Sunday, October 12, 2014

148. Dorothy Norman and Jawaharlal Nehru.



Dorothy Norman, by Alfred Stieglitz.
Philadelphia Museum of Art
     Last week’s post was about Dorothy Norman, the woman who knew everyone, and her relationship with Alfred Stieglitz.  This week’s post tells the story of her friendship with Jawaharlal Nehru, the prime minister of India.  She had long been interested in Indian art and culture, had discussed Hinduism with the Ceylonese philosopher Ananda Coomaraswamy, had advocated independence for India, and had come to know Madame Pandit, Nehru’s sister, who was India’s U.N. ambassador.  Then, on October 11, 1949, two years after India achieved independence, Nehru himself came to the U.S., landing at Washington National Airport, where he and his sister, Madame Pandit, India’s U.N. ambassador, were received by President Truman.  And when Nehru came to New York on the 15th, Dorothy Norman and her husband were among those who welcomed him at LaGuardia Airport and were briefly introduced; he struck her as elegant, handsome, bemused by the reception, radiant. 

File:Photograph of President Truman and Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, with Nehru's sister, Madame Pandit, waving... - NARA - 200154.tif
Nehru, Madame Pandit, and President Truman at Washington National Airport.

     At a reception at the Waldorf-Astoria that evening Nehru, now wearing Western clothes, seemed distant, yet unofficial, natural, and boyish.  His baldness accentuated the noble cast of his face, with its high cheekbones and sharply sculptured nose; he had the bearing of a prince.  Introduced again, she felt awkward, but her banal remarks provoked a smile from him, then laughter.  Toward the end of the reception Madame Pandit asked her to remain after the others left, as her brother wished to speak to her.  Nehru then explained, in his clipped British accent, that for a literary tea the following day the guest list included only familiar names and old fogies; could she include some younger, more progressive people?  And if that was impossible, could she invite such people to a tea at her house the day after, when he would be available for no more than forty-five minutes, starting at 3:30 p.m.?  His sister had assured him that she knew everyone, could arrange it.  And would she please report to him at exactly 9:30 the following morning.

File:Bundesarchiv Bild 183-61849-0001, Indien, Otto Grotewohl bei Ministerpräsident Nehru cropped.jpg
She admired his princely features,
his sharply sculptured nose.

Bundesarchiv
     This request astonished her.  She had not been invited to the tea, whose hosts – author Pearl Buck and her husband – would resent her interference.  She explained the awkwardness of her position, but Nehru and his sister reassured her: “Blame it on us.  There will be no problem at all.”  And since she knew Mayor O’Dwyer, could she ask him to cut the morning ceremonies the next day to a minimum?  With that, he wished her good night, bowed, and joined the graceful, tapering fingers of both hands in an Indian salutation. 

     She was baffled, perplexed, and on the verge of laughter.  But for this handsome, princely man she was determined to do what she could.  Phoning Mayor O’Dwyer at 8:30 a.m. on October 16, she got him to shorten the ceremonies.  A half hour later she phoned Pearl Buck, explained the situation, apologized; she and her husband agreed to add a few names, then invited her to the tea and asked her to help them take care of Nehru.  She then phoned Nehru, who was grateful for the shortened ceremonies, though he would have to endure the traditional ticker-tape parade on Lower Broadway.  Resigning himself to the tea, he repeated his request that she entertain him on the following afternoon.  Who should she invite, and how many?  “I leave everything to you.”

     She and her husband were invited to most of the welcoming events of the day, but she managed to make out a list of guests for her reception and telegrammed invitations.  Never before had she been asked to arrange and preside over a gathering if such significance, and on such short notice, but arrange it she did.  The following afternoon the Norman living room on East 70th Street was crowded with writers, editors, publishers, intellectuals, and some of Nehru’s family and entourage.  Nehru made no speech but answered questions.  Cameras clicked, questions followed, and his answers often, to everyone’s surprise, provoked laughter.  He stayed not forty-five minutes but an hour and a half, seemed relaxed and happy.  When they saw him down to his limousine, he invited her to accompany him to Boston the next day.  It would be her first flight and the thought of it terrified her, but she agreed. 

