Warhol, Mapplethorpe, Lou Reed, Patti Smith and the greatest New York story ever

Sam Wagstaff was the patron and lover who connected Mapplethorpe and bohemian New York. Here’s how they met

Warhol, Mapplethorpe, Lou Reed, Patti Smith and the greatest New York story ever

Robert Mapplethorpe and Sam Wagstaff, in the cover photo of “Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe: A Biography”

There are two competing stories about who would introduce Sam Wagstaff to Robert Mapplethorpe during that bygone summer of 1972. Sam Green claimed, as he was wont to take credit for so many things, to have been the official matchmaker—out of spite. “Robert was the most ambitious and insistent person that I knew,” Green said. “He continuously harangued me to see his mediocre art. After my first visit to Robert’s studio, he made it clear he was looking for a male patron. I had an ax to grind with Sam Wagstaff, so I had intended to put them together in Oakleyville.” Still, years later, Green claimed to have been pleased that the introduction was successful. “Sam and Robert were one of the great unions of the twentieth century,” he said. “It worked for everyone. Robert was a master manipulator and he would do anything. When I introduced the two of them, I knew how much they needed each other.”

 But the actual introduction came from another visitor to Sam Green’s beach cottage. David Croland, a tall, slender young artist and model with fine features and dark hair, was a fixture of Andy Warhol’s Factory (by this point the Factory had come to refer to more than the physical studio, at times encompassing the people circulating around Andy, including his “superstars”). Croland had modeled for David Bailey and others in London in the late 1960s before being discovered by the Warhol superstar International Velvet (Susan Bottomly) while shopping at Fiorucci in New York. Croland, like so many gay men who came out gradually in that era, was still in his “bisexual phase” and was romantically involved with Bottomly for a while.

Croland had met Robert Mapplethorpe in 1970 through his friend Tinkerbelle, a contributor to Interview, who knew Mapplethorpe from the back room at Max’s Kansas City. One day Tinkerbelle brought Croland to Mapplethorpe’s loft on West 23rd St, several doors away from the Chelsea Hotel. Robert was living there with Patti Smith, his girlfriend while in art school, whose fame as a poet and rock star would come later. Although Mapplethorpe and Smith had been together for several years, by that point they were more like psychic twins than lovers. Croland and Mapplethorpe soon became lovers, keeping their romance a secret from Smith for almost six months.



In Just Kids, Smith’s memoir about her relationship with Mapplethorpe and their coming-of-age as artists, she evocatively describes a gradual shift in the nature of their bond during the period when they lived near Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, contrasting her need for artistic exploration in the world outside of herself with Robert’s mode of discovery, which was turning increasingly inward. That was when Robert had begun his first homosexual romance, with a young man named Terry, whom he met through a fellow student at Pratt. Robert and Terry were open about their sexuality with Patti, but it was not an easy emotional transition for her. “He had never given me any indication in his behavior that I would have interpreted as homosexual,” Smith writes.

It was Croland who would finally guide Mapplethorpe to the stratum of the art world he had been eager to penetrate. Croland introduced him to Henry Geldzahler, the curator of twentieth-century art at the Metropolitan Museum and a close friend and supporter of Warhol; to John McKendry, curator of prints and photographs at the Metropolitan; and, of course, to Warhol himself, whom Mapplethorpe worshipped from afar and whose cultural status had already eclipsed any other artist of that time. By 1972, Croland and Mapplethorpe had ceased being lovers, but they would remain close friends.

On Sam Green’s deck in Oakleyville one weekend afternoon that summer of 1972, Wagstaff took a flirtatious interest in Croland. The young man might have fit his type in certain ways—young, gaunt, and artistic—but Croland had Semitic features, and he was far too socially charming, animated, and garrulous to conform to the template of Wagstaff’s basic attractions. Still, Sam asked to see Croland again in the city and made a date to look at his drawings the following week.

Croland already knew about Wagstaff by reputation and, of course, about his long friendship with Andy. He was happy to have such an aficionado coming over to see his work. During Sam’s visit to his small apartment on Irving Place in Manhattan, Croland showed him some drawings he had been making as textile designs for Halston and other fashion designers. “These are like paintings,” Wagstaff said, and he ended up buying ten of them. “I’m going to keep some and give some to my sister.” Then, as Wagstaff was leaving the apartment, he spotted on the drafting table a small, framed photo-booth portrait of a young man in a sailor cap. He leaned over to look at the portrait more carefully. “Who is that?” Sam asked, an unmistakable lilt in his voice. “I want to meet him.”

Robert Mapplethorpe was precisely Wagstaff’s physical type— lanky, with taut features, a light complexion, and an unpolished physicality. Ellen Phelan made the astute observation that if Gordon Newton, Richard Tuttle, Michael Heizer, and Robert Mapplethorpe were all assembled in the same room, one would think they were related.15 All had the same chiseled features and coloring; all of them were young artists when Sam first met them; each one was original, inventive, and fierce in the exploration of his own ideas.

Seeing Wagstaff’s response to the portrait, Croland knew he was about to facilitate yet another advantageous introduction for Robert Mapplethorpe. He duly wrote down Robert’s number for Sam. Then, overriding his resentment at Robert for exploiting his connections yet again, Croland called his friend to announce that, this time, a patron unlike any other was about to give him a call.

Aside from an attraction that so far existed in miniature and only on photographic paper, Wagstaff had few other clues about Mapplethorpe. There was his association with David Croland and the proximity it gave him to Warhol’s Factory. Then each phrase David Croland used to describe Mapplethorpe’s work could be repeated over and over: he had described the assemblages as “pornographic constructions with Catholic iconography” that included “naked self-portraits draped with studs and jewelry.”  In the context of the important artwork of the period, whether minimal geometric abstraction, pop iconographic imagery, or the conceptual possibilities in earth art, what Croland told Sam about Mapplethorpe’s subject matter resonated as something distinctly new.

The juxtaposition of sex and Catholicism—the height of Western religious tradition, which stood in stark contrast to Wagstaff’s embrace of Eastern mysticism—was enough to pique his curatorial interest. Sam’s imagination roamed more broadly as he thought about the stranger in the sailor cap so that, by the time he picked up the phone to call Robert, he was already a little bit in love with the idea of the louche young man with a name that, like his own, might have sprung from the underworld of Charles Dickens: David Copperfield, Luke Honeythunder, Paul Sweedlepipe, Robert Mapplethorpe. His mood was playful and his voice flirtatious when Robert answered the phone. “Is this the shy pornographer?” Sam asked.

Mapplethorpe may have been hungry for attention, money, and artistic acknowledgment, and he was nervously eager for a patron who could give him the kind of financial support that would free him to make his art. But, when he heard the clever question delivered in that baritone drawl, he laughed a genuine, happy laugh.

* * *

The twenty-five-year-old Robert Mapplethorpe was stylish, appealingly soft-spoken, but decidedly still rough around the edges. His obvious talent came with an underlying arrogance—not unfamiliar to Wagstaff—that often propels such artistic ambition. Mapplethorpe’s beginnings were uninspired: he was the third of six children in a middle-class Catholic family; his adoring mother suffered from manic depression and his withholding father was missing the parental gene for encouragement. Nevertheless, he had made it to art school, where he developed an imperturbable confidence and an unyielding belief in himself as an artist. “I came from suburban America,” Robert said of his hometown, Floral Park, New York. “It was a safe environment. And it was a good place to come from in that it was a good place to leave.”

