The Reader's Review, November 16, 1995; Number 100
San Francisco CA, United States
HEADLINE: Mapplethorpe: Assault with a Deadly Camera
* "highly recommended...balanced portrayal"
Review: This exceptionally well-informed memoir about the controversial artist offers the best study of the artistic achievement and the cultural milieu in which he thrived by a lover and editor. Highly recommended for any who wish a balanced portrayal of this artist.
Audience: Arts, Gay
San Francisco Review of Books,
Vol. 20, No. 1, March/April 1995
San Francisco CA, United States
by Mira Schwirtz
HEADLINE: Mapplethorpe: Assault with a Deadly Camera
* "...an eye-witness account of a period that, tragically, has left few to tell the tale..."
* "...popular culture forms the core of Fritscher's Mapplethorpe book"
* "A vulnerable look at a relationship with an artist, his work, and celebrity"
I met with Jack Fritscher the week after the death of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. He built an altar to her in his home, just as he did for John F. Kennedy in 1963. There is no irony in the fact that a man who has seen more people die than many who survive a war is saddened by a single death. It is the symbolic passing of his culture that is disheartening. Jackie O's death means one less recognizable icon on Fritscher's personal map of history. For a man with roots in San Francisco's 1970s gay culture, these identification points are now so few and far between as to make what was once familiar territory a barren and bewildering landscape.
The Castro of the 1970s of which Fritscher, as editor of the San Francisco-based leather magazine Drummer, was a prominent member, is now populated with strange faces. The artists, writers, and models Fritscher knew are dead or scattered. As Fritscher sees it, the gay San Francisco of the 1990s--politically correct, relatively affluent, and well aware of AIDS--is an age apart from the promiscuous and flamboyant 1970s.
It is this "edenic time that once existed before everything collapsed" that Fritscher mourns on the day of Jackie O's death and which he has memorialized in a new book, Mapplethorpe: Assault with a Deadly Camera, subtitled A Pop Culture Memoir and An Outlaw Reminiscence (Hastings House). Presented as a biography of his former lover of three years, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, Fritscher recounts the history of this time and place with personal anecdotes, collected stories, interviews with various artists and critics who knew Mapplethorpe and his work, and never-before-published photographs of the artist and Fritscher from the author's personal collection. In fact, there is much more material than a three-year relationship might produce. Fritscher goes far beyond his chosen subject to theorize about a number of social and individual issues within the context of the 1970s. Fritscher is not shy about his ulterior motive. The book is his vehicle for wresting the role of 1970s gay-culture historian away from other gay writers like Randy Shilts and Armistead Maupin and securing it for himself.
Fritscher never meant Assault to be simply a documentary of the artist's life. In fact, he plants himself squarely at the book's center, casting himself as star witness, sociologist, and critic. "This memoir is not a biography of Robert Mapplethorpe. This is a detective story told in a confessional. Robert and I lived parallel lives before we met. I helped him create himself."
Mapplethorpe is the hook, a sidelight in Fritscher's story about a host of celebrities and half-celebrities who walked the Castro, ate breakfast at The Castro Cafe, patronized the South of Market Fey Wey Gallery and the Hula Palace, and frequented gay sex clubs. All of them, to a greater or lesser degree, a part of the charmed, nebulous circle Fritscher shared with Mapplethorpe, who, living in New York, was absent much of the time.
"People will read about Mapplethorpe and at the same time they'll suddenly see everybody from [Andy] Warhol to [Robert] Opel to all these other people who are running through doing all these wonderful things that contributed to culture, and art, and writing....I was raised to be a priest and what am I doing but going around hearing deathbed confessions and writing them down."
Fritscher paints his subject as a talented, articulate, and ambitious artist who illuminated the underground leather culture with clinical appreciation, and discovered fame only after Jesse Helms, incensed by Mapplethorpe's "pornographic" images, waged war on the National Endowment for the Arts. Mapplethorpe hovers over the text as an iconic presence while Fritscher delivers his own opinions on art or recounts his conversations with other artists and critics like gallery owner Holly Solomon, British art-critic Edward Lucie-Smith, and singer Camille O'Grady.
