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ARTFUL TOM, A MEMOIR
by Thomas Hoving
Kindle Users: Click here for plain text copy

20. MASTER AND DOCTOR

The boat trip was hideous. We got trapped in a four-day storm and the vessel wallowed greasily across the Atlantic. Nancy suffered frightening attacks of claustrophobia. I was profoundly worried about a miscarriage and spent much time in the cabin soothing her. Once she scared the hell out of me by disappearing in the dead of night. I found her placidly walking the slightly heaving deck, chipper as anything.

Papa Elliott arranged "safe passage" through Customs and Immigration. We were met by a Carey limousine -- very swank! For a night or two we stayed at 340 East 72nd Street -- now my sister's apartment -- and I heard a few ghosts and was deeply moved by the memory of my mother's last days. If only I had been able to be nearer her in the last year or so I might have picked up on her downward spiral.

Then it was off to Quaker Hill where I had a discussion with Elliott over my doubts about continuing art history. He cleared my mind by saying that the study, the knowledge I’d accumulated, my experiences in Italy and digging were like investments. It would be unwise to pull out of "these invested properties" and have no returns. At length I agreed.

Pauline called and invited us to Stockbridge for a few days. She sounded so loving over the phone. Was my dreaded stepmother with the popping eyes actually mellowing? She had aged and no longer possessed her well kept good looks. But she had managed to hold onto her allure. I had to hand it to her -- she had successfully fought against age, a struggle, I had to admit, that had been rather admirable, for it had always been all for Walter.

We gave our collie Whiskey to the family who had kept her for us because their kids had fallen in love with the nutty animal. Beez came back to us and rushed over to schmooze, flipping his expressive tail on the floor until the dust flew. Our new Princeton abode was half of a two-story house. The bedroom was upstairs with the sole bathroom; downstairs had a porch, a living room, a dining room, which I immediately turned into my office, and a large kitchen, which Nancy took to at once. There was a back yard of sorts, large enough for Beez’s hunting.

The box spring of our Hollywood King sized bed, which we’d bought in California couldn't make it upstairs, so we bought twin box springs. We leaned the big one up against the house where an undergraduate friend, Frank Stella, who was majoring in painting, saw it and became entranced. He asked if he make "a piece" out of it and embellished the circles of wire into a fantasy city using painted wood sticks and colored wires amongst the springs. It was powerful and imaginative. When we moved to New York, we had to leave the huge thing there -- God knows in what New Jersey landfill Stella's early "masterpiece" is parked.

My first meeting with my counselors at graduate school was puzzling, for they seemed clueless as to what seminars I should take. At Princeton, in fact, there were no seminars covering the span of art history -- each student had to read it on his own. I was impatient to get on with it since I had read so much history in Roman libraries and boldly suggested that I take the M.F.A. examinations in the spring. One professor remarked that with three seminars and the grueling preparation for the weeklong M.F.A. exam the work load might prove to be too daunting. I casually said I could handle it.

That’s when I started working ten hours a day. My seminar reports were: how to date Pompeian wall paintings for Erik Sjöqvist; the stylistic sources of a group of ivory carvings made in the time of Charlemagne for Kurt Weitzman; and the antique sources for Annibale Carracci’s frescoes in the Galleria Farnese for Professor Jack Martin.

Nancy and I started an "office pool" with our friends for the birth date and I put in $20 for the Marine Corps birthday, November 10th. We had no idea of the baby's gender -- back then no one could tell. Nancy had taken a few health precautions -- she stopped smoking for months and only occasionally would have a glass of wine.

On November 9th we drove to Quaker Hill where I had a lovely fall morning shooting pheasant with Papa Elliott. That evening we had one of Amelia Bell's roast beef dinners with Yorkshire pudding with a delicious, smoky 1948 Claret. Nancy was very gay during the repast until she went pale and suddenly dashed to the bathroom. Her water had broken. I was scared to death, thinking that this was the signs of another miscarriage.

We bundled into our new, bigger car, a Renault Dauphine, and, armed with a pair of bath towels and a hot water bottle, drove to New York and holed up at my sister’s apartment. Near dawn the contractions became stronger, so we checked in at the Doctor's Hospital at East End Avenue -- where Nancy had been born and where the visitation rules all but demanded champagne and caviar parties.      

