My Harold Rosenberg
Three decades after Saul Bellow fictionalized my love affair with the great art critic, it’s time for my version
In 1984, a friend from East Hampton phoned me in my New York City apartment.
“Joan! I didn’t know you had an affair with Harold Rosenberg.”
“What are you talking about?” She wasn’t a close friend.
“I just heard that Saul Bellow has a story about Harold and you in the new Vanity Fair.”
“Saul Bellow has written what?”
As we spoke, phone in one hand, the other hand stretching my tangled phone cord to near breaking point, I grabbed any clothes I could find. After saying goodbye, I looked up the address of Vanity Fair’s Midtown office, dressed, ran a comb through my hair, and raced out the door to the subway.
Barging into the magazine’s office, I confronted the first person I saw. “You’ve got to give me a copy of your new issue. Saul Bellow has a story in it about me! If I don’t get it right now, I’ll have to consult my lawyer.”
I suffered through the next 10 minutes, watching the woman I’d verbally accosted huddle with two other women around a large L-shaped desk. Then she rushed me back out through the door into the hallway.
I all but grabbed the large manila envelope from her hands. Inside, in blocky gold letters on a lush red heart, Vanity Fair’s new “Valentine” issue, proclaimed: “Extraordinary Love Story by Nobel Prize Winner Saul Bellow.”
Thankfully, neither the cover, the story’s title, “What Kind of Day Did You Have?” or its description, “a high-flying story of a down-to-earth romance between a zaftig young Chicago matron and ‘a world class intellectual of seventy,’ ” was an instant clue to Harold’s identity—or to mine. But people in the art and literary worlds wouldn’t need to read far to realize that the story’s protagonist, “Victor Wulpy”—a “huge, physically imposing man, big in the art world”—had to be Harold.
Few of the same readers would recognize the real-life model for the story’s love-stricken heroine, “Katrina Goliger.” But despite his fictionalization, many of my friends would know that Bellow had based Katrina on me: “Dumpy … Dumb Dora … divorced … suburban matron … confused sexpot … passably pretty … (with) varicose veins and piano legs.”
It wasn’t only Bellow’s physical description of me that rankled. Harold had counted on me to behave with total discretion about our relationship. Back home, I skimmed the novella a second time, then phoned my lawyer, asking if I had grounds to sue.
“Don’t sue,” my lawyer said. “You’ll just attract more publicity.”
I feared he was right. Publicity was the last thing either I or my four adult children would wish. They had already suffered enough from my overpowering obsession with Harold, and from my protracted divorce from my husband, without my subjecting them to unasked-for publicity. Squelching my guilt, I wrote to “my author/creator.” I described to Bellow my dismay finding my largely secret affair with Harold made public and my mortification at the depiction of me—to which he responded that I should be flattered to be in any story of his.
That answer never satisfied me. Bellow had pillaged key incidents from my life, which should have been mine to tell. But for years I never did. I knew that my behavior was indefensible and irresponsible, but I also believe the affair was part of who I was—and had made me into the person I continued to be. I saved every scrap from our time together: Harold’s brief letters to me; handwritten notes for his articles he’d jotted on invitations, envelopes, or whatever paper he could scrounge; keys and receipts for our $14-a-day hotel rooms, as well as for my round-trip air flights and long-distance phone bills. It’s only been recently, as I neared the end of my intermittently worked-on memoir about Harold and began writing this essay, that for the first time the true cost—the steep price I’d paid to be with Harold—struck home.
Many people assumed that Harold Rosenberg owed his invitation to lecture at the University of Chicago to Saul Bellow, but my family knew better. We knew it was my mother-in-law, Duffy Schwartz, who was responsible for bringing Harold to Chicago. She and Harold had worked for the public-information-dispensing Advertising Council for years: he part-time in Manhattan, she in Chicago. For months, she’d also alerted us to each new article of Harold’s published in Vogue or The New Yorker. But that Sunday night in 1965, after dinner in my in-laws’ glassed-in sun porch, Duffy’s mention of Harold’s name precipitated an immediate family quarrel.
“You remember Harold Rosenberg, don’t you, Charlie?” she asked. “I sent you to ask him for advice about finding work in New York after you finished law school.”
“Oh, Mother,” my husband said. “Harold asked if my ‘Mama’ had sent me! I had nothing to ask, and he had nothing to say.”
“Charlie!” Duffy said. “Everyone at the Council agrees that Harold’s advice on any subject is invaluable.”
“Are you telling us that your friend Harold is the unsung genius behind ‘Smoky the Bear,’ or ‘Buckle Up For Safety’ and your other public safety slogans?”
“You know, we all contribute,” my mother-in-law said. “But now, after years of my suggesting it, he’s finally going to lecture at the university.”
At the time, I knew nothing of Harold’s reputation and hadn’t read anything by him. With three children under the age of 8, a fourth on the way, and a part-time job at the university writing abstracts of business articles about the psychology of economics, marketing, and labor, I felt lucky to finish an occasional Agatha Christie mystery. It was my friend and neighbor, the painter Vera Klement, who explained the reasons for Harold’s renown one afternoon after we’d picked up our sons from kindergarten. Vera told me that he’d coined the term “Action Painting”—a recognition that art’s true essence lay in the process of creation, not in the finished product. She defined that process as the drama touched off when an artist puts his or her brush to canvas, or when, like Jackson Pollock, he hurls or lets the paint drip or splatter down onto the canvas from an outstretched arm. Harold’s insight had helped create interest in works by Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Marc Rothko, and other soon-to-be-famous Abstract Expressionists.
That night, I told Charlie what I’d learned. “What’s the problem?” he asked, from amid the mountainous stacks of newspapers, magazines, articles, and other clutter that took up most of his office. “You still end up buying the canvas, not the artist.”
That Friday evening, on entering the auditorium with my in-laws—Charlie had refused to miss the chamber music concert for which we had tickets that night—I glimpsed Hans Morgenthau and Bruno Bettelheim—some of the university’s Jewish European refugees on the faculty.
I sat and readied myself (or braced) for the talk. Lectures about art typically left me glassy-eyed. But suddenly, there stood Harold. A ruddy-cheeked colossus, in his mid-60s, he radiated the youth and vigor of a man half his age. He began by rattling-off names: Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, Franz Kline. But he didn’t discuss specific techniques or paintings. He reminisced about his friendships with the artists—of having stood in their studios, witnessing the struggles that had shaped their creations. He described the dancing parties in their Greenwich Village lofts, their drinking and debating at the Artists’ Club and Cedar Bar, the playfulness in the early years of their softball games in East Hampton. Wave after wave of laughter swept the room. “Now, that’s real art history I’m giving you tonight,” Harold said, wiping tears of laughter from his own eyes.
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