Robert Mapplethorpe and Sam Wagstaff, in the cover photo of "Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe: A Biography"

Warhol, Mapplethorpe, Lou Reed, Patti Smith and the greatest New York story ever

Sam Wagstaff was the patron and lover who connected Mapplethorpe and bohemian New York. Here's how they met


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Philip Gefter
November 16, 2014 4:00AM (UTC)
Excerpted from "Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe: A Biography"

There are two competing stories about who would introduce Sam Wagstaff to Robert Mapplethorpe during that bygone summer of 1972. Sam Green claimed, as he was wont to take credit for so many things, to have been the official matchmaker—out of spite. “Robert was the most ambitious and insistent person that I knew,” Green said. “He continuously harangued me to see his mediocre art. After my first visit to Robert’s studio, he made it clear he was looking for a male patron. I had an ax to grind with Sam Wagstaff, so I had intended to put them together in Oakleyville.” Still, years later, Green claimed to have been pleased that the introduction was successful. “Sam and Robert were one of the great unions of the twentieth century,” he said. “It worked for everyone. Robert was a master manipulator and he would do anything. When I introduced the two of them, I knew how much they needed each other.”

But the actual introduction came from another visitor to Sam Green’s beach cottage. David Croland, a tall, slender young artist and model with fine features and dark hair, was a fixture of Andy Warhol’s Factory (by this point the Factory had come to refer to more than the physical studio, at times encompassing the people circulating around Andy, including his “superstars”). Croland had modeled for David Bailey and others in London in the late 1960s before being discovered by the Warhol superstar International Velvet (Susan Bottomly) while shopping at Fiorucci in New York. Croland, like so many gay men who came out gradually in that era, was still in his “bisexual phase” and was romantically involved with Bottomly for a while.

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Croland had met Robert Mapplethorpe in 1970 through his friend Tinkerbelle, a contributor to Interview, who knew Mapplethorpe from the back room at Max’s Kansas City. One day Tinkerbelle brought Croland to Mapplethorpe’s loft on West 23rd St, several doors away from the Chelsea Hotel. Robert was living there with Patti Smith, his girlfriend while in art school, whose fame as a poet and rock star would come later. Although Mapplethorpe and Smith had been together for several years, by that point they were more like psychic twins than lovers. Croland and Mapplethorpe soon became lovers, keeping their romance a secret from Smith for almost six months.

In Just Kids, Smith’s memoir about her relationship with Mapplethorpe and their coming-of-age as artists, she evocatively describes a gradual shift in the nature of their bond during the period when they lived near Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, contrasting her need for artistic exploration in the world outside of herself with Robert’s mode of discovery, which was turning increasingly inward. That was when Robert had begun his first homosexual romance, with a young man named Terry, whom he met through a fellow student at Pratt. Robert and Terry were open about their sexuality with Patti, but it was not an easy emotional transition for her. “He had never given me any indication in his behavior that I would have interpreted as homosexual,” Smith writes.

It was Croland who would finally guide Mapplethorpe to the stratum of the art world he had been eager to penetrate. Croland introduced him to Henry Geldzahler, the curator of twentieth-century art at the Metropolitan Museum and a close friend and supporter of Warhol; to John McKendry, curator of prints and photographs at the Metropolitan; and, of course, to Warhol himself, whom Mapplethorpe worshipped from afar and whose cultural status had already eclipsed any other artist of that time. By 1972, Croland and Mapplethorpe had ceased being lovers, but they would remain close friends.

On Sam Green’s deck in Oakleyville one weekend afternoon that summer of 1972, Wagstaff took a flirtatious interest in Croland. The young man might have fit his type in certain ways—young, gaunt, and artistic—but Croland had Semitic features, and he was far too socially charming, animated, and garrulous to conform to the template of Wagstaff’s basic attractions. Still, Sam asked to see Croland again in the city and made a date to look at his drawings the following week.

