January 5, 2018
In someone else’s words: new Richard Avedon biography angers those closest to him
by Alex Primiani
New York Times publishing reporter Alexandra Alter begins her reporting on the controversial new Richard Avedon biography with a joke by the photographer himself: that “Here Lies Richard Avedon” would be the name of his autobiography — if he ever wrote one.
It’s a joke retold in Avedon: Something Personal, a new biography by former book editor Steven M.L. Aronson and Avedon’s longtime studio director and business manager Norma Stevens. Released in November by Spiegel & Grau, it has already upset and offended many.
Alter references the joke as the proof many are using to question the legitimacy and accuracy of the biography: “It’s both a telling anecdote about [Stevens’s] wily subject, and something of a red flag for readers — a sign that some details in the book may have originated from Mr. Avedon’s imagination rather than reality.”
According to Alter, the Richard Avedon Foundation contacted Penguin Random House, which owns Spiegel & Grau, and urged them to discontinue publication and distribution of the book. To the foundation, Stevens’s interpretation of Avedon’s life will likely do serious damage to his reputation and legacy. Alter writes:
The feud has cast a pall over what was billed as an intimate and revelatory tell-all. Ms. Stevens drew on her own conversations with Avedon over the decades, and interviewed many of his prominent friends and collaborators, including Calvin Klein, David Remnick, Twyla Tharp, Donatella Versace, Jann Wenner and Isabella Rossellini.
But it isn’t just the he-said-she-said gossip with which the bio is rife that has the foundation upset. On December 20, they released a list of factual errors in the book that calls into question the closeness of Stevens’s relationship with the photographer. Ranging from claimed inaccuracies in dates and locations to entire conversations that are allegedly false, even imagined, the list details each and every issue the foundation has with Stevens’s recollection of Avedon’s life.
Perhaps the most worrisome accusation is the foundation’s claim that much of what Stevens writes in the book is in fact pulled directly from a manuscript Avedon wrote himself, an autobiography that cushions real events with fictional allowances.
The foundation also claims that Ms. Stevens based parts of the book on an unfinished, semiautobiographical novel that Avedon was working on for years before his death, in which he blended elements of his past with fiction. “Stevens appears to be lifting various stories out of this fictional work, lightly editing and rewriting them, and then presenting them as both her own work and as biographical fact,” James Martin, the executive director of the Richard Avedon Foundation, said in a statement.
In response to these allegations (the foundation did not point out the allegedly plagiarized passages directly), Spiegel & Grau released a statement defending Stevens’s right to write on Avedon’s life. According to the publisher and author, Avedon trusted only her to write about him truthfully, once stating, “The best portrait is always the truth. Make me into an Avedon.” While Spiegel & Grau vehemently rejected the notion of stopping publication altogether, they did agree to correct any factual errors in later printings.
Alter interviews other close friends and colleagues of the photographer, citing their horror and suspicions concerning Stevens’s reporting and memory.
The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, a close friend of Avadon’s who was extensively interviewed for the biography, claims he was approached under false pretenses, saying Stevens and Aronson told him they were writing an oral history of Avedon’s studio, and not necessarily a biography of the photographer.
Avedon’s son finds the idea of his father agreeing to a biography out of character. In an email to Alter, he writes: “On the one occasion in which I raised the topic my father made it abundantly clear that he had no desire to participate in, or be the subject of, a biography. The whole idea was anathema. My father wanted to be remembered for his life’s work — his photographs.”
Alex Primiani is the associate director of publicity at Melville House.