Mapplethorpe enrolled at Pratt Institute, one of the preeminent art schools in the country, in 1963. The social upheavals that would come to define the 1960s were barely rumblings at that point, but evident at Pratt and other urban art schools was a visible bohemian repudiation of bourgeois conformity. While the environment there encouraged serious artistic exploration and the course of instruction centered on the high-minded fine art disciplines, the faculty promoted an almost religious belief in painting. Despite the school’s reputation, it failed to provide the rigorous instruction one might have expected. Pratt students, meanwhile, cultivated theatrically personal styles, often aided by recreational drug use and copious sexual experimentation. When Robert arrived, the atmosphere on the Brooklyn campus had not quite yet assumed the quality of a mannered, antic, if not hedonistic, drama; during his years there, it would acquire the sensibility of the Fellini film Satyricon as students went to class in outlandish costumes. Increasingly, the anarchic posture of rock ’n’ roll and the influence of hippie drug culture became evident as the students grew long hair and wore tie-dyed T-shirts and paint-splattered jeans. At the same time, nonconformity was prized as much as creativity, and students could be seen perched by themselves in the corner of the cafeteria or on the front steps of the main building drawing with their Rapidograph pens on large Strathmore pads or blocking out ideas in their journals.

Mapplethorpe, however, entered Pratt intending to fulfill his father’s expectation that he learn a trade that could earn him a living— either in Pratt’s more conservative engineering program, with graphic arts training in the design school, or through courses in the school of library sciences. As a member of Pershing Rifles, an elite military fraternity related to the Reserve Officer’s Training Corps, the teenaged Mapplethorpe cut a surprisingly conventional profile in his first years in art school.

Within two years, though, as the school was becoming more radicalized in the wake of the Vietnam war, Mapplethorpe gravitated to the fine art program. He had been making elaborate drawings from an early age, and art is what he wanted to study. Among Robert’s schoolmates was Robert Wilson, the artist who went on to create with Philip Glass the operatic masterpiece Einstein on the Beach. Sylvia Plachy, Jan Groover, Judy Linn, and Betsey Johnson, each of whom would become prominent in the world of photography or fashion, were also studying at Pratt.

It was here that Mapplethorpe met Patti Smith. In the summer of 1967 she had found her way to Brooklyn not as a student but because she was staying with a friend of a friend after moving to New York from her working-class hometown in southern New Jersey. Smith’s first encounter with Mapplethorpe near the Pratt campus was brief. But, a short time later, purely by coincidence, Robert was standing in Tompkins Square, a junkie-haunted, garbage-strewn park in the East Village where hipsters often congregated in what felt like a perpetual streetwise “happening.” The atmosphere was always at once festive and ominous, street musicians playing their guitars on benches, students looking to buy marijuana, and innocent people getting robbed at knifepoint. Smith, barely twenty years old, sitting early one evening with a first date in the park, had become increasingly uncomfortable in the older man’s company. She recognized Mapplethorpe not only from that chance meeting at Pratt, but also from a more recent encounter, when he had come into Scribner’s, where she worked, and they had briefly chatted. Now, as something of a damsel in distress, she ran up to him to ask if he would rescue her by pretending to be her boyfriend. He agreed and they ran away from her date, to the other side of the park. Indeed, they became a couple that night.

It was an auspicious—and in the end historic—meeting. That night, Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith discovered in each other something profoundly sympathetic. Soon after, they moved in together, sharing a small apartment on Hall Street in Clinton Hill along the southern border of the Pratt campus. Smith would come home from her job as a clerk at Scribner’s, the renowned bookstore on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, and read or draw while Robert fulfilled his assignments for school, developing a style of collage and assemblage out of his own drawings, found photographs, cutouts of artwork from the ancient world, and other found objects. During that period Robert’s style of dress reflected his art school evolution and growing self-consciousness, from sheepskin vests to the more mannered, and fateful, sailor outfit. Smith described it in her memoir: “In his sailor dress and cap, he resonated a Cocteau drawing or the world of Genet’s Robert Querelle.”

Mapplethorpe short-circuited his graduation from Pratt in 1969 by skipping one final course. He and Smith crossed the river into Manhattan and, with a combination of characteristic luck and ambition, found their way to the Chelsea Hotel. The hotel had already been immortalized for them in the 1966 Warhol film Chelsea Girls. They had been told that Stanley Bard, the hotel’s proprietor, would accept a barter of artwork for a room in lieu of cash, and, indeed, the lobby was decorated with the residents’ drawings and paintings, large and small, hanging on the walls in ersatz salon style. Still, when Robert and Patti approached Bard, it was Patti’s employment at Scribner’s that persuaded him to give them one of the smallest rooms in the hotel. The bathroom was in the hallway. He charged them fifty-five dollars per week. Patti’s weekly salary was sixty-four dollars, so they could barely afford it. Robert continued to make artwork and beaded jewelry, but it failed to bring in additional income.

That year, the breakthrough movie Midnight Cowboy was released. The story of a petty thief and a male prostitute scraping by in Times Square, it was shocking in some quarters, but the movie instantly became a classic and was said to give Mapplethorpe the idea of turning sexual favors on 42nd Street to supplement their meager income. It started out as something of a romanticized adventure, but the novelty gave way to the reality of having sex with people who didn’t interest him, and he gave it up.

At the Chelsea Hotel, Robert and Patti as a matter of course came in contact with Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Charles Bukowski, William Burroughs, Janis Joplin, Milos Forman, and Virgil Thomson—whose extended stays or residences there provided a respite from the demands of the public. Most of the hotel patrons were eccentric; they also tended to know about all sorts of interesting or arcane events in the city, sometimes dragging Mapplethorpe and Smith out with them at night on cultural odysseys, exposing them to poetry readings at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery or experimental theater performances. One night it might be a concert at the Fillmore East and a backstage visit with the musicians, another a wild, avant-garde production of Orlando Furioso, by Teatro Libero di Roma, in an enormous tent in Bryant Park, where life-sized wooden puppets on tin horses performed as the audience roamed through a labyrinth where many scenes took place simultaneously.

Soon after settling in at the Chelsea Hotel, Mapplethorpe and Smith found their way to Max’s Kansas City. They may, as young artists, have been poor but it must have felt as if they had arrived in the right place. Just as Montparnasse had replaced Montmartre as the center of the art world in Paris in the 1920s, the art world axis in New York had recently shifted its psychic temperament. In the 1950s, Cedar Tavern on University Place was known for the masculine bravado and philosophical posturing of its patrons—Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Franz Kline—who would argue through many a drunken evening. A little farther south, the San Remo on Bleecker Street attracted an equally intellectually charged but less rowdy group of writers like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, and Delmore Schwartz. Eventually both gave way to the theatrical androgyny and urban-cowboy swagger of the Chelsea Hotel and Max’s Kansas City.

The shift from Cedar Tavern to Max’s might well represent the evolution in art itself from one decade to another. Abstract expressionism was a Buddhist-influenced process of expressing interior reality at the actual moment of experience, and, at night, the conversation at Cedar Tavern was an ongoing existential argument. Pop art was focused on the iconography of popular culture, so, of course, nightlife at Max’s was a heightened display, in homage to but equally in mockery of the full range of Hollywood tropes.

In Max’s more outre back room, Robert and Patti inched their way into the ethos of Andy Warhol and his superstars, whose nightly soirees proved to be the Algonquin Round Table of the 1970s. Mapplethorpe on occasion would wear his sailor suit, while Smith was not compelled to dress up at all, preferring the uniform of comfort and anonymity—T-shirts and jeans. “They were this couple and they would sit away from everybody, as if they were shy,” said Gerard Malanga, the Factory mainstay who is also a poet.