The subject that primarily engages Fritscher, however, is the male-identified homosexual as opposed to the stereotypical "queen" image. Fritscher and Mapplethorpe disparage the latter as weak and ultimately damaging for gay men. As Fritscher sees it, it is his identification with the other side of this divide that gives him the authority to appoint himself record-keeper of his "tribe's" particular history left unarticulated until now.
"Armistead Maupin went into the main-stream by furthering the myth that gay men are female-identified. I think he's the Judas who sold out gay culture. I think he's selling stereotypes. I try to tell the real tales of the city. I don't mean to beard Armistead Maupin, he's fine at what he does, but he's only one slice of the pie. I'm another slice of the pie.
There's many other slices of the pie waiting to be told, but where are the tellers? The tellers are all dead. "If you believe critics, you'd believe that Randy Shilts was the only person who could write. I'm sure I met Armistead Maupin, but his group never ran with my group. He made gays friendly to straights, so that was very good. But how long can a Negro tap dance with Shirley Temple before it gets old? But he's more in a range of what people can swallow."
Fritscher, a Catholic seminary student for ten years, has spent most of his secular life writing to stretch those palatable limits. He began his career writing for the Catholic publication The Josephinum Review in 1956 and then for scholarly journals after receiving his Ph.D. in American Literature from Chicago's Loyola University. In 1967, he helped found the American Popular Culture Association, which published his first book, Popular Witchcraft: Straight from the Witch's Mouth. Essentially, it is Fritscher's study of popular culture that forms the core of the Mapplethorpe book and the peripheral setting for his last book, a novel titled Some Dance to Remember published in 1990. The novel contains a character, a scholar of pop culture, who declares that "one must study culture quickly before it melts." In Assault, this sense of urgency is echoed throughout. The montage effect of essays written by Fritscher years ago, and reproduced in separate chapters alongside the book's ongoing narrative, as well as in the free-associative quality of Fritscher's writing, contribute to a feeling of compulsive haste. When theorizing about art or politics, Fritscher writes, and often speaks, in short, declarative, single-sentence paragraphs: "The cover-up of truth became the new fig leaf." "This is verbal photography....He was a seer unafraid to exhibit what he saw." Although the imperative tone of this sentence structure can wear a little thin, there is an urgency and persistence within it that cannot be ignored.
Like the cross-dressing self-portraits Mapplethorpe is famous for, some of Fritscher's juicier stories, stories of New York sex orgies and a run-in with the Mafia, although narrated straightforwardly, add a surreal edge to the text. It is difficult to tell how Fritscher really feels about his relationship with Mapplethorpe. While he obviously admires and respects the photographer's work, his editorial stance reveals a split between a past intensity of feeling (described in journal entries written at the time) and a residual disenchantment. For instance, Fritscher quotes art-critic Edward Lucie-Smith as saying "Robert was not a great artist, he was a great salesman." And at points in his narrative, Fritscher appears to agree that Mapplethorpe was more style than substance: "Robert's boyish charm failed to work to his advantage. Edward Lucie-Smith presented a formidable hurdle that Robert even with a running start, could not clear. His practiced ingenuousness fell flat."
Despite its ambiguity, however, the relationship between Fritscher and Mapplethorpe colors every statement of the book, for it's the personal memoir that adds passion to his work. At the least, Fritscher provides an eye-witness account of a period that, tragically, has left few to tell the tale. At the most, Assault provides a vulnerable look at a relationship with an artist, his work, and celebrity.
Mira Schwirtz is a Manhattan-based freelance writer.
Copyright: Mira Schwirtz
TWN News Magazine, April 5, 1995
Miami, Florida, United States
By Jesse Monteagudo
HEADLINE: More than just someone who took dirty photographs
SUBHEAD: Mapplethorpe's life explored by "widow" in "pop culture memoir"
Jack Fritscher's "pop culture memoir," Mapplethorpe: Assault with a Deadly Camera, is a tribute to an incredible man and to an era he embodied. The decade between Stonewall and AIDS was a golden period in gay American history, as a generation of gay men came out of the closet with a vengeance. Largely white, well-educated and affluent, these men tripped the "Great Gay Bermuda Triangle" (New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco) in search of an emerging community and sexual promiscuity unheard of before or since. Most of these men are now dead, casualties of a plague that they unwittingly disseminated, leaving survivors like Fritscher with the task of keeping their memory alive.
Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe was one of the most memorable members of that pioneering generation. Today Mapplethorpe is remembered for his homoerotic photographs and for his posthumous role as the catalyst behind the current debate about government funding of the arts. But Mapplethorpe was a famous artist long before he became a mote in Jesse Helms' eye. His photos of black and white men, flowers, celebrities and women like rocker Patti Smith and muscle-woman Lisa Lyon would have made him noteworthy even if he never shoved a whip up his ass.
Talent, experience and longevity combined to make Fritscher the right person to write about Mapplethorpe, in magazine articles, the epic novel Some Dance to Remember (1990) and, finally, in this nonfiction memoir. Still, Fritscher admits, "Gay culture, wanting explanation of Mapplethorpe, has fingered me as his friend, his lover, his publisher, his biographer and his 'widow,' when, in reality, I am only one of his friends, one of his lovers, one of his biographers, one of his 'widows.'" Mapplethorpe: Assault with a Deadly Camera is not a biography of Mapplethorpe. It is an "outlaw reminiscence" written by a sole survivor. "Nearly everyone hanging in the helix between Robert and me is prematurely dead," Fritscher laments.
Calling his book a "pop culture memoir" frees Fritscher from having to write a connected narrative. It also allows him to ramble from subject to subject, to carry a few grudges and to do away with "correctness," political or otherwise. Fritscher rails against the feminist "queenstream" that he claims controls gay magazines like The Advocate, in opposition to "homomasculine, leatherstream" gays like himself and Mapplethorpe. Fritscher defends his late friend, who he admits "was about as politically correct as Eva Peron," from those who condemn him for not living up to PC standards. "Gay liberation was not invented to be politically correct. Gay liberation was invented to party without getting arrested." Mapplethorpe, we are told, "killed himself, intentionally, despite warnings, with unsafe sex and drugs ... AIDS was simply a convenience."
No wonder this book comes with a "reader discretion advisory." Even so, those who can stomach Fritscher's language and opinions will enjoy his reminiscences of long-gone people and places: Jim Enger [living], Robert Opel, Fred Halsted, the Mine Shaft...as well as of Mapplethorpe himself, whose "name became a sound bite, a buzzword" and who made many of us see what we didn't want to see.
Copyright: Jesse Monteagudo
Atlanta, GA, United States
Vol 23, No. 33
January 7, 1995
by Amy Jinkner-Lloyd
HEADLINE: COVER TO COVER
Subtitled "A Pop Culture Memoir, An Outlaw Reminiscence," Mapplethorpe: Assault with a Deadly Camera is a very personal book that succeeds in humanizing a demonized artist while analyzing a significant part of late 20th century American culture. It's painful. It's sorrowful. And yet, it maintains a certain elegance. With this subject matter, that's an achievement. The first thing you should know about Mapplethorpe is that the action takes place before we knew about AIDS; not one bit of it seems possible, or even real, now. And such leathersex circuses as the Mineshaft, the Everhard and the Slot never seemed real to begin with. Whether those times constituted "a Golden Age of liberation," as the book's preface calls it, is debatable, in view of the continuing death toll.
Jack Fritscher has a doctorate in American literature and continues to study and publish in every form imaginable. But he really went to school as Robert Mapplethorpe's friend, then lover, then friend, then chronicler. He's a marvelous writer and an especially keen observer.
Each of the 21 chapters--called "Takes"--reads like a free standing magazine article, an arrangement that is both the book's strength and its only weakness. Taut yet flowing, these self-contained pieces crystallize and refine one or two points until they gleam. The drawback, though, is that Fritscher then must repeat many of these points--sometimes in nearly identical phrases-in subsequent chapters. Consequently, one begins to feel as though one has read it all after the first five chapters. Still, there's so little beautiful writing being done nowadays that one hates to abandon one of the few books filled with it, mid-stream.
