Harold Morris, 39, and Lenore Doolan, 26, meet in 2002 at the Halloween party of mutual friends. Doolan is an up-and-coming columnist for the New York Times, specializing in baking; Morris is a freelance photographer. The couple engage in a New York-style courtship: emails exchanged on napkins, notes tucked into books, a menu from the Oyster Bar, dinner at Wallsé, scribbled exchanges on playbills: “Excruciating/Unbearable/Who invited us??/Brown suit?”
Lenore and Harold initially seem a fine match, both working in the arts, with a varied social life, similar literary tastes (at one point we’re shown their duplicate paperbacks), a fondness for kitschy objects, and a love of expensive fashion. Alas, unhappiness sidles in, often depicted in poignant emails:
Hal: “You are a tough negotiator, but I accept your terms…There is nothing to be scared of!”
Lenore: “Am glad we spoke…Hal, I’m so new at this, this whole relationship business…I guess I’m a little scared.”
As the book progresses, Hal comes across as distant, at times insensitive. He finds it difficult to hide his disinterest in food, even as Lenore is promoted and given her own column at the New York Times.
Lenore, for her part, is needy and demanding. Her diaries, kept in Smythson of Bond Street Daily Diaries, frequently list her daily food intake—that of a woman starving herself, successfully, to a size five—along with more cryptic asides: “Pick up prescription,” “Apologize.” “Sort-of-fight over water bottle.” A fortune cookie note is taped in, advising the recipient not to be overly judgmental of a loved one.
The incredible thing about Hal and Lenore’s story is less Hal and Lenore themselves than their presentation: Shapton has created an auction catalogue of their possessions, meticulously photographed, numbered, and described. For once, objects are not mute, and any gaps left by a shattered white noise machine (Lot 1306, “Irreparable damage to top and sides, as if struck by hammer.”) are more than compensated for by the emails and letters Hal and Lenore exchange not only with each other but friends and family.
The objects themselves are fascinating, the ultimate prurient peek into another’s medicine cabinet. Harold and Lenore are—were?—great collectors, leading me to wonder where they kept their motley collections. I mean, New York apartments are tiny, right? Where did they fit the cast iron flower frogs (Lot 1212), poodle figurines (Lot 1181), group of knitted food (Lot 1299), or the stuffed squirrel (Lot 1303)?
Even more fascinating are their respective travel cases, neatly disassembled for our inspection. Lenore’s (Lot 1079) contains, amongst numerous items, a Chanel lipstick, a Henri Bendel Concealer, Nars blusher, a Dr. Hauschka lipstick (Lenore is clearly a fan of expensive make-up). But things grow more revealing: a bottle of Wellbutrin, another of Lorazepam—that’s Ativan for all you calm people—four tampons (why only four?), a tube of prescription tacrolimus ointment—an eczema treatment—and various hair clips.
Harold’s Prada travel case (Lot 1080) holds three toothbrushes, a tube of Kiehl’s Aloe Vera and Oatmeal Musk Hand and Body Lotion, Neal’s Yard Euphrasia Tincture (for eye infections), NicAssist, NicoDerm, and a jar of Jo Malone Apricot and Aloe eye gel.
The cases are packed for a trip to Venice, documented in postcards, books, photographs, and a letter to Lenore’s sister documenting a nasty fight en route to the Milan airport, written on pink G.Lalo, Vergé de France paper. Harold and Lenore do adore their brand names.
But no amount of Valentine’s Day pink turtle soup or gifts Elsa Schiaparelli astrakhan coats (Lot 1242) can save the relationship. Nor can the self-help books in Lot 1258. Harold and Lenore’s relationship fizzles. Everything must go.
Shapton’s creativity and breadth are amazing. Not only do we get a strong sense of Harold and Lenore as people, she manages to include a dazzling array of physical materials. Do you, for instance, have Cindy Sherman’s The Complete Untitled Film Stills, (you do? I’m so jealous). Do you ahve a John Galliano black evening gown, a Frette travel pillow, mix cds including Mark Mothersbaugh, Belle and Sebastian, Destroyer, and the Silver Jews?
If the answer is yes to any of the above, you are likely not much over 30 and, like our hero and heroine, live in New York (not, heaven forbid, Park Slope.) The narrative itself—largely item descriptions, emails, and bits of Lenore’s columns—is so compelling that I had to force myself to slow down to look closely at the photographs. In all, an amazingly creative, amusing, sad, and happy book. Read it, read it, read it.