Flaming Intrigue

What’s happening to the legacy of an avant-garde legend?

At that point, all Arcade knew about the family was that Smith had not wanted them contacted during his illness. She remembers the sister as keen to get jewelry she could sell at a flea market, when all Smith had was the "junk jewelry" he had altered for use with his costumes. Slater says she sells at antique shows, not flea markets, that Arcade told her she had "a bushel basket of costume jewelry," then didn't produce it, and, worst of all, couldn't find the jewelry Smith had inherited from their mother.

Ultimately, Slater got her brother's end table ("the only thing of beauty that he had") and a small box of jewelry. Arcade also handed over $50,000 in bearer bonds—Smith had told her where he'd hidden them in the floor—but this does not impress Slater now as proof of Arcade's honesty. "Wouldn't you give up $50,000," the sister asks, "if you thought you could make millions?"

Millions? We'll get to that.

The director in 1964
photo: Fred McDarrah
The director in 1964

"The family didn't know Jack's importance in the art world," one of his friends observed. "So it's possible that the stuff would have been destroyed or disappeared somewhere in Texas, while the wimpish friends, including me, did nothing. So the intentions of Penny were good."

Acrimony against Arcade runs high enough among Smith's friends, though, to persuade that one to request anonymity. Not only did Smith have friends from different eras who didn't know each other, but according to a couple of them, he reveled in compartmentalizing people and creating suspicion among them. Some still resent Arcade for getting Smith's keys and taking control. Arcade says Smith gave her permission to use the keys "when he told me where to find the bonds."

Smith's first wish for his work: "Burn everything!" Arcade asked him to consider the future. "The future?" he replied. "It will only get worse!"

If she thought she had to guard the work from Smith's despair and then his family, Arcade intended to guard it just as tightly against one old friend of Smith's in particular, writer Irving Rosenthal. Rosenthal had appeared in Flaming Creatures and No President and has his own collection of Smithiana in San Francisco. "Jack made me swear," says Arcade, "that if I did not destroy his work, which was his main wish, at least I would not let Irving get it." (Smith had a horror of going into anyone's collection or "vault.") This eventually prompted Arcade to write a will that Smith never signed, but first she suggested institutions that might take his oeuvre. Smith rejected all of them. Rosenthal says he actually wanted the same institutional protections for Smith's archive. He'd encouraged him early in 1989 to donate his work to a museum where it could be properly cared for.

By the time Rosenthal got to New York, Smith was in a coma, and Arcade was primed for battle. She confronted Rosenthal when he walked into Smith's hospital room, declaring, "Jack told me what an incredible control freak you are" and "his work is not going into your vault." According to Arcade, Rosenthal stormed back out, while she followed him into the hall, screaming, "Talk to Jack! He's not dead yet!" It was the first time Arcade and Rosenthal had ever met.

For his part, Rosenthal says, "It was absolutely clear to me that the worst thing that could happen to the archives would be for them to end up in Penny's ownership." In his own account of Smith's death, he wrote of finding Smith surrounded by unnamed "death managers," who wanted only to call attention to themselves and then acted irresponsibly with Smith's artifacts. For example, Smith's own slides were projected at his memorial, when Rosenthal thought they should have been duped.

Everything Smith owned eventually went to a storage space in Arcade's building, where it remained unpacked until the boxes were moved to P.S.1 for archiving in 1991. Arcade spent a couple of years in court trying to save Smith's apartment so it could be turned into a museum. The day the landlord gutted the place, she was there pulling things out of a dumpster.

Back in San Francisco, Rosenthal wrote a couple of long letters to Mary Sue Slater, whom he'd met at the memorial, urging her: "Get the stuff. Don't leave it in their hands."

"My husband was strongly opposed to my taking possession of the artistic materials my brother had created," Mary Sue Slater testified in her deposition, "because my husband objected to their sexual orientation, and I did not want to defy him." Her son, Jack's nephew, was to administer the estate. The Nephew requested anonymity here, claiming that for a couple of years after Smith's death, he was called "almost nightly" by Smith's friends.

Hoberman was not part of Smith's circle. Arcade called him in to add legitimacy to an artist still considered "underground." Hoberman says he was "wary" of Arcade at first, but came to trust and respect her.

In January 1990, the Nephew authorized Hoberman "to act as my representative in matters of artistic development concerning the cataloging, transporting, and storing" of Smith's materials. This was the last time anyone associated with the Plaster Foundation heard from the Nephew. He moved without leaving a forwarding address, then ended his involvement with the estate late in 1991, though neither Hoberman nor Arcade ever knew this.

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