Cathy Horyn, fashion critic of the Times, writes a surprisingly judgmental story (Modeling and All That Came After) about Léon Bing, a '60s model turned journalist who didn't fit the mold. Bing wrote her own tale in a book called Swans and Pistols: Modeling, Motherhood, and Making It in the Me Generation, published last week.
Oddly, Horyn doesn't seem to understand the '60s at all, and doesn't seem to like Bing.
It is difficult to explain someone like Ms. Bing. The problem is partly a contemporary one. We're not used to a dame like her, a woman who possesses both modesty and a sharp tongue, who goes from accommodating girlfriend of a dealer to accomplished writer. She fits more readily in a different era -- the '20s or '40s -- and yet here she is.
Bing actually seems to embody what the '60s were about: A life that wasn't about becoming Ozzie and Harriet, conventional folks in social roles that didn't let them fulfill their dreams. We lived out our fantasies, leaped into our opportunities, traveled as far as we could till we hit some wall or another.
And, by the way, ... Ladies Love Outlaws. Boredom is the enemy, bad boys are fun and writers like experiences.
The acquisition of money was not the point.
Today it's assumed that models and other beautiful creatures will manage to secure themselves financially, with the usual reality show or clothing line. "And Léon just never thinks that way," said John Steppling, a screenwriter and theatrical teacher, who has known Ms. Bing for 30 years. Another friend, the writer Dinah Kirgo (sister of Julie) said, "She's almost made her life more difficult by the choices she's made."
Well, she became a freelance journalist, for one thing. In 1985, at the urging of a neighbor, a writer named Larry DuBois, Ms. Bing hauled herself down to the boardwalk in Venice to interview some homeless teenagers squatting in a building nearby. She had brains, she didn't take a lot of guff and she wasn't inhibited by what she didn't know. To her, the homeless youths, like the gang members she met later, were no different than most American teenagers. "They just wanted to tell me how they felt," she said.
The result was books such as Do or Die: America's Most Notorious Gangs Speak for Themselves, Smoked: A True Story About the Kids Next Door and A Wrongful Death: One Child's Fatal Encounter with Public Health and Private Green.
Perhaps understandably, Léon Bing doesn't say much on the phone to Horyn. "Modeling just gave me another kind of confidence, beyond what I had from my family." Very interesting doors opened for her. Horyn disapproves:
Apparently one husband was enough for Ms. Bing. In the '50s, while modeling in New York, she met a nice-looking television director named Mack Bing, and they had a daughter, Lisa. After returning to Los Angeles, and a divorce, Ms. Bing and Lisa moved into a Spanish-style apartment building in West Hollywood. Ms. Bing was hanging out with Cass Elliot of the Mamas and the Papas. There was a cloud of pot smoke. Doors were open.
"There was an understanding of what it was like to not have much money, and people opened their homes to those who were coming along," said the musician Keith Allison, best known for playing with the group Paul Revere and the Raiders. He met Ms. Bing in 1971, when he was staying in Don Johnson's house. "Sunday afternoon was poker games or lawn parties. Ringo lived up in the hills. You'd bop around to wherever you got invitations."
Yup, life in the '60s was one long attempt to find the groove and let it take you interesting places. What else can you show me? Serendipity got lots of chances, and catalysts were all along the way.
A model's looks and connections would have attracted singular experiences. As the sole reviewer of Bing's book so far at Amazon says,
"May you live many lives" is often considered a blessing. But it may also be a curse. You can decide for yourself by reading this memoir which covers fashion, art, movies, theater, drugs, gangsters and, oddly linking them all, being and having an extremely original mother. A definite blessing is that Leon Bing is a damn good writer. I felt present at the events of her life, some of which I was glad happened to her and not me.
One husband not enough? Maybe that husband was too much, or too little, or too wrong for her. Sometimes fairy-tale young marriages crumble in the face of reality and immaturity, and it takes a long time and a few tries to get yourself together and find somebody together to get it right with.
We are far away now from that flowering of freedom that so scandalized our parents' generation, and now seems to scandalize Horyn as well. Bing may indeed have taken freedom to limits that most of us stopped well short of. Most of those people didn't survive those mistakes.
But life is a series of tricky days. Spinning out on curves is to be expected if you do it right.
You just watch.