Artist/filmmaker/choreographer Jo Andres died this month. I don’t know much about her work, but she appears to have been quite important in New York in the ’80s, a very artsy time for New York. Her website is a treasure trove, with examples of her painting and cyanotypes as well as what appears to be (I’ll admit I didn’t watch them) the full video of various of her short films. The site design itself isn’t great, but her artistic aesthetic comes through clearly in the works, which are fascinating and make me wish I’d known more about her before she died. When all of the obituaries I saw referred to her as “Steve Buscemi’s Wife.”
Now, I freely admit that I pick and choose who I’m going to write about for this site. As The Solute’s official unofficial obituarist, I don’t have the time to get to everyone, and my original plan to write a series of obituaries to print as needed became Celebrating the Living instead, surely a much nicer project. So if I hear that someone has died that I’m not familiar with, I have the luxury of simply not writing about them at all. Major news publications do not. They also, I believe, probably have to walk the line of “this person is a notable artist” with “that many people have only heard of because of who she married.”
Sometimes, it’s considerably less forgivable. Sondra Locke was tied to Clint Eastwood in headlines when she died despite her own successful career—including an Oscar nomination from before she was involved with Eastwood. He deliberately tanked her career in life; she was shackled to him in death. It’s unfortunate at best and cruel at worst, given that she had to take him to court twice over his treatment of her. I haven’t seen any of the movies she directed—which is the issue of the second lawsuit, really, that she didn’t have the chance to direct more—but by all accounts she was extremely talented as an actress and probably a pretty good director, and certainly she deserved to be allowed to stand alone at last.
It is also primarily a phenomenon seen with women. I’m not going to say “exclusively,” because that’s asking for trouble. (Just because I wish I got more comments on my articles doesn’t mean I’m going to court a horde of MRAs swooping down with a single obscure example!) The important thing is that the woman in these cases has her own body of work. It may be entwined with that of their partner/ex—Sondra Locke acted in one non-Eastwood film during the course of their relationship aside from her directorial debut Ratboy, which has a fascinating cast not including him—but even if her work is separate, she is not.
It is true that the human brain is a pattern-forming system. I have a friend who loves me because the way I remember her birthday is that it’s the day after my sister’s; my sister’s birthday is September 10. This is not the way most people remember her birthday. It’s also true that there are people I’ve known in person for years that I still primarily think of as “So-and-so’s partner.” (My own now-ex-brother-in-law, for example.) On the other hand, I both have that luxury as an individual where I would not as a journalist and think that way regardless of gender. In fact am more likely to think of men that way, though several women are indelibly printed in my mind as ex-girlfriends of a friend. And even in that case, if I were to write an obituary, I’d start with what they had done themselves, not with knowing them through him. The only one I’d start that way, I never liked in the first place.