Croland already knew about Wagstaff by reputation and, of course, about his long friendship with Andy. He was happy to have such an aficionado coming over to see his work. During Sam’s visit to his small apartment on Irving Place in Manhattan, Croland showed him some drawings he had been making as textile designs for Halston and other fashion designers. “These are like paintings,” Wagstaff said, and he ended up buying ten of them. “I’m going to keep some and give some to my sister.” Then, as Wagstaff was leaving the apartment, he spotted on the drafting table a small, framed photo-booth portrait of a young man in a sailor cap. He leaned over to look at the portrait more carefully. “Who is that?” Sam asked, an unmistakable lilt in his voice. “I want to meet him.”

Robert Mapplethorpe was precisely Wagstaff’s physical type— lanky, with taut features, a light complexion, and an unpolished physicality. Ellen Phelan made the astute observation that if Gordon Newton, Richard Tuttle, Michael Heizer, and Robert Mapplethorpe were all assembled in the same room, one would think they were related.15 All had the same chiseled features and coloring; all of them were young artists when Sam first met them; each one was original, inventive, and fierce in the exploration of his own ideas.

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Seeing Wagstaff’s response to the portrait, Croland knew he was about to facilitate yet another advantageous introduction for Robert Mapplethorpe. He duly wrote down Robert’s number for Sam. Then, overriding his resentment at Robert for exploiting his connections yet again, Croland called his friend to announce that, this time, a patron unlike any other was about to give him a call.

Aside from an attraction that so far existed in miniature and only on photographic paper, Wagstaff had few other clues about Mapplethorpe. There was his association with David Croland and the proximity it gave him to Warhol’s Factory. Then each phrase David Croland used to describe Mapplethorpe’s work could be repeated over and over: he had described the assemblages as “pornographic constructions with Catholic iconography” that included “naked self-portraits draped with studs and jewelry.”  In the context of the important artwork of the period, whether minimal geometric abstraction, pop iconographic imagery, or the conceptual possibilities in earth art, what Croland told Sam about Mapplethorpe’s subject matter resonated as something distinctly new.

The juxtaposition of sex and Catholicism—the height of Western religious tradition, which stood in stark contrast to Wagstaff’s embrace of Eastern mysticism—was enough to pique his curatorial interest. Sam’s imagination roamed more broadly as he thought about the stranger in the sailor cap so that, by the time he picked up the phone to call Robert, he was already a little bit in love with the idea of the louche young man with a name that, like his own, might have sprung from the underworld of Charles Dickens: David Copperfield, Luke Honeythunder, Paul Sweedlepipe, Robert Mapplethorpe. His mood was playful and his voice flirtatious when Robert answered the phone. “Is this the shy pornographer?” Sam asked.

Mapplethorpe may have been hungry for attention, money, and artistic acknowledgment, and he was nervously eager for a patron who could give him the kind of financial support that would free him to make his art. But, when he heard the clever question delivered in that baritone drawl, he laughed a genuine, happy laugh.

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* * *

The twenty-five-year-old Robert Mapplethorpe was stylish, appealingly soft-spoken, but decidedly still rough around the edges. His obvious talent came with an underlying arrogance—not unfamiliar to Wagstaff—that often propels such artistic ambition. Mapplethorpe’s beginnings were uninspired: he was the third of six children in a middle-class Catholic family; his adoring mother suffered from manic depression and his withholding father was missing the parental gene for encouragement. Nevertheless, he had made it to art school, where he developed an imperturbable confidence and an unyielding belief in himself as an artist. “I came from suburban America,” Robert said of his hometown, Floral Park, New York. “It was a safe environment. And it was a good place to come from in that it was a good place to leave.”

