Famous First Words: Michael Duncan on Charles Henri Ford. (Passages)

By Duncan, Michael | Artforum International, January 2003 | Go to article overview

Famous First Words: Michael Duncan on Charles Henri Ford. (Passages)


Duncan, Michael, Artforum International


IN THIS SUGAR-FREE ERA, what artist has a life more interesting than his art? The death of Charles Henri Ford (1908-2002) puts the capper on a time when precociousness and chutzpah were art forms in themselves. In 1927, on the eve of his nineteenth birthday, Ford wrote in his diary: "In two years I will be famous. In two years I will be famous. In two years I will be famous. In two years I will be famous. In two years I will be famous. In two years I will be famous. This is my oath."

Not missing a beat, the poetry-besotted high school dropout started a little magazine out of his small-town Mississippi bedroom, christening it with the hip title Blues: A Magazine of New Rhythms. He announced the first issue just as longtime literary journals The Dial and the Little Review were folding, so even well-known writers like Gertrude Stein and William Carlos Williams answered with submissions. Besides the big names, Ford introduced talents who confirmed his nose for the new: James Farrell, Erskine Caldwell, and fellow oddball teen Paul Bowles.

Through Blues he struck up a correspondence with the flamboyant young genius Parker Tyler, whose descriptions of boho Manhattan beckoned him to that hotbed of poetry and available men. Intoxicated by the Village scene, the two soon cobbled together a collaborative novel, The Young and the Evil (1933), a fragmented record of cruising, drag balls, and brittle repartee. Dame Edith Sitwell allegedly proclaimed it "entirely without soul like a dead fish stinking in hell," an assessment that defines its lasting appeal as a proto--Blank Generation artifact.

Managing to get to Europe, the fresh-faced ingenue had no problem gaining access to the literary salons of Stein and Natalie Barney. While awaiting publication of his novel, he briefly hooked up with Djuna Barnes in Tangier, where they shared a rat-infested hovel while Ford typed the manuscript of Nightwood. Back in Paris, he met the artist Pavel Tchelitchew, a former Stein protege whose career was on the rise. Tchelitchew--a brilliant, charismatic figure--was immediately taken with the bright blue eyes, sharp mind, and boyish demeanor of what he called "my darling huckleberries finn." In the luminous Portrait of Charles Henri Ford in Poppy Field, 1933, Tchelitchew depicted his youthful lover with a golden halo formed by stacks of hay--an inside joke, according to Tyler, based on the Russian artist's misinterpreting Ford's written reference to "wet dreams" as "wheat dreams." The love-struck Tchelitchew followed Ford back to New York, where, after some domestic readjustments, the two eventually established the mselves in a sunlit East Side penthouse.

Their tempestuous twenty-six-year liaison-lasting until Tchelitchew's death--was one of the great gay relationships, despite its bumps and indiscretions. Although never at ease with his secondary role, Ford provided unwavering support for Tchelitchew's art and tolerance for his high-strung volatility. Discord arose largely from Tchelitchew's powerful friends--Lincoln Kirstein, the Sitwells, the collector Edward James--who saw Ford as an opportunist. But Ford lived to score an odd kind of revenge on the past: the publication of Water from a Bucket: A Diary 1948-1957 (Turtle Point, 2001), a scattered, gossipy account of love affairs and failed writing projects that ends in the gruesome, tasteless chronicling of Tchelitchew's health problems and death. …

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