Among the regulars at Max’s was Robert Smithson, at the time gaining prominence as one of the land artists with his just completed Spiral Jetty in Great Salt Lake, Utah. Smithson would dominate the conversation at one table, often inviting another artist like Richard Serra or John Chamberlain to join him, and everyone would talk about his work. Mapplethorpe met Brice Marden and Robert Indiana there. During that period Marden went to Robert’s studio to look at his work—the assemblages, collages, and framed pieces—and he said he would mention them to Klaus Kertess, his own dealer, at Bykert Gallery. It was in just this way that artists at the time would slowly become known.

Between Max’s Kansas City and the Chelsea Hotel, Mapplethorpe and Smith found themselves at the epicenter of cultural ferment in the art world, two young impoverished artists in waiting, cutting their teeth on what was becoming the very essence of urban cool. Perhaps in homage to Warhol’s Chelsea Girls, Robert agreed to star in a movie filmed at the hotel by fellow resident Sandy Daley. The film bore a self-explanatory title, Robert Having His Nipple Pierced, and was narrated by Patti Smith.

Mapplethorpe’s sexuality had already begun to evolve in those years. He was getting to know Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn, and Joe Dallesandro—those inhabitants of the back room at Max’s whose gender-obfuscating antics were as much a kind of nose-thumbing challenge to convention as a sincere display of personal desire. Their life-as-art gestures turned out to be of revolutionary significance, paving the way—at least in the media—for a social movement that eventually became known to the mainstream as the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and, much later, transgender community. Lou Reed wrote “Walk on the Wild Side,” about this group in the back room at Max’s, and the song’s seductive and mysterious tone heralded the persona Mapplethorpe was cultivating there, too.

And so, by the time Robert answered the phone and laughed at Wagstaff’s wry opening gambit, he had already received a sterling introduction to the art world demimonde. His ambition had already been fueled and encouraged by his new connections. At the uptown dinner table of John McKendry and his socially prominent wife, Maxime de la Falaise, who had been a fashion model in London in the 1950s, Robert was introduced to an assortment of titled Brits, chic Parisians, and well-placed New Yorkers for whom this attractive, poetic waif from the downtown netherworld was a precious novelty.

Steven Aronson said that Mapplethorpe “was the one you wanted to talk to” at the McKendrys’ table. “He was marvelous looking, absolutely. He had the besmirched beauty of an urchin, and of course that wonderful whiny voice. He was positively languid, but then he began to talk about his work, and he became adrenalized—really, it was the only time he ever came alive. He made you feel as if a visit to his loft was an urgent matter. So you went, and you weren’t sorry.”

Robert had a mischievous sensuality that the art-rock fashions of that period seemed to intensify. With his Mick Jagger–like androgyny, he made himself an object of desire. Still, he had grown weary of the expectations of super-daddy love; the older men whose favors he accepted were not generally attractive to him. Often, as is typical of young artists, Mapplethorpe had to balance a polite regard for his patrons even as he struggled to avoid their affections. It was tantamount to singing in an extended falsetto, and it strained his taste as much as his stamina. “Robert was highly sought after by both men and women,” Smith wrote in Just Kids. A string of secret admirers would come to the Chelsea Hotel, soliciting her permission to pursue Mapplethorpe romantically and even cheekily asking her advice about how to secure his affections. “Love his work,” Smith would tell them, but they ignored her. Sam Wagstaff, she wrote, was “the only one who truly grasped this.”

Losing no time, Wagstaff visited Mapplethorpe’s studio within a day of making the call. The second-floor loft had northern light from the floor-to-ceiling windows that faced a big YMCA sign across the street. There was no running water, but even so Robert and Patti were living there now; they snuck back into the Chelsea Hotel several doors away= as often as they could to shower. The loft was divided in half by several black sheets that hung from a clothesline, separating Robert’s workspace from Patti’s. The rent was one hundred dollars a month, still beyond their means.

The afternoon visit set off a profound upheaval for Wagstaff. A leather motorcycle jacket was hanging on a coatrack near the entrance. Below the jacket hung a pair of jeans. Together they composed a kind of urban scarecrow. Sam could hear muffled murmurs, as if people were having sex somewhere else in the loft. Robert smiled, reached into the pocket of the jacket, and pulled out a tape recorder. The murmurs had been recorded. Sam’s eyes then dropped to what appeared to be an unusual bulge at the crotch in the jeans hanging on the coatrack. Again Robert smiled. “It’s a baguette,” he said.

Wagstaff had encountered impromptu installations by artists in the past, as in the live, walking Dada piece he encountered at Ray Johnson’s apartment in 1959, when Dorothy Podber emerged from the closet with a tea cup and glove. This coatrack tableau was just the kind of thing that Sam would find appealing, an erotic provocation with a diabolical charge. It was sexy, arresting, and thoughtfully conceived, even as there was a strong whiff of adolescent hijinks about it that led Sam’s attention beyond the aesthetic. Sam had his own juvenile streak, which would now and again push through the patina of maturity and accomplishment. Observing the way Sam shed some of his controlled, patrician bearing while he was in Detroit, Susanne Hilberry, his assistant at the DIA, had concluded that the recreational drug use and the sexual freedom of the late 1960s “gave Sam permission to explore the adolescence he never had at Hotchkiss.”

Mapplethorpe suggestively showed Wagstaff a naked self-portrait, an assemblage with three small Polaroid images stacked as a vertical triptych to create a single figure. Over the Polaroids lay wire mesh he had cut out of a brown-paper potato sack and spray-painted purple. It gave the impression that the male nude was standing in a doorway, behind the window of a confessional, or, even, locked behind bars. The viewer had to peer through the mesh to see Robert’s entire naked body. The spectacle of his bare flesh, his nipples and navel, his pubic hair and penis, and the defiant but seductive expression on his face amounted to further provocation for Wagstaff. Mapplethorpe could not have been more overtly seductive; by the end of the visit he had won the patron’s approval.

Wagstaff had turned out to be nothing like the other older men seeking Robert’s affections. His informed interest in Robert’s work was as much a seduction for Robert as the variety of sexual decoys had been for Sam. Klaus Kertess, who was also an art critic, knew Sam Wagstaff quite well, not only from Sam’s visits to his uptown gallery but also as his longtime neighbor in the building at 54 Bond Street. He described Sam’s appeal to any artist: “His eyes would light up when he’d describe something he’d seen. He just took joy in seeing work and being around it,” Kertess said. “That openness, I think, is what drew so many artists to Sam.”

When Wagstaff became the earliest champion of minimal art, it was because he saw something completely new. The same was true when conceptual artists began employing everyday materials, and he saw it as a way into the future for art. He got excited by conceptualism’s offshoots, like fluxus-based mail art, in which he became a participant, receiving Dadaesque letters and odd correspondences through the mail from Ray Johnson and George Brecht. Next, he embraced the highly conceptual and limitless possibilities of earth art. Now, once again, he was confronted with a young artist whose collages and assemblage were both formally rigorous and overtly homoerotic. While the form referred to pop art, Mapplethorpe was doing something Sam had never seen before—addressing his own homosexuality with matter-of-fact ease. It was time for a movement that went beyond painting, and in the ineffable allure of Robert’s experimentation with assemblage and homoerotic imagery, Sam saw a new direction.

Robert sensed he was in a situation fundamentally different from his usual interactions with wealthy men. First of all, Sam’s striking appearance drew repeated comment from virtually everyone who knew him, to the point that it can become tiresome. “You didn’t have to search very far to think why somebody might want to go out with him,” Edmund White, the distinguished novelist, literary essayist, and biographer of Jean Genet, said. “Then he was also very rich, and then he was also very powerful in the art world. Those three things made him quite a catch.”

