Boxing Out Joseph Cornell

A lot of prominent names appear in the Bill Grimes’s New York Times obituary of Leila Hadley, the author and socialite: Vanderbilt, Luce, Brando, and so on. One person whose name does not appear is the artist Joseph Cornell. Hadley appears to have been the closest thing Cornell ever had to a lover, and superficially, you can’t imagine a less likely couple: Hadley was a world traveler and sexually free, while Cornell almost never left the city limits of New York and seems to have died a virgin.

It would be a mistake to dismiss their intimate relationship with a shrug and the cliche that “opposites attract,”  because Hadley was in fact precisely the kind of woman that you would expect Cornell to fall for. While Cornell never travelled farther than Massachusetts (and not even that far in adulthood), he frequently conjured up European hotels — or the entire solar system — in the magical shadow boxes that he created in his basement in Queens. While Cornell never had a proper girlfriend, he was an obsessive observer of women, and often turned his boxes into little shrines to the women he admired from afar, such as Lauren Bacall. or 19th century ballerina Marie Taglioni.

Leila Hadley, sexually alluring and worldly, might have seemed to Cornell like all of his lifelong fantasies turned into flesh and blood. Hadley told Deborah Solomon, Cornell’s biographer, that he even spoke about marrying her and traveling together, although those musings could simply have been more fantasies spun by a fantasist, one who ultimately could not bring himself to consummate his relationship with Hadley.

Joseph Cornell is a lot more interesting (and historically important) than most of the people mentioned in the Times obituary, including her four husbands and various lovers. It’s sad, but not altogether surprising, that Hadley’s affair with Cornell didn’t even merit a small mention in her obit. For while she was a figure who looms very large in Cornell’s life story, his place in hers, amid the marriages and affairs, looks negligible — although it probably wasn’t, from her point of view — and you can understand why an Obit writer almost 40 years later would not deem Cornell worth mentioning at all.

19 Responses to “Boxing Out Joseph Cornell”

  1. John Palcewski says:

    In one of the numerous interviews Leila gave magazines (and even to Solomon) Leila alludes, rather proudly, to her giving Cornell a blow job, apparently the only orgasm he ever got from a woman. So he was not precisely a virgin.

  2. dc says:

    John: Yes, Solomon refers to fellatio in her biography. I suppose we could get into a semantic discussion about what “virgin” means, but I don’t see the point, since we seem to agree on the facts of the matter, or at least the public record of the matter. Cornell himself seemed to make a big distinction between oral sex and intercourse, and Cornell’s emotional life interests me much more than the details of his sexual life. Quoting Solomon quoting Hadley: ” ‘He felt that he would lose his ability to be an artist if he had sex,’ she said, adding that he made this remark to her several times.” I’m no psychologist, but this sounds more like a rationalization than an explanation to me. However you or I might define “virgin,” Cornell seemed to see intercourse as being fundamentally different from whatever else he did with Hadley or other women.

    Anyway, point taken. I’m less concerned about the particulars of his sex life (or lack thereof) than the question of how his life sheds light on his art. So if I confused anyone by calling Cornell a “virgin,” then I’m perfectly happy to stop using that word to describe him.

  3. John Palcewski says:

    Regarding Cornell avoiding sex to preserve his ability to be an artist, heavyweight boxers in the 60s and 70s believed abstaining before a big fight gave them an edge. Muhammad Ali, however, apparently felt otherwise. At least that’s what I inferred when, on a photographic assignment at Deer Lake, PA, Ali’s training camp, I saw a beautiful young woman–not his wife–quietly enter his private room adjoining the gym.

  4. eric says:

    Maybe the beautiful young woman was about to do to Ali what Hadley did to Cornell. Or maybe Ali was like Chairman Mao and conserved his vital forces in other ways. In any case, thank you for sending me back to Cornell; I looked up his enigmatic and beautiful letters to Hadley and her daughters–lots of stuff about discarding the black sheath and so on, a page after a journal entry about the pink in the shirt Ashbery was wearing on a visit–vertically striped raspberry red in the linzer tart…

  5. jabel says:

    That certainly was an interesting obit as only the NYTimes can do but your mention of Cornell reminds me of one who took things to the exteme.I can’t recall if he started the whole strange thing in 1931 or was arrested then but a 50 something Key West doctor named Von Cosel had fallen in love with a beautiful young 22 year old TB patient named Maria Elena de Hoyos.She died but the Doctor kept up visits to her crypt until one night he just took her home.He kept her up as best he could eventually resorting to wax and a wig as her body fell apart.He even dressed her in a wedding gown and had”relations” with her though you can google that if you like.He kept her for seven years before he was caught as I recall by the dead girls sister who saw her in his bedroom.After that they buried her in an unmarked grave so her lover could not find her again.

  6. eric says:

    Wow–this moning I read the obit, which you downplayed, and while it certainly should have mentioned Cornell, it was quite a read nevertheless. Just the names of her husbands are amzing enough (Twinings Hadley II! Yvor Smitten! William Musham!)–and then the business with her daughters, the ones Humbert Cornell was writing love notes to! And–is it my own poor grammar, or does the obit-writer imply that Leila married the founder of Time magazine twenty years after having an affair with his oldest son, and twenty-five after his death? Maybe she kept the old guy in a crypt.

  7. wordnerd says:

    Cornell’s boxes–blog precursor?

  8. wordnerd says:

    “…during the 1970s, when Mrs. Hadley was having an affair with Henry Luce III, the oldest son of the founder of Time magazine, whom she married in 1990.”

    It starts with dangling modifiers and soon moves on to other forms of abuse.

  9. dc says:

    Eric: I think I was so busy skimming for any mention of Cornell that I hardly noticed anything else. In case you want to read more juicy Leila Hadley gossip, I followed the link on John Palcewski’s name above, which led to his blog, which had a link to his own memoir of his relationship with her.

    wordnerd: I guess you could make that argument (boxes as blog precursor) but I don’t really see it myself. Blogs are a kind of chronological collage, but still…I certainly don’t want to start thinking of my own blog as a work of art, because writer’s block would quickly set in, like rigor mortis. I prefer to see blogs as the descendants of notebooks and pamphlets and zines, eternally provisional. Or at least that’s how I prefer to see my blog–one nice thing about blogging is that each blogger gets to decide for him- or herself what a blog is.

  10. ruth gutmann says:

    I recall as a child in the 1930s reading that those competing in sports events should refrain from having sexual relations because it would sap their strength. Some coaches actually made that a rule for their teams or those they trained. (I wonder how they thought they were going to enforce it or if they simply assumed that a poorly performing player had disobeyed them).

    Now I wonder how it is that I remember something I couldn’t possibly have understood.

  11. dc says:

    Ruth: Interesting to hear that the belief goes back to at least the 30’s, and was prevalent in Europe too. I suppose that the identification of libido with virility and athletic prowess must be pretty universal, and it’s just a quick logical step from there to the belief that sex would sap one’s vitality and strength. I’d be curious to know whether similar beliefs are held in cultures more remote from ours as well.

    There’s something quaint about the notion of “sapping” and “draining” vital energies; it reminds me of pre-socratic theories about the four humors, and illness being caused by an imbalance among yellow bile, black bile, etc. And it was only about 100 years ago that bloodletting stopped being a widespread medical treatment. You have to wonder which of modern medicine’s orthodoxies will look as ludicrous a century from now. Maybe American hospitals will be treating diabetes by using acupuncture to redirect people’s ch’i in another 100 years. I wouldn’t bet on it, but…

    Getting back to Cornell briefly, I think it’s possible that he believed what he told Leila Hadley about fearing that sex would hurt his ability to make art. I also believe, however, that even if he had convinced himself of that, it was still a rationalization rather than an explanation.

  12. wordnerd says:

    Would you count psychiatry as an orthodoxy of modern medicine? It’s a fine candidate for retrospective ludicrousness.

  13. eric says:

    wordnerd: psychiatry is too broad a field to be tarred with your brush. I would also be very surprised if there wasn’t something to the whole idea of refraining from sex. You don’t have to be a follower of Freud to notice that sexual tension IS a tension, and that releasing that tension might lead to an overall languor or slackness. Acupuncture can be extraordinarily effective… Of course David is right: Cornell’s was a rationalization.

  14. dc says:

    eric: In my last comment, I at first called to the sex/sport theory a “myth,” then thought better of it and changed “myth” to “belief.” I’m a bit skeptical, but there certainly could be something to it. And I don’t doubt the effectiveness of acupuncture; I tried to think of a disease that isn’t currently treated by acupuncture, but maybe diabetes doesn’t fit the bill.

  15. wordnerd says:

    How come nuns don’t win more gold medals?

  16. wordnerd says:

    Why pick on sports? What other human endeavors would be enhanced by abstinence?

  17. wordnerd says:

    I should have said besides sports and art.

  18. eric says:

    wordnerd: Boxers, unlike nuns, practice temporary abstinence. For further research, you might seek out the Ryan O’Neal/Barbra Streisand film whose plot turns, as I recall, on this very question. The film flopped, possibly because O’Neal was not exactly up to Mickey Rourke standards as a convincing pugilist, but also because he was just the first layer of its ridiculousness: in the end (SPOILER ALERT!!!!), they don’t abstain and he doesn’t win, but that’s okay because somehow his not winning means that they get to not abstain some more. I seem to recall a teary Streisand throwing in a towel that floats poetically around above the ring, where the two leads indulge in teary/sweaty slo-mo foreplay while the credits roll.

  19. wordnerd says:

    That doesn’t sound like a boxing movie to me.

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