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Hubert's Freaks: The Rare-Book Dealer, the Times Square Talker, and the Lost Photos of Diane Arbus
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Hubert's Freaks: The Rare-Book Dealer, the Times Square Talker, and the Lost Photos of Diane Arbus

by Gregory Gibson
 

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Bob Langmuir is an obsessive dealer with a remarkable eye for treasure who makes the discovery of a lifetime when he chances upon a trove of never-before-seen prints by the legendary Diane Arbus. From the moment he purchases a trunk containing the archive of Hubert’s Dime Museum and Flea Circus—a midcentury Times Square freak show frequented by

Overview

Bob Langmuir is an obsessive dealer with a remarkable eye for treasure who makes the discovery of a lifetime when he chances upon a trove of never-before-seen prints by the legendary Diane Arbus. From the moment he purchases a trunk containing the archive of Hubert’s Dime Museum and Flea Circus—a midcentury Times Square freak show frequented by Arbus—and discovers some intriguing photographs, he knows he’s on to something. Furthermore, he begins to suspect that what he’s found may add a pivotal chapter to what is now known about Arbus and the “old weird America,” in Greil Marcus’s phrase, that Hubert’s inhabited.

Langmuir’s ensuing adventure, filled with bizarre coincidences, turns into a roller-coaster ride that takes him from memorabilia shows to the curator’s office at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Will the photos be authenticated? How will the Arbus estate react? most important, can Bob, who has seen more than a few promising deals head south, finally make his one big score?

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
PRAISE FOR HUBERT'S FREAKS

“Gibson has written a panoramic story that takes in sideshow culture, Diane Arbus, African American social history, the image market as it ranges from foreclosure sales to Chelsea galleries, and much more. Its principal focus, however, is one man’s life—his dreams and ambitions and delusions and dashed hopes—and that is what makes the book uncommonly moving, utterly engrossing.”—Luc Sante

Hubert’s Freaks will fascinate those among us who are stimulated by the richness and variety of American subcultures. I devoured it.”—Larry McMurtry

Publishers Weekly

From the late 1950s until her death in 1971, renowned photographer Diane Arbus took pictures of oddball performers at the now-forgotten Hubert's Museum, a typical freak show in New York City's seedy Times Square. One frequent subject was Charlie Lucas, first a "freak" himself, later an "inside talker." In 2003, Bob Langmuir, an anxiety-ridden, pill-popping, obsessive antiquarian book dealer from Philadelphia, unearthed a collection of photographs and memorabilia, including Lucas's journals and what he thought were Arbus's photos. This trove of genuine American kookiness came to dominate his life. Following Langmuir's quest-from the slums of Philadelphia to the halls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art-as he gathered, priced and ultimately came to understand this collection, author Gibson (Gone Boy: A Walkabout), himself an antiquarian book dealer, effortlessly twists these strands together with an emotional wallop. "His toil in Hubert's vineyard," Gibson writes of Langmuir, "amounted to no more or less than the continuing archaeology of the old, weird America." Gibson's laser focus on Langmuir's shifting state of mind as he struggles to master his personal demons and navigate the pitfalls of his own obsession gives this story its heart and opens a window onto a lost part of the American soul. 21 b&w photos. (Apr.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Gibson's (Gone Boy: A Walkabout; Demon of the Waters) latest work centers on the adventures of fellow antiquarian book dealer Bob Langmuir, detailing his obsession with collecting and tracing the path on which a particularly exciting discovery led him. In 2003, Langmuir purchased a trunk containing the archive of Hubert's Dime Museum and Flea Circus, a midcentury Times Square, NY, freak show, and finds inside what may be one-of-a-kind prints by legendary photographer Diane Arbus, who was known to have frequented the show. Over the next several months, he sets out to prove their authenticity, encountering bizarre coincidences and interesting people along the way and making stops at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, Sotheby's, and, eventually, the Arbus estate. Gibson thoroughly details how Hubert's museum was not the freak show many believed it to be, but a great year-round sideshow and an excellent means for Arbus to establish relationships with the performers who became the subjects of her renowned images. He describes Langmuir's life and career as well as those of Arbus in great detail. A consistently fascinating and intriguing read for public and academic libraries.
—Susan McClellan

Kirkus Reviews
An antiquarian book dealer explores the nexus of a Times Square dime museum and the art-photo market. At the heart of the sideshow business in New York until the mid 1960s, Hubert's Dime Museum and Flea Circus was often celebrated, most notably by the New Yorker's A.J. Liebling and Joseph Mitchell-to both of whom Gibson (Demon of the Waters: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Whaleship Globe, 2002, etc.) dedicates this book. For many years, Hubert's manager and "talker" ("barker" to the rubes) was dignified Charlie Lucas, an African-American who frequently doubled as a savage warrior chief or as WooFoo, the "Immune Man." Lucas also performed a Dance of Love with his attractive wife, a snake charmer billed as Princess Sahloo or sometimes simply Woogie. He stored his odd, wonderful journal and sideshow ephemera along with a stash of photos in a trunk that, after his death, eventually came into the possession of Bob Langmuir, an acquisitive and paranoid Philadelphia book dealer. Langmuir determined that the photos were the work of Diane Arbus, who had been introduced by Lucas to many of her subjects, including diminutive Andy Potato Chips, tattooed Jack Dracula and Congo the Jungle Creep. Gibson deftly tells the story of the collection's acquisition by Langmuir, the authentication of the pictures as Arbus's work and the efforts to value, display and market them. He novelistically chronicles the burdens of discovery and ownership, entwining these topics with such additional themes as the unraveling of personality, the rigors of love (requited or not) and marriage (functional or not). He brings together eccentric character studies, oddball action on old 42nd Street and complex art-worldmaneuvers to yield some classic Americana. The Arbus/Hubert's collection is scheduled for international exhibition and a New York auction in April. Artfully developed tale of uncommon people and some photographs once lost. Agent: Neeti Madan/Sterling Lord Literistic

