Boomer men are single-handedly keeping the “World War II books” industry alive. Our nation’s aunts can’t get enough of true crime. And me? I can’t seem to stop buying books written by the wives, girlfriends, and one-night stands of famous male artists.
As a woman and artist (comedy writer) who’s at times been very interested in dating another artist, I find these women fascinating. They were present during artistic movements but despite being creatives themselves, they were never allowed fully inside due to a small obstacle called “the deeply patriarchal framework of society.” I was first drawn to their books because I wondered things like where all the women were in the Beat movement and what to do with the fact that Picasso was a nightmare to women, and I didn’t trust a man to answer either question. But I also sought out their books because I’m a person who thinks that any story in which two people kiss deserves a Pulitzer Prize, and I was interested, too, in the romance of it all. Picasso painted Guernica, sure, but was he good at flirting? Was Hemingway considerate? Was Mick Jagger good in bed, or is all of Western culture based on lies?
So I pulled from my shelves a collection of books by the supporting characters in male artists’ lives: from a groupie who spent one fraction of one night simulating fellatio on a beer bottle to entice Kid Rock (a story cursed to depths of hell scientists have not even discovered yet), to a painter who, in a feat of superhuman emotional strength, was with Picasso for 10 years and emerged with her personhood intact. Reading these books, I came to have a huge appreciation for Françoise Gilot, doubted my old desire to date another artist, and discovered that if you think Hemingway is problematic, just wait until you hear about Martha Gellhorn.
Life With Picasso by Françoise Gilot
It’s been a long time since my appreciation of Picasso’s work wasn’t complicated by my understanding of his personal life. For years, on the basis of his horrible treatment of women, my mom has refused to even look at paintings by Picasso. And this was before Nanette! But before reading Life With Picasso, I knew nothing about Gilot specifically. After reading it, all I can say is: Gilot hive, assemble.
Gilot was with Picasso for 10 years, and had two children with him. Their relationship was the most stable, long-lasting, and generative of any in the books I read. When Picasso is the most stable partner, that is how you know the bar for men is so low it is inside the Earth’s core, melting.
Early on in the romance, Picasso comes off quite well, consistently committing some of the most unhinged flirts I have ever heard of: he introduces himself to Gilot by bringing a bowl of cherries over to her table at a restaurant. On another day he sensually checks her head for lice; later he sends her the ugliest flowers he can find, to make her laugh. He also offers encouragement to Gilot, who was a serious and successful artist before she met Picasso. They discuss art and he suggests subjects for her to study. If you simply must be a 21-year-old woman dating a 62-year-old man world-famous for making the same kind of art you want to make — this seems like the ideal way to do it.
That Gilot had the burning fire of her own art was a stabilizing force in her relationship, because she never needed him for validation or to give her life meaning. Thank god, because he would never offer her either. As a partner, he was manipulative and cruel, proving my mom was right the entire time. He burned Gilot with a cigarette, got so mad he threw a plate in the ocean, and schemed up all kinds of loyalty tests. Reading about his behavior was at times depressing — I hated to see a woman who seemed so kind and powerful put up with it — and at times uncomfortably relatable. (I have not always been above trying to make it work with a man who is clearly a psychopath.) Eventually, Gilot decides to leave him, making her the only woman who ever left Picasso. It’s possible that this is badass, though if we follow this logic to its conclusion, we are left with the fact that the only way to have dignity in a straight relationship is to not be in it.
APPEAL OF THIS BOOK: Inspirational text for cool women who date primarily psychopaths.
Let’s Spend The Night Together: Backstage Secrets Of Rock Muses And Supergroupies by Pamela Des Barres
Let’s Spend The Night Together is a collection of famous groupie Pamela Des Barres’ interviews of other groupies. As such, it’s the least cohesive book on this list. The wild array of experiences and tone is evident from the very beginning of the book, which opens with about a million epigraphs quoting everyone from Voltaire to Ashlee Simpson.
Des Barres saw sex with musicians as a beautiful, reciprocal exchange: the musicians gave her the music, and she gave them back love. Sex is celebrated in Let’s Spend The Night Together in a way it isn’t in any of the other books on this list. With that comes a frank assessment of the men’s performance... and endowment. One chapter even includes the photo of a musician’s penis. I’m of two minds about this: my politics don’t include women recreating the harmful habits of men, such as the way they turn women into sexual objects. But on the other hand, it is somehow humanizing to know that Mick Jagger gave head. Or, “gave new meaning to giving head,” as Des Barres describes it. (Especially since the fact that Mick Jagger gave head is arguably the entire basis of Harry Styles' public persona.)
Other women in this book, though, saw the sex as more of a necessary concession in order to access the world of rock. “I had to do what I had to do to hang out because I loved the music so much,” Dee Dee Keel says. As the book goes on, it gets more depressing, not only because the bands get worse (how can being a groupie be about the music, when the music is by Kid Rock?!), but because the women increasingly say they sleep with rock stars because it was the only way they found to feel special.
For every lighthearted romp, there is a story about trauma, sexual abuse, and rape, experienced before and during the women’s time as groupies. Numerous women recall sexual encounters — statutory rape, in fact — with still-famous, uncanceled men. As I read these stories that seemed to be describing actual crimes, I wondered if these women would characterize their experiences differently now than they did when the book was published in 2008. It turns out, they would: at least one of the women has since sued one of the musicians for sexual abuse.
