John Updike and the Frick

marble bust of a woman

In 1991, Mirabella commissioned John Updike (1932–2009) to write a short article about the Frick. In a letter dated February 5, the magazine’s consulting editor, Wendy Gimbel, suggested that he write about the ethics of Gilded Age art collecting but granted him the freedom to consider any subject: “We would simply like your thoughts as you wander through...Obviously, it’s completely up to you.” Mirabella offered him $3,000 for the piece.

Updike visited the Frick the following month, writing down his thoughts in a notebook as he moved on a desultory path through the Living Hall, Boucher Room, Anteroom, Dining Room, Enamels Room, West Gallery, East Gallery, North Hall, Garden Court, and library. His observations are at once complimentary and impertinent, noting the abundance of “exquisite small scale works” while imagining a conversation in which Adelaide Childs Frick, wife of Henry Clay Frick, says to her husband, “Henry, we don’t have enough tables.” The pages of his notebook, now housed in Harvard University’s Houghton Library, are embellished with comical doodles, such as a slapdash depiction of Piero della Francesca’s St. John the Evangelist (whom Updike mistook for St. Simon) with the caption “wearing his halo like a hat.” Updike may have set out to write a satirical or critical piece about Gilded Age opulence, but the final version of the article maintains that The Frick Collection “by acts of legacy and trust...has opened itself to civic appreciation.”

John Updike’s papers, which were acquired by Houghton Library shortly after his death, allow us to reconstruct his editorial process by considering two marked-up drafts of the article. The first draft closely resembles the final version, but it is evident that Updike fiddled with minor details, inserting certain words midway through the process only to remove them at a later stage. At least one waggish comment was deleted after the author learned more about the Frick’s holdings: he writes of George Romney’s “chastely romantic” Lady Hamilton as “Nature”  that “butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth” but later changes this to “at seventeen, her career in mistresshood had but begun,” presumably after discovering that the sitter, née Emma Hart (1765–1815), was best known for an illicit dalliance with Lord Horatio Nelson. Updike could not resist the temptation to poke fun at Henry Clay Frick and sometimes feigned ignorance for comedic effect. In a letter dated May 7, 1991, Bernice Davidson, Research Curator at the Frick, informed Updike that Herbert H. Bancroft’s ten-volume Book of Wealth, then on display in the library, was part of the series Achievements of Civilization. Updike could easily have determined the subject of The Book of Wealth, which chronicles wealth creation from antiquity to the Gilded Age, but decided instead to speculate on its contents, writing in the final version that it might contain “a roll call of Mr. Frick’s peers in robber barony,” a “list of directions as to correct wealthy deportment,” or “most desirably, helpful instructions on becoming wealthy ourselves.”

Curiously, Updike nixed his original lede for the article — which praised the museum as “a treasure, without which New York City would be considerably the poorer” — perhaps because it did not comport with Mirabella’s vision for the piece. (In her letter to Updike, Gimbel had proposed a hard-hitting piece centered on “Robber Barons.”)  Nonetheless, Updike’s article tabulates the “boffo, world-class masterpieces” on view, from Francesco Laurana’s Bust of a Lady, “as tenderly abstracted as a Brancusi,” to Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert, “its rocks the color of icebergs and its stigmata being received invisibly, like radio messages.” Ultimately, he concludes, “A plutocrat’s conspicuous consumption...has become a shared vision of what life should be.”

This account is based on MS Am 1793 (1623, 1624, and 1625), Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. Updike’s article for Mirabella was republished in John Updike, More Matter: Essays and Criticism (New York, 1999), 750–53.

Francesco Laurana (ca. 1430–ca. 1502), Bust of a Lady, ca. 1470s. Marble, 18 3/8 x 18 x 9 3/8 in. (46.7 x 45.7 x 23.8 cm). The Frick Collection, New York. Photo: Michael Bodycomb

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