached kindergarten age, Kendall graduated from high school.

Andrea’s irregular custodial visits often included Kendall -- who came at first on loan from Naomi and then on his own -- included as a combination buffer and diversion. Buffer, so that the daughter who naturally thought of herself as maternally abandoned (what child has ever read the divorce agreement between her parents?) could have the pangs of deprivation diminished by the presence of a semi-parent / semi-playmate who was young, jokey, and handsome -- six-feet-one, sandy hair, the build of a 100-meter butterfly champion, and an inerasable smile. Diversion, so that, substantially freed from the glares of a longing child, Andrea could attend to trying to get Mel -- still -- to attend to her. 

Mel would advance Andrea a portion of the noncustodial share of the child support. He’d take her out to a nice dinner at a nice restaurant amid glances of "My, what a civilized arrangement they have." Twice, while Kendall and Helen were off to a movie, he indulged her in sexual intercourse. A woman has needs, too, Andrea said. Mel wouldn’t want the mother of his only child sleeping around in indiscriminate desperation, would he? Well, he conceded, at least not very often nor in total desperation.

At the time of Helen’s graduation from Ridley / Marble Hall, Kendall was thirty-one and married with two tow-headed boys. He drove up from one of the mansionette groves of New Jersey to attend the ceremony. Neither his own children nor his wife Margaret made the trip with him. She thought Kendall’s residual affection for his ex-stepsister, frankly, a bit pervy. "Your mother, whom you profess to love," she said, "absolutely loathes Helen’s father. You’re thirteen years older than Helen, you don’t live in New York or spend any time with her, and our kids haven’t the faintest fucking idea why you’re obligated to make this trip. Besides, she’s something of a babe and, ever since I caught you sneaking around with your lap-sitting Korean assistant, I don’t trust you any further than I can see you."

"I’ve never screwed Angie Kim," Kendall said, "and I’m certainly not going to screw my own sister." Margaret kissed him closed-lipped on the cheek the night before he left and told him to have a good time and be sure to call from the motel.

"No motel," Kendall said, "I’ll be back home tonight."

Kendall backed his bulbous black SUV out of the wide, pale driveway at seven a.m. and pulled into the faculty parking lot in Stonington at eleven. Commencement commenced at one. All the "as we go forth" embellishments would be over by two-thirty, and the ridiculously abstemious receptions wrapped up by four. Helen, it turned out, was socially obligated by a half-dozen preparatory gatherings of small numbers of her classmates. Kendall had but a hurried, superficial two-minute, post-ceremony chat with her. During it, he accepted a swig from a bottle of Glenfiddich proffered from under a laureate’s robe by a very rich graduating senior from Kuwait. "Shit, I forgot to get you anything," was the last thing Kendall said to her.

Kendall gazed longingly at the gowned back of his sister as she departed for a party, then quickly hopped back into his vehicle and left. He got the main highway nicely ahead of the slow serpentine of the other graduates’ relatives’ cars. On the way home, Kendall stopped at a Denny’s for scrambled eggs and, there, adroitly avoiding transferring grease from his meal onto a sheet of his company’s stationery, wrote a letter of congratulations to Helen, which also said that a suitable gift would shortly be on its way. He pulled up to the concrete apron in front of his three-car garage in the faint pink afterglow of sunset.

Kendall didn’t make it to Helen’s college commencement exercises. He and Margaret were in the middle of a vicious divorce. Kendall was living temporarily on the Jersey side of the Hudson River in Angie Kim’s high-rise apartment. He really hadn’t slept with her while in residence with Margaret -- but now, well, why the hell not?

