Book excerpt

Cleopatra's Nose

39 Varieties of Desire

Judith Thurman



The Wolf at the Door

The Italian performance artist Vanessa Beecroft lives with her American husband, Greg Durkin, and their seventeen-month-old son, Dean, in an isolated house off a dirt road on Long Island’s North Shore. Durkin, who has worked in the movie industry as a financial analyst but is currently a graduate student in sociology, found the place by searching the Internet for properties that were within commuting distance of Manhattan and had an indoor pool. Beecroft suffers from exercise bulimia—a compulsion to burn off calories that she considers excessive—and until recently she liked to swim a hundred laps every day. She also used to take ten-hour hikes, and she still goes for vigorous long walks through the nature reserve that surrounds her house. Before the baby started to toddle, she sometimes carried him along, slung on the ledge of a bony hip. "When I was pregnant, I didn’t allow myself to relax for a minute," she says. "I spent all day swimming, training, and doing aerobics. I’ve since slacked off a bit, because I find that yoga is the only workout that doesn’t make me too hungry."

Bulimia is an eating disorder epidemic among young women. (Beecroft is thirty-three.) In its most common form, a ravenous binge—equivalent to several meals, or even to several days’ worth of food—is closely followed by a session of self-induced reverse peristalsis. The practice is both psychologically addictive and socially contagious. According to an unscientific survey of my friends under thirty, there isn’t a dormitory bathroom in the country that doesn’t reek of vomit. Older women suffer from bulimia, too, probably in smaller numbers, although treatment statistics do not, obviously, provide a reliable head count. Actors, dancers, and models are particularly susceptible, and so are young male athletes, like wrestlers and jockeys, who have weight goals to meet. There is an extensive clinical and self-help literature devoted to the disorder (which is commonly medicated with antidepressants), along with dozens of websites and chat rooms, some of them clandestine trysting places for defiant anorexics and bulimics, who fondly call themselves by the dollish names "ana" and "mia," and who warn intruders seeking to cure them or girls "in recovery" not to enter. Members of the sisterhood trade pictures of their idols (Calista Flockhart and Lara Flynn Boyle are especially admired), proud accounts of their sometimes lethally ascetic practices, and advice on concealing them.

It is hard to think of a human stain—an addiction, sin, perversion, or taboo—that doesn’t, in a shame-free age, have its bard. Bulimia, however, is one of the most intractably unglamorous of dirty secrets, as humiliating as incontinence. Bulimics transcend their own threshold of disgust, although not easily the repulsion of others: they are a stealthy tribe. Clogged plumbing or rotten teeth sometimes give them away, but I have known women who have managed to conceal their daily rituals for years without getting caught by a parent or spouse. This interesting subject, one of propriety’s last frontiers, has been largely neglected by creative artists, with a few exceptions, Beecroft being among the most notable. She has been working since her adolescence on a project called XXX Book of Food: 360 watercolors and drawings that she intends to publish in the form of a cube-shaped book divided into colored sections. (Bulimics often separate the courses of a binge with markers of taste and texture so that each stratum is visibly discrete and, during gluttony interruptus, can be carefully ticked off the elimination manifest.) "I used to eat by color," she explains, "all orange one day, all green, yellow, or red the next. I wanted my obsession made formally explicit." She started the book as a diary in the early 1980s with the intention of showing it, one day, to a doctor. The first four years of entries were lost by a typist, but the remaining six (1987-93) make up a log of every morsel (or nearly) that she consumed, and a journal in words and pictures of the feelings—predominantly self-loathing—that her struggle with a recalcitrant appetite aroused, and still does. I found the cumulative tedium of this strange artifact poignant and compelling. So, perhaps, will anyone who, like Beecroft, has "wished demonically for something horrible to happen to me just to make me thin," and who has "weighed every one of my life’s experiences on the scale of how many kilos I have gained or lost from it. In the end, I don’t even care if people say I’m a good artist. I only care about whether or not I’m fat."

