Avedon enjoyed his rapid embourgeoisement. “Richard Avedon taught me how to be a rich person,” Nichols commented. The photographer’s houses and apartments were baronial. If he saw a play in Stockholm he loved, he’d fly over four additional times to see it, bringing friends on each occasion. He had big, varied, elegant buffet lunches at his studio every day; friends dropped in to meet whomever he was shooting. He could get a table at the last minute in any restaurant, the best seats to any opera. His friend Adam Gopnik wrote of him: “He smelled faintly, richly, of limes.”
Avedon would fly in first class while his assistants were in coach. One assistant told Gefter: “Dick would bring a huge tin of caviar from Petrossian on the flight, and, at some point, he would bring the uneaten half of the tin and blinis back to us and say, ‘I can’t eat anymore. Enjoy.’”
He could be magnanimous; he loved the big gesture. On long car trips with his team, he liked to sit in the back seat and read books aloud. He was just as often remote. He was not emotionally close to his son. When he took a serious male lover later in his life, he didn’t publicly acknowledge their relationship even as his elite gay friends, one by one, came out of the closet.
Gefter, whose previous books include “Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe,” and who was an editor at The New York Times for 15 years (The Times is a big place and I’ve never met him), details the long-running antagonism between Avedon and John Szarkowski, the king-making director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art. Critics were hot and cold on the lavishly staged shows of Avedon’s work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Marlborough gallery and elsewhere, and he took criticism hard.
When a negative review of his 1974 show “Jacob Israel Avedon,” a series of portraits of his aging father, appeared in this newspaper’s Arts & Leisure section, Avedon was in the hospital with pericarditis, an inflammation near the heart. He tried to take the review calmly.
He could not. Distraught, he eventually rose from his bed and took a lighted match to the corner of the offending section. The fire grew out of control. He wrestled the mess into the toilet, where it continued to fizzle.
A journalist for Playboy, writing a profile, captured the rest of the scene: “There he knelt, world-famous glamorous person Richard Avedon, flushing the toilet again and again, forcing down the soggy glob of paper until he was elbow deep in intimate plumbing. Finally, with a gurgle, the cremated remains started off to sea.”