Three friends. One famous, two not. In the mid-1940s, when these three eccentric, extraordinary women found each other, Diane Arbus wasn’t yet a world-acclaimed photographer, nor had fashion model Pati Hill written her novels or pioneered photocopy art. And Nancy Christopherson, self-taught painter and future off-Broadway costume designer, was not yet Mrs. Richard Bellamy, the man who would later describe her, with Poundian grammar, as “her who brought me to this calling of art.”
Over the decades there were many women in Dick Bellamy’s life, but he married only one, Nancy Christopherson. She was the wife Dick never got around to divorcing. They met in Provincetown in 1948; married in Ohio in 1952, and by 1955 they were living apart in Manhattan. Most of the friends Dick made later in life knew nothing about her. In the mid-nineties, when I began research for his biography, I learned that Nancy was still alive. She had been friends with James Baldwin, Anais Nin, Maya Deren, and Diane Arbus, and I couldn’t wait to talk with her. I was overjoyed at the prospect of a direct line in to Dick as a young man. But Nancy, a recluse, lived alone and neither answered my letters nor her phone. I briefly fantasized a stake-out on 107th Street, and soon moved on to talk with others.
I was in touch with Jeff Rosenheim, curator of photography at the Metropolitan Museum, who was working on a Diane Arbus show. Jeff connected me with Diane and Nancy’s vibrant friend Pati Hill, who was living in Sens, France. I would visit Pati twice, and until her death in 2014 at age 93, we often exchanged e-mails and talked on the phone. Pati, a beguiling, brilliant woman, helped me to form a picture of Nancy, her allure, quirks and complexity. Pati in turn introduced me to Arthur Lubow, a fellow biographer who was interviewing her about Diane. Lubow’s book, Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer, has just been published. With the upcoming release of Eye of the Sixties, Richard Bellamy and the Transformation of Modern Art, readers will have the dual opportunity to read about the dynamic, free-spirited trio of Nancy, Pati and Diane.