Beecroft’s self-discipline is Spartan, though she told me that she "has to have something very bad every day, like a piece of cake or a drink." Most of the bulimics I have known or read about aren’t so abstemious. They, too, gauge goodness and badness on a kitchen scale, and they may diet as strenuously as she does, but they relieve themselves of the tension inherent in long-term deprivation with vast quantities of delicious, forbidden junk. A woman in her seventies who has been a compulsive eater for most of her "petty, claustrophobic life" once told me that her daily "sprees" were its only source of "spontaneity and free choice," and while she knew they were "sick" and "wasteful," she couldn’t bear to give them up for that reason. Beecroft’s diary, however, covers a period when she lived on a monotonous regimen of the same health foods day after day: a bowl of unseasoned brown rice, an apple, a serving of raw carrots or home-baked bread. "I tried to throw them up," she recalls, "but I couldn’t, and when I started retching blood, I had to stop"—which is why she switched to extreme exercise as a purgative. "In my diary, I use the word ‘vomit’ metaphorically. It stands for the violence of the intention." Not merely, however. Once, as a teenager, she smashed a bag of walnuts with a hammer and ate the contents shell and all, winding up in an emergency room with acute peritonitis. The doctor told her that she needed a psychiatrist. She found one who had belonged to the Red Brigades. "I got really fascinated by his politics," she recalled. "Unfortunately, he was too expensive." (Eating disorders and Maoism seem to share a common ground: they are a form of utopian moral extremism—a belief that, with enough ruthlessness, it is possible to achieve perfection.)

Beecroft plans to exhibit the book at a major retrospective of her work that opens in October at Italy’s leading museum of modern art, the Castello di Rivoli, outside Turin. She is also willing to discuss her enthrallment to food with passionate candor, and to describe its role in the tableaux vivants—some fifty to date—that have made her a controversial star of the performance-art world. These spectacles, the initial ones produced on a shoestring, the later ones expensively staged, have been widely admired by curators and critics (but also frequently condemned as voyeuristic and exploitative). They feature large groupings of nude or undressed "girls" who stand mutely for several hours in a gallery or museum, occasionally breaking ranks to stretch or to sprawl, but remaining, in principle, strictly impassive to an audience that is, of course, fully clothed. In the earliest works, Beecroft assembled an eloquently motley collection of fleshy and slim bodies. Emboldened and enriched by her success, she hired scores of uniformly thin, depilated beauties and arranged them as human colonnades. ("I think of them as architecture," she says.) On different occasions, their trappings have included white bras, black body paint, Heidi wigs, control-top briefs, G-strings, gladiator sandals, panty hose, fedoras, faux-mink chubbies, and four-inch stilettoes. A percentage of the women, especially at the beginning, suffered from eating disorders, and they were all volunteers—friends, fellow art students, or interesting-looking female specimens whom she picked up on the street. Yet even when she started recruiting professional models and paying them their going rate, they had to be willing to undergo a painful (if boastworthy) trial of extreme discomfort and exposure. Beecroft herself doesn’t participate in a performance once she has given her instructions to the troops: she’s a general rather than a first lieutenant. Her charisma, however, has increased with her visibility, and women gladly, one might even say hungrily, do her bidding and become her tools. Designers—among them Miuccia Prada, Tom Ford, and Manolo Blahnik—have been eager to contribute props. A photographer and video crews document the pieces (Beecroft used to do the photography herself), and those images are the commodity that Beecroft’s dealers market to collectors. "Reproduction glamorizes the experience and leaches it of ambiguity and emotion," she says flatly. "I’m sorry it’s necessary. Pictures of the girls out of context make the work look too sexy. To me, the actual performances aren’t sexy at all. They’re about shame: the shame of the audience and, to a lesser extent, of the girls, but most of all my own."