APPEAL OF THIS BOOK: 50% fun, sexy stories, 50% learning which of your faves were allegedly pedophiles.
Travels With Myself and Another by Martha Gellhorn
Before ordering Travels With Myself and Another, the extent of my knowledge of Martha Gellhorn was that she was a war reporter, one of Hemingway’s wives, and once was played by Nicole Kidman. Given Kidman’s recent roles, I suspected this made Gellhorn a complicated, perhaps unlikable white woman who was possibly a murderer. (She was not a murderer.) I wondered what kind of woman would marry Hemingway, a man who shot lions for fun, who ran through wives, who could credibly claim to have once gotten drunk with a bear. And what kind of book would she write — about him, and about herself?
Gellhorn had a complicated relationship to the fact of Hemingway’s fame and she didn’t want her connection to him to be the first thing people remembered about her, outshining her own work and writing. (And, indeed, being remembered for being married to a man who once shot a chicken because he was so jealous of a story written by J.D. Salinger? Mortifying!) So it’s unsurprising that Travels With Myself and Another is not explicitly about Gellhorn’s relationship with Hemingway. Instead, it’s a travel book about the worst trips Gellhorn has ever been on, including one with Hemingway. She so refuses to be subsumed in his narrative that she never names him in the book, instead calling him “Unwilling Companion.” I get it: it’s hard enough to sit down and write a book about something you like, let alone about your ex-husband.
Nevertheless, her account of their trip to China in 1941 gives us insight into their dynamic, and into Hemingway as a human and as a celebrity. Both Hemingway and Gellhorn border on the misanthropic, but every once in a while Hemingway does something almost sweet, like drinking a bunch of military officers under the table so Gellhorn doesn’t have to. But by design, this book tells us much more about Gellhorn as a human and as a writer. Unfortunately, she sucks as both!
Martha Gellhorn, I learned from her book, was racist. She chronicles her trips to China, the Caribbean, and Africa, and as she does she writes about people of color using slurs and stereotypes. I was shocked because while I admittedly knew almost nothing about Gellhorn, she was racist to the extent that I thought surely this would be one of the things I knew about her. Instead, this was all overlooked in service of the narrative of Gellhorn as “feminist” hero.
After reading this book, my first association with Gellhorn is no longer the mortifying man she married, it is now that she herself is mortifying. She is too unlikeable to be a Nicole Kidman character.
APPEAL OF THIS BOOK: Reminder women can suck too? (Do not read this book.)
Minor Characters by Joyce Johnson
Joyce Johnson dated Jack Kerouac for a year and a half, and her book Minor Characters was everything I had hoped it would be. I feel like I manifested Minor Characters into being — a classic thing to say about a book published seven years before I was born.
Johnson was a budding novelist pushing against societal expectations for young women long before she ever encountered Kerouac. She was aware of Kerouac and his work before they met; she writes about finding a copy of his first novel at the offices of the literary agency where she works, and being told “it was the work of a talented but very terrible person.” Eventually Johnson and Kerouac are set up on a blind date by Allen Ginsberg (absolutely iconic). The first time she lays eyes on him, she construes “his melancholy as the look of a man needing love because I’m, among other things, twenty-one years old.” Who among us hasn’t construed Jack Kerouac’s melancholy as a man needing love because we were 21?!
Johnson and Kerouac met in January 1957; in September, On the Road was published. She was there with him the night his life changed forever, when they grabbed a copy of The New York Times off the truck at midnight and read the review that proclaimed On the Road would go down in history. Kerouac went to sleep obscure and woke up famous. His alcoholic self-destruction started the very next morning, and Kerouac’s editor urges Johnson to “take care of this man.” She tries her best, waiting around bars to save him when male fans try to fight him and female fans tell her, “You’re only twenty-one. I’m twenty-nine. I’ve got to f*ck him now.”
What’s most interesting about their relationship is when Johnson quotes Kerouac’s works to show his insight — or lack thereof — into her and their relationship. Seeing yourself reflected in your partner’s art is both the dream and the nightmare of dating a creative person, and the chasm between what Johnson experiences and the way Kerouac later writes about it is often jarring. Of their first date, Kerouac writes in Desolation Angels that Johnson was “an interesting young person, a Jewess, elegant middleclass sad and looking for something — she looked Polish as hell …” What?! Johnson doesn’t see herself in “all those funny categories.” It’s by reading another of Kerouac’s books, 1958’s The Subterraneans, which she sees as “a confession of Jack’s desolate need to deprive himself of sexual love,” that she finally knows things between them are over. Men will do anything to avoid talking about their feelings with the people actually involved!
Minor Characters was published 25 years after Johnson and Kerouac’s relationship ended, and at times she wonders if there’s madness in not having outgrown this period of her life. But she rejects this. The book ends: “I’m a forty-seven-year-old woman with a permanent sense of impermanence. If time were like a passage of music, you could keep going back to it till you got it right.”
APPEAL OF THIS BOOK: The perfect book about the struggles of trying to be a woman writer, and loving a great male writer who had it much easier.