For Wagstaff, meanwhile, despite all the natural confidence he brought to the moment, the Detroit debacle continued to lurk and he felt something less than his best self; he was uncertain of his future and still somewhat attached to Gordon Newton. According to Patricia Morrisroe, Mapplethorpe’s biographer, it was no secret among Sam’s friends and acquaintances at the time that he was “looking for someone to spoil.”

Robert was natural and at ease in his body, ever so polite and gentle in his solicitation of Sam’s opinions and observations. “If you read books of etiquette in the eighteenth century in France,” said Ed White, “what they all talk about is the importance of naturalness. They say only the greatest aristocrats can respond in a totally quiet, easygoing, natural way. That’s the one quality they all prize, and I think Robert had that.”

Sam and Robert continued on to dinner that night. Falling in love over dinner is not an experience to be missed—even if dinner consisted of scrambled eggs, a Coke, and a Kool cigarette, Mapplethorpe’s standard fare throughout his twenties. Every sip of your drink and every bite of your meal merely restrains the urgency of desire. Robert’s sweetness of manner clashed powerfully with the sharp-edged menace of his sexual candor; he flaunted his carnality in a way that was perhaps too flamboyant even for Sam, but tempered it with a boyishness and physical grace. Sam had a saying “All artists are aristocrats,” but Robert appeared to be something of a sorcerer, too.

Sam, who was never shy about staring at anyone—and was often enough unconscious of the discomfort his penetrating scrutiny induced—stared at Robert now and then throughout the evening. The presence of Robert’s sexual mystique emerging from the freshness of his youth conjured the same feeling of giddy sacrilege that defined his artwork. To Sam, a curator and art historian, Robert’s presence resonated in line with a long tradition of homoeroticism in arts and letters, that of a sexual and artistic partnership between an established older man and a younger one. Like Sergei Diaghilev and Vaclav Nijinsky in the ballet world and the writers Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, the older man sees a kind of talent or genius in his young inamorato. He nurtures it, even if his judgment is clouded by his love (as Ed White has observed, Oscar Wilde thought his young lover Sir Alfred Douglas “was very talented”). Even while Sam and Robert were growing to know each other, there was a contemporary West Coast version of this sort of relationship: the British writer Christopher Isherwood and his Los Angeles–born lover, the painter Don Bachardy, who was three decades his junior. After all, White explained, “Robert was charming in a quiet way. He was an interesting person without being predictably intellectual or pedantic or anything like that. He was an original. Plus he was sexy.”

At dinner that night the two men discovered an extraordinary coincidence, an omen that their meeting was not only inevitable, but, to them, ordained in the mystical realm of astrology: they shared the same Scorpio birthday, November 4. By the end of that first meal, Sam and Robert both felt so enlivened that they went around the corner to David Croland’s apartment, and invited their mutual friend out for a drink. “Robert was seriously smitten,” Croland said, recalling his impression of the two of them that night. “You could see it. It was really very sweet. They were very happy. You could tell that they were together. I noticed that instantly.”

When Wagstaff brought Mapplethorpe home that night, his residence was not what the young artist would have expected. There was no sign of wealth in this long, mostly empty loft with only a few scattered pieces of secondhand furniture. Everywhere was a pack rat’s abundance of paper bags or boxes filled with prints and postcards. The black Tony Smith sculpture Throne dominated the space. Toward the back of the loft was Sam’s unmade bed, which was actually just a mattress on the floor—no better than Robert’s own, and laid out in a tableau much like his own postadolescent disarray. Still, it had the “privileged bohemian” appearance of studied destitution as much as cavalier disregard. It had been only recently, when Wagstaff had reached his late forties, that his stepfather’s inheritance gave him financial freedom, even though the penniless prince, who had first moved in almost a decade before while living on his meager curator’s salary at the Wadsworth Atheneum, had been a prince.

Being perceptive, as he was, Sam was likely attuned to the appraisal going on in Robert’s own mind. For all of Robert’s insouciant charm at dinner, the absence of visible wealth in Sam’s loft and his undergraduate-like living conditions would no doubt have soured the struggling young artist’s mood. In order to rescue the moment, it is possible to imagine that, with characteristic sangfroid, Sam allowed a knowing, mischievous smile, assuring his guest that the state of the loft was by no means representative of his circumstances. It would be just like Sam to then ask Robert if he would like to see a small painting. He would find a package among the pile of papers on the table with a letter on top, indicating it had been shipped from the Art Institute of Chicago, where it had been on loan. He would unwrap the small oil painting on cardboard, small enough to hold in his hands, and they would look at it under a bare lightbulb. Sam would offer the name, Le Jardin Nabi, mentioning that it was a postimpressionist work from one of the Nabi artists, a rebellious group who followed the example of Gauguin at the end of the nineteenth century in France. That might have piqued Robert’s interest enough to ask who painted it. “Oh, Vuillard,” Sam would say casually, prompting Robert to ask whether Sam owned it. It would be just like Wagstaff, ever the understated gentleman, to merely nod, offering just the flicker of reassurance, as well as the dash of glamour, that the young artist needed to understand that things were not exactly as they seemed.

Excerpted from “Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe: A Biography” by Philip Gefter. Published by Liveright, a division of W.W. Norton and Co., Inc. Copyright 2014 by Liveright Publishing Corporation. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved. 

http://www.salon.com/2014/11/15/warhol_mapplethorpe_lou_reed_patti_smith_and_the_greatest_new_york_story_ever/?source=newsletter

“There is but one way out for you”: Read the uncensored letter J. Edgar Hoover wrote to MLK

Historian discovers unredacted copy of longtime FBI chief’s chilling letter

"There is but one way out for you": Read the uncensored letter J. Edgar Hoover wrote to MLK

Martin Luther King, Jr., J. Edgar G. Hoover (Credit: AP)

The mutual contempt between civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and longtime Federal Bureau of Investigation chief J. Edgar Hoover was hardly a well-kept secret. It was 50 years ago this month that Hoover denounced King as “the most notorious liar in the country” after King publicly took the bureau to task for its woefully inadequate enforcement of civil rights protections. In the years since, historians have documented the FBI’s smear campaign against King, which primarily consisted of wiretapping the activist and digging up dirt on his sexual rendezvous. Perhaps the most chilling piece of evidence uncovered in investigating the FBI’s crusade against King was a threatening 1964 letter — confirmed by U.S. Senator Frank Church’s investigative committee as Hoover’s handiwork — in which Hoover, posing as a disillusioned black supporter, warned that King’s “countless acts of adultery and immoral conduct” would be exposed. For the first time, that letter is available in uncensored form.

 Previous versions of the letter redacted details about King’s sexual liaisons, but while conducting research for a biography of Hoover this summer, Yale University historian Beverly Gage happened upon an uncensored version “tucked away in a reprocessed set of his official and confidential files at the National Archives,” she writes in the forthcoming New York Times Magazine.

Containing no fewer than six uses of the word “evil,” the letter assails King as a fraud and appears to have been sent along with a wiretapped recording of the civil rights activist engaged in an extramarital encounter.

“Lend your sexually psychotic ear to the enclosure,” Hoover writes in one passage.

“You know you are a complete fraud and a great liability to all of us Negroes,” the letter reads. “You are a colossal fraud and an evil, vicious one at that,” Hoover later adds.

Hoover vows that King will soon be “exposed on the record for all time.”

“Yes, from your various evil playmates on the east coast to [here an individual’s name is redacted because Hoover’s allegations about her have not been confirmed or debunked] and others on the west coast and outside the country you are on the record. King you are done,” Hoover declares.



