Elaine Kraf Wrote a Cult Classic. Then She Was Forgotten

When Elaine Kraf died, in 2013, no major publication—or any minor ones, as far as I can tell—ran an obituary. This is perhaps unsurprising; although she had worked as a painter and as the principal of a special-education school, she was probably most notable as a novelist, and she hadn’t published a book in more than thirty years. The Times had called her first novel, “I Am Clarence,” an “extraordinary achievement,” but it was long since out of print, as were two books that had followed it. But her fourth and final book, “The Princess of 72nd Street,” remains in print; it was reissued by the Dalkey Archive Press in 2000, and has enough of a following to make it seem at least slightly strange that an online search for Kraf returns little more than a six-line Wikipedia page, a couple short bios on publisher Web sites, and a handful of listings for the remaining copies of her works.

I first went looking for information about Kraf after asking, on Twitter, for recommendations for a very specific sort of book. I wanted to read formally experimental novels that were written by women in the nineteen-seventies and eighties and that had what I thought of as a certain New York sensibility. I was picturing un-ashed cigarettes on empty stoops, halogen reflections in scummy puddles, hot asphalt under rushing feet. The novelist and critic Lauren Oyler suggested “The Princess of 72nd Street”; it was the only suggestion that fit the bill. When I asked Oyler how she came to know of the book, I got a sense of the novel’s following: she’d heard about it from a critic, Kaitlin Phillips, who was put on to it by the novelist Joshua Cohen. Cohen had heard of Kraf not from a writer but from a performer, the late Joel Gold, who, Cohen explained, “paid his bills as a cameraman and fashion photographer, but dedicated his life to performing, not as a standup so much as an improvising monologist in the Professor Irwin Corey/Lord Buckley tradition.”

“The Princess of 72nd Street” tells the story of Ellen, a bipolar artist who lives in Manhattan and paints “tangerines, brown teapots, rolls and books.” Much of the novel concerns her “radiances,” or manic episodes, when she becomes Esmeralda, who dresses in clothing with “flowers, cascades of color, or abstract designs,” plus medallions: an Egyptian ankh and “crushed metal found in the garbage.” She is proud and mad and charming, a star in the firmament who is often taken for “a hooker, Sabra, American Indian, actress, ballerina, witch, holy saint, mother, girl, mystic, ethereal spirit, bitch, earth goddess.” The Upper West Side that Esmeralda rules is “not a country for Nordic blondes of impeccable taste” but for “film makers who talk film but never make one, some film makers who actually do, residents who do nothing or once did something, actors and actresses waiting on line, overly casual psychologists, and a few self-made mystics”—people who drink and sleep and smoke together in tiny apartments that line “sooty streets with outdoor tables put right down among the garbage bags,” where the sunlight glitters off the grime.

The book is a high and a comedown at once—a paroxysm of sex and booze and, above all, color. It’s that rare thing: a true underappreciated classic. So why did Kraf never publish another book?

Kraf was born in the Bronx, in 1936, to a pair of lifelong New Yorkers, Harry and Lena Kraf, née Rosenfeld. Her father was a member of the New York State Senate from 1956 to 1965, and of the State Assembly from ’67 to ’72. (He got an obituary in the Times.) Elaine was their only daughter. In her early forties, she married a credit-and-collections consultant and poet named Martin Altman, who told me that his ex-wife—they divorced in 2002—had rejected her parents’ hopes that she would settle down with a businessman or a congressman’s son. Instead, she went to art school. Her father, Altman said, “would not attend her art shows or publishing events. He saw no value in art or the life of the mind.” But, he added, Elaine “had a creative force in her that strove to break the bonds that held it back, whether in art, writing, fashion.”

Altman and Kraf adopted a daughter, Milena Kraf Altman, who told me that her mother “reinvented herself every couple of years.” Kraf worked in special-education schools and, in 1986, became a principal at Astoria Blue Feather. Throughout the seventies and eighties, she painted and wrote. Her visual art, like her writing, often had a fragmentary quality. She made mixed-media portraits with “different textures and fabrics,” Milena said. “She would be walking down the streets of New York, and she would see an old drawer, and she would pick it up and be, like, ‘O.K., this is gonna be my canvas.’ ”

Kraf’s novels vary in style but share a handful of themes. She was fascinated, in particular, by those who deviate from social norms (artists, lunatics, circus performers) and by the methods used to keep social norms in place (psychoanalysis, mental institutions, lobotomies). All of the books feature a beautiful, isolated female protagonist of delicate sanity who is surrounded by untrustworthy men. “I Am Clarence,” her début, employs a series of disparate viewpoints to explore the relationship between a mentally ill mother, her suitors, and her disabled son. Like the main character in “The Princess of 72nd Street,” the mother is disintegrating, unable to find respect or love, and perhaps unable to give it, too. Her son, Clarence, is mocked and pitied. She lets a group of doctors experiment with him and possibly give him a lobotomy and, in the end, he is taken away.

