Snapshots of the Photographer

Diane Arbus: A Biography

by Patricia Bosworth
Knopf, 366 pp., $17.95

Diane Arbus
Diane Arbus; drawing by David Levine

The photographer Diane Arbus—the subject of Patricia Bosworth’s new biography—was born in 1923 in New York and forty-eight years later killed herself in her apartment in an artists’ community in the same city. Her parents, David and Gertrude Nemerov, were well-to-do Jews whose fortune derived from Russeks, a fur and clothing store which Gertrude’s father had founded, and with which David was associated, first as a window dresser, then as merchandising director, and finally as president and chairman of the board. Together with her sister and her brother Howard, who was to become a well-known poet, Diane grew up in a tight, closed, snobbish world of the newly rich, in which she was alternately petted and ignored by her parents, ordered to wear white gloves by her nanny while walking in the park, and confined in an enormous, lonely apartment on Central Park West. Bosworth’s account of Arbus’s childhood is the best part of her book: she manages to convey something of the pretensions and mannerisms of the Nemerovs, and in her portrait of David Nemerov, a vain and charming, but fundamentally hard, businessman, she introduces us to a person who at times seems far more interesting than Diane Arbus.

Nemerov sent his children to progressive schools such as the Ethical Culture School and Fieldston, where they were bound to develop aspirations to do other in life than assist him at Russeks or become businessmen’s wives like Gertrude; and yet, when they did so, he complained and was not readily available for help. According to Howard Nemerov, his work was probably never read by his father. When David Nemerov retired from Russeks and took up painting as a hobby, and subsequently mounted a show and managed not only to sell most of his paintings to Seventh Avenue associates but also to earn a notice in Time magazine, he told his son (who was by this time in his late thirties), “You see? An artist can be successful at making money.” He was able to provide his children with immense opportunities, but, as with many other self-made men, the occasional pride he felt in them appears to have been always tinctured with a certain resentment and competitiveness, as well as with a reluctance to let them develop in their own way—attitudes that were almost certain to produce in them at once a lack of self-esteem and an arrogant and neurotic perfectionism. Both Diane and Howard suffered periodically from deep depressions, as did their mother, who herself had come from a background not entirely unlike theirs.

An intelligent, shy girl, Diane did not escape her parents’ world easily: unlike her brother and sister, who married gentiles, she married Allan Arbus, the nephew of David Nemerov’s predecessor as president of Russeks, who resembled her enough that they were at times confused for brother and sister. The Arbuses opened a photographic studio with Nemerov’s help—he…

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