The letter concludes with a menacing declaration that “there is only one thing left for you to do,” giving King a deadline of 34 days before he would be exposed.

“You are done,” Hoover writes. “There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal, fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”

As Gage notes, King told associates that he was convinced that someone — likely Hoover — was trying to provoke him to commit suicide.

“One oddity of Hoover’s campaign against King is that it mostly flopped, and the F.B.I. never succeeded in seriously damaging King’s public image,” Gage writes. “Half a century later, we look upon King as a model of moral courage and human dignity. Hoover, by contrast, has become almost universally reviled. In this context, perhaps the most surprising aspect of their story is not what the F.B.I. attempted, but what it failed to do.”

Read the letter below, via Gawker:

Luke Brinker is Salon’s deputy politics editor. Follow him on Twitter at @LukeBrinker.

Jian Ghomeshi to #Gamergate: Our culture’s toxic masculinity crisis on display

When do we get to talk seriously about misogyny and violence against women? A list of opportunities we should take

 

Jian Ghomeshi to #Gamergate: Our culture's toxic masculinity crisis on display
Jian Ghomeshi (Credit: Reuters/Mark Blinch)

We don’t often get to talk about misogyny, toxic masculinity and male sexual entitlement outside of certain feminist and progressive spaces, whether those spaces are online or offline. In fact, just use the words “toxic masculinity” in a sentence and you’re bound to lose a lot of people straight out of the gate. People, even people who think rape is bad and that mass shootings are terrifying and preventable and that men shouldn’t threaten women with death for critiquing video games, bristle when you direct these conversations back to what seems to connect most of them, if not all of them.

But try to talk about toxic masculinity and you’re likely to get dismissed as a cynical opportunist pushing an agenda. Or a misandrist. (A “creeping” misandrist, even.) I saw that happen a lot over the weekend when women I follow on Twitter tried to talk about the Seattle shooting, in which a 14-year-old boy killed a girl and badly injured four other students, as part of a pattern we’ve seen before. It was a familiar script. When I wrote about Elliot Rodger’s misogyny after he killed six people in Isla Vista, California, I received a lot of angry emails telling me that I was politicizing a tragedy. It seems that, even when a killer leaves hundreds of pages detailing his racist and misogynistic worldview, we aren’t supposed to talk about those things. (We also aren’t supposed to talk about the data we have showing that 98 percent of shooters are men. Or, as the Guardian’s Jessica Valenti pointed out on Monday, research that shows that responses of “explosive anger” are ”two to three times more likely to occur in male teens, and twice as likely in adult men.”)

There is a dangerous and deadly pattern at play, and every day I read something that I file away as part of the growing list opportunities to talk about toxic masculinity, opportunities we should take. Because these aren’t isolated incidents, but the product of something more insidious and more dangerous. Sometimes, I keep actual lists. This week, my list looked like this:



1. Cop stole arrested women’s nude photos as ‘game’: docs

2. Teenage Boy May Have Shot Up His School Because His Girlfriend Broke Up With Him

3. Is GamerGate About Media Ethics or Harassing Women? Harassment, the Data Shows

4. Oklahoma City police officer accused of sex crimes released from jail for second time

5. CBC fires Jian Ghomeshi over sex allegations

Now unless you are of the belief that men are wired to be violent (I am not), then talking about our culture, how boys are raised to view themselves and others around them, seems pretty important. And to talk about this does not mean that all men are rapists or violent killers. And to talk about allegations of rape does not mean we are convicting men in the “court of public opinion.” It just means that there is something going on here, that these stories tell us something, and that the response to these stories reveal something, too. We need to look at and challenge those things.

So maybe we look at the story of cops stealing photos and treating a gross violation like a fun activity or an Oklahoma cop who is alleged to be a serial rapist and we question abuses of power and abuser dynamics in law enforcement. Maybe that can shape some of our thinking about why women don’t always report sexual violence to the cops. And while it may be impossible to know what drove Jaylen Fryberg to kill another student and himself, we have a very familiar set of circumstances that we can talk about instead of running away from them. We can look to the tragedy in Seattle and situate it as part of a larger pattern of violence that has revealed itself again and again and begin thinking about what addressing that violence might actually look like. Whether it’s gun control or healthy masculinity or both of these things.

And maybe then we can think about Gamergate and the harassment that has come to define this “movement” and we can question why so many people seem willing to look past that and lend credibility to serial harassers who have forced women offline and out of their homes. And while we wait to learn more about the allegations against Ghomeshi, we can still think about where our allegiances reflexively go when we learn about high-profile assault cases. Whom we believe and whom we don’t. We can ask questions about how the details included and excluded in reporting on allegations shape our view of those allegations. And we can listen to women who say that they didn’t speak out about harassment or violence they endured because they were scared that doing so would lead to more harassment.

Answers don’t always come easily. But a willingness to sit with and try to answer difficult questions is a minimum standard. Sadly, it’s one we’re failing to meet again and again and again.

Katie McDonough is Salon’s politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

http://www.salon.com/2014/10/27/jian_ghomeshi_to_gamergate_americas_toxic_masculinity_crisis_on_display/?source=newsletter

Pen & Ink: An Illustrated Collection of Unusual, Deeply Human Stories Behind People’s Tattoos

by

Stories that “speak of lives you’ll never live and experiences you know precisely.”

We wear the stories of our lives — sometimes through our clothes, sometimes even more deeply, through the innermost physical membrane that separates self from world. More than mere acts of creative self-mutilation, tattoos have long served a number of unusual purposes, from celebrating science to asserting the power structures of Russia’s prison system to offering a lens on the psychology of regret.

In Pen & Ink: Tattoos and the Stories Behind Them (public library), based on their popular Tumblr of the same title, illustrator and visual storyteller Wendy MacNaughton — she of extraordinary sensitivity to the human experience — and editor Isaac Fitzgerald catalog the wild, wicked, wonderfully human stories behind people’s tattoos.

From a librarian’s Sendak-like depiction of a Norwegian folktale her grandfather used to tell her, to a writer who gets a tattoo for each novel he writes, to a journalist who immortalized the first tenet of the Karen revolution for Burma’s independence, the stories — sometimes poetic, sometimes political, always deeply personal — brim with the uncontainable, layered humanity that is MacNaughton’s true medium.

The people’s titles are as interesting as the stories themselves — amalgamations of the many selves we each contain and spend our lives trying to reconcile, the stuff of Whitman’s multitudes — from a “pedicab operator and journalist” to an “actress / director / BDSM educator” to “cartoonist and bouncer.”

The inimitable Cheryl Strayed — who knows a great deal about the tiny beautiful things of which life is made and whose own inked piece of personal history is among the stories — writes in the introduction:

As long as I live I’ll never tire of people-watching. On city buses and park benches. In small-town cafes and crowded elevators. At concerts and swimming pools. To people-watch is to glimpse the mysterious and the banal, the public face and the private gesture, the strangest other and the most familiar self. It’s to wonder how and why and what and who and hardly ever find out.

This book is the answer to those questions. It’s an intimate collection of portraits and stories behind the images we carry on our flesh in the form of tattoos.

Each of the stories is like being let in on sixty-three secrets by sixty-three strangers who passed you on the street or sat across from you on the train. They’re raw and real and funny and sweet. They speak of lives you’ll never live and experiences you know precisely. Together, they do the work of great literature — gathering a force so true they ultimately tell a story that includes all.

Chris Colin, writer

For writer Chris Colin, the tattoo serves as a sort of personal cartography of time, as well as a reminder of how transient our selves are:

I got this tattoo because I suspected one day I would think it would be stupid. I wanted to mark time, or mark the me that thought it was a good idea. Seventeen years later. I hardly remember it’s there. But when I do, it reminds me that whatever I think now I probably won’t think later.

Yuri Allison, student

For student Yuri Allison, it’s a symbolic reminder of her own inability to remember, a meta-monument to memory, that vital yet enormously flawed human faculty:

I have an episodic memory disorder. I don’t have any long-term memory. My childhood is completely blank, as is my schooling until high school. Technically I can’t recall anything that’s beyond three years in the past. I find it very difficult to talk about, simply because I still can’t wrap my head around the idea myself, so when someone talks to me about a memory we are supposed to share I simply smile and say that I don’t remember. Just like my memories, lip tattoos are known to fade with time.

Roxane Gay, writer and professor

For writer, educator, and “bad feminist” Roxane Gay, it is a deliberate editing of what Paul Valéry called “the three-body problem”:

I hardly remember not hating my body. I got most of my seven arm tattoos when I was nineteen. I wanted to be able to look at my body and see something I didn’t loathe, that was part of my body by choosing entirely. Really, that’s all I ever wanted.

Morgan English, research director

For research director Morgan English, the tattoo is a depiction of “a series of childhood moments” strung together to capture her grandmother’s singular spirit in an abstract way:

My grandma died in a freak accident in May of last year. She was healthy as an ox — traveling the world with her boyfriend well into her 80s — then she broke her foot, which created a blood clot that traveled to her brain. Three days later, she was gone.

The respect and admiration I have for her is difficult to articulate. here was a woman who endured two depressions (post-WWI Weimar Germany, from which she escaped to the U.S. in 1929, just before our stock market crashed) followed by a series of traumatic events (incestuous rape, a violent husband, the suicide of her only son). You’d think these things would break a person, or at least harden them, but she only grew more focused. She once told me, “Fix your eyes on the solution, it’s the only way things get solved! Just keep moving and you’ll become the woman you’ve always wanted to be.”

Thao Nguyen, musician

The hardships, joys, and complexities of family are a running theme. Thao Nguyen, one of my favorite musicians, writes:

I moved across the country from my family, not to be far away, but with no concern for being close.

I was a taciturn family friend. Not a sister. Not a daughter. But no matter the distance, a part of me was always certain I would come back to be an aunt.

One week after my nephew, Sullivan, was born, I had his name on my wrist. There’s plenty of space for any of his siblings who might follow.

It’s been almost two years now and I go home to visit when I can, not just to pass through. I listen, I ask questions, I commit my family to memory, how they lighten up, how they grimace. I hate the time I wasted, and I fear the rate of everyone’s disappearance. Now when I leave, the distance between us is not nearly as expansive. Often it is no more than my eyes to my arm. Should I forget that I belong to people, I have Sullivan to remind me.

Caroline Paul, writer

Writer Caroline Paul — incidentally, MacNaughton’s partner and co-author of the excellent Lost Cat, one of the best books of 2013 — inks a kinship of ideals:

My brother had a secret life for twenty years as a member of the Animal Liberation Front. He was finally caught and sentenced to four years for burning down a horse slaughterhouse. I got this tattoo for him, while he was in prison. It’s my only tattoo.

It says “My heroes rescue animals.”

Mac McClelland, journalist

Journalist Mac McClelland, author of For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question: A Story from Burma’s Never-Ending War, immortalizes the dermis-deep commitment to a different kind of rights cause:

The first tenet of the Karen revolution for independence from the Burmese junta is “For us to surrender is out of the question.” Little kids wear T-shirts emblazoned with it; adults bring it up, drunk and patriotic at parties. After I came home from living with Karen refugees on the Thai/Burma border in 2006, and before I wrote a book of the same title, I got the first tenet and the fourth — “We must decide our own political destiny” — tattooed on each side of my rib cage so I wouldn’t ever forget what some people were fighting for.

Mona Eltahawy, writer and public speaker

An undercurrent of political and humanitarian commitment runs throughout the book. Writer and public speaker Mona Eltahawy shares the harrowing story of her inked indignation:

I lost something the night the Egyptian riot police beat me and sexually assaulted me. I was detained for six hours at the Interior Ministry and another six by military intelligence, where I was interrogated while I was blindfolded. During my time at the Interior Ministry I’d been able to surreptitiously use an activist’s smart phone to tweet “Beaten, arrested, Interior Ministry.” About a minute later the phone’s battery died. I won’t allow myself to imagine what could have happened if I hadn’t been able to send out that tweet. After I was finally released, I found out that within fifteen minutes of the tweet #freemona was rending globally, Al Jazeera and The Guardian reported my detention, and the state department tweeted me back to tell me they were on the case. I knew I was lucky. If it wasn’t for my name, my fame, my tweet, my double citizenship, and so many other privileges I might be dead.

Sekhmet. The goddess of retribution and sex. The head of a lioness. Tits and hips. The key of life in one hand, the staff of power in the other. That paradoxical — or perhaps they’re two sides of one coin — mix of pain and pleasure. Retribution and sex. I’d never wanted a tattoo before, but as sadness washed away and my anger and the Vicodin wore off, it became important to both celebrate my survival and make a mark on my body of my own choosing.

Michelle Crouch, public radio intern

But what makes the book so immeasurably wonderful is its perfectly balanced dance across the spectrum of human experience, where the dark and the luminous are given equal share. Public radio intern Michelle Crouch shares one of the sweetest stories, inspired by artist Steven Powers’s graffiti love letters to the city:

I used to ride the Market-Frankford line [in Philadelphia] all the way west to get to work. After 46th Street the train runs on an elevated track and as I rode to this job I hated, colorful murals began popping up at eye level. They said things like “YOUR EVERAFTER IS ALL I’M AFTER” and “HOLD TIGHT” and “WHAT’S MINE IS YOURS.” They cheered me up. Once, on my day off, I walked from 46th to 63rd Street on a sort of pilgrimage and met the artist who greeted me from a crane as he painted the letters “W-A-N-T” on a brick wall. When I heard he was designing a series of tattoos based on the love letter murals, I decided to get one. A guy I’d just started dating accompanied me to the tattoo shop. I picked out “WHAT’S MINE IS YOURS.” The words remind me to be generous. I try to live them every day.

Now I have a job I like and I’m married to that boy I had just started dating. Marriage strikes me as being a lot like the tattoo — another way of making generosity permanent.

Pen & Ink is absolutely delightful from cover to cover. Supplement it with the project’s ongoing online incarnation, then treat yourself to MacNaughton’s spectacular Meanwhile and her Brain Pickings artist series contributions.

Images courtesy of Wendy MacNaughton / Bloomsbury

http://www.brainpickings.org/2014/10/07/pen-and-ink-tattoos-wendy-macnaughton/

data about how people behave on online dating sites paints a bleak picture about our true attitudes

OkCupid founder: “I wish people exercised more humanity” on OkCupid

OkCupid founder: "I wish people exercised more humanity" on OkCupid
(Credit: Ollyy via Shutterstock/Salon)

In late July, Christian Rudder, a co-founder of the online dating site OkCupid, plunged himself into the middle of an Internet maelstrom when he published a post with a classic poke-the-anthill headline: “We Experiment on Human Beings!”

The provocation came in the middle of a storm of commentary sparked by the revelations that Facebook had been purposefully manipulating its users’ emotions by tinkering with its news feed. Rudder contended that such tweaking was commonplace and normal. In OkCupid’s case, the company had temporarily adjusted its matching algorithm so that some people ended up with recommendations that the algorithm would normally have considered bad matches — and vice versa, some people whom the algorithm should have concluded were good matches were told they were a bad fit. There was no ill will involved; from Rudder’s perspective, it was just an experiment designed to serve the larger goal of improving the overall OkCupid user experience.

