Monday, April 22, 2024

Remembering Aline Kominsky-Crumb, An Icon for Feminists and Women Caricaturists in All Media

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“The Crumb documentary is ruining my life,” complained Aline Kominsky-Crumb in 1993, as Terry Zwigoff’s biopic about Robert Crumb, her husband, gained acclaim, becoming a darling on the festival circuit. “Next thing you know, we’ll be invited to the Jerusalem Film Festival.” All of this drama was played out in a comic strip that appeared in The New Yorker magazine. Festival director Leah von Leer saw an opportunity and wrote to the Crumbs. “Your nightmare has come true. You are officially invited.”

Aline, sadly, died on Saturday at age 74 from pancreatic cancer in Sauve, France.

Nominated for an academy award for best documentary feature, “Crumb” was a revealing look not only of this famous cartooning couple but Robert’s unusual family, capturing his highly eccentric and artistic brothers just before one committed suicide. Passionate for jazz, Robert had a huge record collection. Vinyl filled a room. Fearing an atmosphere of violence in their area of California, where gun ownership was de rigeuer, the Crumbs left for the south of France and lived in a multi-storied house carved out of the rock on the Vidourle river banks.

“Did your records make it across the Atlantic?” I asked him as a way of saying hello when I encountered Robert and Aline in the lobby of our hotel in Jerusalem; I too came with a film, a documentary about the writer/composer Paul Bowles who lived in Tangier. The Crumbs and my family—my husband Bob Salpeter, our two daughters, and my mother aged 73 and a survivor of Auschwitz –hung out. While Aline and I gabbed away getting to know one another—we had grown up in the New York City boroughs, finding our escape to Manhattan; we had ties to the Soho Weekly News– Robert was helping my mother navigate the streets, gentle as could be. Aline dubbed her own mother Blabette, but genuinely liked mine grasping her spirituality.

Several times we visited the Crumbs in the south of France. We occupied a room that had Robert’s giant sculpture of an Aline-like figure, with outsized thighs, wearing cartoon clothes similar to the ones Aline found in the country flea markets. Aline was a superb cook, memorably stuffing a fish with vegetables and spicing with fresh ginger. A post-hippie who led locals in Pilates, she went for a bit of plastic surgery later on. One year when we arrived, Aline’s French boyfriend settled in with the Crumbs. Robert had his own ‘friend’ in the States. The had each written about their open marriage.

My girls, Nina and Jane, played with their daughter Sophie, running through the narrow streets of the medieval town. They wanted to know if they could do the same in New York where we lived, on Third Avenue. The Crumbs made a big impression. Robert doodled in the local bistros, making drawings of the regulars. Known for his Janis Joplin Cheap Thrills album cover, his Hogarth-like sketching style, irreverent subjects, he was huge in Europe and elected to the American Academy of Arts & Letters.

Aline, an icon for feminists and women caricaturists in all media, had a more subterranean career, her self-effacing characters in the manner of the great Joan Rivers’ self-deprecating humor, and others such as Lena Dunham, who championed women for who we are. Grounded in a deep humanity, Aline kept it real in her books, and subversive magazines. A pioneer in the genre, Aline recounted her life in her graphic drawing memoir, “Need More Love,” recognizing that her “Twisted Sisters” were at once a manifestation of the culture’s innermost fears about women’s power and the need to laugh at ourselves.

It breaks my heart that she is gone.

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