charles henri ford

Allen Frame: What are you working on at the moment?

Charles Henri Ford: I've just taken a studio for three months and I'm going to set up a rear projection screen and take more photographs because a publisher in London wants to do a book of my photos.

Frame: Whom do you want to add?

Ford: Grace Jones, for one, whom I've never met. There's another reason for the rear projection. There's a film being done on me, and I want to get the people photographed with rear projected images to make it more visual, so it's not like all these boring films where people just sit down and yak.

Frame: (looking around the studio) These sculptures are yours?

Ford: Yes, they're from my designs, executed in Nepal. I'm doing collages now. I picked up on the way Matisse worked in his last phase — cutouts.

Frame: I thought you weren't a fan of his.

Ford: The cutouts were what made me swing over to Matisse. They turned me on completely. Picasso's technique was very "cutout," too.

Frame: To go back to the beginning. I'm from Mississippi,too. What town are you from?

Ford: Brookhaven and Columbus.

Frame: Did you go to high schools there?

Ford: I never went to public high school. I always went to Catholic or prep schools, but I dropped out of them. I got expelled from one, from two, when I was a little boy at St. Agnes Academy, I think, and I remember my mother coming to get me.

Frame: Were you Catholic?

Ford: No, Baptist. But now I'm a Buddhist. So I remember when my mother was taking me away, the nun said about me, "A rotten apple spoils the whole barrel."

Frame: Why were you expelled from prep school?

Ford: For cutting classes, smoking in my room, and organizing petting parties. The male students gave me a nickname, "Hot."

Frame: How did you wind up in Columbus?

Ford: My father was in the hotel business. He had three brothers. They were all in the hotel business, and they used to move around. So I must have stayed in hotels in Louisiana, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama — and in Mississippi started Blues [magazine]. After I was expelled from the prep school, I didn't feel enthusiastic about going anywhere.

Frame: How were you so abreast of the avant-garde literary scene?

Ford: I was in San Antonio, and somehow I got hold of Stanley Braithwaite's anthology of magazine verse. I started writing some of my own. So, I thought, all these little magazines — If somebody else can do it, I can do it, too. I borrowed $100, never paid it back, got out Blues.

Frame: And you wrote directly to people like Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein?

Ford: Yes. I got out this incredible expatriate number. Gertrude Stein led it off. When I went to Paris, I had already been in correspondence with her. I'm in her autobiography: "Of all the little magazines that died to make verse free, the youngest and the freshest was Blues. The editor has come to Paris. He's as young and fresh as his Blues. He is also honest, which is a pleasure." She said that last bit because I once borrowed $10 and paid it back.

Frame: When did you meet Parker Tyler?

Ford: When I was editing Blues. He was in New York. When I was in San Antonio a poem of mine was published in The New Yorker. Kathleen Tankesley Young had a scrapbook of poetry, and my poem from The New Yorker was in it. She used to invite people to the library to look at her scrapbook, and she invited me. When she went to New York, she met Parker Tyler and told him that Blues would be a good place for his poetry. He sent his and we started a long correspondence, which still hasn't been published. So then I told my father I wanted to go to New York and study at the New School for Social Research. Well, I think I went to one lecture there. I started living a life in Greenwich Village that ended being recorded in The Young and Evil. As Henry Miller said about Paris, he went there to study vice. I not only studied it but liked it.

Frame: Why did you choose to collaborate when you wrote The Young and Evil with Parker Tyler?

Ford: I was inspired by The Sun Also Rises. Since The Young and Evil depicted the life that Parker and I led together, and since it's not easy to write a novel, I thought I'd get him to collaborate. I'd tell him, "Now this chapter, you know what happened, you can write it."

Frame: I'm curious about the controversy that ensued after publication.

Ford: It was simply banned in America, although we got one good review by Louis Kronenberger in The New Republic. You can't imagine how puritanical America was in those days.

Frame: And is, again. Did the controversy over Mapplethorpe's work bring back your own experience?

Ford: Well, yeah. I remember Robert. We were wondering if he would ever make it, and then he was taken up by Sam Wagstaff who certainly did put him up there. I always thought Robert had something because he had very luminous blue eyes, and I could see something clairvoyant in them.

Frame: Wasn't that your own trademark?