Mapplethorpe enrolled at Pratt Institute, one of the preeminent art schools in the country, in 1963. The social upheavals that would come to define the 1960s were barely rumblings at that point, but evident at Pratt and other urban art schools was a visible bohemian repudiation of bourgeois conformity. While the environment there encouraged serious artistic exploration and the course of instruction centered on the high-minded fine art disciplines, the faculty promoted an almost religious belief in painting. Despite the school’s reputation, it failed to provide the rigorous instruction one might have expected. Pratt students, meanwhile, cultivated theatrically personal styles, often aided by recreational drug use and copious sexual experimentation. When Robert arrived, the atmosphere on the Brooklyn campus had not quite yet assumed the quality of a mannered, antic, if not hedonistic, drama; during his years there, it would acquire the sensibility of the Fellini film Satyricon as students went to class in outlandish costumes. Increasingly, the anarchic posture of rock ’n’ roll and the influence of hippie drug culture became evident as the students grew long hair and wore tie-dyed T-shirts and paint-splattered jeans. At the same time, nonconformity was prized as much as creativity, and students could be seen perched by themselves in the corner of the cafeteria or on the front steps of the main building drawing with their Rapidograph pens on large Strathmore pads or blocking out ideas in their journals.

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Mapplethorpe, however, entered Pratt intending to fulfill his father’s expectation that he learn a trade that could earn him a living— either in Pratt’s more conservative engineering program, with graphic arts training in the design school, or through courses in the school of library sciences. As a member of Pershing Rifles, an elite military fraternity related to the Reserve Officer’s Training Corps, the teenaged Mapplethorpe cut a surprisingly conventional profile in his first years in art school.

Within two years, though, as the school was becoming more radicalized in the wake of the Vietnam war, Mapplethorpe gravitated to the fine art program. He had been making elaborate drawings from an early age, and art is what he wanted to study. Among Robert’s schoolmates was Robert Wilson, the artist who went on to create with Philip Glass the operatic masterpiece Einstein on the Beach. Sylvia Plachy, Jan Groover, Judy Linn, and Betsey Johnson, each of whom would become prominent in the world of photography or fashion, were also studying at Pratt.

It was here that Mapplethorpe met Patti Smith. In the summer of 1967 she had found her way to Brooklyn not as a student but because she was staying with a friend of a friend after moving to New York from her working-class hometown in southern New Jersey. Smith’s first encounter with Mapplethorpe near the Pratt campus was brief. But, a short time later, purely by coincidence, Robert was standing in Tompkins Square, a junkie-haunted, garbage-strewn park in the East Village where hipsters often congregated in what felt like a perpetual streetwise “happening.” The atmosphere was always at once festive and ominous, street musicians playing their guitars on benches, students looking to buy marijuana, and innocent people getting robbed at knifepoint. Smith, barely twenty years old, sitting early one evening with a first date in the park, had become increasingly uncomfortable in the older man’s company. She recognized Mapplethorpe not only from that chance meeting at Pratt, but also from a more recent encounter, when he had come into Scribner’s, where she worked, and they had briefly chatted. Now, as something of a damsel in distress, she ran up to him to ask if he would rescue her by pretending to be her boyfriend. He agreed and they ran away from her date, to the other side of the park. Indeed, they became a couple that night.

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It was an auspicious—and in the end historic—meeting. That night, Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith discovered in each other something profoundly sympathetic. Soon after, they moved in together, sharing a small apartment on Hall Street in Clinton Hill along the southern border of the Pratt campus. Smith would come home from her job as a clerk at Scribner’s, the renowned bookstore on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, and read or draw while Robert fulfilled his assignments for school, developing a style of collage and assemblage out of his own drawings, found photographs, cutouts of artwork from the ancient world, and other found objects. During that period Robert’s style of dress reflected his art school evolution and growing self-consciousness, from sheepskin vests to the more mannered, and fateful, sailor outfit. Smith described it in her memoir: “In his sailor dress and cap, he resonated a Cocteau drawing or the world of Genet’s Robert Querelle.”

Mapplethorpe short-circuited his graduation from Pratt in 1969 by skipping one final course. He and Smith crossed the river into Manhattan and, with a combination of characteristic luck and ambition, found their way to the Chelsea Hotel. The hotel had already been immortalized for them in the 1966 Warhol film Chelsea Girls. They had been told that Stanley Bard, the hotel’s proprietor, would accept a barter of artwork for a room in lieu of cash, and, indeed, the lobby was decorated with the residents’ drawings and paintings, large and small, hanging on the walls in ersatz salon style. Still, when Robert and Patti approached Bard, it was Patti’s employment at Scribner’s that persuaded him to give them one of the smallest rooms in the hotel. The bathroom was in the hallway. He charged them fifty-five dollars per week. Patti’s weekly salary was sixty-four dollars, so they could barely afford it. Robert continued to make artwork and beaded jewelry, but it failed to bring in additional income.

