December 13, 2017
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – LETTER TO THE EDITOR IN RESPONSE TO THE NEW YORK TIMES REVIEW OF AVEDON: SOMETHING PERSONAL
To the Editor:
Norma Stevens' book Something Personal (co-written with Steven M.L. Aronson) tells a story in which she, of all the people in Richard Avedon’s long life, was the integral figure, the person around whom all the action centered. So integral, in fact, that very early on in the book – which is billed as a biography, not a memoir – Ms. Stevens writes, with great solemnity, “In 2004, I was at his side when he left this world.”
No she wasn’t. How do I know? Because on the day that Avedon died in San Antonio, Ms. Stevens was with me and the rest of Avedon’s employees at his studio in New York City. She broke the news to us. Avedon’s death was attended solely by members of his immediate family.
This may seem like a small lie for Ms. Stevens to tell, but it is emblematic of the huge problem that pervades Something Personal. A person who is willing to lie about attending someone on his deathbed in order to exaggerate their own importance is a person who is willing to elide and evade fact whenever it suits her, and in this book, it suits Ms. Stevens quite a lot. It is the jumping off point from which Ms. Stevens tries to convince us that Avedon trusted her alone with his deepest secrets (which is untrue), and directed her to “out” him at her own convenience. Ms. Sehgal is right to be suspicious of Ms. Stevens’ assertions of her singularity.
By her own admission, Stevens (not to mention Aronson) never interviewed Avedon for the book. Stevens says nothing more than that she “scribbled down occasionally” Avedon’s anecdotes after she began working for him in 1976, when he was 52. She says she gave scant thought to writing a book, and only announced that she would be doing so after her contract with The Richard Avedon Foundation was not renewed in 2009. And yet, Stevens directly quotes Avedon hundreds of times, often at great length, citing no sources whatsoever – not the norm for a biography. This gives the appearance that Avedon willingly participated in the book, and it lends Stevens a credibility she does not deserve. Tellingly, many of the quotes that have been inserted into the mouth of the dead man contain a mind-numbing number of factual errors.
For example, among other stories, Ms. Stevens recounts an evening in Paris in 1972 when she and her husband allegedly ran into Avedon and the model Dorian Leigh at the Ritz. According to Stevens, Avedon, who at the time Stevens barely knew, turned to her and said “I just bought a carriage house way over east on Seventy-fifth Street that I’m going to make into my new studio….I’m planning to live there, too….I’m running away from home….Only I haven’t told her [my wife] yet. What do you think I should say?” To which Stevens replies, “Tell her it’s nothing personal, it’s just about work.” To which Avedon allegedly replied, “Oh that’s good. You’ve saved my life.”
It’s another story emblematic of Ms. Stevens’ – and the book’s – central problem, namely that Stevens styles herself as essential to every aspect of Avedon’s life – including his personal life. Except, of course, that the story isn’t true. Avedon bought his Seventy-fifth Street studio in 1970 and was photographing and living there by early 1971. His wife already knew. Both Stevens’ timeline and her conception of herself are all wrong, as they are throughout the book. And the fact that she uses direct quotes from Richard Avedon to recount this alleged encounter 45 years after it supposedly took place – demonstrates the lengths that Stevens is willing to go to shape a narrative – a fiction, really, that suits her agenda.
Elsewhere, Stevens, who seems obsessed with Avedon’s personal life, takes Avedon to task for the cycle of portraits he made of his father, Jacob Israel Avedon, before his death in 1973. She writes, “Over the next six years, Dick photographed his father relentlessly. The sittings were fraught. And there were as many as fifty of them….” This sounds sensational but is completely false. Avedon photographed his very willing father exactly six times between 1969 and 1973.
Sehgal credits Stevens with offering illuminating behind-the-scenes looks into Avedon’s work but even here, Stevens is traveling well-trod, and sometimes shaky ground. Avedon revolutionizing fashion photography, bringing movement and dynamism to the pages of magazines is the first thing anyone ever says about him – Stevens offers no extra insight there. Dorian Leigh herself wrote about this with much more precision and intelligence in her 1980 memoir. A Stevens assertion such as Christina Paolozzi being the first bare-breasted woman to appear in a high-fashion magazine (and Sehgal’s repetition of this supposed fact) is just wrong, even in Avedon’s own work.
Which takes us to another fundamental flaw. The book was not fact-checked. It makes no difference that Stevens worked for Avedon for 30 years, during which time they obviously developed a friendship – it is still incumbent upon her to get the facts straight. She is solely resting on what she imagines to be the inherent authority she somehow earned by her association with Avedon. This is wrong, whether the genre is memoir, or, as in this case, biography. The list of errors is far too long to recount, but it causes the book to collapse under the weight of its own sloppiness. Stevens, who holds herself out as the ultimate authority, is instead the proverbial unreliable narrator.
James Martin has been the Executive Director of The Richard Avedon Foundation since 2012. He previously worked at the Avedon Studio.