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780151012336
Publisher:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
04/01/2008
Edition description:
First Edition
Pages:
288
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt

Sunday, Monday, and Charlie

In 1831 a Yankee sea captain named Benjamin Morrell captured two cannibals in the South Pacific and brought them back to America. For the next few years he displayed them throughout the northeastern United States at places like New York City’s American Museum. He wrote a book about his adventures, and his wife, who accompanied him on the voyage, wrote her own account, which verified his. A third narrative, written by a crewman named Keeler, substantiated both the Morrells’ books.

The two savages, named Sunday and Monday in honor of the days on which they were captured, astonished American audiences. Captain Morrell wrote, “In the year 1830 they were . . . cannibals! In the year 1832 they are civilized intelligent men.” Morrell assured his readers that the two former cannibals would prove to be ideal ambassadors to their home islands, overflowing with breadfruit, coconut, and “many other valuables,” when a trading expedition returned there. Stockholders of the proposed commercial venture, he said, would have a monopoly on the abundant profits because, “I alone know where these islands are situated.

As it turned out, Morrell’s book was ghostwritten by a hack friend of Edgar Allan Poe’s named Samuel Woodworth; Mrs. Morrell’s account was ghostwritten by another friend of Poe’s; and most of Keeler’s narrative was lifted verbatim from his captain’s book. All three of these texts, though based loosely on fact, were rife with exaggeration. Captain Morrell was simply trying to drum up interest in the remote Pacific and to promote himself as an expert navigator of those waters. He hoped to attract backers for a grand trading venture, or even for a government-sponsored expedition (to be led, of course, by himself). But the only person to make any real use of his ghostwritten saga was Edgar Allan Poe, who based The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym on it.

Morrell’s extravagant claims didn’t fool his fellow mariners. He became known as “the biggest liar in the Pacific,” and he died at sea without ever realizing his grandiose schemes. Sunday and Monday, his faux cannibals, were probably just domesticated Pacific Islanders or African American impersonators, posing as savages to astonish white American rubes. They were among the earliest examples of such, and although they are long forgotten, they bear on the story of Bob Langmuir and Diane Arbus.

Arbus started photographing at Hubert’s Museum, a freak show on West Forty-second Street, in the 1950s. At first she was more interested in the interiors of the nearby movie houses—her photos show half-lit faces and blurred bodies rising like dreams out of those huge, dimmed bowls—but Hubert’s bizarre shabbiness ultimately proved a more fertile environment in which to pursue the images she was seeking. She recalled descending, “somewhat like Orpheus or Alice or Virgil, into the cellar, which was where Hubert’s Museum was.” That it occupied its own underworld only enhanced it.

Charlie Lucas, a black man from Chicago who worked as the “inside talker” and manager at Hubert’s Museum, was Arbus’s friend and collaborator during the years she photographed there. He was her link to the freaks and performance artists and, in a larger sense, to the culture and traditions of the freak show. He made the introductions for Arbus and in some cases set up photographic shoots with the performers.

He’d been working circuses and sideshows in the U.S. and Canada since 1924, but he got his big break at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933. This event, commemorating the one hundredth anniversary of Chicago’s incorporation as a city, was billed as the “Century of Progress.” Splendid deco artifacts and architecture adorned the midway, along with a great deal of sideshow hokum, such as the Midget Village or the Infant Incubator Building, where crowds could gawk at real, live premature babies, attended by flocks of nurses.

Charlie Lucas presided at the Darkest Africa exhibit as, in his words, “African Chief of the Duck Bill Women.” The core of his “tribe” was composed of fourteen authentic Ashantis who’d migrated to Manhattan and been hired there, where the show had been conceived. The rest of the “natives” were recruited from Chicago pool halls, and the lot of them were decked out in leopard-skin sarongs and zebra-hide shields furnished by Brooks Costume Company, also of New York City. America was still in the grip of the Great Depression. There was no shortage of African American talent available for the impersonation of wild savages—an act that had lost none of its appeal since Morrell’s day. Produced by white sideshow promoters, and occasionally enlivened by a few authentic Africans, the African Village became a staple of pre–World War II sideshow entertainment.

At the Century of Progress, Charlie was billed as WooFoo, the Immune Man. He had a bone supposedly clamped through his nose, dressed in ostrich feathers, and talked gibberish. Aside from his chiefly duties, he swallowed fire and climbed ladders of saw blades. In the tradition of blacks performing as savages, there hadn’t been a great deal of progress since Sunday and Monday first took the stage a century before.

Copyright © 2008 by Gregory Gibson

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be submitted online at www.harcourt.com/contact or mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

Meet the Author


GREGORY GIBSON is the author of the critically acclaimed Gone Boy: A Walkabout and Demon of the Waters: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Whaleship Globe. An antiquarian-book dealer, he lives in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

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