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Review: ‘The Art of the Affair’ by Catherine Lacey

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By Terri Schlichenmeyer

It’s all about who you know. The guy who bags your groceries might have stock tips for you. A co-worker introduces you to your next best friend. You find a great restaurant from your stylist, a new job from a former classmate, and your neighbor gives you gardening advice.

It’s all about who you know—or, as in the new book The Art of the Affair by Catherine Lacy and Forsyth Harmon, it’s about who you’ve dallied with.

The Art of the Affair by Catherine Lacey  Illustrated by Forsyth Harmon | 2017 | Bloomsbury (bloomsbury.com) | 88 pages | $20/$27 Canada
The Art of the Affair
by Catherine Lacey
Illustrated by Forsyth Harmon | 2017 | Bloomsbury (bloomsbury.com) | 88 pages | $20/$27 Canada

Somehow, in some way, the people you meet leave fingerprints on your life. A laugh you’ll never forget, a bon mot you’ll quote, or even an attitude that’s a memorable springboard for an idea.

That goes doubly for creative types, for whom romantic (or platonic) relationships—their “carnage of affairs”—could lead to “countless works of art.” These unions, whether legal or otherwise, have also left a tangle of threads among many artists and writers.

Essayist and editor Edmund Wilson, for instance, helped launch the career of Anaïs Nin, who later wrote erotica. Nin was “unapologetic about her affairs,” of which there were many, including a banker who was “probably a homosexual.” Novelist and playwright Gore Vidal (who had “a short affair” with writer James Baldwin) had called another man “the love of his life.”

Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington both collaborated professionally with Grammy-winner Ella Fitzgerald, but it was Marilyn Monroe who helped boost Fitzgerald’s career. Monroe talked the owner of an L.A. nightclub into booking the singer, and she attended each of Fitzgerald’s performances there.

Monroe, of course, had her share of affairs, too, as well as a friendship with Truman Capote, who was repeatedly insulted by none other than Tennessee Williams.

Williams was no fan of Tallulah Bankhead, and the two publicly snarked at one another for years. Bankhead was an exhibitionist and didn’t care who saw her naked—which, presumably, included her lover, Billie Holiday.

Oh, and playwright Williams? He was a friend of Gore Vidal, who also knew Truman Capote and Anaïs Nin.

Did you ever go somewhere with someone who seems to know everybody? That’s what it’s like to read The Art of the Affair.

Author Catherine Lacey and illustrator Forsyth Harmon play a sort of “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” with their book—except, not surprisingly, Bacon isn’t here. Instead, readers are taken back many decades to look at the dalliances and relationships of artists and stars of the early 20th century.

Because very few contemporary artists grace these pages, there may be many times when you won’t recognize some of the people among the threads. That can be remedied through inference, but it would have been nice to have some better explanations (at least for some artists) and a complete index.

Still, I liked the tidbits in this book, the mini-factlets about all of the interwoven connections, and the obvious delight that author and artist take in the love affairs they so diligently uncover. Light, gossipy, and a little scandalous, The Art of the Affair shows that it’s who you know that’s important—and I know you’ll like it.      

Terri Schlichenmeyer has been reading since she was three years old, and she lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.

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Terri Schlichenmeyer

Terry Schlichenmeyer is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.
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