I’m interested to explore the degree to which they were able to fulfill their primary goals. All three wrote and painted not as a hobby or a way to make a living—impossible, in most cases—but as a vocation, begun early and continued, with passion, until the end of life. Two were married to men, but none had children, which I think is significant, although in the case of my high school friend, Anne Cooper Dobbins, it may not have been a choice. She was severely injured as a teenager in a car wreck—the first friend I visited in the hospital, unprepared as I was at sixteen to deal with such pain and crippling.
Later, when she found a devoted husband, she moved with him to Bucks County, a rural landscape—still—with the cows she loved to paint. But cows were the least of it; she painted everything, including the elevator hall in my first New York apartment, which she livened up with floor to ceiling green and blue stripes. Fortunately it was a small hall. She also painted a portrait of me, at that time in the early sixties, that expresses perhaps too eloquently my frustration with my first attempt to publish to find acceptance as a writer.
This was long before women artists and writers were taken seriously. My agent at the time found a use for me as a babysitter for her child, and the only chance I had to meet Joan Didion—it was to supervise our children in a Central Park playground—somehow I missed her and so never told her how deeply I admired her writing.
Neither Ann Cooper nor I—I’m following the ancient Southern tradition of including her middle name, often the mother’s maiden name—knew how disabling, professionally, it would be to flee New York. But flee we did. To become a “local” writer, or a “local” painter, inevitable for the millions of writers and artists who live outside that impossible city, is to become minor by definition. And neither Anne Cooper, nor I, aimed to be minor.
Yet she was able to appreciate the audience, and the reputation she gained in Bucks County, and said of her paintings, “I like to leave the door open so the viewer can ask questions.”
She was fortunate to find a well-rooted colony of artists in Bucks County, and her work was shown there. She had the right credentials—a Fulbright Fellowship, a residency at the MacDowell Colony, where I also spent time—and it may well be that she achieved with her painting a great deal of satisfaction. My favorite is her large painting of an enormous baby, sitting on the lap of a woman dressed in red. The red dominates the canvas, but only the woman’s hands are shown, holding the baby.
Ann Cooper, a painter I knew in New York in the 1980’s, led a more difficult life. Affording a loft studio in the increasingly gentrified Chelsea neighborhood strained her to the limit, yet she couldn’t imagine her life as an artist anywhere else. A man who loved her and offered to help her financially was somehow never good enough, and she was determined to make it on her own. Her paintings, which seem to have vanished, are hard to describe. She found a place in a downtown cooperative gallery but it was never what she wanted. Ambition tormented her, along with other demons. And she did not have the professional credentials that helped my other Ann, and that also helped my third dead girl, Aleda Shirley.Aleda, a southern writer, never aimed to live in Manhattan. She was rooted in Kentucky, where she grew up, and where her family lived. She also had the bursting confidence, always shadowed, that was becoming more possible for a woman writer—she burned like a flame, even when she was already stricken with the disease that would kill her. And she was a poet, in itself a high vocation, and a difficult one, since readers have been taught for a long time now that they don’t read poetry. I think there may be a buried group that nevertheless does appreciate the extraordinary use of words that sometimes makes poems transcendent.
Aleda achieved more worldly success as a poet than my other dead girls achieved as painters. Her first book, Chinese Architecture, was published by the University of Georgia Press and won The Poetry Society First Book Award in 1987. Her second book, Long Distance, gained a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly in 1996 and admiring reviews. Meanwhile she taught, traveled, excited her friends with her energy, and came to rest finally in Jackson, Mississippi, with many friends and a literary life there. But her third book, Dark Familiar, published in 1996, a few years before her death, seemed to vanish into oblivion.
Aleda was enormously talented, which in the end is all that matters.
“Right As Rain,” her poem from Long Distance, gives me that prickle in the back of the neck that means true poetry:
“It’s the thirteenth of February, a Friday, the birthday
Of a man I haven’t seen in years, the first man
I loved… I don’t think of it as loss
Except when I think of it. He’s living, I heard,
In a leafy suburb north of here. There’s a suitcase somewhere,
In the back of a closet, perhaps, with clothes
I wore then, photographs, ticket stubs from the track.
Exhausted, those clothes—the slips and blouses—are thin
As silk from repeated washings, the steam iron.
They smell of him: rain, bay rum, low tide…
This is the rain of the past.
Reading Aleda’s poem, after many years, convinces me that she achieved what she was put on earth to do, and I feel the same way about Anne Cooper’s Red Dress and Baby. As for my other Ann, the outcome is less certain. New York chews up and spits out those of us who are determined to make it there.
How blessed I am to have these three dead girls, first as close friends, then as living memories. They showed, not the way, but a way.