Beecroft had doubted that a local taxi driver could find her hideout in the woods, so when I arranged to visit her for the first time, she offered to meet my train from the city. She pulled up in a silver BMW and apologized profusely for arriving a little late. With Dean in tow, she looked like the stressed Madonna in a moody, cinematic parable about suburban anomie. (Her mother, she says, was pregnant with her when her parents first saw Antonioni’s Blowup, which starred Vanessa Redgrave, and they liked the name.) Being lovely to look at and extremely photogenic has not hurt a career that bridges the worlds of art and fashion. Beecroft has a patrician forehead—smooth and high—and prominent cheekbones. Huge, thickly fringed brown eyes are set in a pale face dusted with freckles that was framed, when I met her last spring, by unruly russet curls. (She has since shaved her head. "I saw one too many Holocaust movies," she told me.) Her strong features have a fragile aura of hectic radiance. A tattoo artist in Milan with an upper-class clientele decorated one forearm from the elbow to the wrist with a lurid Vargas-style pinup, and the other arm with a merchant seaman’s anchor and eagle. Elsewhere on her body there are fish and a Japanese dragon. These tough-guy badges of bad-girlhood are at odds with her ladylike appearance, and particularly with the enormous diamond engagement ring on her left hand. She and Durkin, who is seven years her junior, met on the street outside the Williamsburg loft she used to rent. He was looking for an apartment in the neighborhood, where bohemians mingle with recent immigrants from Eastern Europe, and Beecroft mistook him for a Russian. He has the dark-haired beauty of an Attic swain, a lifetime of experience with overbearing older women, and he proposed impulsively after a three-month courtship. "When Greg gave me the ring, I said, ‘Oh, thanks,’ and tossed it across the bed," she says. "I assumed it came from a vending machine at the mall." (It came from his maternal great-grandmother, although the fortune it represented has since diminished.) Yet Durkin’s courage—or foolhardiness— impressed her. "Vanessa is an extreme feminist," her photographer, Dusan Reljin, says, "except that she looks for a strong man to control her." She struck me more like the wild girl in a folktale, bewitched as a punishment for her temper, who turns into a howling wolf and devours her prospective liberators. Her wedding in Portofino became a "project," with costumes by Prada, Trussardi, and Alessandro Dell’Acqua—the entire bridal party and all the guests wore white— and a reception on a soccer field hosted by the editor of Italian Vogue.

The fame and shock value of Beecroft’s work have made her a public figure, so she is never unconscious of being on display. She moves with a dancer’s litheness and poses for photographs with the aplomb of a mannequin. Her voice is seductive and a little fey: the feather clapper in an iron bell. One sometimes has the impression of a lonely virago doing a wishful though also slightly contemptuous impersonation—almost a takeoff—of a baby doll. Beecroft’s father is English, and she speaks his language fluently with a lilting, percussive accent. Her Italian is exceptionally cultivated and formal, even old-fashioned (her mother taught classics and literature)—pure of slang and rich in subjunctives. Most people change character when they switch in and out of their mother tongue, but there is very little discontinuity between Beecroft’s English and Italian personas, perhaps because the uncensored stream of her confidences seems, in contrast to its grammatical precision, so primal.

Fashion and the acquisition of clothes "obsess" Beecroft, she admits, almost as much as eating does, for similar reasons. She claims to shop in "a ravenous and stupid frenzy—everything I buy is a mistake," yet she dresses in the height of style, even in the country, almost invariably in a minimalist white or black designer outfit and the kind of Capezio pumps worn by tango dancers. Beecroft is about five foot seven, but people often perceive her as Amazonian or statuesque, perhaps because of her outsize vitality, or perhaps because she is rarely without heels. (The platforms and spikes that the girls wear in her performances are, she says, their "pedestals.") The afternoon we first met, her own pedestals were red and her Prada ensemble immaculately white. I expected a wraith, but her weight usually hovers around sixty kilos, she says—132 pounds, most of it muscle. It is not uncommon for a runway model of six feet to weigh fifteen or even twenty pounds less than Beecroft does, so, even at her thinnest, she is never emaciated. "I aspired to be as thin as an anorexic," she admits. "I loved fasting once I got past the pain of the first few days, which I did with the help of amphetamines, but I never went too far." It was partly a lack of nerve. Anorexics are more aggressive and bulimics are lazier, she says, "but ultimately I didn’t want to waste myself. Bulimia is, among other things, a form of research for my work: a source of information about what’s going on inside me."