The Internet reacted harshly. But in an unplanned twist, the post turned out to be good publicity for Rudder’s new book, “Dataclysm: Who We Are When We Think No One’s Looking.” Case in point: I had an advance review copy of the book sitting on my desk, but it was only after the hoopla over Rudder’s blog post that I took a closer look and decided it was a must-read.

And indeed it is. “Dataclysm” is a well-written and funny look at what the numbers reveal about human behavior in the age of social media. It’s both profound and a bit disturbing, because, sad to say, we’re generally not the kind of people we like to think — or say — we are.

Rudder begins his book with a distressing opening salvo: two charts that reveal what age groups men and women generally find attractive. From age 20 to 50, women are consistent — they’re drawn to men who are in roughly the same age cohort. Men are equally consistent: From age 20-50, they are attracted to 20-year-olds. The discussion is over: Men are dogs.



Rudder’s data on race leads to similar implications — prejudice is alive and well on online dating states, and what we say — and don’t say — in our profiles offers impressive support for cultural stereotyping. Rudder does the math on what different groups are most or least likely to say in their profiles: Black men, for example, hardly ever mention Belle and Sebastian, snorkeling or “Dr Horrible’s Sing Along Blog.” White women don’t talk about slow jams, j-pop or Malcolm X. White guys, however, are really into mentioning their “blue eyes,” brewing beer, and Robert Heinlein. Asian men frequently say “tall for an Asian,” “gangnam style” and “noodle soup.”)

Rudder treats these insights into the human condition with bemused — and very useful — intelligence. We’re only just beginning to understand how much we can learn about ourselves and others from the data that is constantly being harvested from us. The more we know, the better armed we are to navigate the future.

Rudder spoke by phone to Salon from OkCupid’s offices in New York.

So men are sexists, and we’re all racist?

The more you look at the data, the more it does confirm the cynics’ intuition about humanity. People online are free to act out their worst impulses with very little incentive to act out their best. I guess it just goes to show how politeness or propriety keeps us decent human beings. Offline, society actually has a very good effect on behavior in a very large sense.

That raises an uncomfortable question: Does our wholesale move online undermine how society traditionally keeps us in line?

I’m not qualified to give a real opinion on where society as a whole is headed, but I think when you look at stuff like rage storms on Twitter, or even the thing that happened yesterday — the celebrity nude photos being leaked — you see that there are definitely some disgusting impulses that the Internet can gratify instantaneously. In the same way Cool Ranch Doritos gratify certain taste receptors that are probably not very good for my digestive tract, things like Twitter or Reddit or even OkCupid gratify our tastes in ways that should probably best be left unsated.

How does that make you feel as a researcher? Have you become more cynical as a result of what you’ve learned by watching how people behave on OkCupid?

I definitely have a certain amount of ambivalence about the Internet generally and what we do at OkCupid. OkCupid does a lot of great things. We do find people love, we do create marriage and children and happiness in a pure sense, in a way that, say, Amazon does not. But there is a downside: In the process of finding that love or sex or whatever they’re looking for, people are able to be more judgmental. It’s a fraught thing. I can see the good and the bad in all this, but where it all comes out in the end, I’m not sure. I think the existence of the Internet is a good thing, but I do wish people exercised more humanity in using these tools.

I’d like to break the format of the typical Q&A a bit, and just read some lines from your book that jumped out at me, and see if I can prompt you to elaborate on them. For example, you wrote that “the Internet will democratize our fundamental narrative.” What does that mean?

What I meant was that the Internet will enable, on a mass scale, something like what Howard Zinn was doing in his “People’s History of the United States.” Zinn’s trying to reach for what the common person thought about World War I or the Civil War, or go back and find out what a housewife in 1970 was thinking about her life. But by and large he had to put it all together from a few diaries and a ton of leg work and obviously there’s a lot of selection bias involved.

But in the future, as people continue to live out their lives through these technologies, all of our lives are almost by definition going to be captured. The computer that is crunching all that stuff pulls us all together. In a very real sense, we are all given the same weight in any of these calculations.

I guess that connects directly to another sentence that caught my eye: “With data, history can become deeper, it can become more.”

That’s exactly what I’m talking about.

How about, “It’s when people don’t understand their own hearts I get interested”?

I like it when you are able to look at a behavior in two ways. One: what people think they are doing or wish they were doing, and two: what they actually do. At OkCupid we have a great mechanism for looking at that: We have all these match questions where we ask people what they believe or what they think, and then we can go in and measure exactly what they are actually doing. I just think that the space between self-image and action is very interesting.

What data points jumped out at you the most?

Well, the most obvious thing is racial messaging patterns. We asked people about race and everybody is like, yeah, interracial marriage is totally great. Something like 96 percent are totally fine with it, or support it. We also asked people questions like “would you ever date someone who told a racist joke” and the answers are very strongly liberal in the way you would expect. Everybody is fine with it, blah blah blah. But then you go out and look at what people do or who they choose for themselves, and you see that this is just not the case. Race is a huge factor and certain types of interracial relationships — I wouldn’t say are taboo, but certainly in the aggregate they are less desirable.

Again this gets back to what we were talking about at the very beginning. If that’s what I want why don’t I just put that into the form? It would work better, if I was just honest with OkCupid and myself about what I wanted.

You mention Naomi Wolf’s “The Beauty Myth” and you wrote, “for the beauty myth, social media signifies judgment day.” Is this just a reflection of the fact that women who are considered highly attractive get by far the most messages from men?

I was having a little bit of fun. There’s just so much judgment that goes on in social media. If most myths are built around some kind of cataclysm or apocalypse, then for the beauty myth, Ragnarok is social media. Men who are free to judge photos without conforming to social norms go crazy clicking girls in bikinis.

Maybe the most discomfiting point you make in your book is your acknowledgment that the kind of people who work for the NSA crunching our data are much smarter than you are and have access to far more information. Eventually, the sophistication of the algorithms will become so great that pretty much everything important about us will be inferred from just a few data points. That’s scarily determinist. Do we even have free will when our data trail tells employers or the government or prospective mates exactly who we are?

That is a great question, and I don’t think I can give an answer that is both hopeful and honest. The tech industry side of me wants to say that this isn’t just a problem of social media — the same thing happens with your credit score, for example. But you are right. It is scary. There will always be highly motivated, powerful entities using this data for their own good, which often implies an adversarial relationship against you. I will say one thing: If we consider Facebook as stand-in for all this stuff, I think people have generally approached these social media networks with a level of naiveté that is changing. We’re beginning to understand the pitfalls of volunteering all this data about ourselves.

That’s why a book like “Dataclysm” is important. The more we know about what you guys are finding out, the easier it will be to set societal guidelines for how this information can be used, and to become masters of our information.

Exactly right. It’s a strange time for me and I’m sure for you too and anybody else working in this milieu. The technologies are pervasive but comprehension of them is not.

Which leads me to my final question. Let’s revisit that experiment in which you tweaked the matching algorithm. I think for a lot of people that smacked of manipulation that crossed over the line. It seemed different than just changing the layout of a page to see what works better. It seemed like you were messing with people’s minds. Why did you do it?

Let me just step back and add a little more context. So, we tweaked an algorithm. Now, some algorithms can be considered as a sort of fact. If you are trying to pull a record out of a database there is a canonical or fastest way or best way to do it and to deviate from that would be silly or would be wrong in a real sense. But when we describe people as good or bad matches — the truth is for any two people on OkCupid, we just don’t know. We’re making a guess; our algorithm is a version of a guess. It’s not a fact.

