O'Keefe: The Life of an American Legend

O'Keefe: The Life of an American Legend

by Jeffrey Hogrefe

Hardcover(Library Binding - 11200 San Val)


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780613221252
Publisher: San Val, Incorporated
Publication date: 10/28/1998
Edition description: 11200 San Val
Pages: 432
Product dimensions: 4.88(w) x 8.46(h) x 1.43(d)
Age Range: 12 - 17 Years

Read an Excerpt

One day, he was working in the maintenance department at Ghost Ranch when one of his co-workers asked if he wanted to go to O'Keeffe's house with him. Hamilton seized the opportunity. Something was wrong with the plumbing in her house, and she wanted Juan's co-worker to fix it for her. It was a summer day. The cottonwoods along the river drooped in the desert heat. Rattlesnakes sunbathed along dirt roadbeds. As he passed boulders the size of elephants and mounds of purple-colored earth shaped like cones on the approach to her house, it seemed he was entering another planet. A sandstone cliff, striated with bands of red and yellow, rose thousands of feet overhead, casting a long dark shadow.

On the patio of the U-shaped hacienda, bushy sage plants grew out of cracks in a flagstone patio. There was not another building in sight. A watercress salad glistened in an old Indian basket on a rough wooden table. Various skulls and rocks were arranged haphazardly around the interior of the cool, dark hacienda. Stark Navajo blankets--black crosses against a white background--covered the floors. Hamilton had never seen such a world, or met such a person.

O'Keeffe was a thin woman of medium height and small bones, with a face of coinlike clarity, like Abraham Lincoln's. There was a time when, because she was dark-skinned, people thought she was an American Indian, and she allowed them their fantasy--even promoted it herself. She was in fact a mixture of Irish, Dutch, English, and Hungarian blood--born of American parents in a woodframe farmhouse in the prairie of Wisconsin. Her brown eyes were focused in a narrow gaze, seeming to miss nothing. Her face was etched with what seemed amillion wrinkles from constant exposure to the bright desert sun.

Her prominent Roman nose and high forehead were exaggerated by the way she pulled her steely gray hair from her face into a bun on the nape of her neck. She walked with a measured gait as deliberate as a metronome and as vigorous as that of someone decades younger. Her posture was so erect, it seemed she could have balanced a cup of hot tea on the crown of her head. People did not seem to scare her, and in fact, by the way she spoke to the maintenance man about the plumbing, it seemed that she was the one who did the scaring. "Dealing with Georgia is very easy," a person who had worked with her commented, "provided you do exactly what she wants."

Hamilton was in awe of O'Keeffe. He studied her carefully and observed the way she had had her house decorated and how she dressed and talked to the maintenance man. She did not seem to mind that he was staring at her and inspecting her house. She talked to the maintenance man about the plumbing, and when Hamilton looked at her, in an effort to get her attention, she returned his advance with a frightening reply: "She looked right past me," he later said, "as if I were transparent." She did not need him. She already had enough help. And anyway, she had already had years of experience in dealing with people who tried to invade her privacy. "You know about the Indian eye," she asked later, "that passes over you without lingering, as though you didn't exist? That was the way I used to look at the Presbyterians at the ranch, so they wouldn't become too friendly."

Not even the Indian eye would dissuade Hamilton, however. He was obsessed. Meeting and working for O'Keeffe became his mission. He would not take no for an answer. Finally, months later, after several aborted attempts, the young artist entered the elderly artist's life. He went to her main house in the pueblo at dawn. As a friend had instructed him, he waited outside the gate for the artist to come to him--then proceeded to the back door when she did not immediately appear. "I am not a creature of habit," O'Keeffe had told people--"the only habit I have is getting up and seeing the dawn come."

O'Keeffe may have been old and barely able to see, but she knew what to look for. Hamilton was a tall, broad young man who could surely carry a load for her. The men who had already worked for her were nearly as old as she--the young men of the village had abandoned the barren land to find work in cities. Since she had been raised on a nineteenth-century farm where itinerants had been the mainstay of her family's help, O'Keeffe was accustomed to hiring people off the road to do for her. These people were addressed imperiously without name. Hamilton was this kind of person. She called him "my boy."

Had she been better able to see, she would have noticed a striking resemblance between Hamilton and the young Alfred Stieglitz. Put their pictures together, and you would almost have the same man, separated by some eighty years. It was an eerie coincidence. O'Keeffe had not known Stieglitz when he was as young as Hamilton, but she had no doubt known him better than anyone else. Theirs had been a marriage about which books are written and movies are made. Like other women who marry older men, O'Keeffe had watched her husband die while she was still youthful. She had never remarried. The memory of Stieglitz remained a force in her life as she grew old. She told people that her male and female chow dogs represented herself and "Alfred."

What she did notice about Hamilton was his hands. His hands were like her own: long slender fingers and wide palms--working hands. She needed extra hands, and although she was not sure what to make of him, she asked him to stay and wrap paintings for her. O'Keeffe's hands were famous. Stieglitz had photographed them over and over, along with many other parts of her body. His ongoing portrait of her had spanned decades and included several hundred pictures of a striking woman in her thirties and forties in various stages of dress.

As Hamilton wrapped the paintings and put them into a wooden crate, she noticed that he was moving as she did: slowly and carefully, with measure and balance. A suspicious person who trusted no one, she watched carefully to make sure he did not steal from her. What she saw was impressive: He was wrapping the packages as she would have herself. Here was someone who operated her way without having to be told.

The meeting of the young artist and the old artist soon became the freshest installment in the myth of Georgia O'Keeffe. As its details acquired the elusiveness of the rest of her tale, they became stylized to fit O'Keeffe's self-conception. Hamilton embraced the myth and became its most vocal proponent. Even the story of how he came to work for her became a fable. It is clear that the truth has many faces.

O'Keeffe seemed to bask in the pale light of notoriety. Taking what people thought was a lover young enough to be her grandson was a fitting finale to a life of independence. When others told her they regretted that they no longer saw her now that Hamilton was caring for her, she would say something utterly mystical. Although she rarely spoke or wrote about her beliefs, preferring to let her paintings do her talking, she occasionally made a passing reference to a higher power at work in her life. This was one of those occasions. "Juan was sent to me," she would tell those who questioned his role in her life as she grew old and weak and frail. Almost all believed her.

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