Kendall was also enduring a ferocious southward commute in an unreliable rental car (somehow Margaret had garnered both of theirs in the preliminary separation agreement) to an oxymoronic "office park," and was generally being driven nuts by his sons. They screamed that they wanted to live with Dad. But Dad doesn’t have a house, just a cramped apartment, he would say. Mom has the house, the boys would counter, make Mom give up the house. It’s legally hers, Kendall would say. She doesn’t need it, the boys would cry and, besides, her creepy boyfriend with the toupee and Land Cruiser has a house of his own. Her boyfriend’s house is irrelevant, Kendal would say. It’s his house to do with as he wants. His wife has moved out, too, the boys would say, so there’s lots of room for Mom to move into his house and give our house back to you. She just doesn’t want to do that, and she had her own reasons that are none of my business, Kendall would say. Our tentative agreement says the you two are supposed to live with her. What’s "tentative" mean? the boys would ask. Kendall was approaching thirty-seven when Helen strode across the graduation platform at one of the nation’s finest formerly-for-women-only colleges.

Arithmetical correlation of Kendall’s and Helen’s ages indicated a missing year in her undergraduate career. And indeed one existed. Near the end of her freshman year, the virginal Helen fell in love with and was seduced by (or if you believed the not wholly unreliable college rumor mill, seduced) her Basic Logic professor. She’d declared philosophy her major from the outset, and set about including as many of its required courses as she could into her freshman year, crammed as it was with such "distribution imperatives" as English, Spanish, World History, Organic Chemistry for Non-Majors and, peculiar to her college, Physical Education. To fulfill that requirement, Helen took Archery. This meant an overload, which meant filing a petition to take Basic Logic as a "reading tutorial" in lieu of a regular class. Every two weeks, just before dinner, Helen met with her professor to discuss the readings and homework.

They did it on the top of his desk. Her red blood stained his green blotter. After the momentary dalliance, he let the blotter remain right where it was and told people he’d spilled some ink and was too lazy to go to the campus bookstore and get another felt rectangle to replace it. Alone in his office, he became melancholy and strangely perturbed that his chubby little wife, a nursery school teacher at the on-campus day-care center for faculty children, had forgiven his confessed transgression so readily. He would gaze at the stain and try to figure out if a genuine sign lay hidden in its carnal Rorschach configuration, or whether he was just wallowing in romantic despondency. When he and Helen had uncoupled, he told her that he loved her. She said nothing, and went silently about putting her bikini underpants back on.

In spite of the carefully extinguished lights, drawn Venetian blinds, and lookout check of the hall before the fucking began, the college found out. The professor was given a year’s unpaid leave, which a rookie attorney who’d just set up practice in the college town immediately forced the college to convert into a paid leave. The college really did not want Mel Issacson to know. In loco parentis had died as a college-administration dogma several generations ago, and the college was scared shitless of powerhouses -- and potential big donors -- like Mel Issacson. The college worried mightily, however, that news of Helen’s victimization/escapade reaching Issacson indirectly might be even worse than his learning about it via a phone call from the dean of students.

While the dean fretted, Helen took a load off the school’s  mind by telling her father face-to-face, as soon as she opened the door of the Issacson residence on the Upper East Side.( It was on a numbered, east-west street. "I paid an extra two million not to have a Park Avenue address," Mel Issacson once said.)

"How else would you expect me to relieve myself of an unbroken hymen?" Helen asked her father. "With some crude, bumbling lacrosse player?" (Helen’s father, ever the pragmatist and hardly a prig, admitted she had a point.) She continued: "I’m probably three years -- maybe five -- behind my classmates in the sex department, and the problem had to be dealt with sooner or later." (That’s my bottom-line girl, Mel thought but didn’t say.)

"Did you want to transfer to someplace else?" Mel asked.

"No," Helen said. "I really like the school. They’re giving me a good education. Honestly."

"Do you think it wisest, though, to go right back to campus in the fall? A lot of people are going to be looking at you sideways," her father said.

"No," Helen admitted, "probably not."

"Then how about a wanderjahre?" Mel asked. "You know, one of those grand tours of Europe that rich, budding geniuses like you are supposed to take right about this point in life?"

"Wonderful," Helen said, slightly less exuberantly than Mel would have liked. But she did kiss her father on the cheek.

