Diane Arbus self portrai, New York, 1968
Diane Arbus was born, to a wealthy Jewish family, in 1923. David Nemerov, her father, was the hard-working son of a Russian immigrant; her mother Gertrude was the daughter of the owners of Russek's Fur Store. After the marriage, David helped manage Russek's, and oversaw its transformation into a department store, Russek's of Fifth Avenue, which specialized in furs. His interest, however, was in women's clothing, and he was said to have an extraordinary intuition for what the next trend in women's fashion would be.
Diane (pronounced Dee-Ann ) was a privileged child, raised with her two siblings in large apartments on Central Park West and Park Avenue. She later told Studs Terkel, for his Hard Times: An Oral History of the Depression , "I grew up feeling immune and exempt from circumstance. One of the things I suffered from was that I never felt adversity. I was confirmed in a sense of unreality."
The wealth was complicated, as it often is, by distant parents: her father was kept away by work and her mother by depression. She was loved more than she was known. In her New Yorker review of two new Arbus exhibits -- Family Albums , at the Mount Holyoke College Museum of Art, and Revealed , at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art -- Judith Thurman writes of Arbus, "Her heritage was, in fact, that of most artistic children of privilege, who feel that their true selves are invisible, while resenting the dutiful, false selves for which they are loved: a dilemma that inspires the quest, in whatever medium, for a reflection."
She was luminous, with large green eyes, a delicate, exotic face and a slim body. And she was, writes Thurman, "nubile" (almost every published photo of her has a sexual charge to it). All kinds of people were captivated by her, and she was captivated by all kinds of people.
At the age of 13, she met Allan Arbus, an employee in the advertising department of her parents' store, and they married, with her parents' grudging assent, after she turned 18. After the war, during which Allan studied photography in the New Jersey Signal Corps, the couple supported themselves, and daughters Doon and Yolanda, as fashion photographers (the family money, somehow, never materialized for Arbus as an adult).