Dore Ashton in East Hampton, 2012
1928 – 2017
In 2012 Nathlie Provosty and I visited Dore Ashton at her summer home in East Hampton. When we got back I tried to write down everything I could remember. Re-reading it now, after her passing on January 30, 2017, I’m grateful for that sun-drenched memory. It’s just a rough sketch, but hopefully it conveys some of her playful gravitas and blistering intelligence.
Dore’s house in East Hampton is small and rough, sternly sensual—no nonsense. No air conditioning either. You enter through the kitchen door in the back. The rooms have low plywood ceilings.
We brought her yellow roses, cheese, and fruit. She had already set out lunch on the table—“A cold lunch for a hot day,” she said—potato salad, seaweed salad, chicken salad, and Brussels sprouts served in plastic containers from the deli.
She was reading Trollope—“learning about Victorian manners.” Normally she reads detective novels in the summer. “You’d be surprised what you can learn from them.”
All her life she’s written fan letters to people and never sent one; but today she says, “I might send one to this mystery writer who, as it turns out, lives in Sag Harbor, named Alan Furst.”
But she did send one: in 1958 to Gaston Bachelard, after she read The Poetics of Space, which had come out while she was in Paris. She sent it by pneumatique to the publisher and got a letter back from Bachelard immediately: “You can come any afternoon between 4:00 and 6:00.” She brought The Poetics of Space back to New York, and is responsible for its English publication.
“Yes,” most of her life was spent reading, though she also loves to tango.
I asked her how many times she has been in love. “Well, I don’t think I was in love with the first husband, Adja Yunkers. He snapped me up—a man twice my age—when I was eighteen years old, a girl who knew nothing of the world except for books, which was all I knew. It was almost criminal of him to do that.”
“I was really in love with my second husband, Matti. We met because there was a conference of writers from Europe in Washington D.C.—all people I was interested in, like Eco and so on. There was a tall man in a raincoat someone told me was an Israeli poet, Matti Megged. I went to talk to him and he asked, ‘What are you doing for dinner tonight?’ We spent the whole night in my hotel room—we didn’t have sex—even better, we talked about Dostoyevsky—which for me is the epitome of erotic. A real romance.”
Talking about Hannah Arendt and the recent biopic by Margarethe von Trotta, I said I hated how it portrayed her relationship with Heidegger. She responded, “I always had sympathy for that story because when I was at the University of Wisconsin there was a German émigré there named Hans Gerth who was teaching with C. Wright Mills, and he plucked me out almost immediately because I was young and luscious-looking. That’s where I got my education—he would say ‘I can’t believe you haven’t read this!’ and I’d run to the library and read it immediately.”
I asked about studying art history at Harvard. “Well, I finished my master’s degree in a year—I don’t know how—I think they just wanted to be rid of me. I remember being called into the dean’s office and being told, ‘We’re concerned. We never see you in the library on the weekends.’ That’s right—because I was drinking gin and dancing with my boyfriend in New York! The business school boys would charge me five dollars less than the train to catch a ride with them into the city so I got a sense of what those types were like—and they were raunchy—sometimes I barely made it out of the car.”
“I wasn’t a spectacular student. I got a lot of B’s except for in Jakob Rosenberg’s class, the Rembrandt scholar. He would take us to the Fogg Museum and pull out things for us to look at. I ran into him years later in the Louvre, and demurely walked up to him, even though I had already made a name for myself as a writer, and said, ‘Hello’. He said, ‘Yes, I remember you—you were the only one who was really looking at the things I showed.’”
We told her we stopped at Parrish Art Museum and saw an Esteban Vicente exhibition. “I was the first to write about him,” Dore said. “And I thought they were interesting, but then they became flabby, boring paintings. He was a terrible person and I hate to say his personality triumphed in the paintings.”
After lunch we went to the small beach nearby where Dore always goes. None of us had our bathing suits so we just stripped down to our underwear.
“Over there is the naked lady,” she said. “She’s out here all the time. I have whole notebooks filled with sketches of the naked lady.”
Dore in her white cotton bra and panties and huge straw hat, wading into the surf.
We all lay on the beach together, talking in the sun. The recent biography of Saul Steinberg came to mind, “Wasn’t Saul Steinberg terrible to women?”
“Well I can tell you one thing from experience, he was terrible in bed, so it probably comes from that. Once he brought this blonde German girl to dinner at our house and she was going on, ‘My family just threw some stones in the Kristallnacht, what’s the big deal…’ So that gives you some sense of the power dynamics he was interested in sexually.”
Before we left the beach, we talked about early memories. I said that as a child I tried to run away—not because I was unhappy, just because I wanted adventures.
“I did too, twice, for exactly the same reason.”
JARRETT EARNEST is a writer who lives in New York.