Another World, Another Life: On Anaïs Ngbanzo’s “Who Are You Dorothy Dean?”

Conor Williams reviews a new biography of Dorothy Dean, edited by Anaïs Ngbanzo.

Another World, Another Life: On Anaïs Ngbanzo’s “Who Are You Dorothy Dean?”

Who Are You Dorothy Dean? by Anaïs Ngbanzo. Éditions 1989. 296 pages.

HER HEAD IS turned sort of downward, her eyes set on you through thick black eyeglasses. The expression on her face is tough to crack. Is she surprised? Suspicious? Relaxed? Her mouth is open just slightly. She could be mid-sentence, or mid-drag-of-cigarette. Maybe she’s about to read you for filth. Maybe she’s about to burst into laughter. Above her head, a title asks, Who Are You Dorothy Dean? This little book, edited by Anaïs Ngbanzo and released this January, attempts to answer that question.


Dean was a 1960s socialite, a friend of the Factory. (I knew I’d seen her somewhere: in Andy Warhol’s 1965 film My Hustler. She played “Woman with Lipstick.” That’s all I knew of her.) Dean starred in Batman Dracula (1964), Chelsea Girls (1966), and a handful of other Warhol films. Many of Warhol’s companions found their own stardom via their proximity to the artist—not to say that they weren’t inherently talented, but that association with Warhol did a lot to boost one’s art cred and mystique at that time. Edie Sedgwick was long considered the artist’s muse. The Velvet Underground started their career being managed by Warhol—until Lou Reed fired him when he began to feel that the band had become merely a backdrop for the artist’s experimental films. And yet, for all the icons who have come out of the storied legacy of the Factory, Dorothy Dean is one whose life and work has, for the most part, gone unremarked upon.


It could just be that Dean wasn’t ever really the main star of Factory productions. She didn’t aspire to be a big name like others did. She made her own living as a writer and editor, but she wasn’t someone who faced the public, so to speak, through her work. A likelier reason was that Dean was a Black woman in a circle of largely white artists (including the downright racist, “I hate Black people” Nico, who featured on the Velvets’ debut album at Warhol’s insistence).


As Ngbanzo explains in her introduction:


From the Factory to Fluxus, I felt alone in the face of avant-garde movements and scenes where Black figures were overshadowed. […] I no longer feel out of place in the cultural spaces I go to, but discovering Dorothy Dean’s social standing within New York and her presence at the Factory was like uncovering a well-kept secret—a secret that I wish had been revealed to me much sooner.


What spurred Ngbanzo to create this collective portrait of Dean was Hilton Als’s 1996 book The Women, which apparently contained the most biographical information to date about the artist. Who Are You Dorothy Dean? is an attempt to expand the record.


Dean’s most significant professional role was probably as a fact-checker at The New Yorker, the first woman hired for that position there. She also worked at magazines such as Vogue and Essence. Essence, the fashion and culture magazine for Black women, was actually the last magazine she worked for. As the story goes, Dean was fired for suggesting they put her friend Andy Warhol on the cover of the magazine in blackface. She also worked as the bouncer of Max’s Kansas City, a legendary New York nightclub frequented by everybody who was anybody in the 1960s and ’70s. Yes, Dean was petite, but that discerning wit allowed her to separate the wheat from the chaff. As ever, she was the gatekeeper.


Ngbanzo’s book lets us in on Dean’s sharp-tongued, gossipy voice. One of the book’s first passages is Dean’s letter to Factory actor Ondine outlining a potential literary collaboration. She writes that she’s received a copy of a biography on her late friend Harvey Milk from “that chintzy Randy Shilts” and asks after the movie adaptation in development. “Who is to play Harvey Milk? Perhaps Richard Gere—he is considerably shorter than Harvey was, but at least he’s queer. Or maybe Rock Hudson. Wouldn’t your mother just love that.”


And regarding her project with Ondine, Dean asks in a rather bawdy way:


How about libel laws? […] For example, should occasion arise (and I think it might) can we say that Richard Gere is queer? Maybe anything at all goes these days, and maybe it doesn’t. I have been reading about a forthcoming biography of Vladimir Horowitz written by a faggot who has never written a book before in his life […] the book will reveal that V.H. is lavender […] I know it’s okay if some public figure admits himself to being a homo, but how’s about it somebody else says it? Could we be sued?


Later, she reminds Ondine: “Don’t broadcast all over town the priceless (ha-ha) details surrounding the foregoing. There are those who would steal other people’s brilliant ideas. Such as Fran Lebowitz. Or Drella.” The quip about Lebowitz is made all the more stinging with the later inclusion of a note from the humorist to Dean, written on Interview stationery, with payment for a subscription to Dean’s newsletter. “I look forward to hearing your uplifting commentary,” Lebowitz scribbles. (A personal aside, à la Dean: I once delivered a copy of Interview to Lebowitz’s apartment when I worked at the magazine as an assistant—read: unpaid contributor—and never once saw such nifty stationery. I propose they bring it back.)


As for “Drella,” Dean had a knack for nicknames. Drella was Warhol’s—a portmanteau of Dracula and Cinderella. In her letters to Joe Campbell, an actor in My Hustler and boyfriend of Milk, she refers to Campbell as “Sugar Plum Fairy”—indeed, the same Sugar Plum Fairy that Lou Reed wrote about in “Walk on the Wild Side.”


Dean had a few other names herself, including “Black Barbarella” and “Dodo Mae Doom.” The excerpts included from Dean’s newsletter of film criticism, The All-Lavender Cinema Courier, show how she signed off from her musings with names including “Dottie Dromedary,” “The Brown Recluse,” and “The Chocolate Chatterbox.”


