Three years later, after a false start in graduate school – I was not meant to be an academic — and a happy remarriage, I found the first threads of my tale. It began when Jay and I were house sitting at my aunt’s house. My aunt and uncle lived in a house in the woods, nestled on two acres of California live oaks, black oaks, toyons, and madrones. A scarlet oak planted in the year that it was built shaded the front entrance, while hundreds of species of camellias, carefully grafted by my uncle, bloomed along its meandering paths. The air was bright with hawks, jays, woodpeckers, quail, and turkey vultures, while deer, squirrels, and foxes roamed the underbrush. A golden retriever lounged at the door.
My aunt and uncle were rich. Long before any of the rest of us, they had cable service and a Trinitron® color TV. And that was how, on a small estate in Marin County, Jay and I discovered Tolstoy. During the month my aunt and uncle spent the fall at their olive ranch near Oroville, we watched the BBC production of War and Peace and discovered imperial Russia.
My first husband, who had buzz-sawed almost the whole of the Russian nineteenth century in translation, had actively loathed Tolstoy, preferring the more phantasmagorical and violent world of Dostoevsky. But for me, Natasha Rostova embodied the passions and the sorrows of Russia in ways that Raskolnikov or Prince Myshkin never could. In high school, I had walked the hills with my poet friends and pondered the relationship between Art and Life. Nowhere did the two feel more seamlessly fused than in War and Peace which told the story of a young girl coming of age during a nation’s agony. Tolstoy wrote about great things. In Tolstoy’s world, a young girl’s heart could embody history, at least as long as she belonged only to herself. Once she married, she lost all this, and that, too, would become a part of my story.
By 1975, I needed the strange and spiritual specter of Russia as an antidote to the total lack of imagination that had seemingly gripped all California. Life had grown very confused. Even now, the 1970’s were the decade I wish had never happened. Although I had managed to insulate myself from its worst excesses by marriage to a very proper spouse, this did not mean that I did not hear about them. Excess was being bruited from the rooftops. Before AIDS ended the decade with tragedy, everyone was carrying on as if having promiscuous sex, far from being something we had in common with the lower animals, was a veritable act of genius. This was the decade of Erica Jong’s zipperless fuck, Cyra McFadden’s hot tubs and peacock feathers and the notorious key parties where professionals showed how hip they were by anesthetizing themselves with drugs and swapping wives. This was the me-decade.Therapy was a major growth industry.Psycho-babble was fast taking the place of conversation. Real Estate prices were beginning rise exponentially, and with them, an even more engorged sense of entitlement, the enlargement and projection of the self into a house.
Caught between Tolstoy on the one hand and a singles’ bar culture on the other, I opted for art over life. Two years later, after a stint as a California historian, I walked into the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and signed up to become a docent.
Of course there may have been better places to find the truth of art than a San Francisco museum dedicated to European Art. San Francisco in those days was an opera town, a Catholic town, a gay town, a sailboat town, not an art town. Our art museums were not like the Hermitage, the Louvre, the Uffizi, the Prado, even the Art Institute or the Metropolitan which is to say, the keepers of a great national vision. San Francisco was built on a gold rush. It was a mercantile town, a banking town, a railroad town, a town that, in the words of one of its early social historians, “danced on the brink of the world.” (Which was one of the reasons I briefly considered following in my grandfather’s footsteps and exploring art by going into advertising.) Our art museums were built from more popular stuff than the great museums of Chicago and New York. This was all right. I was prepared to deal with second tier art. I was prepared to work with small tastes of great traditions. But I was not prepared for Francois Boucher.
And yet there it hung, all six feet high of it in a place of distinction at the San Francisco Palace of the Legion of Honor. Boucher’s gigantic mythological scene “Vertumnus and Pomona,” represented everything I had been running from. It was frivolous and fanciful, the whipped cream aesthetic of an aristocracy so self-absorbed that it could not even see the Revolution that was brewing before their very noses. I could not exactly ignore something this large. It did not allow me to remain comfortable with my fantasies of Natasha Rostova, either, as it reminded me that Russia, too, had overthrown its gentry. I suppose I could have said what the others said, that it was silly and fun and that it depicted a scene of seduction from Roman mythology and was a cartoon for a tapestry and do admire the virtuosity of the swirling flow of its drapery, except that I did not want to say that. That was too simple, too canned. What I wanted to say was that the painting troubled me deeply. It did not trouble me because I found it silly. I was a Californian and silly I could deal with. Rather, it troubled me because it hung in a museum. That meant that someone found it sufficiently beautiful and meaningful to put in a museum. It troubled me because real people had posed for it. It troubled me because poor people had been deprived of the means to live so that the rich could live this way.
Standing in front of this painting brought me face to face with the shallowness from which I had thought to flee. Thus, it was here that I had my first real experience of the disconnect between what we say about life and what life may really be. The parallels between this little scene of seduction, whatever its origin or intent, and the hot tub culture of California were too obvious to miss. But everyone missed them.
The American cultural narrative was about equality and democracy and opportunity for the underdog, not about aristocratic seduction. Never, never in a million years would Americans ever stoop to this.
Or so, in the art museum, they said.