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How Edward Mapplethorpe Got His Name Back

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Edward moved to Los Angeles and got work assisting photographers who worked for Playboy. That was when he started using heroin—a habit that grew worse as he was rocked by a succession of family tragedies. First, his mother was diagnosed with emphysema, and before he was able to digest that news, his brother Richard, an engineer with whom he had lived in L.A. before he got settled, was diagnosed with lung cancer. By the time the doctors caught it, the cancer had metastasized to his brain, and he was dead within a few months, at the age of 41. Robert had refused to visit his older brother before his death. “His explanation to me,” says Edward, “was, ‘If I was in Richard’s shoes, I wouldn’t want him to see me like that.’ aids was out there by then, and I’m sure he thought, ‘I may very well be in Richard’s shoes.’ It was too much of a mirror.”

It wasn’t long after Richard’s passing that Robert was diagnosed with aids, and Edward moved back to New York to help take care of him. “Unbeknownst to all of us,” says Edward’s brother James, who works for Smith Barney and lives in Massachusetts, “Ed was trying to help Robert through the early years of his illness until Robert was comfortable sharing that with Mom and Dad. That was a very troublesome burden for the youngest member of the family to carry.”

Edward was living in Robert’s studio on Bond Street with a woman named Melody, an assistant to Patricia Field by day and a dominatrix at night. Robert had introduced them, saying to Edward, “If I was straight, Melody would be my girlfriend.” They quickly fell in love. In a portrait that Robert shot of the couple, she is pale as a ghost, nude from the waist up, flat-chested, with a bleached-blonde crew cut—an Annie Lennox clone; Edward looks like Lestat: skinny and pale, long hair in a ponytail. “I think I only weighed 120-some-odd pounds,” he says. Were the two of you doing heroin? I ask. “Yeah,” he says. “Big time.”

“I’d be a lot more successful right now if he had just given me his blessing. It pains me that I never got that.”

As Robert grew sicker, he was confined to his bed in his apartment on 23rd Street, and Edward found himself in a strangely familiar role, working for Robert in the studio—only this time his brother wasn’t there. At night, he and Melody would bring Robert dinner from McDonald’s, the only food he wanted to eat. “Melody used to entertain Robert like you wouldn’t believe. Every time she would come as another character—she had all these wigs, 300 pairs of shoes. We’d sit and watch TV until he was ready to go to sleep and then go back to the loft. It was just…tiring. I was tired. I was burying my feelings and doing drugs. People have since told me that everybody in the studio knew. Robert probably knew, too.”

Two days after New Year’s Eve in 1989, Edward went to see a doctor, desperate for help with his addiction. “I was in tears, just a wreck. I said, ‘My brother’s going to die in a few months. If he leaves me any money, I’m going to be dead, because I know where it’s going to go.’”

Robert’s imminent death inspired a feeding frenzy. Everyone knew that his photographs—many of which had as their subject the very thing that was killing him—would soon be worth astronomical amounts of money. “When someone’s dying and there’s an estate,” says Edward, “it’s a weird dynamic that gets set up and people are hanging around. It was a really ugly time.” Toward the end, Robert’s hospital room took on a circus quality that Edward could barely stomach. “There were a lot of people in the hospital room, and it was just too much,” he says. “Because it was like, ‘Is that his last breath? Is this his last breath?’”

When Robert died, Edward and Melody were informed that they had to move out of the Bond Street loft. Robert’s studio now belonged to the Mapplethorpe Foundation, and it wasn’t long before “there were locks on everything,” says Edward. Robert had set up the foundation to guard his legacy, raise money and awareness for aids research, help promote photography in the art world—and keep his estate out of his family’s hands. (Robert did leave Edward “a nest egg,” Edward says.) The foundation is run by Michael Stout, a lawyer, who told a reporter last year that Robert’s “primary focus” when they were planning his estate was to “disinherit his family … His family wasn’t bad. What he disliked about them was that they were ordinary.” The antipathy was mutual, at least from his father’s point of view. In one of the few interviews Harry Mapplethorpe ever gave about his son, he is asked, “Are you proud of your son?” Big sigh. “For the artwork he did, yes,” says the father. “But for some of the photographs that he took, I just could not accept them … Admitting that he was gay … that wouldn’t have helped matters at all. Because I probably would have more resentment if he had told me.”

Edward says he now has a good, if hard-won, relationship with the foundation, though he’s never been asked to serve on its board. “It’s sad not to have a family member somehow involved. Robert sort of missed the point … again. There are a few points that Robert missed,” he says. “To have Robert die with this big estate and there’s not one mention of my mother and father? Wow, Robert, why did you do that? You wouldn’t have been who you were if you didn’t have those parents to rebel against. I mean, on your deathbed, I would hope that you would somehow come to peace with that.”

It is Edward’s greatest regret that he was never able to bring his brother and his father together. “I thought I was destined to be a catalyst between them,” he says. “It has been the source of so much pain. And the worst part of it all is that I was unsuccessful. It’s probably the saddest part of my life.”


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