If Who Are You Dorothy Dean? makes one thing clear, it’s that Dean was acquainted with some of the 20th century’s most significant homosexuals. Close personal friends with both Warhol and Milk, she was what you might call a “fag hag,” although Dean apparently preferred the term “fruit fly.” One of the more entertaining sections of the book is a series of questions posed to Dean by Boyd McDonald, creator of the legendary pornographic gay zine Straight to Hell. We unfortunately don’t get any of Dean’s responses, but the questions alone give you an idea of the personalities she felt at home with:


How many men have you had sex with, roughly? Of these, how many have [you] had rough sex with? You have been quoted as saying you’re just a fag trapped in a woman’s body. Is this true? What does it mean—that you have a gay sense of humour? That you like men as obsessively as gays do? Or what? Where have you had sex, apart from bedrooms? What kind of underthings do you wear?


Reading this book, and the words of those who knew Dean, I found myself imagining that we could’ve been friends, had I grown up in her time. Sure, I’m a queer white man, and our lived experiences are decidedly different. But that seemed to be the company she kept: white gay guys.


In the comments section of an Instagram post from Interview promoting their conversation with Ngbanzo, I read viewpoints from Black readers that resisted Dean’s self-characterization. She was a self-loathing mess,” one commenter wrote. “Dorothy was at odds with her blackness,” another said. “She rejected any and all things black. There’s nothing to celebrate her for.”


What about those who knew her personally? What did they think of her? I knew that the photographer Stephen Shore had gotten his start documenting Warhol’s Factory, so I emailed him to see if he had any memories of her. “I’m afraid I can’t be of much help,” he told me. “We were friends almost 60 years ago and I was in my teens. Most has been lost to the passage of time. Further fogging my memory was the drinking that we both engaged in.” I thanked him anyway.


Shore’s response, however, highlighted the other portion of Dean’s biography that connected with me—her drinking. The book notes more than a few times that Dean was a notoriously impressive drinker. Less remarked upon, though, is when she realized she had to stop. Emily Wells writes, “She refused to join AA despite her escalating alcohol consumption because she believed it made attendees boring. By 1980, however, Dean agreed to move to Boulder, Colorado, at the request of a friend, supposedly to give up drinking.” (This detail echoes a moment toward the end of the life of the artist and filmmaker Harry Smith. Allen Ginsberg, heading out to the Naropa Institute in Boulder, brought Smith along with him in an attempt to dry Smith out from his struggles with alcoholism. “I brought him out to Naropa and he was in residence there from ’88 on, known as the campus Philosopher-in-Residence,” Ginsberg tells editor Paola Igliori in Harry Smith: American Magus [1996]. I wonder if Smith and Dean ever crossed paths.)


Another essay toward the end of the book states that Dean did start attending Alcoholics Anonymous once in Boulder, “and, more astonishingly, a Bible study group.” But Dean’s newfound sobriety and relationship with Jesus wasn’t enough to save her. Dean died from all the smoking and the drinking in 1987. As someone now sober who fell into alcohol addiction during the coronavirus pandemic, reading about that last portion of her life hit me the hardest. I can only imagine that Dean drank so much because it was the thing you were supposed to do in those circles at that time—and how difficult it must’ve been when she confronted the actual toll it took on her.


Sadly, for all the light shone on Dean’s life in Who Are You Dorothy Dean? the core of her humanity still feels somewhat hard to reach. The book can only illuminate so much. There is a sense, I feel, that Ngbanzo—and the reader—may still be somewhat perplexed as to what Dean must’ve been like. The title is a question, after all, posed directly to its subject—one who cannot answer, because she is no longer here.


Dean’s absence is surely felt, perhaps most movingly, toward the book’s end in a series of poems penned by friends including Robert Creeley and Gerard Malanga:


      The anecdotes to be completed but never will,
nor what’s left to say as much,
remember much. I remember little.
Dorothy? Where art thou now?
The mind plays tricks on the mind.
I’m in another world, another life.


An essay by Ara Osterweil, “The Last Word,” analyzes and eviscerates this absence—that is, specifically, Dean’s appearance, speech, interruption-into-then-disappearance from Warhol’s film My Hustler. The most academic of all the pieces included in the book, Osterweil’s essay is also the one to most explicitly address Dean’s status as a Black woman in Warhol’s incredibly white body of work. Osterweil points out:


One of only four African Americans to appear in Warhol’s catalog of 472 Screen Tests, Dean was also one of a mere handful of Black women to be featured in Warhol’s more narrative films. […] Considering the degree to which the Factory functioned as a transgressive space during the Civil Rights era, this erasure merits our attention. The marginalization of “those who were not White” in a milieu known for its subversion of normative hierarchies was a significant limitation to the heterogeneity of Warhol’s Factory.


Dean arrives at the end of My Hustler, speaking to the titular hustler, Paul America (played by himself), in the doorway of a cramped bathroom. But before her speech is over, the leader of the film runs out and the film ends. Osterweil writes:


One of the things that is so poignant about listening to Dorothy Dean’s speech after learning her biography is the recognition that she must be talking to herself as much as she is talking to Paul: “Who am I? What am I?” she questions, using America as an instrument of her own autonomy.


Who am I? Maybe even Dorothy Dean didn’t really know. But thanks to this book, we now know more than we did—and we must make sure Dean’s legacy is preserved. Most importantly, we should try to always use our voices as she did, and as Ngbanzo accomplishes with this publication, to cut through the bullshit and clear the air.

LARB Contributor

Conor Williams is a filmmaker and writer who has contributed to Interview Magazine, BOMB, and elsewhere. He currently works at BAM Rose Cinemas.

Share

LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?


LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!