The relationship between photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, one of American Modernism’s greatest cheerleaders, and painter Georgia O’Keeffe, one of America’s greatest Modernist painters, is one of the great love stories of our time, one that was — well, at least for this reader — demystified a bit by the revelations in Deborah Solomon’s review of a new volume of the couple’s letters in the New York Times book review this past weekend. These revelations concern the innocuous-sounding word “fluff”:
Some of the material in the book is unsettlingly intimate, and one reads with a mixture of avid curiosity and deepening concern that one will never be able to look at a Stieglitz photograph again without thinking of “Miss Fluffy” — his nickname for O’Keeffe’s genitalia. In the Stieglitz lexicon, the verb “to fluff” refers to sexual intercourse; a woman whose worth is believed to reside primarily in her sexual availability is a “fluffer.”
By the end of the ’20s, he had embarked on a love affair with a doe-eyed acolyte (Dorothy Norman), and O’Keeffe was spending months at a time among hospitable bohemians in New Mexico. “You see I cared for you as an artist,” Stieglitz writes in an unhinged moment. “No one else does. . . . I could have fluffed you to death — you were ready for it — Hadn’t I realized a greater value in you than fluffer! — I often told you so. — And I could have fluffed myself to death. — Maybe fluffing you to death and myself too might have been wiser.”
Why Stieglitz? Why? What the fluff? To say this is anti-feminist, or misogynistic, or whatever, seems off; it’s just plain silly, and embarrassing. Now, how are we to think about this? Or — ew, even worse — this??
Once, we were intrigued enough by the torrid affair depicted in the Stieglitz-O’Keeffe correspondence to spend an evening listening to Sam Waterston and Joan Allen give a dramatic reading of them at Christie’s. No more. We’re sticking with fiction. We’re going to go home right now and read Leonard Michaels’ short stories. No more fluffing around.