Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe: on love, loss and life after Arthur.
It was after 8 p. m. - just five hours after Ashe's doctors emerged from his hospital room and told her they couldn't save him - and her apartment on the East Side of New York City had begun to fill with friends and family who had braved a blinding blizzard to be with her and Camera. And so mother and daughter disappeared into an empty bedroom where they could talk alone.
"She was very calm and controlled and immediately wanted to watch a video," Moutoussamy-Ashe recalls of Camera's reaction to the news of her father's death. "It was interesting because she digested it bit by bit. When I first told her, her response was all in her eyes. She just looked at me kind of helplessly."
In the months that have passed since Arthur Ashe Jr. died of Aids-related complications, following a tainted blood transfusion, Moutoussamy-Ashe, like her daughter, has been digesting his loss bit by bit. Not a day passes, she says, that an echo of their life together doesn't waft through her mind and heart.
"When Arthur was away, he would call Camera every morning while I was getting her dressed to say goodbye to her," she says. "If the phone rings at ten after seven in the morning, i still think it's him."
Even the ordinary details of everyday life can provoke those instinctive, married couple, you-and-me-babe thoughts. Like the time she and Camera sat down for dinner and Moutoussamy-Ashe dissolved into tears because, as she put it, "there were two at the table instead of three." Or the time her cousin sent her a pound cake "and when I sat down to eat it, my first thought was wait until Arthur tastes this," she says.
"Things like that sometimes get to me."
Some things - "the first steps," she calls them - get to Moutoussamy-Ashe much more than others: Her first birthday without him. Her first holiday alone. The first parental decision of consequence made on her own. And while each milepost is uniquely difficult, her trip to Wimbledon this year was the most painful "first step" the 42-year-old professional photographer says she has faced.
"It was my 17th year," she says of her return to the tennis tournament where, 18 years earlier, Ashe dazzled the world with his stunning upset victory over defending champion Jimmy Connors. "But; it was the first time I've ever been without Arthur. "
The reality of his absence hit her with the force of an emotional hurricane when she visited the HBO commentary booth where, for a dozen years, Ashe had broadcast the tournament. "I'd ascended those steps for the past 12 years," she says, "but walking into that booth and seeing [Ashe's co-anchor] Jim Lampley sitting there without Arthur beside him was probably my toughest moment since Arthur died.
"Even though I knew he wasn't going to be there, I broke down and cried. And so did Jim Lampley Arthur was so beautiful sitting in that chair with the lights on him and his jacket and his big smile. He used to keep a jelly doughnut sitting on the side of his chair and he'd try to sneak a bite without me catching him. When I walked into that studio, all of those little things just flashed in front of my face and I broke down and cried. But it was nothing I had any control over.
Lose control? Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe? That's hard to believe, harder still to envision. Control is the hallmark of her emotional complexion - at least publicly. Everything about her - from her measured, melodic voice to her chiseled, patrician beauty - seems so cool, so unflappable, so serene.
"Jeanne is a woman of tremendous poise and internal strength," says her best friend, New York obstetrician Machelle Allen, the person Moutoussamy-Ashe asked to be by her side at the hospital following Arthur's death.
"Throughout his illness, she had been preparing herself in certain ways, and so while the moment was incredibly wrenching for her, she had been preparing herself over the years.... She had spent time inspecting her situation and her surroundings, figuring out what would be best for her and Camera once three became two."
Long before "three became two," however, people felt there was something special about Moutoussamy-Ashe. The exotic name. The heart-stopping beauty. The aristocratic carriage that seems to personify grace under pressure.
To this day, people are talking about the moment she stepped up to the microphone to be her husband's voice. It was a poignant moment during the April 1992 press conference in which Ashe told the world he had AIDS. Overcome with emotion when he spoke of his daughter, Ashe was unable to finish reading his prepared statement. Moutoussamy-Ashe continued for him.
At Ashe's funeral, where she calmly shot photographs for remembrance ("There were certain things I wanted"), Moutoussamy-Ashe stood as still and regal as an oak tree as she watched her husband's coffin being shut. "I wanted to be there when they closed the casket and I wasn't going to let 7,000 people deter me," she says, her voice softer now, a whisper. "That was my goodbye and I was going to stand there [and say it].
Amazingly, Moutoussamy-Ashe sees nothing special about her conduct, not then or now. In fact, she says, she finds all this talk of her "amazing grace" baffling. "Arthur was the amazing one, "she says, her lilting voice registering genuine surprise. "He was a wonder to watch and behold."
