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Five Artists You Didn't Realize Once Had Sex
"Whenever she was she was in the mood, she'd just go out and pick up some girl."
By Johannah King-Slutzky
Give a big round of applause to The Toast's Mallory Ortberg, ladies and gentlemen, because she has truly done the internet—nay, the world—a service this week. What is this service? She read a book that describes actual sex between Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde. I actually cannot get over this. Whaaaaat. Sometimes it's hard to remember that author-contemporaries lionized each other as much as we lionize them—but there it is. So we decided to do a little research ourselves: what are some other famous artist and writer pairings that have flown reprehensibly under the radar?
5. Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde
According to Neil McKenna's biography of Wilde, Oscar sought Whitman out in 1882 when the latter was on a nation-wide speaking tour of the US. Whitman was a rockstar of American culture and Wilde had to wrangle an invitation to see the older author through a mutual publisher friend named Stoddard. Whitman said no, but ultimately changed his mind, opting for something more intimate than the original dinner Wilde had invited himself to:
Stoddart tactfully left the two poets alone. ‘If you are willing – will excuse me – I will go off for an hour or so – come back again – leaving you together,’ he said. ‘We would be glad to have you stay,’ Whitman replied. ‘But do not feel to come back in an hour. Don’t come for two or three.’ Whitman opened a bottle of elderberry wine and he and Oscar drank it all before Whitman suggested they go upstairs to his ‘den’ on the third floor where, he told Oscar, ‘We could be on ‘thee and thou’ terms.’
Later Wilde reportedly boasted, "I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips."
4. HG Wells and Rebecca West
Him: "The father of science fiction" and inventor of time travel as we know it. Her: Important (yet weirdly obscure) journalist and author. She was present for the founding of modernism alongside Ezra Pound and was The New Yorker's reporter at the Nuremberg trials; but, you know, no biggie. Their decade-long love affair is a good story: West, known for her caustic reporting, wrote a review of Wells in which she called him "the Old Maid among novelists;" naturally, they met and fell in love. He was 26 years her senior and married, but they had a son anyway—Anthony West, Rebecca's sole progeny. When they broke up she wrote him a letter that is basically what Taylor Swift would sound like if she were an author who dug psychoanalysis. To wit: "I am always at a loss when I meet hostility, because I can love and I can do practically nothing else. I was the wrong sort of person for you to have to do with. You want a world of people falling over each other like puppies...You've literally ruined me." It's worth it to mention that she also probably had sex with Charlie Chaplin.
3. James Schuyler, Fairfield Porter, and Anne Porter
Alright, this one's a doozy. James Schuyler was one of the founding members of the New York School of poetry, a mid-century literary movement cousin to the Beat poets. (Though fame is no reflection of quality, you're more likely to have heard of two of the New York School's other members, Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery.) And Fairfield Porter is another one of those names—somebody who sounds familiar but you probably don't know unless you study art. He mostly painted landscapes and portraits of his family: which was considered strange in the heyday of Abstract Expressionism. Anne, obviously, was Fairfield's wife.
I am absolutely fascinated by this triangle because it was characteristic of the many sexually ambiguous three-person relationships Fairfield had over the course of his life. The artist identified as bisexual and was a proponent of free love (in the fifties!). James Schuyler, who was a wonderful poet but had serious mental problems which kept him from working, repeatedly manipulated Fairfield for financial gain and emotional support, eventually moving in with the Porters as a third member of the marriage. Although Fairfield definitely had a crush on James, it is unclear whether the feelings were mutual and to what degree Anne was involved. That is to say, Porter and Schuyler almost definitely had sex, but it's unclear whether Schuyler considered it as meaningful as Porter did.
2. Josephine Baker and Frida Kahlo
Josephine Baker, a performer, was basically Beyonce in Paris in the roaring twenties. Frida Kahlo was a Mexican artist and communist. Both were bisexual. Naturally, they hooked up. Thank you, ladies. It was not a particularly torrid affair but that's not saying much: both were famously libertine, particularly Baker, whose memoir attests, "Whenever she was she was in the mood, she'd just go out and pick up some girl."
1. Lord Byron, Claire Clairmont, and Percy Bysshe Shelley
Claire Clairmont was part starfucker, part 19th century hippie. She was the stepdaughter of William Godwin, best known as Mary Shelley's father and Mary Wallstonecraft's widower. Claire was intensely well-educated thanks to a passive aggressive boarding school move, but she didn't have the greatest home life. When her stepsister Mary Shelley met the married Percy, Claire assisted Mary and Percy's clandestine coupling and ran away with them when they left England for the continent. In 1816, she met Lord Byron, a famed ladies man. Byron was depressed and didn't want anything to do with Claire, but after a long letter writing campaign Byron and Clairmont slept together, and Clairmont became pregnant with Byron's child. Nevertheless, Byron's characterizing of his relationship with Clairmont was resiliently sour: "I never loved her nor pretended to love her—but a man is a man—& if a girl of eighteen comes prancing to you at all hours of the night—there is but one way...and thus people come into the world." Byron ultimately agreed to raise their daughter, Allegra, provided that Clairmont keep away from him. It was later rumored that Clairmont became a "second wife" to Shelley. Percy, Byron, and Claire were all advocates of free love.