That year, the breakthrough movie Midnight Cowboy was released. The story of a petty thief and a male prostitute scraping by in Times Square, it was shocking in some quarters, but the movie instantly became a classic and was said to give Mapplethorpe the idea of turning sexual favors on 42nd Street to supplement their meager income. It started out as something of a romanticized adventure, but the novelty gave way to the reality of having sex with people who didn’t interest him, and he gave it up.

At the Chelsea Hotel, Robert and Patti as a matter of course came in contact with Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Charles Bukowski, William Burroughs, Janis Joplin, Milos Forman, and Virgil Thomson—whose extended stays or residences there provided a respite from the demands of the public. Most of the hotel patrons were eccentric; they also tended to know about all sorts of interesting or arcane events in the city, sometimes dragging Mapplethorpe and Smith out with them at night on cultural odysseys, exposing them to poetry readings at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery or experimental theater performances. One night it might be a concert at the Fillmore East and a backstage visit with the musicians, another a wild, avant-garde production of Orlando Furioso, by Teatro Libero di Roma, in an enormous tent in Bryant Park, where life-sized wooden puppets on tin horses performed as the audience roamed through a labyrinth where many scenes took place simultaneously.

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Soon after settling in at the Chelsea Hotel, Mapplethorpe and Smith found their way to Max’s Kansas City. They may, as young artists, have been poor but it must have felt as if they had arrived in the right place. Just as Montparnasse had replaced Montmartre as the center of the art world in Paris in the 1920s, the art world axis in New York had recently shifted its psychic temperament. In the 1950s, Cedar Tavern on University Place was known for the masculine bravado and philosophical posturing of its patrons—Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Franz Kline—who would argue through many a drunken evening. A little farther south, the San Remo on Bleecker Street attracted an equally intellectually charged but less rowdy group of writers like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, and Delmore Schwartz. Eventually both gave way to the theatrical androgyny and urban-cowboy swagger of the Chelsea Hotel and Max’s Kansas City.

The shift from Cedar Tavern to Max’s might well represent the evolution in art itself from one decade to another. Abstract expressionism was a Buddhist-influenced process of expressing interior reality at the actual moment of experience, and, at night, the conversation at Cedar Tavern was an ongoing existential argument. Pop art was focused on the iconography of popular culture, so, of course, nightlife at Max’s was a heightened display, in homage to but equally in mockery of the full range of Hollywood tropes.

In Max’s more outre back room, Robert and Patti inched their way into the ethos of Andy Warhol and his superstars, whose nightly soirees proved to be the Algonquin Round Table of the 1970s. Mapplethorpe on occasion would wear his sailor suit, while Smith was not compelled to dress up at all, preferring the uniform of comfort and anonymity—T-shirts and jeans. “They were this couple and they would sit away from everybody, as if they were shy,” said Gerard Malanga, the Factory mainstay who is also a poet.

Among the regulars at Max’s was Robert Smithson, at the time gaining prominence as one of the land artists with his just completed Spiral Jetty in Great Salt Lake, Utah. Smithson would dominate the conversation at one table, often inviting another artist like Richard Serra or John Chamberlain to join him, and everyone would talk about his work. Mapplethorpe met Brice Marden and Robert Indiana there. During that period Marden went to Robert’s studio to look at his work—the assemblages, collages, and framed pieces—and he said he would mention them to Klaus Kertess, his own dealer, at Bykert Gallery. It was in just this way that artists at the time would slowly become known.

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Between Max’s Kansas City and the Chelsea Hotel, Mapplethorpe and Smith found themselves at the epicenter of cultural ferment in the art world, two young impoverished artists in waiting, cutting their teeth on what was becoming the very essence of urban cool. Perhaps in homage to Warhol’s Chelsea Girls, Robert agreed to star in a movie filmed at the hotel by fellow resident Sandy Daley. The film bore a self-explanatory title, Robert Having His Nipple Pierced, and was narrated by Patti Smith.

