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From the Vault Of Art Shay: Monkeyshines

By Art Shay in News on Jul 25, 2013 7:00PM

(Legendary Chicago-based photographer Art Shay has taken photos of kings, queens, celebrities and the common man in a 60-year career. This week, Art shows photos taken by him and Billy Corgan 50 years apart are connected.)

Photo by Billy Corgan, published with permission.

Billy Corgan is on a multi-city European tour and the other day—using his phone or slightly more facile Leica digital—he sent me this seemingly simple snapshot of a suburban Paris hotel, the Belfort, bearing the proud sign: "Residence of Jean-Paul Sartre."

Billy's mind on the camera is almost as talented as it is on one of his keyboards or guitars. He also has a great memory. In a minute I figured out that he had remembered a sexy story I told him about my pal, Chicago novelist Nelson Algren or at least the story Algren's lover, Simone de Beauvoir told him about her lifetime companion, Sartre, acknowledged by the super smarts of the world as having the best male mind in the world in the 500 years since Shakespeare. The best female mind is still up for grabs, but could have been Simone's. When both of them were 21, the story goes, his Sorbonne IQ score was a few points higher than her's. (Or was that a smart lady's tactic to please a new lover-mentor?)

Photo credit: Art Shay, used with permission.

Which brings us to the tale of the monkey: You are looking at a weird animal picture. It shows a year-old bonnet monkey flying through the sunset air, half into a big monkey cage at Brookfield Zoo shot with a 135mm Hektor lens on a rangefinder Leica.

So? In those days I worked so many days at the Zoo that director Robert Bean named “a waist-deep mud slough” after me—The Art Shay Life Magazine Slough. It was behind the herpetology haunts of snake man Robert Snedigar, who guided me through photographing the short-lived egg teeth of king snakes story. I asked Snedigar how snake vision compared to human vision. His answer: "I've been a herpetologist 30 years and I've never seen a snake wearing eyeglasses." The kind of quote they wouldn't let me pass on to Life readers out of a slithery rectitude that Eve would have understood on an Edens bypath.)

So both Algren and de Beauvoir admired my strange picture of the monkey giving up the freedom to live outside the cage for a life safely behind bars . Inside were all the benefits of captivity—a kind of grudgingly erratic health care, warmth and high-caloric food. Living outside the cage involved fighting cats and dogs and evading kids with sticks and baseball bats, and of course furriers. Monkey fur coats were big . My mother wore one.

Simone de Beauvoir. (Photo by Art Shay; used with permission.)
Snedigar explained all this to me pointing out that the bonnet monkey's skull or at least its fontanelle, grew quickly until it was a year old- and suddenly became too big for the bars. It would have to make a choice—live inside or outside the cage. My picture depicted a moment of truth in the life of one bonnet monkey. She chose to live inside the cage. He sneakily (if not snakily) delayed telling me the above, saying, "It happens all the time."

Algren and Simone discussed the philosophy behind this with much laughter. Then de Beauvoir sent the picture to Sartre who, for a while at least, hung it on the wall of his apartment (in the building in Billy Corgan's picture!) in which Simone would edit his plays and tracts while he would go out chasing young girls to "cuddle," her exact phrase for his Gallic Weinerizing. But Sartre, according to Nelson, added a caption: commentary in which he accused Simone of being like the monkey, battening on the goodies Sartre's royalties provided! It drew tears.

But it would be several years before Madame's earnings would exceed his with The Second Sex which Nelson encouraged and did some American research for. It became an international best-seller… still is. She never went hungry again and jealously bad-mouthed Sartre's minuscule love life as long as it lasted. While she proudly wrote that it was Algren, her New World savage, who provided her first, then serial orgasms.

It was at this time that Simone famously deprecated Jean-Paul's love life such as it wasn't, saying, "he would fall in love with any woman who put her tongue up his ass."

This was one of the quotes I passed on to author Thomas Dyja, who used it recently in his superb, controversial The Third Coast. (Which ,in November, will win Dyja the Tribune's non-fiction Book of the Year Award, the Heartland Prize.)

As Studs used to say and I delight in re-quoting him a lot, "It's all connected, Nels, ain't it?"

Printed with permission.

If you can't wait until this time every Wednesday to get your Art Shay fix, please check out the photographer's blog, which is updated regularly. Art Shay's book, Chicago's Nelson Algren, is also available at Amazon.