1 June 2021
Kevin Riordan, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
In 1928, Alfred Eisenstaedt took some photographs at a party in Berlin. In one of them, Anna May Wong, Leni Riefenstahl, and Marlene Dietrich are neatly posed before a gilded mirror. Dietrich, it seems, had spilled a flute of champagne on the front of Wong’s dress; the latter was pleased ‘she’d eschewed ornamentation for the simple black dress […] and pearls worn long’.[i] The splash, Wong figured, would be imperceptible in a photograph taken by this ‘dignified-looking man with a camera (or was it just a man with a dignified-looking camera?)’ (6).
This party and this photograph set in motion Amanda Lee Koe’s 2019 Delayed Rays of a Star. They also end the novel, but with a difference. There is a second photograph that captures more of the evening’s blur. A few seconds have passed—in one direction or the other—and the poses have shifted. Dietrich and Riefenstahl switch places; the former has taken off her shawl and put on a hat. On Eisenstaedt’s contact sheet, presumably, these exposures sit side-by-side, separated by an exposed black line. In Lee Koe’s novel, they are separated by almost four hundred pages, by these three women’s lives and their deaths, by nearly a century.
In the interim, there are other parties, but often the celebrations go awry. In 1960, Wong surprises Dietrich at her Las Vegas show. The two slip out from the contracted tiki-bar after-party; Dietrich makes the cabbie stop for ninety-nine-cent shrimp cocktails at a diner. But the ‘champion blend of cortisone and morphine’ keeping Dietrich’s legs in line starts to fade, and Wong reckons that coming was a mistake (315). She drives her beat-up coupe back to L.A., but not before ‘An old look began to pass between them. First it was real. Then it became a look only two actresses could have shared’ (323).
Lee Koe animates these kinds of moments across a photographic century. She scores the gestures of one party and of at least three modernist lives; she retouches the rouge and revels in the textures. Delayed Rays of a Star examines how artists, icons, and pariahs pose and—perhaps more importantly—how we pose them, both alone and together. We isolate modernist figures in new lights but too often confine them to old scripts. We check them in on expanded but still clique-ish guest lists. Modernism’s tenacious logics of acquaintance, association, and influence tether together Dietrich, Riefenstahl, and Wong, along with other luminaries—usually men—who somehow vouch for their claims on our divided attentions.
A couple of years after that party, Dietrich posed for this publicity shot for Morocco (1930). It was her first American film with Josef von Sternberg in a storied 1930–1936 run. Shanghai Express (1932) was their biggest success. Wong joined Dietrich on screen for this one moving motion picture.
Wong is canonised here a few years later by Carl Van Vechten, certified in the company of the others who passed before his lens: Gertrude Stein, Zora Neale Hurston, Marlon Brando, hundreds of others. After another party—New York, 1930—Wong became close with Van Vechten and his wife. Her more than two hundred letters to him are the ‘largest cache of Anna May’s correspondence’.[ii] She also posed in a tuxedo and top hat—with a cocktail rather than Dietrich’s cigarette—but apparently disliked the look. Here Wong is surrounded by metal flowers, a seeming wink at some of the phenomena Anne Anlin Cheng describes in Ornamentalism.[iii]
Riefenstahl more often is pictured making her own pictures. There are portraits too, but hers are less assured. The most iconic shots capture her practice or her association with the Third Reich—Hitler on occasion is in the shot and, when he is not, he still feels present nonetheless. Seeing her on a film set, one wonders which film it is—and then wonders if and how that distinction matters. This rolling shot is from Olympia, whose international success led Riefenstahl to America in 1938. Lee Koe pictures her at breakfast in New York City, leafing through the press coverage about her own arrival, ‘Pretty as a swastika, one paper wrote’ (207).
Lee Koe traces stardom’s effervescence, feels out its seductive gravity, and finds unexpected grace in its eventual banality. The fragile contingency of what was to come in these three women’s lives is both held and withheld in Eisenstaedt’s still-life from a 1928 party. In interviews, Lee Koe speaks of how she found the ‘really specific, spacious canvas’ for her book in the photography aisle of The Strand. She laughs this off as its own kind of pose, ‘such a New York transplant cliché’. [iv] She had been looking for a Nan Goldin book, but found the premise for her first novel instead. It was there, in the density and destiny of a ‘curious picture (and its kinetic twin) that would begin (and end) this all’ (387).
In the closing image (the kinetic twin), things have shifted. Wong suspects flirtation in spilled champagne, ‘tries to recall if she had ever been winked at by a woman’ (7). The mirror behind them leans off-kilter, and Dietrich’s newly donned hat obscures her smile from its own reflection. In the mirror, two other artworks are visible. As in Diego Velásquez’s Las Meninas, the eye ventures both further out and closer in, searching for the artist or some kind of answer in the optics. Eisenstaedt eludes this mirror’s line of sight, as does Riefenstahl, who is now undoubled. She is out of focus, excluded from the others’ attentions.
Lee Koe’s title, Delayed Rays of a Star, is also something she found in a book, another interpolated anachronism in the sequence of a century. In Camera Lucida (1980), Roland Barthes wonders, wide-eyed, about how all the light that touches us is fading starlight; he reckons the ‘duration of the transmission is insignificant’.[v] Lee Koe cordially disagrees and gives form to what can happen in the not insignificant space of delay, of the anticipation and the aftermath. Barthes’s French, différé, lends her a spacious canvas to expose all the differences and deferrals in the extended pose of a modernist party.
[i] Amanda Lee Koe, Delayed Rays of a Star (London: Bloomsbury, 2019), p. 7. All subsequent references are to this edition and given in parenthesis.
[ii] Graham Russell Gao Hodges, Anna May Wong: From Laundryman’s Daughter to Hollywood Legend (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2012), p. 116.
[iii] Anne Anlin Cheng, Ornamentalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).
[iv] Leah Dworkin, ‘A Secret Cut in History’, BOMB, 11 July 2019, <https://bombmagazine.org/articles/amanda-lee-koe-delayed-rays-of-a-star/> [accessed 17 May 2021]
[v] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. by Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), p. 80.
Cover image: Golfers’ Ball, Esplanade Hotel, Berlin, Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, Gift of Lufthansa German Airlines, Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images, Photo ©President and Fellows of Harvard College, 1989.69.4.