Harriet Sohmers Zwerling

In the spring of 1949 Peggy Tolk Watkins and I came up to New York from Black Mountain College and she took me to the loft on Fifth Avenue and 19th Street to meet Ernst and Lucia.
They were the most glamorous couple I had ever seen--a perfectly matched pair. Lucia, with her mop of bronze curls, ancient Greek features, archaic smile, slightly bulging sea-mist colored eyes, was almost too beautiful to be real--a living work of art. Ernst had an intelligent, whippetlike aquiline face, sensual lips, aristocratic bearing. They were creatures touched by exceptional grace.
I was madly impressed by them and by the loft, its recherché furniture, marvelous odors, carefully chosen objects. There was nothing vulgar or common to be seen there. The loft was a privileged space, a creation of two radiant spirits, living in what seemed, to my young eyes, perfect harmony.
I remember a trip to Cicely’s house in Martha’s Vineyard, swimming nude in the chilly surf. Everything perfect, except for me. I always felt gauche and gangly around these two.
In the fifties I was living in Paris. At some point, Lucia and I went to the island of Elba with a group of her Italian friends. I was going through one of my many love-crises and being with this beautiful, energetic, volatile group of men and women was a tonic for my dreary state of mind. Lucia and I shared a room in the primitive little pensione, lying in the same big bed together in seemingly childlike innocence, touched, however gently, by a faint erotic spark we both felt. Neither of us made a move. She was amazing that summer in her tiny bikini, lithe and smooth with a wonderful tawny tan. Her friends, Vezio, Giovanna, Mario, and the others were mad for her. It was impossible not to be.
Going through my postcard collection this morning, I find many from Luch, as I always called her. I can tell their chronology from my different addresses, starting in Paris and ending on Second Avenue. They are mostly from Italy, delicious details from Ghirlandaio, Leonardo, Ucello--one Lippizaner stallion from Vienna, and, surprise--an old-fashioned beach scene from Provincetown. Her clear, vital printing explodes from the cards--she always managed to squeeze a lot into a tiny space.
In the sixties, back in New York, I gave birth to Milo. Lucia adored my baby and became obsessed with the idea of having a child herself. She made a tremendous effort, medically and emotionally. But it did not happen. That sad defeat, as she saw it, did terrible damage to her marriage. Soon after, Ernst moved to Florence. Although the love between them never really disappeared, it had received a grave injury from which neither of them ever fully recovered.
At that time, Lucia made two beautiful portraits of my baby son and one of me with him--a perfect little doe-eyed boy with thick dark hair, sitting on my lap in his blue Dr. Dentons. I am dressed in pink with black stockings, very erect, almost Egyptian, against a luscious opal background. These paintings have transformed my bedroom into a shrine to my son’s infancy and to Lucia herself.
Other gifts from Lucia--a book of Atget photographs, a Doors record--remain with me, precious communications.
Some parts of her life excluded me. I did not share in her political activities although I endorsed them. Our encounters were of a different kind--dialogues over her exquisite teacups and little cakes I brought, long lazy rides in my car, afternoons on the beach in Provincetown, aperitifs on the deck of my rented cottage there, listening to music from madrigals to Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf.
Her death--such a hard and ugly one--I find myself forgetting--increasingly unable to picture her in those last weeks of agony. The photos I took a few months earlier show her tired and pale, wrapped in an antique shawl, her wonderful hair faded, those elegant hands beautifully poised over the teacups. This is how I shall forever remember Lucia.