Opinion | The Strange Experience of Snooping Through Your Literary Hero’s Closet

Preceded by a series of previews in Palm Beach, Paris and New York — the last of which included a performance by the Abyssinian Baptist Church choir — the estate auction of the legendary fashion editor André Leon Talley was a full-blown cultural event. The live action fetched $1.4 million, but fans around the world can continue to feast their eyes on his dazzling collection of haute couture, high-end furniture, art and other luxury items, many of them personalized or custom-made to fit Mr. Talley’s substantial frame and colossal personality.

Mr. Talley’s auction came just a few months after the worldly possessions of Joan Didion went to gavel at Stair Galleries in Hudson, N.Y. — an event that generated astonishingly high bids (a pair of Celine sunglasses: $27,000) and even more interest from those who admired her essays, her novels, her screenplays or her ability to dangle a cigarette with panache and gravitas. In October the personal effects of Elizabeth Wurtzel, the author of “Prozac Nation” were sold online, giving those who once paged through her provocative memoir of sex, drugs and psychopharmacology the chance instead to click through images of her handbags and half-used perfume bottles.

The archetype for events of this type surely has to be the Camelot auction, the sale of the estate of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in 1996. Today, when celebrity is so thoroughly commodified and Donald Trump is hawking digital superhero trading cards, it’s hard to recall how almost comically outré it was to see John F. Kennedy’s golf clubs and John-John’s high chair getting hauled out on the world’s front lawn. But it was a smashing success, with prices that exceeded all estimates, and more followed. Whether it was Audrey Hepburn’s auction in 2017 or Zsa Zsa Gabor’s in 2018, these sales offered something more than just the memorabilia: fame, power, money and beauty rolled into one shiny triumphalist bundle, a fantasy that belonged to everyone but would be sold to the highest bidder.

Mr. Talley’s possessions were a testament to his gilded taste and his even more gilded connections: scattered among the Dior brooches and ormolu candlesticks were portraits of him by the likes of Karl Lagerfeld, Gianni Versace and Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis; mementos of Diana Vreeland and Naomi Campbell; a valentine from Andy Warhol; Louis XV-style console tables; a complete set of personalized Louis Vuitton luggage; and, of course, so many bespoke caftans.

The objects told a remarkable tale of self-creation by someone who was born into modest circumstances in the segregated South. As a child, he pored over Vogue in a Durham, N.C., public library, and he has described the way it served as a portal into a glittering world of not only fashion but also art, literature and beautiful things of every variety. Decades later, he emerged as a leading figure at that magazine, writing breezy, waggish dispatches from the fashion world — which I, in turn, pored over in my own teenage years. I couldn’t say exactly why his columns appealed to me so much, but I felt in his writing the centripetal pull toward some sort of transcendent aesthetic future in which everything was perfect.

Ms. Didion, Mr. Talley and Ms. Wurtzel were all pursuing their own fantasies when they came to New York. For all three, a job at a magazine was the first step on the path to fame. And for all three, style — literary, sartorial, you name it — was a huge part of their identity. “Style is character,” Ms. Didion famously said. Ms. Wurtzel wrote that she always believed in the maxim, first attributed to Dorothy Parker (another Vogue alumna), that “if I took care of the luxuries, the necessities would take care of themselves.” “I always respond to fashion in an emotional way,” Mr. Talley said.

Mr. Talley achieved everything that that kid in the Durham public library could have dreamed of. But the last chapter of his life was less glamorous. After a highly publicized fallout with Vogue’s editor in chief, Anna Wintour, he underwent a dramatic downshift. Leaving Manhattan for the suburbs, he lived in and made payments towards a house owned by a former fashion connection, then faced eviction when their relationship soured.

Ms. Didion remained glamorous until the end, featured at the age of 80 in an advertising campaign for Celine, but her later years were defined by tragedy; the loss of her husband and then, shortly after, her daughter sank her into grief so deep that she filled two best-selling and award-winning memoirs, “The Year of Magical Thinking” and “Blue Nights.” Ms. Wurtzel’s last years were marked by new horizons — as a graduate of Yale Law School and, for a few years, a lawyer at Boies Schiller Flexner — but also by health troubles. She died of breast cancer at 52.

Though Mr. Talley, Ms. Didion and Ms. Wurtzel were all public figures, they got there in large part by arranging words on a page, a process that withholds as much as it shares. Their legions of fans might have thought — as fans do — that they knew these figures, but it was only an illusion, carefully constructed by people whose private lives remained, in the end, private.

Mr. Talley’s auction, hosted by Christie’s, was exquisitely curated and presented. Ms. Didion’s was also beautifully presented and succeeded in raising nearly $2 million for medical research and scholarships. Ms. Wurtzel’s, featuring poorly styled photographs of, in many cases, prosaic items, was haphazard. But looking through all the offerings, I had the same feeling that I was trespassing and that the lives in question had been laid out like an overturned drawer for the dirty hands of the internet to paw through.

To some degree, it isn’t only these three lives that have ended but also the dream they represented — of coming to New York, getting a job at a famous magazine and writing your way to stardom. The magazine industry is a very different place now, and it isn’t funding that dream as lavishly as it used to.

To borrow one of Ms. Didion’s best-known lines: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Future generations of writers may have to find another story to tell themselves. But they’ll be able to click back through the auction listings and see how pretty it used to look.

Carina Chocano is the author of “You Play the Girl,” which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism.

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