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published in Vogue Magazine, February 2007
I was eighteen when I learned the power of a photograph to change a persons life. That spring, a picture of me had appeared on the cover of The New York Times Magazine, along with an article Id written called "An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back on Life.". I winced when I saw the cover of the magazine, because my hair looked messy, and my mouth, though smiling, had a sort of rueful expression, nothing like that of the cool, uncomplicated-looking models in Seventeen. But something in that photograph caused people to pay attention. Even now, thirty five years later, seldom a week goes by without someone my age referring to that photograph of me, sitting in my jeans on the floor of the Yale Library in what turned out to be my one and only year of a college career cut short, in fact, by circumstances surrounding the appearance of that very photograph.
There were prettier girls on that and every other campus that spring, but it was something else people registered in my face, other than prettiness: quizzical amusement, and a couple of other traits that had stood me in best stead throughout my life to that point, I think: energy and optimism. I was hungry for the world, and for the moment, the world seemed eager to receive me.
Within weeks, Id signed a book contract. Magazine editors called me up. The New York Times gave me more assignments, and then a summer job at the paper. But the event that eclipsed all others in my universe, that spring, came in the form of a letter from J.D. Salinger. In a voice more funny and appreciative and endearing than any I could have dreamed up -- in the voice of Holden Caulfield, actually -- he expressed the deepest kind of admiration for my writing and, more than that, for me.
By midsummer I had quit my job at the Times and moved in with Salinger. I withdrew from Yale, ceased communication with virtually everyone in my life, besides him, believing that we would be together forever. But I lived in a state of daily fear that I might displease this man whose approval mattered most to me. And though I continued to work on the book I had agreed to deliver by the end of that year, I did so with increasing anxiety, born of the knowledge that everything I had once burned to achieve -- college, followed by a writing career, fame and success -- was everything the man I most revered held in greatest contempt.
In January of 1973, when I was nineteen, I delivered the manuscript of my first book, Looking Back. In March, three weeks before its publication, Salinger ended the relationship, with words so brutally withering that hearing them, I could barely breathe. He didnt love me any more. And because I had come to see this man as the wisest and most enlightened person on the planet, I believed what he told me about myself. The day I packed up my things from his house and drove for the last time down that familiar dirt road, I might as well have been exiled to Siberia.
I retreated then to my parents house in the small town where Id grown up. I told my publisher I couldnt go on a book tour, and cancelled virtually all of the plans for promoting my book. But even in my shattered state, one invitation from the glittering world of New York City publishing remained impossible to turn down.
Vogue Magazine had contacted me to say they were running a special issue that summer, on The American Woman. Each of the women chosen to appear in this issue -- and I was one -- would have her portrait taken by Richard Avedon. I would also receive a print of this portrait.
The name of Avedon was hugely alluring. And so, almost a year to the day from when a very different legendary artist had first singled me out and identified me as worthy of his gaze, here now was another, ready to focus his lens on me. Heartbroken though I might be, I still wanted Richard Avedon to take my picture.
The girl on the cover of the New York Times had weighed around ninety pounds, and the girl who lived with Salinger had lived on a diet of raw peas and cucumbers. But in my misery that spring I had begun to eat -- sometimes finishing off three yogurt containers at a sitting, and a bowl of popcorn, and a container of ice cream, then making myself throw up, then starving myself for the next two days, before doing the same thing all over again. I wasnt fat, but I was no longer skinny either, and the fact that I wasnt terrified me. I wanted to look as deprived as I felt, but in the spring of 1973, my face had become puffy, and my jeans were tight.
So I chose my clothes carefully for the Avedon shoot, ultimately selecting a nondescript black shirt that hung loose over the top of my jeans to conceal how the waistband cut into my flesh. The girl who walked into the photographers studio that afternoon -- having driven five hours from New Hampshire -- bore no resemblance to the cool, lanky, elegant models whose images more typically graced the pages of Vogue. But I know what I hoped: that the genius of Richard Avedon would transform me into such a person, on paper anyway. A year before, another photographers image of me had lifted me out of one life and opened up another. Once again perhaps, the click of a shutter could transform the world as I knew it and take me away.
I hoped for something else, that afternoon (young as I was, and even more naive): I wanted Jerry Salinger to see my picture again. And when he did, I wanted him to remember how he loved me, and take me back.
He was a small person -- shorter than I, and as thin as Id been, at my most anorexic. If he greeted me, it was with no more than a word or two. Then silence. The assistant handed him a camera.
I had seen the movie Blow-Up, about a fashion photographer. Maybe I based my ideas of how things would go on the David Hemmings character -- a certain kind of cajoling flirtation and almost electrical connection between photographer and subject. But Richard Avedon approached me in the coolly detached manner of a surgeon stepping into the operating theater. Scalpel. Forceps. Cut.
No effort was made to elicit a smile from me, and that day I offered none. Sooner than expected, the session was over. Avedon set down his Rolleiflex and disappeared. I made my way back out onto the street.
That summer, the issue of Vogue with my portrait arrived in the mail. I ripped the envelope open so fast I tore the cover. I found the place easily enough: my face filled the page, and though it was recognizably me, I studied the image as a person might, the photograph of a stranger, but with the terrible, sinking realization that this was what I looked like now: Lank hair. Puffy face. A look of world- weariness sadder, even, than if Id been crying.
When did I become that haunted-looking person? Where did the girl go, from the cover of the New York Times, with that wry smile and the air of a person about to tell a joke or tumble into a somersault? What kind of a fool was I to suppose that because a famous photographer of beautiful women had taken my picture, I might look like a beautiful woman, myself?
Summer passed, then fall. No more letters in my mailbox -- not the one I wanted, anyway. And no sign of the promised print of my Avedon portrait. I didnt mind. I felt no desire to own a permanent record of my own deep sorrow.
Years went by. I married. Gave birth to three children. Published more books, and when I did, photographers took my picture. "Youve done this before?" they sometimes said, around the fourth book, or the fifth, when Id learned how to smile spontaneously for the camera , and even to laugh, regardless of whether or not anything funny had been said.
A few years ago, I was at a party where the conversation went round to Richard Avedon. "He took my photograph once," I said. "But I dont own a copy."
"You should try to get a print," my host said. "Do you know what those are worth now?"
As it happened, a gallery near where I live was holding a show of Avedons work a few months later, with Avedon himself scheduled to appear. I drove into the city, with the plan of introducing myself, and asking him my question.
But the gallery was crowded that night -- many beautiful, fashionable people in attendance. Avedon was smaller and thinner even than Id remembered, and it seemed wrong, that I was only now pursuing my copy of the print, and for no better reason, perhaps, than because it was worth a lot of money. I drifted around the gallery a little while. Then drove home.
When, a few months later, I learned that Richard Avedon had died, I decided to look for the copy of Vogue Magazine Id packed up in a box so long ago. More than a quarter century after it was taken, I wanted to take another look at that portrait. When I did, I understood it in a way my nineteen year old self had not.
Without exchanging more than a word or two, or knowing a single detail about what had just occurred in my life, Richard Avedon had identified who I was that day.
The photograph that ran in Vogue that summer, was a perfect portrait of a heartbroken girl. In 1973, I had hated that image for the same qualities I respect in it now. It revealed more than Id bargained for. The truth.
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