The writer and the photographer

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Today and for the next 10 days, some of the world's finest writers and performers will gather in Hay-on-Wye for a great literary celebration, sponsored this year by the Independent for the first time. To mark the event, Edmund White, acclaimed novelist, biographer and one of the festival's keynote speakers, recalls the reaction of some great names in literature to the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

When we first met, in the late Seventies, Robert Mapplethorpe and I went out on two assignments together. First we visited Truman Capote for After Dark and then William Burroughs for the SoHo Weekly News. I was to conduct the interviews and Robert was to do the portraits. In fact, he shot Truman and me together on that boiling hot day when the air conditioning failed - me all dressed up in my one good suit, my shirt collar too tight, Truman languishing with a palmetto leaf fan.

The interview was disorganised, tragic. Truman had just published Music for Chameleons, which felt like a comeback, but if he'd come back, he'd already gone away. He deliberately avoided looking at Robert, which was hard to do, since he was then, as always, a walking sex symbol - sexy if you knew his reputation, just as sexy if you didn't. Robert worked very hard in the stifling heat. The windows couldn't be opened. It was his idea to include me in the picture. He didn't explain why. He just grinned, waved me into the frame, laughed, shot his picture. Capote murmured to himself, raved, forgot who we were and who he was, left the room for longer and longer intervals.

Then we were back on the street, Robert's only comment was a lifted eyebrow, a grin, troubled eyes: a no-comment way of saying: 'That was a mess', 'Poor guy', and 'We did it]' He and I were just young enough still to feel we belonged to the later, saner generation and just old enough to fear we might end up the same way. Mainly we were glad to hide behind our masks as journalists.

Burroughs was just as strange, when he received us in his windowless Bowery bunker, the former YMCA boys' locker room complete with ancient graffiti on the toilet walls. He showed us Brion Gysin's paintings, then fired a few weapons and flipped through his scrapbooks of naked boys. I was glad to have Robert at my side.

All the time Robert seemed to be guarding a big secret, an amusing but tricky and intimate secret, just as he spotted in me a secret that was equally amusing but that I wasn't aware of yet. He'd sit forward in his chair and look me in the eye, his gaze unflinching and curious, his smile complicitous. When I say 'curious' I don't mean he was looking for new things to discover in me. He already knew more about me than I did. No, he was simply curious to see if I'd catch on. Sometimes when we were walking down the street - he in his saturnine motorcycle leathers with the blue seams, so much more elegant than the clunky Perfectos everyone else was wearing - he'd look at me sideways to see if I'd caught on yet. He wasn't nasty or trying to put me on.

I never caught on. Nor did I understand his secret, which must have been frustrating for him. He'd try to explain his sexual obsessions, but he was so patient and precise and smiling that he made them sound more like a technical photographic process than an obsession. He'd want me to understand things in their exact proportions, all nuances left in. But I'd always overshoot the mark. I'd think it was a game of domination, but he'd insist that it was neither a game nor about domination. I'd think it was all a fantasy, but he'd say he never fantasised. Each time I'd try a new explanation for size it would be the wrong fit. And I never understood how he saw me, except he once took a shocking picture of me screaming, a portrait so painful that I've never looked at it since.

Once, when Robert went out of town, he confided to me the care of his boyfriend at that time, a sailor on Awol, a simple country boy from down South who was afraid of the big city and would soon go mad and try to swim the Hudson. At every step in that impossible affair Robert was considerate, ruinously spendthrift, affectionate.

If his sexual tastes sometimes led Robert into the poorest sections of the city, his success carried him to the richest. I never knew whether I'd see him skulking off at two in the morning with his leather, or catch him in black tie in Paris or Gstaad or London. His manner never changed, because it worked equally well wherever he found himself. With his rich friends his simplicity came off as a form of sophistication; with his poor friends it seemed like simplicity, which is what it was.

Once he brought Lisa Lyon to dinner. We were astonished how graceful her body looked clothed and how powerful when she pushed up her sleeves and bared her massive shoulders. She was very knowing and very droll, which tickled Robert.

He and Bruce Chatwin became great friends and they resembled each other in the pleasure they took in their adventures, though Bruce's were exotic and Robert's were urban. More than any other photographer, Robert caught Bruce's beauty, just as I think Bruce's text on Robert (his introduction to Mapplethorpe's book on Lisa Lyon, Lady) is the most brilliant. In other ways they were quite different. Bruce was the lordliest raconteur in English in his day, whereas Robert was quiet, cool. Bruce was social in the old hand-kissing manner, whereas Robert was more original in his simplicity and made everyone adapt themselves to his way.

When he did talk, Robert never gave a bravura performance, although he knew a lot about many subjects, especially his collections. Like Andy Warhol or Joe Brainard he had a fearless, childlike way of saying things so basic they were startling. Unlike most great men, he noticed the people around him. He was deeply observant. He was affectionate, but cool. He was a teaser. He didn't dominate situations but he was so handsome and so sharp-eyed and then, later, so famous that no one could ever forget he was present. He liked to sponsor other people, an extraordinary beauty or talker or freak or artist. Just as he collected furniture or photographs or ceramics, he collected people whom he'd present, although he never took responsibility for them.

People say he was a dandy, I suppose, because he appeared to put beauty before goodness, because his own look was studied, because he inhabited a nocturnal and highly artificial environment. But he was far from being a poseur. He never said or did anything that wasn't entirely natural and unaffected. Some artists experiment with their own personalities, adopt new ways that don't always go, sometimes get caught in an awkward transition, but Robert wasn't like that. Just as his artistic vision seemed fully achieved as early as his nude of Patti Smith, or his picture of the tattered American flag, and just as he would investigate new subjects with new techniques but not evolve a new sensibility, in the same way as a person he would grow in wisdom but not change in temperament.

What was dandified about him was his high-handed manner of disrupting traditional values or conventions and replacing them with a simple standard of beauty, the gold standard, whether the beauty was to be found in a navel, a bald head, an orchid or a tranquil scene of torture. The dandy levels all other distinctions in order to plant above them the single flag of beauty. That's what Robert did, which is both his glory and ours.

Edmund White will be giving a lecture at the Hay Festival on 28 May. The programme also features sessions on Truman Capote and Bruce Chatwin. The 'Independent' is running run daily listings of the programme starting today - see page 24. Festival box office 0497 821299.

Edmund White's collection of essays on art, politics and sexuality, 'The Burning Library', is published by Chatto & Windus on 2 June, pounds 20 hardback.

Copyright Edmund White 1980.

(Photographs omitted)

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