“YOU FURNISH THE PICTURES AND I’LL FURNISH THE WAR.” –Dec 28, 2002

Despite the rising din of war drums I managed, lately,to read a few newspapers. The recent flap over alleged Iraqi atrocitieswhen they occupied Kuwait (rehashed in the HBO movie of CNN’spurportedly valiant efforts in covering that war) reminded me ofthe anecdote surrounding William Randolph Hearst’s dispatchof artist Fredrick Remington to Cuba. He was to illustrate the fightingin Cuba’s struggle for independence from Spain. Remington,having a few things to learn about the war correspondent’scraft, wired Hearst from the vantage point of the patio of the HotelInglaterra, “EVERYTHING IS QUIET. THERE IS NO TROUBLE HERE.THERE WILL BE NO WAR. I WISH TO RETURN.” To which Hearst famouslyreplied, “PLEASE REMAIN. YOU FURNISH THE PICTURES AND I’LLFURNISH THE WAR.” -W.R. HEARST. Of course, we know things havechanged these past hundred years since the United States foughtso unselfishly for Cuba’s independence—from Spain. Apparently,for this next and all foreseeable future wars, the Defense Departmentwill be in charge of both the wars and the pictures.

A bad week for mid Centurians, it was. First, thedeath of Joe Strummer, who composed one of my favorite pieces ofmusic, the soundtrack to Alex Cox’ under-appreciated film Walker,and then the passing of glamour photographer Herb Ritts. These deathsno doubt raise the chill factor among the overabundant male babyboomer generation who in so many ways display an undaunted disregardfor mortality or even the decrepitude of aging.

As Mark Feeney by-lined the obit/appreciation ofHerb Ritts in the Boston Globe, I approached my reading ofit with no trepidation. My confidence in Feeney’s intelligenceand judgement was again reaffirmed:

American culture has always had a healthy regardfor cash, calculation, and celebrity (especially celebrity - whatother flag boasts so many stars?). Yet something changed in ourrelationship to those things in the 1980s. What had once beenconsidered commodities were now seen as virtues. The Reagans werein the White House. ''Dallas'' dueled ''Dynasty.'' Madonna ruledthe charts. ''The Bonfire of the Vanities'' topped the bestsellerlist.

It was Herb Ritts who took the decade's familyportrait.

Not so, in Ginia Bellafante’s obituary in theNew York Times. Here’s her first graf:

Herb Ritts, the photographer whose glorifyingimages of the well known helped to further mythologize celebrityin the 1980's and 90's, died yesterday in a Los Angeles hospital.He was 50 and lived in Los Angeles.

Now, granted, Feeney had about 150 more words toform something with, but I wondered why one would read further intoBellafante’s piece...except, perhaps, for some sign of thoughtand reportorial craft. Which, alas, did not obtain.

Feeney had much else in the way of incisive observation about Ritts’place in the celebrity industry, much of it the result of some keenthinking and an easy grasp of the cultural milieu of ‘80s and‘90s. Not so the NYT writer who called, what I guessare the right people: Vogue’s Anna Wintour, Ritt’sgallerist, Ethleen Staley, Richard Gere, and Vanity Fair’sGraydon Carter— who was able to get the word "iconic"in the piece.

I met Herb Ritts a few times. A nice man. I wasalways impressed that Herb had taken pictures of Stephen Hawkingand Charles Bukowski and some other folks who were not, you know,beautiful. But my story will have to wait for the publication ofmy highly anticipated memoir-in-progress, currently entitled PrimumNon Nocere.

There is an inverse relationship between my avoweddisinterest in reading book reviews and reviews of any kind andmy wanting to avoid disparaging my comrades who, for some reason,are ploughing and back bending in the potato patches of criticism.As Steve Almond recently told me, “The life boat is small enoughas it is…” On the other hand, just having read Dutch Leonard’s(yeah, I feel like I can be familiar because, I have met the manand he even told me why he is nicknamed ‘Dutch’. But,why digress?) story collection I couldn’t pass up perusingthe New York Times review on When the Women Come Out toDance. Truthfully, my dance didn’t begin well:

“If you were to tell me you had just read anElmore Leonard novel where someone says something out of character,I'd say you were a liar.” What kind of fahcockta way is thatto start a conversation? Then this, “Reading the clipped, unfailinglyaccurate dialogue that comes out of the mouths of Leonard's characterscan make you feel as if you're in the presence of a writer who isboth ventriloquist and psychic.” I’ve read over twentyof Leonard’s novels, some a few times, over the past ten yearsand it would never have occurred to me to cast Dutch in this light.Was it my failure of imagination? But here’s the capper onthat, “It's not just that Leonard captures the cadences andelisions of each character's speech, it's that he has an uncannysense of knowing what each will say next.” Oh my!

This piece wends its way toward conclusion withthis lofty and sage proclamation, “There are plenty of literaryluminaries who could learn a lot from the discipline and craft ofwriters pigeonholed — or dismissed — as genre writers.”And then —I must confess I was frothing as I read and reread— “My Christmas wish this year was that when Cormac McCarthy,Michael Ondaatje and Toni Morrison, to name but three, looked undertheir trees, they found that some kind soul had been thoughtfulenough to send them a copy of Elmore Leonard's latest."

That this is self-evident idiocy, I am convinced.Meretricious glibness masquerading as literary criticism? Maybe.A good reason never to read Charles Taylor’s goofy blabberingagain? Absolutely.

herb ritts

Herb Ritts, photographed by Red Diaz

Share this story