Mapplethorpe’s sexuality had already begun to evolve in those years. He was getting to know Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn, and Joe Dallesandro—those inhabitants of the back room at Max’s whose gender-obfuscating antics were as much a kind of nose-thumbing challenge to convention as a sincere display of personal desire. Their life-as-art gestures turned out to be of revolutionary significance, paving the way—at least in the media—for a social movement that eventually became known to the mainstream as the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and, much later, transgender community. Lou Reed wrote “Walk on the Wild Side,” about this group in the back room at Max’s, and the song’s seductive and mysterious tone heralded the persona Mapplethorpe was cultivating there, too.

And so, by the time Robert answered the phone and laughed at Wagstaff’s wry opening gambit, he had already received a sterling introduction to the art world demimonde. His ambition had already been fueled and encouraged by his new connections. At the uptown dinner table of John McKendry and his socially prominent wife, Maxime de la Falaise, who had been a fashion model in London in the 1950s, Robert was introduced to an assortment of titled Brits, chic Parisians, and well-placed New Yorkers for whom this attractive, poetic waif from the downtown netherworld was a precious novelty.

Steven Aronson said that Mapplethorpe “was the one you wanted to talk to” at the McKendrys’ table. “He was marvelous looking, absolutely. He had the besmirched beauty of an urchin, and of course that wonderful whiny voice. He was positively languid, but then he began to talk about his work, and he became adrenalized—really, it was the only time he ever came alive. He made you feel as if a visit to his loft was an urgent matter. So you went, and you weren’t sorry.”

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Robert had a mischievous sensuality that the art-rock fashions of that period seemed to intensify. With his Mick Jagger–like androgyny, he made himself an object of desire. Still, he had grown weary of the expectations of super-daddy love; the older men whose favors he accepted were not generally attractive to him. Often, as is typical of young artists, Mapplethorpe had to balance a polite regard for his patrons even as he struggled to avoid their affections. It was tantamount to singing in an extended falsetto, and it strained his taste as much as his stamina. “Robert was highly sought after by both men and women,” Smith wrote in Just Kids. A string of secret admirers would come to the Chelsea Hotel, soliciting her permission to pursue Mapplethorpe romantically and even cheekily asking her advice about how to secure his affections. “Love his work,” Smith would tell them, but they ignored her. Sam Wagstaff, she wrote, was “the only one who truly grasped this.”

Losing no time, Wagstaff visited Mapplethorpe’s studio within a day of making the call. The second-floor loft had northern light from the floor-to-ceiling windows that faced a big YMCA sign across the street. There was no running water, but even so Robert and Patti were living there now; they snuck back into the Chelsea Hotel several doors away= as often as they could to shower. The loft was divided in half by several black sheets that hung from a clothesline, separating Robert’s workspace from Patti’s. The rent was one hundred dollars a month, still beyond their means.

The afternoon visit set off a profound upheaval for Wagstaff. A leather motorcycle jacket was hanging on a coatrack near the entrance. Below the jacket hung a pair of jeans. Together they composed a kind of urban scarecrow. Sam could hear muffled murmurs, as if people were having sex somewhere else in the loft. Robert smiled, reached into the pocket of the jacket, and pulled out a tape recorder. The murmurs had been recorded. Sam’s eyes then dropped to what appeared to be an unusual bulge at the crotch in the jeans hanging on the coatrack. Again Robert smiled. “It’s a baguette,” he said.

Wagstaff had encountered impromptu installations by artists in the past, as in the live, walking Dada piece he encountered at Ray Johnson’s apartment in 1959, when Dorothy Podber emerged from the closet with a tea cup and glove. This coatrack tableau was just the kind of thing that Sam would find appealing, an erotic provocation with a diabolical charge. It was sexy, arresting, and thoughtfully conceived, even as there was a strong whiff of adolescent hijinks about it that led Sam’s attention beyond the aesthetic. Sam had his own juvenile streak, which would now and again push through the patina of maturity and accomplishment. Observing the way Sam shed some of his controlled, patrician bearing while he was in Detroit, Susanne Hilberry, his assistant at the DIA, had concluded that the recreational drug use and the sexual freedom of the late 1960s “gave Sam permission to explore the adolescence he never had at Hotchkiss.”