Ford: Mine and Frank Sinatra's. Do you know where they were first mentioned in print? In James Thrall Soby's book After Picasso. He thought Tchelitchew "brought those orbs in."

Frame: Tell me about your photograph of Robert Mapplethorpe.

Ford: I ask my sitters to come dressed in white, and I use a slide projector to project images onto them. I flashed a suit of armor onto Robert, and on the floor were projections of George Segal's plaster people, as if Robert were the shining knight who had just slain all of them.

Frame: Did you see him as a conqueror?

Ford: I didn't have any preconceived idea. It just came to me. It was the surrealist way.

Frame: When you first went to Paris, were you perceived more as a Southerner or an American?

Ford: American, but it took me a long time to lose my Southern accent. Everybody would tease me about it — Janet Flanner, Djuna Barnes. It dropped off a bit, but I don't think it's completely gone.

Frame: You still have it, and it's one that belongs to your generation in the South. How did you get to know Faulkner?

Ford: When As I Lay Dying came out, I wrote him for something for Blues. He sent me a short story, but Blues didn't last long enough for me to publish it. It was called "Death in Naples." Do you know that story? It was about some homosexuals in Naples. Nothing like Death in Venice, except for the title.

Frame: Being as young as you were when you met her, did Gertrude Stein intimidate you?

Ford: Not according to the letters I wrote to Parker: "I've never seen such huge breasts. You think when she leans over, she's going to fall on the floor."

Frame: How did she treat you, as if she were a mentor, colleague, what?

Ford: I didn't think of categories. I went along with Pavel's verbal vignette of her: "She likes to bring a chair into your life and sit in it." She was more of a listener than a talker except when you went to her salon. When I visited her in the country, she was more of a listener. She was addicted to picking out notes on the piano with one finger. I was sitting there looking at her, and I said, "Miss Stein, you look very beautiful in that light." And she said, "Yes, we're both very beautiful." (laughs)

Frame: Did she ask questions?

Ford: Yes! She was terribly inquisitive.

Frame: What was the relationship between her and Djuna Barnes?

Ford: There was no relationship. Gertrude was naturally better known because she was older and had been going on longer, but she knew who Djuna was and Djuna knew who Gertrude was. I took Djuna to her salon, and Gertrude began to cross-examine Djuna about me, and Djuna was monosyllabic, not her usual self! It was yes, yes, no, no, yes, and I was furious. You know, "Do you think he's a genius?" And she said, "I don't know." It was typical of Djuna and typical of Gertrude. Djuna was nothing if not independent.

Frame: What was the age difference between you and Djuna?

Ford: Twenty years, more or less.

Frame: As a male lover, were you an exception?

Ford: No, no, she has the reputation of being a lesbian. That's absurd! Didn't you read the haiku I wrote about that? "I'm not a lesbian," said Djuna. "I just love Thelma. Thelma's a boy!" In any case, she had more men than women.

Frame: When did you write Life of a Child?

Ford: When I left Tangier to return to Paris for the publication of The Young and Evil, Allen Ross McDougal told Pavel, "Charlie's back but you can't afford him." But Pavel decided that he could, and that's when I became his protegee and his everything. He was living with his sister and also with Allen Tanner, but with Allen it was no longer an erotic relationship. Still, there was no room for me so we found a room at a little hotel around the corner. That must have been the fall of 1932 or 33. By the time spring had come, the manuscript for Life of a Child was finished. It was a winter's work.

Frame: When did you write, in the morning?

Ford: Yes, all morning. I wasn't a night writer like Gertrude. She always wrote at night. So, the manuscript finished, I went to London for Pavel's London show. That's where we got swept up with the Cecil Beaton crowd, Beaton and Freddie Ashton. Cecil did photographs of me, a whole series. Edith Sitwell was jealous of everybody connected with Pavel and particularly jealous of me. Somehow she got hold of The Young and Evil — and Edward James was also jealous — and he and Edith burned a copy of The Young and Evil in the fireplace. They were scandalized by this "dirty book." Edith was fanning the flames with her skirts. She said, "The next time he sets foot in England, he'll be met by the police!" The generous soul of Edith came through later when I sent her my little book of poetry, "ABC'S" with a cover by Joseph Cornell, and she wrote me a beautiful, somewhat repentant letter. It was during the View days.

