Shirley Clarke’s journey from modern dance to independent film and experimental video embodies the downtown’s boundary-blurring—straddling many scenes and facing even more obstacles. While the gay men at Caffe Cino were subject to routine homophobia outside their little theater’s walls, Clarke dealt with rampant sexism that left her emotionally bruised but defiant, as did her home life. Her father was a difficult man who wanted a son to take on the family business, but he instead had three daughters. Worse still in his mind, he was saddled with artistic daughters: Shirley became a dancer, and her sister Elaine Dundy took up writing and authored the bestselling 1958 novel The Dud Avocado. “Shirley argued with Daddy, pitted herself against him, knowing full well the denunciations and derisive mockeries she was subjecting herself to,” Dundy wrote in her memoir, Life Itself. “It made dinner a different kind of hell, but she stood her ground. Nevertheless, I know his constant disapproval took its toll on her. She was wounded by him in a way that would last for the rest of her life and lead her to seek more and more dangerous ways of rebelling against him.” Before she dove into the world of downtown bohemia in the 1960s, staying at the Chelsea Hotel for many years, she lived a respectable middle-class life married to Bert Clarke, a successful art book designer. She had married Bert in 1942 and settled in an uptown brownstone not far from where Andy Warhol lived, then gave birth to her daughter Wendy Clarke in 1944.
From Chapter 2 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore