The librarian gave me a pair of flimsy white cotton gloves—a prerequisite to handling the letters and photos in the archive. Putting on these shapeless things—was that my thumb in the pinky hole?—I wondered what I was being protected from. Of course, it was the materials that were being protected from me. God forbid I get my dirty fingers on that dog-eared photo of the person smiling on the gray beach in the high-hiked swim trunks of yesteryear. But what if the gloves were actually protecting me from the past?
Strange spirits. Woken demons. A researcher does well to keep distant from the crumbling personalities of the archive. When an irate librarian all but ordered me to leave the premises for failing to wash my hands at a specially appointed sink just outside the lockdown-style special-collections room, she was, I now realize, doing me a favor. In those more innocent, pre-coronavirus times of four years ago, I would not have understood otherwise that I needed some protection, some cleansing as with holy water, before the papery séance awaiting me within.
It can be personal. Reading the diaries of the art critic Clement Greenberg for Fierce Poise, my new biography of the painter Helen Frankenthaler, I decided to look at the entry for August 11, 1963, the date of my birth. Although my book covers only the 1950s—exploring, among other things, Frankenthaler’s five-year relationship with Greenberg—I chose to venture in this one case beyond the given range. Frankenthaler attended Bennington College, where my father was a professor; I was born in Bennington, and Greenberg liked to visit the town from Manhattan, not just with Frankenthaler but by himself after their breakup, the place having been a center of the abstract art he championed.
Reading the diaries of the art critic Clement Greenberg, I decided to look at the entry for August 11, 1963, the date of my birth.
Sure enough, on August 11, 1963, Greenberg reports driving into North Bennington. But what I saw next gave me greater pause. It was the word “baby.” After a moment I saw that Greenberg was referring not to me but to his own infant, his daughter, Sarah. I was relieved. I did not want Clement Greenberg to mention me on my first day on earth. For all of his brilliance as an art critic, Greenberg had a dismissive candor and outright cruelty of judgment—admittedly, a cruelty he shared with others in his milieu but that he perfected—that made me loathe to think I had crossed his mind. Then I scanned the next entry, for August 12, and saw my father’s name.
“Followed Paul Feeley & Howard Nemerov to dinner party,” Greenberg notes, referencing my father and his best friend, who had been Frankenthaler’s art teacher. Then a couple of lines down in the same entry he writes: “Howard N. there—with a baby.” My heart quickened. I looked again, specifically at the word that began with a w. I thought the word was “with.” But then I saw that it really said, “w. J.” That is, “with Jenny”—Jenny being Greenberg’s wife. The baby was his own, just like on the previous page, where, checking again, I saw the same designation, “w. J. & baby.” In the entry’s abbreviated syntax, he had listed some of the people at the party, and my father just happened to precede the diarist’s mention of his wife and child—“Howard N. there—w. J. & baby.” That was all.
Still, what a contagion! I had been near enough to all that booze, pomp, and blown smoke that for a moment I persuaded myself that I’d been there, innocent infant, trapped in a world I never made. But I was also disappointed by that “w. J.” I wished that my father had taken me to the party to show off, even if I knew that leaving a father in charge of a one-day-old baby back then made no sense. Or maybe I was there, in company with my mother, both of us unmentioned by Greenberg—a double slight for which I could not forgive the cussed diarist even if it would have displeased me had he noted my existence.
But filthiest of all, hadn’t I come just this close to being—through some crazy baby-switching sleight of hand—Clement Greenberg’s own child? All this “w. baby” when I was a baby, this doubtful paternity, if only on the page, made me put the diary down like it had coughed on me.
White gloves, satisfy my vanity, protect my sanity, save me from myself. Let me leave the archive; let us keep safe.
Alexander Nemerov is the chair of the Art and Art History Department at Stanford. His new book, Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York, is out now from Penguin Press