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Mapplethorpe suggestively showed Wagstaff a naked self-portrait, an assemblage with three small Polaroid images stacked as a vertical triptych to create a single figure. Over the Polaroids lay wire mesh he had cut out of a brown-paper potato sack and spray-painted purple. It gave the impression that the male nude was standing in a doorway, behind the window of a confessional, or, even, locked behind bars. The viewer had to peer through the mesh to see Robert’s entire naked body. The spectacle of his bare flesh, his nipples and navel, his pubic hair and penis, and the defiant but seductive expression on his face amounted to further provocation for Wagstaff. Mapplethorpe could not have been more overtly seductive; by the end of the visit he had won the patron’s approval.

Wagstaff had turned out to be nothing like the other older men seeking Robert’s affections. His informed interest in Robert’s work was as much a seduction for Robert as the variety of sexual decoys had been for Sam. Klaus Kertess, who was also an art critic, knew Sam Wagstaff quite well, not only from Sam’s visits to his uptown gallery but also as his longtime neighbor in the building at 54 Bond Street. He described Sam’s appeal to any artist: “His eyes would light up when he’d describe something he’d seen. He just took joy in seeing work and being around it,” Kertess said. “That openness, I think, is what drew so many artists to Sam.”

When Wagstaff became the earliest champion of minimal art, it was because he saw something completely new. The same was true when conceptual artists began employing everyday materials, and he saw it as a way into the future for art. He got excited by conceptualism’s offshoots, like fluxus-based mail art, in which he became a participant, receiving Dadaesque letters and odd correspondences through the mail from Ray Johnson and George Brecht. Next, he embraced the highly conceptual and limitless possibilities of earth art. Now, once again, he was confronted with a young artist whose collages and assemblage were both formally rigorous and overtly homoerotic. While the form referred to pop art, Mapplethorpe was doing something Sam had never seen before—addressing his own homosexuality with matter-of-fact ease. It was time for a movement that went beyond painting, and in the ineffable allure of Robert’s experimentation with assemblage and homoerotic imagery, Sam saw a new direction.

Robert sensed he was in a situation fundamentally different from his usual interactions with wealthy men. First of all, Sam’s striking appearance drew repeated comment from virtually everyone who knew him, to the point that it can become tiresome. “You didn’t have to search very far to think why somebody might want to go out with him,” Edmund White, the distinguished novelist, literary essayist, and biographer of Jean Genet, said. “Then he was also very rich, and then he was also very powerful in the art world. Those three things made him quite a catch.”

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For Wagstaff, meanwhile, despite all the natural confidence he brought to the moment, the Detroit debacle continued to lurk and he felt something less than his best self; he was uncertain of his future and still somewhat attached to Gordon Newton. According to Patricia Morrisroe, Mapplethorpe’s biographer, it was no secret among Sam’s friends and acquaintances at the time that he was “looking for someone to spoil.”

Robert was natural and at ease in his body, ever so polite and gentle in his solicitation of Sam’s opinions and observations. “If you read books of etiquette in the eighteenth century in France,” said Ed White, “what they all talk about is the importance of naturalness. They say only the greatest aristocrats can respond in a totally quiet, easygoing, natural way. That’s the one quality they all prize, and I think Robert had that.”

Sam and Robert continued on to dinner that night. Falling in love over dinner is not an experience to be missed—even if dinner consisted of scrambled eggs, a Coke, and a Kool cigarette, Mapplethorpe’s standard fare throughout his twenties. Every sip of your drink and every bite of your meal merely restrains the urgency of desire. Robert’s sweetness of manner clashed powerfully with the sharp-edged menace of his sexual candor; he flaunted his carnality in a way that was perhaps too flamboyant even for Sam, but tempered it with a boyishness and physical grace. Sam had a saying “All artists are aristocrats,” but Robert appeared to be something of a sorcerer, too.