When we reached the house, which Beecroft bought for the family when they outgrew the Brooklyn loft (her art has been lucrative), she led me through a series of monochromatic, sparsely furnished rooms. The architecture is mid-century Nassau County modern: cedar siding, low ceilings, track lighting, sliding glass doors that open to a series of decks, and a rec room on the lower level, off the garage, that she said she planned to use as an office. The previous owner tacked a tower onto the house, a lighthouse-style bedroom suite where, in another era, swinging or pot parties might have taken place. Beecroft retreats to it when she wants to escape her tempestuous marriage, or to "hide" from Dean’s nanny, who has a "bossy attitude" and a big appetite, and whose eating habits she finds "oppressive." "I think the tower could be great for a writer. Come do a book there," she said. When I asked why she didn’t commandeer this aerie for her own work instead of holing up in a sunless tomb that was dank even on a hot June day, she admitted that the thought hadn’t occurred to her. "I gravitate to the shadows." But the funkiness of the decor and its Blair Witch-y setting in the deep woods (she chose the isolation in part to be far from the temptations of grocery or convenience shops) are, in fact, eminently chic, and one can imagine Steven Meisel shooting a Versace layout in the kitchen or by the pool. "I didn’t touch anything," Beecroft says, "not even to paint the walls white, because if I start I’ll have to tear the place completely apart, and I despair beforehand of getting it perfect enough. I need everything to be perfect." Bulimia is also a demented form of perfectionism.

Beecroft may resent having to fill her refrigerator with fattening treats for the nanny ("She doesn’t understand that if she leaves half an egg bagel on the counter it’s hard for me not to finish it"), and she generally tries to fast until dinnertime, but she graciously offered me yogurt and a selection of fruit, which I declined (I had picnicked on the train, since, under the circumstances, I could hardly expect solid refreshment at my destination), and we sat at a table in the sun with bottles of water. I was relieved to see that her baby, who was then nine months old, had a healthy appetite, and whenever he started to fuss, Beecroft nursed him, though throughout the afternoon I noticed that she always proffered him the same breast. At one point, this imbalance began to feel almost physically painful to me, and, more out of politeness than for her own comfort, she shifted him to the other side. I also worried that Dean, who was crawling around the deck naked except for a diaper and a sun hat, would get splinters. He did, but his mother tweezed them out of his pudgy knees so tenderly and expertly that there was barely a whimper. Like an adolescent, Beecroft seems to lack any foresight for disaster— indeed, any sense of mortality. (Discretion, a form of prudence, is equally alien to her.) When she fights with Greg, she told me, she sometimes takes the car out on the expressway late at night and floors the accelerator. "I’m sure nothing will happen," she says with nonchalance, although she conceded that she should probably get a driver’s license. (She since has, though after failing the test twice, both times for recklessness.) In the course of our talks, which took place intermittently over ten months, she revealed a dazzling capacity for elation that was expressed in sudden, beatific bursts, like solar storms. Yet she seemed to possess not the slightest imagination for ordinary happiness.

When Beecroft describes her life’s dramatis personae, the word "mean" recurs as a leitmotif. She uses it of her mother, who raised her on a macrobiotic diet; of her angelic-looking half sister; and of her "grave" and "soulful" young husband. He can sometimes be "as mean as possible, but I’m meaner to him—I tear men to pieces, so it is probably my fault." (After an explosive row this autumn, in a Los Angeles airport hotel, the police were called to intervene, and they handcuffed Beecroft, with polite apologies, until she calmed down.) Durkin’s eighty-three-year-old maternal grandmother, Eunice Carrigan Schneck, with whom Beecroft feels a kinship, "is considered the meanest member of the family," especially toward her long-suffering daughter, Greg’s mother, Sheril—a registered dietician. Sheril Durkin is a sinewy woman in her mid-fifties with a yearbook smile and a confiding manner that belie a hard life. She gave me her professional opinion that eating disorders are usually caused by "crazy mothers."

