A Disquieting Metamorphosis

One of my favorite houses is the fictional house in North By Northwest, owned by spymaster and villain, James Mason. The building is structurally impossible, and is a symphony of glass, flagstone, and steel. It is telling that the bad guy lives in a modernist avant-garde house. He is also British. If you pay attention, you will notice that movie villains in the 1950s are almost always European and live in modern houses. The hero, or typical American protagonist, lives in a traditional colonial house with a wife and children. Why is that?

Think of it this way: modernism was a European construct before 1945. In the 1950s, Americans looked back into the past and European modernism and rejected it. The past represented the depression and World War I and II. Due to the Nazi party’s concept of a utopian society, any European utopian movement, including high modernism, was deemed suspicious. House Beautiful editor, Elizabeth Gordon, recognized this and waged a war against all modernist residential architects. She understood the consumerist needs of the public and knew her audience wanted to buy things. The photographs she commissioned from Maynard Parker support the agenda she called, “The Station Wagon Way of Life.”

Parker’s images are traditional, filled with paintings, furniture, objects, and the human element. Whereas Julius Shulman’s photographs celebrate the minimalist form, Parker’s celebrate the post-war traditional domestic sphere. The inside-outside concept of California living is represented often. The images are casual and have no sense of elitism. At their best, they are playful, fresh, and authentic. Jennifer Watts’ book, Maynard L. Parker: Modern Photography and the American Dream is a beautiful collection of Parker’s work. Jennifer A. Watts, is the photography curator at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, and oversees the Huntington’s vast Parker archive


This, however, is not a simple appreciation for a group of cheerful 1950s domestic scenes. While most of the photographs feel optimistic and light, there is a subset of images that reads differently for me. When I look at the empty rooms, dark corners, and incessant domesticity, I think, not of Leave it to Beaver, but of Herb and Bonnie May Clutter’s Kansas house (Truman Capote, In Cold Blood). There is something that is airless, stifling, and relentless in certain photographs.


Parker images courtesy Huntington Library, Photo Archive

The Third Act

My first job was as a designer at The New York Public Library. Beside a major screw up when I handled a business card run for the executive team containing a misspelling, The New York Pubic Library, I had a wonderful time. In 1987, I designed the materials for an exhibition of Truman Capote artifacts. I asked the print and photograph division head for an image of Capote for the poster. He gave me a telephone number and suggested Dick might have a photo. Surprisingly, Richard Avedon answered the phone and asked me to come over to see a photo he took of Capote during the filming of In Cold Blood in Kansas.

I won’t go into Capote’s entire biography. In brief, Capote grew up in a chaotic environment, moving between relatives, an alcoholic mother, and stepfather. His first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms was a critical success and bestseller in 1948. Over the next decade, he became one of America’s most celebrated authors.

Part of Capote’s success was his genius at self-promotion. He used his sexuality as a counterpoint to the accepted idea of macho masculinity in post-war America. His portraits are clearly gay, often seductive, and always flamboyant. He tackled subjects that challenged polite society. In his short story, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Holly Golightly is clearly a prostitute.

In 1966, Random House published Capote’s book In Cold Blood. The book is based on the 1959 murder of the Clutter family in rural Kansas. During the writing, Capote developed a close relationship with one of the killers, Perry Smith. After Smith’s execution, Capote changed. It was as though his childhood terrors caught up with him.

In the 1960s, Capote’s friends were New York society, upper class women who shopped and gossiped. His black and white ball in 1966 was the party of the decade. In 1975 Esquire magazine published excerpts from his unfinished novel, Answered Prayers. He based the short story, “La Côte Basque 1965,” on the secrets of his society friends. In turn, they rejected him. This led to years of alcoholism, drug use, and endless parties at Studio 54. Capote died in 1984 at 59.

What I find remarkable is the split between Capote’s life pre and post In Cold Blood. The ability to overcome a tragic childhood was lost. We are taught to expect stories of a hard childhood, incredible struggle, success, and a happy ending. In this instance, the narrative took a turn toward tragedy. It was as if his psyche was a sweater, and one thread began to unravel it.

For further reading: Capote: A Biography.