Even now, she says, he is her anchor. "I know it sounds cliched," she says, "but I am really surrounded and sustained daily by the power of our love. When you're in a relationship, I don't think you recognize the everlasting power it can have. But I feel that now. And it is that, more than anything else, that has helped me to walk through this period."
With every first step" she takes, she is humbled by the number of people - strangers - who tell her she and Ashe remain the quintessential Perfect Couple, the kind of lovers for whom the word "soulmates" was invented, a two-some whose love for one another could be seen - and felt - from afar.
"I've received letters from women who have said, |Boy, just 15 minutes with a wonderful man like Arthur; I'd give my life for that kind of a relationship,"' she says. "And I just shake my head, and I think I know what they're saying. And just to think I had a 17-year-relationship that was that beautiful.... I'm very lucky that this man knew how much I loved him. And I knew how much he loved me."
In some prescient and unexplainable way, she knew it before she ever laid eyes on him. Look closely at their relationship, and you will see something that looks very much like destiny shimmering around it. Before they ever met, Moutoussamy-Ashe told her friend Carol Jenkins, an anchor at the TV station where she was working as a photographer and graphic artist, that she was going to marry Ashe.
"We were working on an assignment and one day she said to me, You know I'm going to marry Arthur Ashe,"' Jenkins recalls. "I said, Sure you are, Jeanne,' and I started to laugh because she hadn't even met him. Of course, when they met, they fell in love immediately.
Well, not exactly immediately. When Ashe first saw her, she was shooting photographs for NBC at a benefit for the United Negro College Fund. Amidst the sea of faces that filled Madison Square Garden that October day in 1976, her beauty hit him like a 90-mph serve. "I took a mental picture of her as maybe, just maybe, what my heart desired," is how he describes her effect on him in his best-selling memoir, Days of Grace.
Moutoussamy-Ashe, however, was oblivious to his attraction. "There were so many women standing around him," she remembers, "that I didn't even think about Arthur paying any attention to me."
Until, that is, he served her a line that, had it been a tennis ball, would have been out, way out.
"Photographers sure are getting cuter," Ashe announced to the Chicago native who, the year before, had earned her degree in photography from New York City's Cooper Union and was starting a serious career in the male-dominated field of news and documentary photography.
"I thought that was sooooooo bad," she says now, breaking into a laugh. "I thought it was cocky and I read it as a little sexist. It singled me out as a woman, which was totally against what I wanted to portray. I think he did it just to see what kind of reaction he was going to get. And he got one."
But not the one he wanted. Clearly underwhelmed, "I think I rolled my eyes at him," she says. That very evening, Ashe tracked down her phone number and asked her out. "When I went back to NBC that night to develop my film," she says smiling, "he called."
On their first date - "Which was three or four days after we met" - Ashe more than made up for the earlier gaffe. "I invited him up to my little cubicle at NBC, pulled out my portfolio, and said, |I want to show you what I'm about,"' she reminisces. "And he genuinely liked my photographs and the stories behind them. He got big points for that."
Big points, indeed. Four months later, they were married. At the wedding reception, Moutoussamy-Ashe had a surprise gift for her friend Carol Jenkins.
"She walked over to me and thrust her bouquet into my hand," Jenkins recalls. "It was her way of wishing me as much joy as she had found with Arthur and also, I think, of saying, |See? I told you I was going to marry him.'"
And what was it about Ashe, a man she'd known a grand total of 17 weeks, that made Moutoussamy-Ashe so sure he was the person with whom she wanted to spend the rest of her life? "How could you not know with Arthur?" she asks.
Okay. Then what made Ashe, whose 1968 U.S. Open and 1975 Wimbledon championships had made him a superstar and a legend, fall in love with a just out-of-college 25-year-old in a city swarming with women of dazzling accomplishments?
"I was very independent," says Moutoussamy-Ashe. "My father will tell you, |Jeanne is going to follow her own mind no matter what anyone says.' I think those were the things Arthur loved about me. That I didn't just follow him. I followed him, yes. But there was a partnership. There was something for both of us to exchange."
She was so independent, in fact, that early in their marriage, she detested being called Mrs. Arthur Ashe. "My perspective on it then, and my perspective on it now, are 17 years apart," she says of her early aversion to the name she felt robbed her of her own identity. "Obviously, I'm very comfortable with it. I'm very proud of it and I always was. The difference is I'm not just a wife, but a mother and a working woman. I was none of those things then."