Sometimes, however, these difficult relatives are as inspiring to Beecroft as the protagonists of a Greek myth or tragedy. (I suppose that devouring one’s children qualifies as bulimia.) She is flooded with compassion for their fatal flaws and respect for their powers of endurance. I also came to understand that she uses "meanness"— cattiveria—as a perverse compliment: the snarl of the beast defending the carcass of its prey, or of the prey that will not let itself be taken without a fight; the mordant pissiness of the unbowed, of all those who struggle and prevail. Asked to name the sentiment most foreign to her, Beecroft responds, without hesitation, clemenza,—pity. Among the gods, as a classical scholar I knew once pointed out, Eros is the most willful, and he carries the day in Olympian contests because desire is the principle of change. To which one might add, voracity is the motor of desire.

Sheril, Eunice, and Eunice’s ninety-year-old sister, Ruby Keller— the blithe spirit of the family—were the central figures in a curious documentary that Beecroft shot just before Christmas in a suite at the Plaza Hotel, a performance that she described to me ahead of time as "Euripides meets Grey Gardens." It was supposed to be "like a little trial at which we interrogate the truth of their lives—the truth of lost youth, lost dreams and love, and of approaching death." At times, it seemed more like a session of fashion therapy for seniors. Beecroft raided her own closet for evening wear of sentimental value, including a lamé sheath of her mother’s and a white Saint Laurent wedding dress that she bought for a potential ceremony "long before I had a man." She also designed some striking futuristic costumes in polyester jersey. Her elfin friend Tara Subkoff ("a miniature Catherine Deneuve," as Beecroft accurately put it) acted as the stylist and wardrobe mistress. Subkoff is the designer behind Imitation of Christ, an exclusive line of one-of-a-kind garments that could be described as mutant vintage. "I don’t like my work to be pigeonholed either as fashion or as art—I’d love it to be considered science," Subkoff said. "Vanessa’s work is also hard to categorize. She has a very visual relationship with her relatives and their clothing. They’re like her paper dolls."

The piece consisted of three vignettes, each lasting about thirty minutes. The first two went off smoothly. Beecroft dressed the old ladies in shocking pink and red long dresses, and a makeup artist touched up their faces and hair. They seemed to enjoy being painted and fussed over. Then they were told to stretch out side by side on the queen-size faux-Empire lit à la- polonaise. The composition had a macabre charm: two well-rouged if lumpy bodies lying in state on a plush bier, in a powder-blue room, with the snowy park bouncing wintry sunlight through the window. Any embalmer would have been proud to present a grieving family with such a deluxe memento mori. Ruby fell asleep and snored softly, and Eunice cracked testy jokes from her rigid, supine position.

In the second vignette, Sheril entered in a red chiffon cocktail dress from Rive Gauche and sat on the bed. "Vanessa loves to make people happy," she observed. "She’s the best mother in the world, but she’ll find out about sons and mothers. I spoiled Greg rotten because he had such a tough childhood. His father abandoned us, then his sister died. Now his wife’s the one paying the price." Between takes, the three women made an amiable effort to address the themes of lost youth, dreams, and love, although Ruby and Eunice had nothing but "happy memories." Eunice once owned a shop that sold women’s bathing suits in the Hamptons. "You’d be amazed at how many men wanted to try them on," she said. She also recalled that her wedding guests had, during the war, chipped in their gas coupons to send her on a honeymoon. On a vacation with her husband, Ruby met the pope. Sheril’s marriage was, she said, "blissful" for the first seven years. But Eunice rolled her eyes with withering scorn when Sheril confessed that she had forgiven her husband, a Vietnam vet, for running off with another woman.

Excerpted from Cleopatra S Nose by Judith Thurman.

Copyright 2007 by Judith Thurman.

Published in 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

Judith Thurman is the author of Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller and Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette. A staff writer at The New Yorker, she lives in New York City.