Sam, who was never shy about staring at anyone—and was often enough unconscious of the discomfort his penetrating scrutiny induced—stared at Robert now and then throughout the evening. The presence of Robert’s sexual mystique emerging from the freshness of his youth conjured the same feeling of giddy sacrilege that defined his artwork. To Sam, a curator and art historian, Robert’s presence resonated in line with a long tradition of homoeroticism in arts and letters, that of a sexual and artistic partnership between an established older man and a younger one. Like Sergei Diaghilev and Vaclav Nijinsky in the ballet world and the writers Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, the older man sees a kind of talent or genius in his young inamorato. He nurtures it, even if his judgment is clouded by his love (as Ed White has observed, Oscar Wilde thought his young lover Sir Alfred Douglas “was very talented”). Even while Sam and Robert were growing to know each other, there was a contemporary West Coast version of this sort of relationship: the British writer Christopher Isherwood and his Los Angeles–born lover, the painter Don Bachardy, who was three decades his junior. After all, White explained, “Robert was charming in a quiet way. He was an interesting person without being predictably intellectual or pedantic or anything like that. He was an original. Plus he was sexy.”

At dinner that night the two men discovered an extraordinary coincidence, an omen that their meeting was not only inevitable, but, to them, ordained in the mystical realm of astrology: they shared the same Scorpio birthday, November 4. By the end of that first meal, Sam and Robert both felt so enlivened that they went around the corner to David Croland’s apartment, and invited their mutual friend out for a drink. “Robert was seriously smitten,” Croland said, recalling his impression of the two of them that night. “You could see it. It was really very sweet. They were very happy. You could tell that they were together. I noticed that instantly.”

When Wagstaff brought Mapplethorpe home that night, his residence was not what the young artist would have expected. There was no sign of wealth in this long, mostly empty loft with only a few scattered pieces of secondhand furniture. Everywhere was a pack rat’s abundance of paper bags or boxes filled with prints and postcards. The black Tony Smith sculpture Throne dominated the space. Toward the back of the loft was Sam’s unmade bed, which was actually just a mattress on the floor—no better than Robert’s own, and laid out in a tableau much like his own postadolescent disarray. Still, it had the “privileged bohemian” appearance of studied destitution as much as cavalier disregard. It had been only recently, when Wagstaff had reached his late forties, that his stepfather’s inheritance gave him financial freedom, even though the penniless prince, who had first moved in almost a decade before while living on his meager curator’s salary at the Wadsworth Atheneum, had been a prince.

Being perceptive, as he was, Sam was likely attuned to the appraisal going on in Robert’s own mind. For all of Robert’s insouciant charm at dinner, the absence of visible wealth in Sam’s loft and his undergraduate-like living conditions would no doubt have soured the struggling young artist’s mood. In order to rescue the moment, it is possible to imagine that, with characteristic sangfroid, Sam allowed a knowing, mischievous smile, assuring his guest that the state of the loft was by no means representative of his circumstances. It would be just like Sam to then ask Robert if he would like to see a small painting. He would find a package among the pile of papers on the table with a letter on top, indicating it had been shipped from the Art Institute of Chicago, where it had been on loan. He would unwrap the small oil painting on cardboard, small enough to hold in his hands, and they would look at it under a bare lightbulb. Sam would offer the name, Le Jardin Nabi, mentioning that it was a postimpressionist work from one of the Nabi artists, a rebellious group who followed the example of Gauguin at the end of the nineteenth century in France. That might have piqued Robert’s interest enough to ask who painted it. “Oh, Vuillard,” Sam would say casually, prompting Robert to ask whether Sam owned it. It would be just like Wagstaff, ever the understated gentleman, to merely nod, offering just the flicker of reassurance, as well as the dash of glamour, that the young artist needed to understand that things were not exactly as they seemed.

Excerpted from "Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe: A Biography" by Philip Gefter. Published by Liveright, a division of W.W. Norton and Co., Inc. Copyright 2014 by Liveright Publishing Corporation. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved. 


Philip Gefter

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