Sunday, June 08, 2008

This life is a sideshow

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biographies, photography

On the rare occasions when, as a child, I saw a circus or sideshow, I would gape and gawk along with the rest, but since my teen years, I find I watch the audience more than the show. To be sure, I am certain to get an eyeful of the show, but the faces of those watching are the real entertainment. Here, fascination; there, disgust; this one is calm; that one is excited; and do I catch a whiff of envy on a face or two?

The "permanent" sideshow became a fixture of American life even before the opening of P.T. Barnum's Museum in 1841 (he bought out another "museum" operator). Nearly 85 years later, in 1925, the Hecklers began to operate a flea circus at Hubert's Museum, which had just opened on 42d Street in Manhattan.

After the mid-1950s, the museum was operated by Charlie Lucas, who'd been performing there with his wife for several years. Both Lucases used a variety of stage names and personas, and Charlie became the "talker", the person who walked and talked groups of patrons through the exhibits, inducing them to part with yet another quarter or dime to see the extra-cost shows.

About this time, photographer Diane Arbus began to visit Hubert's, and gained the confidence of Charlie and other performers. It is rare for a sideshow operator to allow photography, but Mrs. Arbus proved to be the exception that tests the rule. During a significant portion of the decade that defines her legacy, she photographed the performers, both "normal" and freakish, including Charlie (whether as himself or as Woo-Foo) and his wife Virginia (Woogie, Sahloo, and sundry other names). The Hubert's Museum pages at ShowHistory, and links found there, bring out some of this history, but not all is accurate.

Charlie Lucas, shown here with a sword box, was given a packet of photos by Diane Arbus around or after 1960. These and his diaries and other artifacts wound up in a trunk that was sold, with other Hubert's Museum memorabilia, to a dealer in rare books and photographs, Philadelphian Bob Langmuir, in 2003. (Note: both photos are altered. I increased the gamma so details in the shadows are more clearly seen.)

These threads, the Museum, Charlie, Arbus, and Langmuir, are skilfully woven together by Gregory Gibson in Hubert's Freaks: The Rare-Book Dealer, the Times Square Talker, and the Lost Photos of Diane Arbus. Both the blurb-writers and the author call it "stranger than fiction", and they are right. Nobody could make this up!

Roughly half the book is a biographical psychodrama of the life of Robert C. Langmuir. Restless, by turns dynamic and uncertain, Bob is seen to be his own worst enemy. Only late in his life did he come to terms with this fact: he is a great opener, but a lousy closer. He really, really knows how to buy, but he needs expert help to sell. I sympathize. In my work, I've had to learn to work with good closers to actually complete's a good thing that such people exist, for Bob's sake even more than for mine! When one is negotiating the minefield of high-dollar art—photographic prints that sell for $50,000 or more, and you have a dozen or more—the sharks outnumber the minnows, including the lawyers on both sides of his pending (at the time) divorce. Bob is lucky to still have a complete skin.

At one point, Bob felt both Charlie and Diane had taken up residence in him, that he was some spiritual focus of both their lives. This eventually settled into a conviction that the entire corpus of Hubert's Museum material needs to be kept together, having more value, particularly cultural value, as the documents, diaries, and photos interacted with one another in the mind of a diligent student.

Greg Gibson knows how to close, though he'd have done better to wait just a few more months. In his closing chapter, the settlement of the collection had been placed in the hands of Phillips de Pury in New York, for auction as a unit. The auction was scheduled for April 2008, but This notice indicates that a private sale is pending and the auction was cancelled. It is likely that this is the last the public will ever hear of the collection.

Because of the excessive protectiveness of the Diane Arbus estate, I have not reproduced any photos known to be hers, so look to this gallery to see some of them. A Google search on her name yields more than 930,000 hits.

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