Frame: What did you do with the manuscript of Life of a Child?

Ford: I sent it to Vanguard Press. They wanted to publish it, but they were advised it would immediately be banned and they abandoned it and I never went on with it. That was my usual behavior and I guess it still is — "Don't look back."

Frame: Who read it at the time?

Ford: And wrote blurbs after reading it — William Carlos Williams, Stephen Vincent Benet, Horace Gregory.

Frame: Did you work from childhood diaries at all?

Ford: No, no, just total recall, like automatic writing.

Frame: You mentioned you have another unpublished novel, Confessions of a Freak. When was that written?

Ford: After Life of a Child.

Frame: How long after?

Ford: Well, same decade.

Frame: Where is it?

Ford: I have it somewhere. You've got to read it.

Frame: What's it about?

Ford: Somebody who's perceived as a freak, his adventures and contacts with other people. He's introspective about being a freak, but you never find out what kind of freak he is.

Frame: How long is it?

Ford: 250 pages, like Life of a Child.

Frame: Not having gotten to publish those novels in your twenties, was it frustrating to see people like Carson McCullers, Jane Bowles, and Truman Capote come along and be acknowledged for their early classics?

Ford: I was never envious of anyone except Tennessee Williams. I had a fling with playwriting, and it was a total failure.

Frame: Did you know him?

Ford: When I was editing View, he was still unknown. And he came to the office and helped us stuff magazines for subscribers. We had a lot of books around, and he picked up a volume by Marianne Moore, and said, "Can I review this?" And I said, "Tennessee, can you write?" So he didn't come back and stuff any magazines for us, but we stayed good friends. I always thought my sister Ruth made a big mistake not going on tour as Blanche DuBois, but there was some compensation because instead of accepting that, she accepted the role of Ophelia in a company that went to Denmark and played in Elsinore Castle, and there she met Isak Dinesen. And Isak Dinesen and I had already been in correspondence and later we became good friends. I did photographs of her, too, that are going to be in my book.

Frame: Your portrait of yourself as a child in Life of a Child. is so convincing that it's very easy now for me to feel the child in you today, or, reading your diaries from the 1940s and 50s with Tchelitchew, it was easy to feel the child in you operating in that relationship.

Ford: So many people thought he was half-mad — "Oh, he's a mental case," but he never gave me that impression. But there was this stock reaction, that he as a lunatic Russian, and morbid. Whatever morbidity I found became normal to me. He had such a devastating sense of humor, particularly in his caricatures of other people.

Frame: He seemed to think you were the wild one.

Ford: Yeah, he'd say, "If I didn't have some control over you, you'd fly off in a thousand directions."

Frame: Was that true?

Ford: Yes, because for me it was normal to be like that. I still have all these different directions, but it's like flying kites. I'm grounded. I don't fly off with them.

Frame: You seemed so committed to that relationship, and yet considering many of Pavel's remarks to you, he seemed so uncertain of your commitment.

Ford: My mother thought, as mothers do, that he was holding me back, that I wasn't fulfilling my ambitions as I might have if I hadn't been moored by the relationship with Pavel. He always thought I was the vampire type.

Frame: Rapacious.

Ford: No — the baby that can't get enough of the nipple. "No more milk left. I'm dry."

Frame: He always seemed to be goading you, saying provocative things to get a response.

Ford: He knew it was like water off a duck's back to me.

Frame: It seemed that he really couldn't believe someone could love him and be committed to him, and he wanted desperately to hear you say it.

Ford: I don't know.

Frame: In your unpublished memoir Love and Jump Back you mention a teenage sexual encounter with a Mexican cab driver in San Antonio. Were your parents at all aware of your antics?

Ford: Never, never. During the Blues days, in the neighborhood there was a counter cafe — so, fresh from Texas, editing Blues, I would say to the counter boys, "I'll give you a dollar if you let me kiss you."

Frame: And they would?

Ford: No, we did it as a joke, a friend and I. Totally, totally uninhibited. Well, that didn't make me very popular in Columbus, because, you know, word got around and all that.

Frame: Your mother was an invalid then?

Ford: No, she was Madame Bovary. She had a lover. My daddy wrote her that if she didn't come back he was going to divorce her so she came back. This beast of a man I used to call Jonesy. Children are so forgiving, you know.