I stayed with her in her private room, wiping her forehead and holding her hand for hours until I was shoved out to the waiting area. From early morning until the mid afternoon of Sunday November 10th, I fretted, sweated, paced, wrote dire -- and poetic -- things in my pocket journal, wondered whether the birth would actually happen and if it did would it be a boy or a girl, drank copious amounts of coffee, chewed listlessly on some bad deli sandwiches and suffered.  

Nancy was having a breach birth. The doctor chose to wait until the exact moment to tip the child and forced Nancy to push and push and push causing her increasing pain. They never told her -- or me -- what was happening. She was going through semi-natural childbirth although had to be given a snootful of gas from time to time because the agony was too much. None of this I knew, thank God!

At 3:31 p.m. in the afternoon a baby girl was delivered and unceremoniously plunked on Nancy's soft belly. She was a gooey and pretty little blonde.

When I saw her in the arms of a nurse I cried in joy and relief, for by this time I was expecting the doctor to come out and tell me horrifying news.

My first thought was how gorgeous she was! And my second was, hey, I had won the "office pool!"

We christened her Petrea for her grandmother and aunt, a name that soon was shortened to Trea.

In the beginning our lovely Trea was a trial. She had three-month colic and kept us awake half the night, every night, screaming and wrestling the air in wracking pain. On occasion we'd slip the sweet thing a bit of Phenobarbital and a tiny taste of scotch and only then would she relax. Today, we’d be busted for that, I suppose.

At the exact moment when three months had passed the colic ceased. From that moment on Trea was bliss. She'd sleep all night until eight in the morning or later, cooing, burbling and batting her baby blue eyes at us. She smiled most of the day and dropped off to sleep at night within seconds of being laid into her crib.

We did some stupid things with her and had some near disasters. To keep her from rocketing into the road when she had perfected an accelerated crawl Nancy put a dog harness on her body and strung a leash to the laundry line, causing major consternation with our neighbors until they saw how fast the kid could spurt when unleashed. Once, lounging around at a rich friend’s swimming pool, drinking copiously, I suddenly lost sight of my daughter. She had slithered into the water and was sitting at the bottom of the deep end, placidly blowing bubbles. I was able to seize her and throw her into Nancy’s waiting arms before any damage was done. Another time Nancy spilled her pram down the back stairs and feared that the poor child had cracked her head -- again no damage. She devoured a pair of Nancy’s contact lenses and despite our frantic searching we never spotted them, but Trea was fine.

I became a harried, anxious, self-doubting, frightened, hard-to-live-with shithead grind. A typical workday for seven days a week was up at 6:00 a.m. to study in my office until breakfast. A quick bite. Then to McCormick Hall until lunch which was a bad hamburger at the undergraduate lounge where I played a bit of pool with two student buddies. Then back to the art library until dinner time when I went home, had one martini, ate a speedy dinner, helped put the kid to bed and studied until midnight. Day after day. It took a toll on me and even more on my wife who was not at all pleased with her "mad monk."

I never told Nancy, but in the middle of the process I thought I’d lost it mentally. As I wrote in my journal, "I feel utterly black -- worthless -- sick in mind in such a way that I feel physically ill. I must admit that I have given thoughts to killing myself. I even walked through how I would do this in a way that would be the least horrible for Nancy and the Bells. I would go to Quaker Hill, load my shotgun and go out to the field behind the fir trees. There, I’d take off one shoe and manage to pull the trigger with a bare toe. I even practiced the act once and knew that with a rigorous contortion I could reach and pull the trigger. Out there in the field the brains and blood would not dirty up the house. I ask myself, do I have some of that touch of insanity my mother had?"

Talk about the dark night of the soul; this one lasted eight months.

To pull out of the dumps I'd think of Rome, her treasures and sunny afternoons and the idle coffees on the sidewalk at the Bar Professore and the evening martini looking out over the Eternal City from our little terrace. I'd think of the magical tours through the dimmed churches. I'd think of the Sicilian hills and the brown-green plains that stretched way, way into the distance towards that jewel of a little, bustling city of Catania and on to the thin silver and gold sparkling filament of the sea. Such thoughts would save me -- for a week or so.

When I was thinking of quitting, I was saved by a stroke of sheer luck. It happened during my desperate studies for the paper on Annibale Carracci's antique sources for his frescoes in the Galleria in the Palazzo Farnese.

