L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley
In one of the snapshots Miranda Grosvenor sent to her famous beaus, she appears blurry and blond, sitting in a convertible parked with its front end in the street and back end on the grass of somebody’s manicured lawn. In this and other photos, she is always alone, and always suspiciously attractive, naïf-like as a young Nastassja Kinski in a two-piece bathing suit or full-bodied as Marilyn Monroe. None of these actually were her; she clipped the photos from magazines or catalogs. Her name did not officially belong to her either. In addition to Miranda, she went by Ariana, Briana and, on rare occasion, her real name, Whitney.
She would call up famous men and, in her “mellifluous, accentless voice,” seduce them within 20 minutes, according to Bryan Burroughs who wrote about mythic Miranda for Vanity Fair in 1999. Buck Henry, who co-wrote The Graduate and now makes guest appearances on 30 Rock, first heard from her in 1980 or ‘81, when she called him long distance in the middle of the night, name-dropping and charming him with her exquisitely vast knowledge of his career and of that of many other men in his bracket. She knew where Henry ate lunch and with whom, and, sometimes, when Henry was on calls with her, Senator Ted Kennedy or some other impressive personality would beep in.
Henry became mildly, understandably obsessed, determined to find out who this woman really was. “I have a book’s worth of material on her,” he told Burroughs. “I couldn’t begin to tell you the whole story.” Or all the stories, because there are many, all vague, rarely with Miranda making an actual appearance. “I kept seeing this image of a . . . girl, sitting in a room somewhere,” said Cynthia O’Neal of Miranda, whom her husband, Patrick O’Neal, fell for in the decade before his death. Cynthia turned out to be right more or less — Miranda, or Whitney, was just a girl alone in a room somewhere in Baton Rouge, an isolated dilettante with a collection of names to fall back on and no one, tangible identity, who eventually, once found out grew old still alone. Or so the story she’s been straddled with by Brian Burroughs goes. Her story, told by herself, never came out in full, even though, once discovered by Burroughs, she purportedly made a book deal with Harper Collins.
I first read Burroughs’ story the year it was written, when I was in high school. The idea that you could so effectively create a persona that was arresting but vaguely so — in Miranda’s case, her persona was largely faceless –, and that you could use that persona to seduce in a matter of moments was as haunting as it was compelling.
The same idea of the vague persona and instant seduction recurs in the work of the photographers and performers I’ve since come to respect: Pipilotti Rist, particularly in her video Ever is Over All, where she moves through smashing car windows with a rose, is a vague seductress. Collier Schorr’s Jens photographs, where she poses a young man in the positions Andrew Wyeth put his muse Helga in, have that instant appeal.
But it is Andrea Fraser, who, rather than seduce, often falls victim to seduction in her work, that I have been thinking of most, largely because, on January 23, she will debut a new performance, one in which she plays the parts of four different men. At the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy in downtown L.A., she’ll reenact a conversation that aired on the radio station KPFK forty years ago, where four men talked about feminism, their allegiance to it, and their fears and hopes for it.
In 2001, Fraser wandered around the Guggenheim Balboa, listening to the audio tour and gradually becoming more and more excited, more and more “seduced.” The same year, she performed at a private party, stripping down to a Gucci thong and declaring, “I am not a person today. I’m an object in an artwork.” Which is how Miranda seemed and still seems in her story: not a whole person, a figure in a narrative, even though it was she who allowed, created and perpetuated that narrative.