     She went on the plane with Madame Pandit and Nehru’s only daughter, Indira Gandhi (no relation to the Mahatma), a shy young woman burdened by her role as the prime minister’s daughter.  Nehru had Norman sit next to him and they discussed Hinduism and Buddhism.  In Boston, more ceremonies, more visits.  Together they visited Boston’s two Indian spiritual centers, following which he said to her, “You should be glad, Dorothy, that we don’t have three spiritual centers in Boston.”  Back in New York, he gave her a book of his, The Unity of India, drew her attention to a passage describing the beauty of Kashmir as resembling a supremely beautiful woman; their eyes met, and when his revealed a tenderness she hadn’t seen before, she burst into tears.  Soon afterward, with his official visit to the city at an end, he left; she joined others at the airport to see him off.

Sukarno, a professed admirer of the U.S.
     That was hardly the end of the friendship.  Nehru invited her to India for the January 1950 celebrations of the founding of the republic.  With her children grown and her journal Twice a Year at an end, she was able to take a leave of absence from the New York Post and go.  Arriving at Bombay airport, she was shocked by the two-thin dark bodies on the roads, and the contrast between street beggars and prosperous Indians in their fine cars.  In New Delhi she stayed in the Prime Minister’s residence, attended by servants in sashes and turbans, and had breakfast and dinner daily with Nehru and his family.  Ceremonies, vast crowds, pageantry.  At a formal dinner she chatted with Nehru and President Sukarno of Indonesia, who told her of being raised on Whitman and Lincoln and announced with a superior air that, unlike the British-educated Nehru and other Indian leaders, he had been nurtured by the democratic American tradition.  On one occasion Nehru, following behind his household, suddenly stopped and stood on his head.  Those ahead of him didn't see it, but he cast an amused look at her to see if she had noticed.  She had, their eyes met, and she forced herself not to laugh, while he walked on as if nothing had happened.  Throughout her stay she accompanied Nehru on visits, talked with him, got to know his shy daughter Indira better.  At times he looked at Norman with the eyes of a child; at times he seemed burdened, trapped in a cage, distant; at times he was relaxed, his charm devastating. 

     After a visit of three and a half months, she returned to New York, determined to lobby the government to send food to starving India.  The amazing beauty of India, as well as its poverty, haunted her, but what haunted her most was the face of Nehru, its every feature and nuance.  Yet when her husband greeted her at the airport, she was overjoyed.  For all the wonder of India, she knew that he, her children, and New York were her reality; she still hoped their marriage would survive.

     It didn’t.  Edward became dictatorial, stern, forbidding, harsh with the children and her.  His outbursts multiplied, followed by depression; she came to fear sudden violence on his part.  Then, with the children grown, she urged him to find a more compatible woman and marry her; he tried, seemed to find one, but it didn’t work out.  Though he pleaded with her not to, in 1953 she went to Reno and initiated divorce proceedings.  After six weeks in Reno she obtained the divorce; both were heartsick.

     And of course the inevitable question:  Were she and Nehru lovers?  The memoir certainly indicates a mutual attraction on their part, and the headstand antic, done expressly for her amusement, implies complicity.  But to my knowledge she never acknowledged such an affair, and his life was so in view, with his relatives close at hand, and so relentlessly scheduled, that it is hard to imagine.  Nehru, whose wife died in 1936, evidently had a protracted affair with Lady Mountbatten, the attractive wife of the last Viceroy of India.  A photo of the Viceroy, his wife, and Nehru shows Lord Mountbatten, splendidly garbed in an immaculate white naval uniform, looking serious and official, while Nehru and Lady Mountbatten are convulsed with laughter over something that the Viceroy is unaware of or chooses to ignore.  Certainly there was a bond between the Prime Minister and the Vicereine, embarrassing as it is today for the Indian government, so eager to preserve Nehru’s legendary status that it canceled a film being made in Delhi that would have told the story of the illustrious triangle.  When Edwina Mountbatten died in 1960 and her body was given a sea burial off the coast of England, Nehru sent an Indian Navy frigate to cast a wreath into the waters on his behalf.  So if her face didn’t launch a thousand ships like Helen of Troy, she at least launched one.


File:Gandhi with Lord and Lady Mountbatten.jpg
Lord and Lady Mountbatten with you-know-who.  In his presence they were both
on their best behavior.

     But if Nehru and Dorothy Norman ever trysted and kept it secret, it was a miracle of amorous discretion.  So perhaps their relationship was simply friendship.  She had no official position, didn’t represent her country, didn’t criticize him for his nonaligned position in the Cold War, so in her presence  he could be candid and relaxed, and even, as in the headstand stunt, a mischievous boy showing off for his girl.  But his influence on her was deep, and in time she edited a collection of his writings, Nehru, the First Sixty Years, that was published in two volumes in 1965.