His paintings in the grandiose banquet hall of the sumptuous Palazzo, created between 1597 and 1602, depict episodes from the lives of the Olympian gods and goddesses carried out in an energetic Baroque style of high classicism. It is as if the Sistine ceiling had gone pagan with the dramatis personae dashing around naked, unashamed and full of zest. 

My assignment was to "prove" the scholarly cliché that Annibale had used abundant antique sources for his flamboyant works. But up until I worked on the problem scholars had found only one dinky carved gem in the Farnese collection to back it up. I was finished. Then, suddenly and unaccountably, on McCormick library’s new-book shelf one morning I blundered upon a glitzy book with dozens of photographs in which a host of the Farnese antiquities in the Naples Museum had been photographed from all sorts of odd-ball angles -- from above, below, in bird’s-eye and worm’s-eye views.

Having one of my visual acuity flashes, I realized that Annibale must have looked at -- or imagined -- his patron's collection in much the same way, as models for not just one episode or one figure in the mammoth fresco cycle, but for most of them. I found that one god flying down to present another with a wreath in the fresco was almost identical to a bird’s eye photograph of a Farnese ancient Roman statue with raised arms. At length I tallied up something like thirty times a Farnese antique sculpture, viewed or imagined from an odd angle, had been used as a model in the ceiling. That off-the-charts talent of mine to see quickly the relationship between objects bailed me out. In my art career that would happen time after time.

What this meant was that the intellectual game for the guests at Cardinal Farnese's grand dinners in the Galleria was figuring out which piece of the fresco had been adapted from which piece of antiquity displayed in niches in the same room. My lucky discovery destroyed the accepted interpretation of Annibale’s fresco cycle as a "Neo-Platonic visual essay about celestial love's supremacy over physical passion." The paintings were actually both an entertaining celebration of a bunch of randy Olympians hitting on each other and also an up-scale mind game paying homage to Odoardo's fine antiquities collection.

I kept my discovery from everyone including my seminar professor, Jack Martin. At last I gave a heads-up to my classmate, Dick Turner, whom I knew could hold his tongue. He was flabbergasted and told me in his out-of-the-side-of-his-mouth Midwestern drawl, "Hoving, what a fucking breakthrough! You'll get an article out of this and maybe even a job!"

I got another upward jolt after my Carracci discovery and found a forgery published by Adolph Goldschmidt in his monumental Corpus of early medieval ivories -- one of the early 9th century so-called Ada School of Carolingian pieces. One day when I was studying a photograph of a fragment of the Resurrection showing Christ zooming up to heaven like a fireworks display I had the flashing impression that the ivory had been carved as a fragment. That meant it probably was a fake. I made some drawings showing how the artist had misunderstood how the fragment would end if it had been whole, showed them to Professor Weitzman, who, after several days of mulling it over, told me he was convinced.

After that he got me special permission to visit the small university art museum and to take medieval and late classical works of art out of the cases and hold them in my hands. I felt electrified, just as I had felt at the dig. When a work of art was in my fingers I felt transformed and uplifted.

I enjoyed seeing my colleagues screw up in seminar reports. My colleague Gene Becker made a mess of his paper on artistic theory in the time of Nicholas Poussin. Professor Martin saw through his BS and one scholar who was auditing the course fell asleep. (This was a woman I’d asked what I needed the most to become a professional art historian and she'd replied, "An independent income.") My first somewhat erroneous impression of Gene Becker, who later became a close friend, was that he was curious, shifty, faked-intense sort of fellow. That was arch, arrogant and unkind of me. How untrue my impression turned out to be. In fact Becker was to be responsible for a most important change in my life not more than eight years later when he recruited me to work for the mayoral election of a New York congressman, John Lindsay.

Did I ever have fun? Certainly, when Nancy and I could get away to Quaker Hill. I'll never forget the exciting pheasant shooting and the grand food and fine wines and scintillating talk of world politics and economics. I read everything Elliott Bell had written and especially his acute prediction before the 1929 crash that the market was about to implode. But the best fun was watching my daughter growing up.

It was also fun playing a killer game of squash with Dick Turner early every morning and shooting pool with him and fellow grad student David LeWall after lunch at the Student Center. We three got to be well known for our bizarre antics. Every time we showed up a group of undergrads would gather to watch, looking on goggle-eyed at the three older, oddball scamps speaking in art historical slang mixed with a lot of foreign profanity spat out at the gain or loss of a point. David LeWall was a giant of a man with a brow like a Greek entablature. His eyes were Sienese slits and his mouth a hard line until it exploded into a radiant smile of child-like happiness when he sank a winner. Turner, his shaven head looking like a massive fingernail brush, would gaze at the next shot for minutes at a time. When he made a near-impossible shot he'd bellow a happy obscenity.

Nancy suffered through the grind far more than I. Not only was she dealing with a baby but she was faced with a husband who hardly talked to her except to mouth some incomprehensible art historical jargon. We got into one fight about my crippling routine that escalated into mild fisticuffs. But I, stupidly, grabbed her glasses and stomped on them. She laughed when it was over and asked if I remembered the time in our Quonset hut at 219C Eisenhower Street when, at breakfast, she'd gotten pissed off at some pompous inanity of mine and had winged a knife at me.

"Yeah, that steak knife could've killed me," I said.

"Was a butter knife."

"True. Sorry about the glasses."

To make up I read to her from my journal about how I felt when I'd been alone for five days in December. "In a way it's good to be alone in an empty, bare house. It makes me realize just how much I love Nancy and the child. How sweet and kind and understanding my wife is! And sometimes I treat her so very badly. I take her too much for granted and think of her merely as a useful object placed in my existence for my delight. How cruel and stupid I am at times. From now on I will work to enrich her life -- not mine through hers."

I think she took a lover. He was a lissome grad student in the English department where she was auditing a course when she could find a baby-sitter. We never spoke about this -- I decided that she still loved me for all my nonsense and that the guy -- he was married -- would fade away. And he did. It might seem strange that we never talked in our lives about our love affairs, but we lived by the motto that extracurricular affairs were best kept secret. I’ve never regretted it.

I completed the work on the seminar report for Erik Sjöqvist on the methods of dating Pompeian wall paintings. My paper was garbage, mostly a chattering of all other scholars’ opinions. When I had delved into the various dating systems I saw that they were all crap -- it was impossible to say which particular style of wall painting, the architectural or the landscape came before or after another. But, playing it safe, I wrote nothing about my feelings. Had I shown any courage, I would have said just that and, knowing Sjöqvist, he would have given me an even higher mark.

The Weitzman report on the sources of Carolingian ivory carvings was complex, hideously long and for the most part weak. Charlemagne had come to the throne at the end of the "Dark Ages" and had tried to bring off a renaissance based upon the art of the time of Constantine the Great. His artists had churned out a host of illuminated manuscripts, ivory carvings and the occasional wall painting based on what they thought were "classical" models from the 4th century A.D. Yet, since the artists had no inkling what was actually Constantinian, the models were anything from the fourth, fifth or sixth century, ranging from solid, sculptural Roman material of the fourth century to the more abstract and linear Byzantine or Syrian works of the sixth century.    

My task was twofold: to pin down the iconography of each Ada ivory, whether Roman, Alexandrine, Syrian or Constantinopolitan and then from surviving pieces identify the style of the likely model.

The oral report lasted for three two-hour sessions. Weitzman gave me a high mark and observed only that he'd thought he'd instructed me to analyze only the earliest ten pieces instead of the entire so-called Ada School, some thirty-five pieces. I was happy I had done them all, for I had fixed up a handy outline for my Ph.D. thesis, if I chose to pursue that degree, assuming, of course, I'd pass the horrifying M.F.A. exam.

I finally told Professor Jack Martin what I had found in the Galleria Farnese. He invited the graduate faculty to attend my report and I got a round of applause at the end. Chairman Lee said he would out my name up for what we called the "meat market" in late March at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts where hand-picked graduate students gave shortened versions of especially well-received papers.

As I told Nancy, "I hope I’m selected. I have a feeling I can score. But it'll be scary. Erica Tietze-Conrat, the acidulous wife of the NYU scholar Hans Tietze, has been known to arise in the middle of a presentation and scream at a speaker when she thinks he or she has made the tiniest of errors."

The dreaded general M.F.A. examination began in the third week of May. I trucked my Smith-Corona electric typewriter into a seminar room and wrote outlines of my answers on the blackboard. I made up a bunch of sheets like those I had folded for the re-write men every morning at the New York Mirror. I was going to be the art history version of Ernie Savelson, hammering away two-fingered at his two-gorgeous-gals-seize-man-for-sex-play stories.