Her second novel, “The House of Madelaine,” is altogether stranger: to the extent that it has a plot at all, it is about a woman who shares her first name with the author and is unable to escape the inhabitants of a house which belongs to a friend. Eventually, she is accused of murdering her friend’s husband, and faces an absurd trial; the novel’s most obvious influence is “Alice in Wonderland.” It is profoundly disorienting, like a recurring dream, the details of which keep escaping you. Passages seem to connect before lurching out of reach, as if disappearing, with the book’s characters, down the house’s central hallway, lined with Formica tables.

Kraf’s first two books were published by Doubleday, but, unsurprisingly, after “The House of Madelaine,” she left corporate publishing for independent houses. The Fiction Collective, which was run by a group of experimental writer-editors—including Ronald Sukenick, Jonathan Baumbach, B. H. Friedman, and Peter Spielberg—put out her third book, “Find Him!” Its narrator is an unnamed, childlike woman, who one day awakes dressed as a schoolgirl, unable to eat, speak, or clean herself without aid. Her caregiver is a man named Oliver, who alternately presents as her father, lover, captor, abuser, and teacher. Oliver, we learn, had a wife, Edith, who has vanished; it is strongly suggested that Edith is our narrator before she had a lobotomy. The text weaves together dreams, fantasies, and nightmares, and is broken up by musical notations and drawings. An unsettling meditation on patriarchal violence and the construction of femininity, the novel feels indebted to both Tillie Olsen and Anaïs Nin, two of Kraf’s favorite authors, and deserves to be rediscovered as a significant work of feminist literature.

But, if there is one author who seems to act as a forebear for Kraf, it is Jean Rhys, whose work Kraf considered in an essay that she published in 1985. Rhys’s women, Kraf argues, are essentially a single character, a deteriorating figure who is a “victim of her self-destructive nature and of her dependence, for survival, upon men.” Rhys’s men, Kraf writes, while distinct, are generally loathsome, feckless, and chauvinistic.

It’s Rhys who comes to mind when reading “The Princess of 72nd Street,” with its unspooling account of how it feels to come apart when you were never really whole. At the beginning of the book, Ellen/Esmeralda has at least a degree of control, or if nothing else the illusion of it: she “projects a special dignity” no one would want to “defile or tamper with,” she says. She’s wrong, of course—wrong, Kraf seems to suggest, because she is a woman, wrong because that means that somebody, somewhere, will always want to defile or tamper with her dignity. When Ellen enters a radiance, the prose becomes frenetic, whirligig; we do not merely observe Esmeralda but race alongside her, across a Manhattan filled with jazz clubs and street performers and bright yellow sunlight. After this centrifugal rush, the return to earth, during her depressive periods, is wrenching. By the end, we have seen her exploited and abused, and the ache and tear of the novel comes in our recognizing that this has happened before she does. Although the book is wryly funny—“Anyone who wears a brassiere on West 72nd Street is suspect,” Esmeralda says, in one of many memorable declarations—it is also devastating.

In order to interest New Directions in publishing “The Princess of 72nd Street,” Kraf sent “letter after letter” to New Directions, Altman told me—“sort of quirky letters,” he added. They worked. In the first few years after the book was released, she wrote two more novels, with the working titles “Joachim and the Angels” and “The Final Delusions of Cinderella Korn,” and she hoped that New Directions would publish them, too. She told Peter Glassgold, an editor there, in a letter, that she had “forced out” the first of these books “during a difficult period.” The publishing house passed on that one, and also on “Cinderella Korn,” though Altman recalls that New Directions asked Kraf to rewrite it “at least twice, which she tried to do.” He got the impression from Kraf that the publisher “wanted something more like ‘The Princess of 72nd Street.’ ” Milena remembers her mother being relatively sanguine about her rejections. “She understood, I guess, the reasoning why,” Milena said. “And she just kept at it. She had a bunch of novels that she would try to get out there, but no one was picking them up.”

In another letter to Glassgold, Kraf wrote that she “never particularly liked ‘The Princess of 72nd Street’ as literature. In that,” she went on, “I guess our tastes are very different.” She was in her mid-forties, and had recently had a miscarriage and an accompanying intestinal virus; she was still recuperating. She described “The Princess of 72nd Street” as a “farewell to a part of my life composed of dreams and fantasies,” adding, “I was young for a long long time and now I am not young any longer.” She received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which gave her a year to work on “Cinderella Korn.” She later said that the book came from “the good, creative part” of her.

Milena said that her mother, near the end of her life, was working on a play about a woman who has, perhaps, seen her younger self in Central Park. She was “very determined to finish it,” Milena said. But, in 2011, Kraf was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. She died two years later. Kraf’s unfinished manuscripts, alongside starts and scraps of unrealized novels, sit in a storage space in Manhattan, which is “filled with so much of her artwork and her writings,” Milena told me. She has not yet been able to properly go through it all. ♦

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