There are tons of different ways to bring people together. We often use common interests, like how well you and I satisfy each other. But there are other potentially workable heuristics, like, for example, “opposites attract.” The test I wrote about in that blog post was on a continuum of those kinds of tests: We were really genuinely trying to figure out what works best, how to improve the user experience.

What we were doing was different, to me, than “lying.” Lying would be distorting matters of fact, rather than opinion. I have no idea what your sexual orientation is, but just imagine if you were gay, and I go and tell people that you are straight. That’s very clearly false, and possibly harmful. We would never do that because that is altering a fact about people … But with any algorithm that is about how to recommend something — there is no canonical perfect way to do it. So we treat it sort of like an opinion.

But doesn’t that enter a fuzzy area? A selling point of OkCupid is supposed to be that it actually works, which implies that your “opinions” as to who is a good match are actually facts …

For sure. For sure. But part of what makes us sure that we can give people the best match, and that we can make good guesses about what two people are going to get along, is that we are constantly working on refining our methods.

Look, I definitely understand the feelings about what we did. Especially given the way that I first laid it out, and then later, in the way I reacted to the media. Both my presentation and reaction were flawed. But we did not do it to mess with people. Everything we do at OkCupid is done with discretion, and, I hope, some level of emotional intelligence.

 

Why Burning Man is not an example of a loosely regulated tech utopia

The rules are important at Burning Man. But being rich means you get to do what you want, just like anywhere else

Why Burning Man is not an example of a loosely regulated tech utopia
El Pulpo Mecanico, at the Burning Man 2012 “Fertility 2.0″ arts and music festival, August 29, 2012. (Credit: Reuters/Jim Urquhart)

“Burning Man culture,” writes Gregory Ferenstein in Vox, “discourages money or bartering; the entire economy is a gift economy.”

Ferenstein, a regular attendee at the Nevada desert counterculture festival so beloved by Northern California’s tech-hipsters, is defending Burning Man from critics like the New York Times’ Nick Bilton, who have noted that in recent years, rich attendees have been setting up their own luxury camps within the confines of Black Rock City. Ferenstein makes some good points explaining why tech billionaires love Burning Man, but it’s still difficult to square his point on “burning man culture” with the details reported by Bilton.

“We used to have R.V.s and precooked meals,” said a man who attends Burning Man with a group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs… “Now, we have the craziest chefs in the world and people who build yurts for us that have beds and air-conditioning.” He added with a sense of amazement, “Yes, air-conditioning in the middle of the desert!”

His camp includes about 100 people from the Valley and Hollywood start-ups, as well as several venture capital firms. And while dues for most non-tech camps run about $300 a person, he said his camp’s fees this year were $25,000 a person. A few people, mostly female models flown in from New York, get to go free, but when all is told, the weekend accommodations will collectively cost the partygoers over $2 million.

Such camps, reports Bilton, also included “Sherpas” that serve as servants.

Ferenstein writes that the tech execs have basically the same experience as everyone else. But he appears to be tone-deaf to the enormous offense of labeling paid employees “Sherpas” and doesn’t bother to mention the female models flown in from New York. That’s not the gift economy, and it’s not the sharing economy. And it’s surely not something that anyone even imagined possible when tripping around a very big bonfire on Baker Beach in the early ’90s.



Ferenstein also wanders into a self-combusting contradiction, of the sort that would look pretty good exploding  in the desert night. Burning Man, he writes, “is an experiment in what a city would look like if it were architected for wild creativity and innovation…. At Burning Man, sharing is the economy. It’s rather appealing to the Silicon Valley elite to see an entire city function on an economic idea that is at the heart of the knowledge economy. It’s an important glimpse of why the founders are so optimistic that a loosely regulated field of tech startups can outweigh the potential downsides of unregulated sharing.”

But Burning Man is intensely regulated. It’s got its own police force. Gun control is absolute. Attendance is limited to a set number of people who can afford the not-cheap tickets. The very layout of Black Rock City is a paean to planning and organization. Central control is as much the essence of Burning Man as is hedonism and fire.

We can argue about the proper extent of regulation. Is Burning Man more like Houston, which scoffs at zoning restrictions, or San Francisco, where plastic bags are outlawed? (The rules on trash at Burning Man might come off as pretty extreme to your typical happy-go-lucky free market polluter, after all.) But to use Burning Man as a model for what tech billionaires want for a greater society is to actually argue that rules are extremely important, and anarchy is a failure!

The key point made by Nick Bilton is that the very existence of a camp inside Burning Man where tickets cost $25,000 and female companionship is imported is a demonstration that Burning Man, far from being an alternative to society, is business as usual.

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

http://www.salon.com/2014/08/22/why_burning_man_is_not_an_example_of_a_loosely_regulated_tech_utopia/?source=newsletter

Not Content To Ruin Just San Francisco, Rich Techies Are Gentrifying Burning Man Too

facebook-like-altar.jpg
Artist Dadara‘s Facebook like altar from Burning Man 2013. Photo: Bexx Brown-Spinelli/Flickr

This will come as news only to people who have not attended Burning Man in the last couple of years, but the New York Times has just caught on to the fact that Silicon Valley millionaires (and billionaires) have been attending the desert festival in greater numbers and quickly ruining it with their displays of wealth. While we used to call Coachella “Burning Man Lite for Angelenos,” Burning Man itself is quickly becoming Coachella on Crack for rich tech folk who want to get naked and do bong hits with Larry Page in Elon Musk’s decked-out RV.

Burners won’t just be sharing the playa with Larry and Sergey, Zuck, Grover Norquist, and at least one Winklevoss twin this year. There will also be a legion of new millionaires, most of them probably Burning Man virgins, who will be living in the lap of luxury and occasionally dropping in on your parties to ask for molly.

Per the Times piece:

“We used to have R.V.s and precooked meals,” said a man who attends Burning Man with a group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. (He asked not to be named so as not to jeopardize those relationships.) “Now, we have the craziest chefs in the world and people who build yurts for us that have beds and air-conditioning.” He added with a sense of amazement, “Yes, air-conditioning in the middle of the desert!”His camp includes about 100 people from the Valley and Hollywood start-ups, as well as several venture capital firms. And while dues for most non-tech camps run about $300 a person, he said his camp’s fees this year were $25,000 a person. A few people, mostly female models flown in from New York, get to go free, but when all is told, the weekend accommodations will collectively cost the partygoers over $2 million.

“Anyone who has been going to Burning Man for the last five years is now seeing things on a level of expense or flash that didn’t exist before,” said Brian Doherty, author of the book “This Is Burning Man.” “It does have this feeling that, ‘Oh, look, the rich people have moved into my neighborhood.’ It’s gentrifying.”

The blockaded camps of the tech gentrifiers have tended to be in the outer rings of Black Rock City, as was previously reported in 2011 when a guest of Elon Musk’s spoke to the Wall Street Journal. “We’re out of the thick of it,” he said, “so we’re not offending the more elaborate or involved set ups.”

But as Silicon Valley assumes more and more of a presence on the playa, what’s to stop them from claiming better and better real estate, closer to where the action is?

You won’t see any evidence of this on Facebook, though. All of this happens without the tech world’s usual passion for documentation, since they do abide by at least that one tenet of Burning Man culture that frowns on photography. And at least, as of 2014, they seem to understand that their displays of wealth aren’t all that welcome, and should probably be kept on the down-low.

But seriously? Models flown in from New York? Gross.

[NYT]

 

http://sfist.com/2014/08/21/not_content_to_ruin_just_san_franci.php