An Open Letter to Phoebe Hoban
from David Brody
In Response to Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty
First let me say that I was saddened to hear of the death in December of your father Russell Hoban. He was a remarkable writer with a compelling life story. I genuinely believe that Riddley Walker is one of the twentieth century’s great novels and that history will confirm this conclusion.
That said, with the passage of time I find that I am at last able to address my concerns over your depiction of my father Sam Brody in the book Alice Neel, The Art of Not Sitting Pretty. You’ll forgive me if what I have to say seems at times too personal and may occasionally even come off as mean spirited. I cared about my father deeply and his legacy is not the trivial issue to me that it may be to you.
As you know, for the more than a quarter of a century since Alice’s death, I have found myself, at irregular intervals, having to confront the way in which Sam‘s life story has been misused by writers, art historians and others. It’s takes a great deal of effort and is in no way pleasant.
When you and I met, purely by accident, It seemed serendipitous. You were a writer with a track record of success, as well as the daughter of an author who’s work I particularly admire. I thought you’d get it at least generally right. Despite warnings from relatives and at least one respected scholar, I convinced myself that you were interested enough in the truth to pay some heed to what I and other Sam Brody family members had to say about his character. After all, we knew him better than anyone.
I should have heeded those warnings. And having not done so, I once again find it necessary to take the time to put in a good word for my father.
Of course, I hardly qualify as unbiased and anyone reading this open letter, might well chalk it up to an unwillingness to face some unpleasant truths. There may be something to that. No one likes to hear such terrible things about a parent. However, setting aside for the moment what I witnessed and the things I believe to be true, your book contains numerous failures of basic research or simple fact checking. These were items that could easily have been corrected had you a genuine determination to get the story right. Of course, I can only focus with any legitimacy on the chapters in which my father appears, but they give me a pretty long list, and put the accuracy of the entire book in some question.
The first three pages of your chapter theatrically entitled Enter Sam are a doozy. On page 158 you get the name of Sam’s first wife completely wrong, describing her as a “Russian woman named Claire Murray Blitz.” A Russian woman with the name “Murray”? I don’t think so. In fact, her maiden name was Claire Gebiner. I trust that you’ll make this correction in future editions should any be planned by your publisher. I gather, however that a paperbound edition is unlikely.
On that same page you say that my father was 16 when he and his family came to America. I may have once made this same mistake, but a simple search of records that are freely available from the Ellis Island online archives and elsewhere, are evidence that they landed in 1920 when, as simple math would have it, he was 13.
Further down that page and on the next one, you have two lengthy quotes that you attribute to me, neither of which I ever uttered. I had no idea that my grandfather sold furniture in Paris and no idea he hit my father on the head with a baguette. My mother may have provided you with those quotes, but I certainly never did. Is it possible you mislabeled the tapes that you so assiduously filled with recordings of our hours of conversation? Sloppy.
By the way, my date of birth, while not a problem for me, is apparently a problem for you. On page 238 it’s June 18, 1958 and on the very next page September, 1958. Which is correct? I know. Do you?
You also seem hopelessly confused about the timing of my father's final departure from Alice Neel's life. My mother met him in 1955 and began to live with him in 1956 in multiple venues, none of them Alice Neel's apartment. Yet you state on page 239 that "Neel told Jonathan Brand that Sam officially moved out on January 1, 1959, even though according to Bonosky he apparently cooked a turkey dinner on New Year's Day.” Is any of this important? Probably not in the broad scheme of Alice Neel's entire life, but I do know that my mother has been nonplussed by your willingness to ignore her version of what she knew was happening in her life in favor of a more salacious, hyper-romantic rendering of Alice's romantic life. Especially when it concerns Sam Brody.
Your summary of my father’s time with the Film and Photo League, is largely correct, based as it is on research done by others and the transcripts of recorded interviews my father did before his death. I honestly do appreciate your having devoted several pages to the person Sam Brody was before he met Alice Neel.
The next glaring, and really scandalous error, is the claim that my father was married in 1950. This simply isn’t true. There are government records that prove this isn’t true and I’ve been told that they were brought to your attention. I guess it didn’t suit your narrative. It seems that you chose to accept Alice’s word that there was such a marriage. Sadly (and you should have known this) she was a highly untrustworthy point of origin for such salacious little tidbits.