     Dorothy Norman went on to more “encounters” – the artists Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich, the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and his wife, others – and turned away from politics and social welfare concerns to develop a keen interest in myth and symbolism.  Her memoir ends with a moving account of her mother telling her at last, and fervently, how much she loved her, and then dying in her arms.

     Norman does not chronicle her later years, and the memoir, with a single exception, offers only photographs of her in her youth, several of them by Stieglitz.  And afterward?  She wrote, she edited, she gave her collection of Stieglitz photographs to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  As for her personal life, I know only what the in-house editor at Harcourt told me, how in her later years she surrounded herself with a circle of friends, all male homosexuals, among them the Japanese American artist and landscape architect Isamu Noguchi.  (I have found no evidence online that Noguchi was gay, though his father was.)  Once her youthful looks had faded, was this Norman’s refuge, among men who could offer, not romance or sex, but friendship?  Even as she worked on her memoir, she told the editor it could never be published while Georgia O’Keeffe was alive.  O’Keeffe died in 1986; the memoir was published in 1987 with a dedication “To Edward, my first love.”  Dorothy Norman died in 1997 at age 92. 

     What is one to make of this woman who knew everyone?  Limousine liberal, do-gooder, dilettante – she can be stuck with all these labels, but I think it would be unfair.  She served the great – Stieglitz, Nehru, others --  without herself attaining greatness.  She never worked a day in her life, in the sense of a salary-paying job, but she was constantly busy, never idle.  A  doer, she made things happen.  What was it that let her bond so easily with others?  Her beauty, her charm, her intelligence.  And from that bonding came results: books, articles, exhibitions, food for a starving India, her biography of Stieglitz, her collection of Nehru’s writings, the Alfred Stieglitz Center in Philadelphia.  And if her later turn toward myth and symbolism gets a bit vaporous and “New Agey,” that is probably the case with most Western followers of the great traditions, which for deep understanding require a focused lifelong commitment that few of us can offer.

     Time and again Dorothy Norman was in just the right place at just the right time.  When her friend the renowned photographer Edward Steichen was putting together a photographic exhibition, The Family of Man, to be presented at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955 -- an exhibition that would show the oneness of human hopes, fears, and preoccupations among all races, nations, and cultures throughout the world, and that would be the culmination of his career -- he found that the photos by themselves seemed lifeless, they needed captions; in desperation he appealed to her.  Seeing a print of the first photo, showing a reflection of light on earth and water, she at once proposed a line from the opening of Genesis, “And God said, Let there be light.”  Seeing another print of lovers in an intimate embrace, she suggested the closing lines of Joyce’s Ulysses, with Molly Bloom’s rapturous “Yes!”  For other photos she drew on the Bible, Greek tragedy, Saint-John Perse, the Bhagavad Gita, other sources.  When the exhibition opened, it was a great success, following which it toured the world for eight years and was seen by over nine million people.  Decidedly, the right person in the right place at the right time.  Her memoir too, evoking timeless myths, ends with an inspiring “Yes.”


File:Front page of exhibition "The Family of Man" catalog.jpg
Front page of the exhibition catalog.
Dinales

     Source note:  The sources for this post are the same as those mentioned in the previous post: the 1977 interview and Norman’s Encounters: A Memoir (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987).  

     Are the Yahoos coming?  I do not mean this blog to be political, but occasionally I feel compelled to voice an opinion.  A New York Times article of September 29 reported that, among the Republican nominees likely to be elected to the House of Representatives in November, are some who have made these statements:

·      Single parenthood should be reclassified as child abuse.
·      Four “blood moons” will herald world-changing events.
·      Islam is not a religion but a “complete geopolitical structure” unworthy of tax exemption.
·      Hillary Clinton is the Antichrist.
·      Equal-pay legislation should be opposed, because money is more important to men than to women.
·      Evolution is a lie from the pit of hell.

No further comment is necessary.

     Coming soon:  The bishop whose splendor of presence almost eclipsed comedian Milton Berle, who was known as Mr. Television.  And to round things out, I’ll toss in merry optimism and the Power of Positive Thinking.  Also:  Peoria vs. New York or, Who will get the archiepiscopal remains?

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder