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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.