Some of the general questions the first day were beyond me, but I faked them out. One asked about the significance of two Italians, Sant' Elia and Marinetti. I'd vaguely heard of the pair and managed to dredge out of my recall of modern architectural history that they were Futurists. Knowing that this radical Italian movement, which coincided with the birth of Fascism, had produced lots of theory but no buildings, I described their Manifesto from my imagination, making up the Fascist elements, and no one questioned my work of fiction.

I hammered some of the questions out of the park, especially the two on specific Roman churches -- San Clemente and Saints Cosmas and Damian in Rome, where I had spent hours with my binoculars studying the mosaics.

The second day was on "Problems of Art History." I felt I'd blown most of them. Although I did score on the "Problem" of whether Georges de la Tour had ever traveled to Italy to soak up the style of Caravaggio, which I suspected had been put in the exam just for me since I had dealt with that so successfully in a seminar in my first year. The third day -- restricted to medieval art -- was a breeze.

The three-hour oral grilling was a snap despite one glitch when an eccentric professor took out of his jacket pocket a small, original Tuscan crucifix and shoved it into my face. I thought of asking, "Should I fucking turn into a fucking bat and fly out the fucking window?" I did correctly identify it as Sienese master of the early 14th century, because I had once held it in my hands.

Another professor smiled cruelly and asked, "Who was responsible for the interior of the statue of Liberty?" I had no idea. But knowing the statue was by the Parisian sculptor Bartoldi, I figured his logical buddy would be Gustave Eiffel. Who else knew how to make giant armatures in iron? Once again, I had lucked out.

I passed with amazing marks -- 94 the first day, 89 the second, 100 the third and "Pass" on the oral. When I was told I had won the coveted M.F.A., I went bananas and celebrated with my dear wife until dawn. I felt a huge weight lifted from my body and soul and since that moment have seldom had a downer or a black mood or a feeling of inadequacy again in my entire life. It was like the time the Marine Corps Major asked me to think of becoming a career officer.

During the horrid grind of graduate school I had never stopped writing. But my spurious literary career came to a halt when I received a host of rejection slips for the half dozen short stories I'd sent to various magazines. A lengthy session with the editor-in-chief of a noted weekly magazine -- one of Elliott Bell's close friends -- convinced me that I didn't have the stuff to become a pro.

So, after many years of working, after all those pages in my daily journal describing my passion to become a full-time writer and after writing and re-writing dozens of stories amounting to hundreds upon hundreds of hours spread over years I gave it up overnight without a qualm. One of my strengths, or perhaps weaknesses, is that I have always been able to walk away from anything that no longer interests me. "Never look back," is one of my firmest credos whether or not it applies to former jobs or, less admirably, former close friends.

I plunged into my dissertation, the Antique Sources of the Ada Group Ivories, and in one year had won my Ph.D. My thesis was lousy, nothing but a re-hash of my pedantic seminar paper -- unoriginal, cautious and dull. The outside examiner at the orals, a former Weitzman student and a professor at Cornell, was outraged at the thesis and tried to flunk me -- something utterly unheard of with a doctorate. But Weitzman supported me. What else could he do at that late point? I know what I should have done. Instead of plodding through the identification of the possible models for each one of the thirty-five surviving Ada School ivories, I should have pointed them out very briefly and then explained how marvelously and imaginatively the Carolingian artists had broken free from aping the source and had burst forth into a white-hot style unlike anything that had existed in art before. A Carolingian ivory carver might have used a 6th century Byzantine five-part consular diptych showing the emperor on horseback, but what he made of it in adapting it to become a five-part diptych with the Virgin enthroned was pure creative energy. I knew I had failed miserably and have regretted it ever since.

Because of my lousy thesis I seldom said I was a Ph.D. and have never used the title "Doctor." The only person who did was my proud father who threw a cocktail party for me inviting VIPs from the business and art worlds to the Racquet Club to celebrate my advanced degree. He introduced me to everyone as, "My son, the Doctor."

I chuckled when some of the guests sidled up to ask me if I could suggest a cure for a tennis elbow or something. To each I breezily said, "Take a week off, I'm going to."

This is chapter 20 of Artful Tom, A Memoir, which is being posted in full in Artnet Magazine. For the complete book to date, click here.


THOMAS HOVING is author of Master Pieces: The Curator’s Game (2005). He is former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He can be reached at Send Email



 



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