Frame: Or accusing.

Ford: I was always very accusatory toward my father, rather than towards my mother. He was so distant. And then during the time of my mother's absence, he would pick out one of the waitresses from the coffee shop, and it was known that this dress she was wearing had been given to her by Mr. Ford. Everything was so open somehow. Everything seemed to be known.

Frame: Did you find that by being creative in so many areas people took you less seriously?

Ford: No, because my monstre sacre was Cocteau, and he always said about himself that he was a poet in everything he did — a poet in fiction, a poet in movies. He was multimedia. He was my mentor and wrote a preface for my first Paris show, and he willed me his mantle in the preface. One of Cocteau's characteristics was instant intimacy, with whomever he met and liked. I remember going to see him at his apartment. He always had a nice housekeeper, and you would wait a while and then you'd go in, and I remember one day he said, "Oh! It's so hot! Isn't it hot today?" And he opened his shirt and put my hand on his chest to feel how he was sweating. Well, I thought that was a very intimate thing to do, but it didn't lead to anything. I suppose he didn't care.

Frame: How much older was he than you?

Ford: Just a generation. Sometimes you meet people who are so old they have one foot in the grave. I went to a reading by Robert Frost. He could barely hobble to the podium. But Cocteau was productive to the end. There are books by Cocteau in French I've never heard of. He was absolutely a massive producer in all genres. I think of him mostly as a filmmaker because that's where his widest appeal was to the largest public.

Frame: How did people in those Paris literary circles view photography?

Ford: It wasn't current. It didn't exist. It was very new. Berenice Abbott existed, Man Ray. These were the stars, but it hadn't proliferated as it has today. There were certain stars and that was it. Man Ray was the top.

Frame: What place do you give it as a medium now?

Ford: I'm glad it's taken over as an art form.

Frame: Do you think it's correct to say that poetry is to fiction as photography is to film?

Ford: No, that would be putting photography before film. Fiction can incorporate poetry. Certain works of fiction are poems in prose, and the prime example of that is Against the Grain by Huysmans, the only work of fiction I've read three times, twice in French and once in English. The greatest novelists are on the level of the greatest poets in some ways, but the lower categories of fiction just don't exist in relation to poetry. You have to be a Tolstoy or Dostoevski or Proust to be on the same level as poetry. Fiction as a genre doesn't mean anything. Usually when you think of poetry, you think of true poetry. When you think of fiction, it can be second or third rate and it's still fiction. The other is still poetry, too, but you don't think of it as poetry. Sometimes you think of it as verse.

Frame: What was Warhol's influence on your film Johnny Minotaur?

Ford: Well, I'm the one who took Warhol to the underground films, to see Jack Smith, etc. I gave Andy his first exposure to "underground film." He immediately got turned on. He said, "What kind of camera should I buy?" And I said, "Let's go to Willoughby's." So I told him what kind of camera to get. He took it back to his place and put film in it and started waving it around the room. That was his first film. He went on from there. I did a diary and took stills of a Marcel Carne film, "Terrain Vague." I was on the set for thirteen weeks, taking photos and writing. I have all these stills.

Frame: What was the difference between Andy Warhol's Factory atmosphere and Gertrude Stein's salons?

Ford: Don't forget Nathalie Barney.

Frame: Well, okay.

Ford: I remember sitting at one of Andy's gatherings one day, and I wasn't that amused by all these people coming in so I said to Gregory Markopoulos, "Do you think all these people are amusing?" and he said, "Yes!" And I said, "Well, I'm not amused." On amphetamines and talking like open faucets. Ondine non-stop. I was not turned on. Gerard Malanga said, "Go with the flow." Well, he went with the flow, but I just looked at it. I already had my seaside mansion and the flow went by.

Frame: What was your favorite year?

Ford: The high point that I remember, in a momentary feeling, was when I first started to write poetry, and I got this feeling of exhilaration because I felt that I was genius. (laughs)

Frame: Did you continue to have that confidence?

Ford: No, it was a momentary ecstatic feeling. I had another one in Tangiers, but it was quite a different type, a feeling inspired by the sense that in writing poetry, you were "giving," in the Christian way. That passed very quickly.

Text: © Copyright, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc. and the authors.