To put it bluntly, she was a skilled and frequent liar. I witnessed this trait and was in fact, on more than one occasion, the subject of her lies. She swore to my father that she had included me in her will for some unspecified sum or other. I’m still awaiting word from the estate. Mentioning this may smack of sour grapes, but I assure you that at the time (I was in my twenties) I didn’t believe it for a second. I had witnessed Alice lie to friends, family, and others, far too often to fall for this cheap attempt to manipulate my father.
Of course, Sam Brody could deliver some whoppers himself. Deception was an integral part of the Brody/Neel dynamic. It wasn’t healthy, but it was how they played for power and she was much better at it than my father who, truth be told, could be rather naïve when it came to Alice. He believed her lies far more than she believed his, and Alice knew it. She was quite capable of lying (even on tape) about a supposed marriage, and for that matter, Sam was capable of lying to her about the same thing. You should have done the research, but since you apparently don't know the woman's last name, this may have been beyond you.
Most galling of all, for reasons you well know, is your focus on Phil Bonosky and his endlessly self serving diaries. It’s hard to believe that they weren’t intended as some sort of odd attempt at a semi-fictional autobiography. Sort of pulp Henry Miller with a good measure of Grand Guignol. They read like third rate melodrama.
But beyond the stylistics, you know that Bonosky’s motives are suspect. You admitted the same to me on more than one occasion. This isn’t the time to go further, but a thoughtful person can read between the lines of the lengthy extracts you’ve included in the book. I particularly found his stories of “Joe Weasel” nauseatingly ironic. In light of what you know, you had an obligation to take them with a grain of salt, perhaps to leave them out completely. I guess they were just too juicy, and without them you’d have little to support your distortions of my father’s character.
When it comes to the treatment of Alice’s children, I certainly can’t and won’t speak for Richard and Hartley. I didn’t live their lives, and their memories have as much validity as my own, but I lived with Sam Brody far longer than any but one of the characters in your tawdry tale. The man you describe isn’t the man I knew. Maybe by the time I came into the world he had changed, but in my experience, people just don’t change quite that much.
Ultimately the most telling aspect of your narrative is that only those who were part of Alice’s circle of friends, family, acquaintances and sycophants, support this cartoonish depiction of my father. He maintained friendships throughout his life with colleagues from the depression era and after. Many others, who have every right to claim special knowledge of his character, find your version of Sam Brody outlandish. I wish that Dave Platt and Lester Balog were alive to refute your caricature of their good friend and fellow pioneer of socially conscious cinema. They, and others, remained close friends with my father for well over half a century.
Part of the difficulty your book has created for me (once again on a very personal level) is that, in having to defend my father, I’ve had no choice but to say some ugly things about Alice. She was a good friend to me for over twenty years. I cared about her, and I enjoyed the time I spent with her. I'm as much a fan of her art as Sam was. I hate having to say things about her that may seem to lack nuance or context. I assure you that nuance and context existed in abundance for Alice as they did for my father.
In the end I can only emphasize that her personality was as messy as his. Alice Neel thrived on conflict and created as much of it as Sam Brody, if not more. I’ve never shied away from the truth of my father’s tempestuous character. Alice’s was equally tempestuous. I’ve known lots of difficult, brilliant, complicated individuals who didn’t qualify as madmen. My father was one of them. Alice was another. I dare say there have been some in your life.
Of course, this letter comes much too late. Your book is in print, hardbound; available online and in bookstores. I’m sure you’ve moved on to other projects. I can only speak my mind and hope that in future anyone who cares will take note of the Brody family’s recollection of this small piece of cultural and political history. For me it has more to do with Sam Brody’s work as a filmmaker, photographer, political activist and writer. For you, and so many like you, it’s about how best to serve a romanticized, not very accurate version of Alice Neel’s life story.
As a final offer of advice I suggest, as some reviewers already have, that if you’d focused less on the details of Alice’s love life and more on her art, you’d have produced a better book. You just couldn’t help yourself. After all, you admitted to my mother that you wouldn’t have written this book if Alice hadn’t lived such a sensational life. Then you set out to ensure that it was as sensational as you could possibly make it.