Go to the archives

How Georgia Became O’Keeffe: Lessons on the Art of Living

Karen Karbo

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Nov 22, 2011
Category: Biography

Anybody feel the need to know one thing more about Georgia O’Keeffe?

How about Coco Chanel?

And, while we’re at it, let’s throw in Katharine Hepburn.

I can’t think of three women who have inspired more commentary and speculation.

So why have I devoured Karen Karbo’s mini-shelf of bios about O’Keeffe, Chanel and Hepburn?

For very good reasons.

Karbo is a demon researcher who never sprains her arm patting herself on the back in praise of her library time.

Her books are short — her latest, “How Georgia Became O’Keeffe: Lessons on the Art of Living,” is, like its predecessors, pocket-sized, and yet it’s just 221 pages.” [To buy the paperback from Amazon,click here.For the Kindle edition, click here.] 

Karbo always has a reason for writing you haven’t heard before. In these books, she says, “I would not only figure out how I should live, but also, that some of their luster might rub off on me, and by extension, you.”

Karbo writes like nobody else. She gives you O’Keeffe, but she also serves herself up in relation to O’Keeffe, woman to woman, as it were. Others do this, and the charm is so obviously fake that millions fall for it.

Karbo serves up more rueful memories: the dateless high school years, thyroid surgery, going on the O’Keeffe trail in an RV.

Of the trilogy, the O’Keeffe may be the most useful. Hepburn came from a family so privileged that she referred to family friend George Bernard Shaw as “Shaw.” Chanel was a dirt-poor orphan. O’Keeffe, in contrast, had a reasonably normal American childhood — we have no trouble understanding that part of her life.Then O’Keeffe steps into her own, wonderfully exciting “I gotta be me” zone.

When money was tight, she made her own clothes — including her underwear.

Alfred Stieglitz — her lover, mentor and husband — wrote at least 50,000 letters. “Those letters were Angry Birds and I Can Has Cheezburger and American Idol and retail therapy, and everything else we moderns like to do.”

“The greatest aphrodisiac is vitality.” That sentence alone is worth the price of the book.

The “epic marriage” of Stieglitz and O’Keeffe: “She was the red Porsche purchased by a middle-aged man; he was the football hero who falls in love with the awkward new girl in school.”

At the marriage ceremony, she refused to say “honor” or “obey.”

Yes, there’s the standard stuff you want and need to know: the paintings, the photographs, her love of the Southwest. All presented lightly, effortlessly, casually, colloquially. “For O’Keeffe, forty was the new sixty,” Karbo writes. That’s not being cool. That’s just style.

After you finish the O’Keeffe, you may want to go on to The Gospel According to Coco Chanel: Life Lessons from the World’s Most Elegant Woman and “How to Hepburn: Lessons on Living from Kate the Great.” [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.

Taken together, they make a fourth book: “The Life and Times of Karen Karbo.” It’s just as good as the others.