One of the things Fritscher repeats is that Mapplethorpe was a mirror. In fascinating detail, and with equal intensity, the writer describes photo-, art- and love-making sessions as physical, emotional and intellectual searches for a degree of clarity and grace--things Mapplethorpe captured in his photography as no one else has. And Fritscher contrasts the obscenity/censorship era of the recent past with Mapplethorpe's decade-old reputation as a society portraitist.
Roughly 300 pages, the book includes 32 pages of black-and-white photographs and/or photocopies, both of and by Mapplethorpe. The last one is a facsimile of his death certificate.
Copyright: Amy Jinker-Lloyd
THE HARVARD GAY & LESBIAN REVIEW, Vol 11 #1
Cambridge, MA, United States
by Lev Raphael
HEADLINE: THE ICONOCLAST AS ICON
The author of this multi-titled book-a writer who was a lover of Mapplethorpe's--is repetitious, bombastic, self-promoting, and repetitious. Did I mention repetitious? We get certain details and anecdotes again and again, as if they hadn't appeared before, like the time Mapplethorpe met his first patron, Sam Wagstaff, who "discovered" the photographer; or aspects of Mapplethorpe's relationship with Patti Smith. Sometimes the repetitions--like references to Mapplethorpe's style-- seem to occur only a few pages apart. Does an "outlaw" memoir mean one that hasn't been edited well?
Amid the ringing (and justified) condemnations of American illiteracy, hypocrisy, and homophobia, Mapplethorpe also includes scattershot diatribes about feminists, lesbians, and gay publishing. The book even includes a startlingly overblown comparison of a gay American experience to the Holocaust: The removal of an exhibit of Jim Wigler's photography from the San Francisco bar The Eagle in 1982 is compared to Kristallnacht in Germany, the night in 1938 on which, in an orgy of Nazi looting and burning of synagogues and businesses, 30,000 Jews were arrested.
But all these faults don't entirely destroy the value of this rather striking book. Fritscher's memoir gives us a rich feel for the sex- and sensation-crazed 70's, and for the leather world that Mapplethorpe inhabited and chronicled in his own cool way. We get valuable glimpses behind the chilly perfection of Mapplethorpe's gorgeous photographs and the carefully calculated public image. He was often shy. He was a poseur. He liberally borrowed from other people's work. A careerist, he was "very much an art hustler," a dogged pursuer of success, determined to shock his way into the New York art world. His fascination with black men did indeed have a racist element, by the way, as writers like Essex Hemphill have charged.
Among the book's deeper pleasures is a wonderful, long, and sometimes catty interview with the photographer George Dureau, who was in some ways Mapplethorpe's mentor. Dureau's most pointed remark is that Mapplethorpe "ran himself like a department store," and the book furnishes lots of evidence to support this claim.
Given to one-sentence paragraphs straining for epigrammatic power, Fritscher's memoir does make a number of stirring observations. Two of the best are: "Rock Hudson was one of the greatest actors in the world: he made heterosexuality believable"; and "[Mapplethorpe) was an iconoclast who became an icon." The last line appears in a short chapter called, "The Muse Is a Bitch." This intense meditation of Mapplethorpe's role-playing and fame is one of the most evocative sections of the book, and the best place to start if you decide to skim.
© Lev Raphael
NORTHERN EXPRESS WEEKLY
September 16, 1998, Vol 8, No 37
By Nancy Sundstrom
HEADLINE: The 70's are back...with a vengeance
Gay author recalls a rebel with a camera and San Francisco days
Movies like "Boogie Nights" and "54", the new "That's 70's Show" on tv and the resurgence of disco music and fashions are being championed by people who were barely out of their Huggies when the era was at its absurd peak. That is nothing short of perplexing to those of us who were grateful to move onto the even-more superficial 1980's, but what the hecka few extra re-runs of "The Brady Bunch" never hurt any anybody.
If you're interested in two serious, insightful and memorable looks at the transition from the 70's to the 80's, then be sure to pick up the pop culture memoir "Mapplethorpe: Assault with a Deadly Camera" and its worthy companion piece, the fictional epic "Some Dance to Remember," both by the gifted writer Jack Fritscher.
A Ph.D. who earned his doctorate in American Literature at Loyola College in Chicago and a former professor at Western Michigan University at Kalamazoo, the brilliant Fritscher has authored six fiction and four non-fiction books; written countless essays, articles, plays and film scripts; photographed the coffee-table book "Jack Fritscher's American Men" and covers for over 20 magazines and books; founded the legendary "Drummer" magazine in San Francisco; and like fellow author Anne Rice, has long written for both the mainstream and the underground.
The Undiscovered Mapplethorpe
It was while Fritscher was the editor at Drummer in 1977 that a then-undiscovered Robert Mapplethorpe asked him to look at his portfolio of photographs. Fritscher was immediately intrigued by Mapplethorpe unique camera eye and assigned him for magazine cover. They became friends, colleagues and lovers, and after their relationship ended, Mapplethorpe went on to international stardom, a storm of controversy and death at age 42 from AIDS. Fritscher went on to become a prolific writer whose many subjects included his reminiscence of his years with Mapplethorpe.
Largely based from Fritscher's journals and a collection of letters, notes, photographs and reviews he kept on "this most determined of artists," "Mapplethorpe" is a memoir, not a biography. At the onset, Fritscher gives the advisory that "This pop culture memoir contains sex, lies, greed, perversion, murder, deceit, infidelity, drugs, sex, immortality, scatology, ambition, equivocation, character assassination, slander, blasphemy, aspersion, betrayal, distortion, racism, ungodliness, sodomyand that's just the critics of Mapplethorpe." It's a clear caveat for what's about to follow.
What Fritscher captures so well is the essence of the tumultuous 70's and the spirit of an artist who wanted "to be a story told around the world," and paid the price with his life. Fritscher's remembrance is so personal that he writes "takes," not chapters, and his intimate relationship with his subject provides a unique point of view that couldn't be expressed by another biographer.
Art is always in the eye of the beholder, and the validity and purpose of Mapplethorpe's will long be debated. Fritscher lets us know that without the dark side of the soul, there an be no saint, and that Mapplethorpe was living proof that moments may be perfect, but people are not.
Life in the Castro District
"Some Dance to Remember" contains a dedication to Robert Mapplethorpe and "for the 14,000 veterans of the Golden Age of Liberation who each gave me piece of his heart." Spanning 1970-1982, the book, which borrows its title from an Eagles song from the album "Hotel California," is a fable, a "docudramedy" (as the author calls it) and as a document of gay life in the Castro district of San Francisco, has no peer.
As with most epics, a colorful ensemble cast of characters provide and propel the action: a gonzo writer, a hunky bodybuilder, an erotic video mogul, a cabaret chanteuse, a Vietnam vet and a Hollywood television producer, among many others. One of Fritscher's many gifts as a writer is that he clearly loves all his diverse characters, and fleshes them out with their own voices, foibles and dilemmas.
Meld in some significant social issues, like the burgeoning gay liberation movement, civil rights, AIDS and crime, then throw in a murder, and a healthy dose of drugs, sex and rock and roll, and you have the framework for a book that was hailed as the Castro's version of "Gone With the Wind."
Though the author clearly wrote from the perspective of someone who experience the time, place and persons like those in the book, he states up-front that it's not an autobiography, but an imagined journey through a personal heart. Part of the book's beauty is the recognition the reader has of themselves in many of these characters and of the universal world in microcosm at the intersection of 18th and Castro.
"In the pursuit of excellence, there is no fault in high expectation," writes Fritscher at the book's poignant end. "There is only virtue. Then, finally, comes the realization that the quest is of itself the only importance. The quest has no end. The questions have no answers. The questions themselves are the answers, and the quest its own end."
In "Some Dance to Remember," Fritscher's quest was to chronicle an era, and through a fictional platform, pose questions that can only be answered in the heart. "Some Dance to Remember" is a book to remember, and its humanity, humor and intelligence is a tribute to many who won't be forgotten, as well.
©Nancy Sundstrom, Northern Express Weekly