Helen couldn’t go alone, of course. And Mel couldn’t absent himself from the shark-filled waters surrounding his many enterprises for such a long time. Helen’s debut lover couldn’t accompany her -- although he was now officially separated from his wife and did have a year off from the college. Kendall might be freed up, but with Helen’s apparent taste -- fleeting or not -- for older men, and Margaret’s unabated suspicion about her husband’s filial affection for his former stepsister looming large, that just wouldn’t look right, even to Mel’s usual cool pragmatism. Then it occurred to him: Andrea!

Re-bonded after a fashion, mother and daughter flew to Paris in mid-June and didn’t set foot on American soil again until a full year later. After a month in the tourist-heavy French capital, they grew weary of running into people from that hometown rectangle bounded by Central Park on the west, FDR Drive on the east, 96th Street on the north and the Plaza Hotel on the south. Helen and Andrea decamped for Belgium and set up a base camp in Brussels, in a spacious, high-ceiling’d sublet adjacent to a genuine Victor Horta building on the Avenue Louise. From Brussels, the two women could easily go wherever they felt like going, whenever the hell they felt the urge to go. They were never gone for more than three weeks, but never less than one. They hit all the major capitals, including those in the newly shopping-crazy Central Europe, and Helen determinedly visited every major encyclopedic art museum in each of those metropolises. By the time the sojourn was over, she’d also made at least cursory circumlocutions of half the major modern and contemporary museums in Europe, along with a hundred or so commercial galleries.

"I’ve gotten it out of my system," she wrote her father in tiny script on a Bruegel postcard from the Kunsthistorsche Museum in Vienna, "-- all that mysterious stuff with that funny little art magazine you own. I’ve always wondered just what on earth all those incomprehensible articles in it were about. Now I know. I know it’s not total B.S., Dad, but art is never going to be the be-all and end-all in my life. I’m after something more thoughtful, less material. Right now, I don’t know what that is, though. Maybe I’ll find out before Mother and I fly home! See you soon. Love, -- your daughter, Helen"

It rankled Mel to see "Mother" with a capital "M" referring to Andrea in his daughter’s hand. But, when he took a deep breath, sipped his daily room-temperature Bonnington’s beer, he realized he was getting a good deal, overall: points with Andrea -- whom he’d never be able to excise completely from his life -- for acting at long last like a kind and considerate human being, and points with Helen for getting points with Andrea and smoothing things over. Not only had he gotten a travel guardian for Helen, but -- ho ho! --he’d also gotten a travel guardian for Andrea in the bargain. Mel hadn’t actually expected the two women to provide the kind of clamp-down security for each other that his own bodyguards furnished for himself, so he wasn’t especially disturbed when Andrea telephoned -- with Helen snuggled safely in her Berlin hotel bed -- to say that Helen had stayed out all night with a student at the Humboldt University on Unter den Linden. They’d done it twice, Andrea said.

Six weeks later, Helen telephoned Mel from Monte Carlo to say that Andrea and she were being driven around in a vintage Alpha Romeo by some silver-haired Euro-sleaze who looked just like a Central Casting version of a silver-haired Euro-sleaze. Andrea had been going home with him at night, leaving her to stay solo in the hotel.

"But don’t worry, Dad!" she said. "I’m perfectly happy with the Princess Grace Channel on cable. Really, I’m just looking strolling in the casinos and not gambling a centime. I’m glad to have some time to myself. Anyway, Andrea manages to be here every morning with me for breakfast."

Helen’s three remaining college years passed in relative and honorable peace. She tried out for the fencing team her sophomore year, made it, and lettered in the sport. She never wore the block monogram on an award jacket, she told Mel, "not so much because it’s a lesbian thing, but because it’s such a clichéd lesbian thing around here." Helen repeated the athletic performance during her junior year, and made the All-Conference team in saber. As a senior, though, she dropped it.

"I don’t want my reflexes to get any faster," she told Mel.

Helen squeezed in an acting class and was so good in it that it took a month of unanswered e-mails and phone calls to convince the chairman of the drama department that she absolutely would not accept, audition-free, a leading role in one of their extra-curricular plays.

In academic sum, Helen excelled at just below Phi-Beta level, earning honors in philosophy (senior project: Being and Classlessness: Jean Paul Sartre’s Philosophical Error in Abandoning Existentialism for Marxism). Much of her achievement was made possible, Helen’s small but devoted circle of friends thought, by the fact that, upon Helen’s return to campus for her delayed sophomore year, the professor whom she’d so expediently fucked was gone. He’d gotten another job elsewhere. When he’d dropped by in mid-July to clear out his mothballed office, one of Helen’s friends who’d interned in Admissions over the summer reported to her that his chubby little wife was back with him, and even chubbier. She was pregnant.

It rained on graduation day and the ceremony was moved indoors, to the Wallington Events Center, a gymnasium with so many bells and whistles it could have doubled as a mall. The air-conditioning inexplicably failed, however, and the heat and humidity inside were stifling. One senior passed out. She looked like a deflated inner tube in the aisle at the end of the second row.

Helen gave the traditional "wild card" speech, the only address of the day unattached to official honors. She was selected by her classmates to deliver an oration which she entitled, "If Time Hangs Heavy on Your Hands, Switch to a Lighter Clock." Though Mel thought he comprehended his daughter’s individual sentences in the address, for the life of him he couldn’t detect a bottom line. Andrea did, and loved it. She wouldn’t tell Mel what it was. And much to Mel’s irritation, the indisposed Kendall had convinced his mother Naomi to fill in for him. She and Andrea hit it off, and had one high old time, wobbling around the champagne punch bowl, dishing the dirt on Mel. As if he’d needed that.

Mel expected Helen to move right back in with him for a happy transition period before she rented -- or, much more likely, he rented for her -- a separate apartment in Manhattan. Helen surprised him by taking her graduation cash and heading back to Brussels. There she would live with a man who, it seemed, she’d met during her college hiatus and whom she’d put, in effect, into cold storage. Helen only wrote to Mel. "I don’t want to talk on the telephone, if you don’t mind," she said. "This is something I have to get out of my system." One more thing, apparently, Mel said to himself.

"I’ll be needing a little bit of money," she wrote, "but not much. I have a job --  in a coffee house, but it’s a job. And Jean-Claude works, too. His apartment is big enough for the two of us, and he cooks well. But don’t worry, I’m not getting married." This time, Mel was less admiring of his daughter’s up-front utilitarianism. Losing your virginity in the manner of getting a polio shot was one thing, embarking on a Serious Love Affair as if it were some kind of laboratory experiment quite another. Nevertheless, he came through, as always, with the money.

Jean-Claude lasted eighteen months, much longer than Mel would have guessed. By the time Helen left him, her patois bruxellois French had improved enormously. She moved to Paris and got an office job -- with the French subsidiary of an American book publisher. (Or was it the reverse? Helen never quite figured it out.). One promotion and two years later, Helen came home to move in with Mel. She told him she’d be out on her own, rent included, as soon as she’d found a real job.

Castle / Cartwright snapped her up almost immediately. How could they refuse those looks, her classy French, her nicely moderated ego, and that gauze of innocence belying a young woman with, as they say, experience far beyond her years? Helen Issacson possessed no other motive in working with Ben Greenleaf than to do a wonderful, conscientious job and learn as much as she could about contemporary literature.

Or so Mel Issacson instructed Ben when he called him up at NCM and said, "All I want to know, Mel, is what your drop-dead gorgeous daughter is doing wanting to knock around the goddamned artsy-fartsy end of the impoverished book business when you could set her up all by yourself as some hot-shit junior exec at one of your own goddamned magazines?"

PETER PLAGENS, longtime art critic for Newsweek magazine, exhibits his paintings at Nancy Hoffman Gallery.