With Ashe's constant support she blossomed in each of those roles. Long before she ever did, he saw her through the prism of all her possibilities. And he made her see them, too. "He taught me a greater love of myself," she says quietly. "He brought out so many things in me that I didn't know I had inside."
Like her two books, Daufuskie Island: A Photographic Essay and Viewfinders: Black Women Photographers, 1839-1985. "It was Arthur's influence that helped me to take my ideas and put them into book form," she explains. "Often you feel you have the passion to do things, but to actually see it as a finished project has not always been my forte. Arthur's confidence really brought that out in me. He gave me the comfort level that I could do that."
As precious as those gifts are, they are more than matched by her gifts to him. Through every medical trial Ashe faced - through the heart attacks and by-pass operations that changed virtually everything to the brain surgery that led to the discovery he had AIDS that changed all the rest - Moutoussamy-Ashe was his right hand, his rock. "One fact I can depend on," Ashe wrote in Days of Grace, "whatever happens, Jeanne is not going to panic. She will know what to do. "
And what to say. Before test results revealed she did not have the AIDS virus, Ashe asked his doctors what his HIV-positive status meant for his wife. Moutoussamy-Ashe didn't wait for their reply. "You and me, babe," she answered, reaching for her husband's hand and squeezing it tightly. "You and me."
But in addition to strength and sustenance, there was something else she gave Ashe; something possibly more precious than her devotion, her dependability, her dauntlessness in the face of death. Moutoussamy-Ashe gave Ashe the courage to express his feelings. More than just putting him in touch with his emotions, she opened him up.
"I am a very affectionate and loving person and in our relationship that was always important to me," she explains. "But Arthur was not the most articulate in emoting feelings.... Like Maya Angelou said, this was a man with gifts of love and logic. And that's so true. But while he always expressed the logic, that wasn't always the case with feelings. But over the years, he learned to do that. And I think I brought that out in him. "
How fitting, then, that it is Ashe's you-can-do-anything vision of her talent that Motoussamy-Ashe is now using to get on with her life.
In addition to this month's re-release of Viewfinders, she is completing a children's book, Daddy and Me, which she hopes will help kids understand that families can lead normal lives when a loved one has AIDS. Written in Camera's voice and illustrated with photos Moutoussamy-Ashe shot of father and daughter, the book developed "after Camera had an experience at school where someone said to her, |I saw your daddy on TV, and your daddy has AIDS."'
When Moutoussamy-Ashe suggested they do something "to help other children understand you can live with illness and help people who are sick," both father and daughter loved the idea. "It was a family project from the very beginning," she says.
In the most bittersweet way, so is her most recent project. Chosen to photograph the 1993 Sara Lee Frontrunner campaign, Moutoussamy-Ashe is shooting it with the last Christmas present Ashe gave her: a Hasselblad camera.
"That is something he left me with," she says, "and l'in sure if he were here he'd be saying, |Take those pictures, girl. I bought you this camera and I want you to go for it.'"
Going for it is one thing. But is it possible she is keeping herself so busy there are no quiet moments to grieve, to heal, to accept Ashe's loss? "I've been keeping myself very busy, probably busier than I should be," admits Moutoussamy-Ashe.
"I probably need to be dealing with some things."
As for accepting Ashe's death, "I did not accept that he was going to die and I may not still have accepted it," she admits. "I know on a day-to-day basis that he is not here and he is not coming home. But Arthur had the ability to convince everyone, including me, that he was going to be around for a very long time ...."
Yes, but now that he's gone, isn't she doing the very thing she always accused him of - practicing denial? Moutoussamy-Ashe dissolves into peals of laughter. "Arthur would love it that you're asking me that," she answers. "Yeah, I probably am. But I think it's good denial."
Good denial? "Good denial in that you accept things, but at the pace that you can," she explains. "I have to accept that Arthur is not here anymore, but I think I deny the fact that he's really not here. I don't know if that makes any sense, but I'm so very much a part of him, so tied to him, that I don't want to let go. People say you have to get on, you have to let go. And I am getting on. But I don't have to let go."
And so she's not. At least not yet, not completely. In July, on the day Ashe would have turned 50, she continued one of their most cherished traditions: writing each other a letter on their birthdays. She also spoke at a private memorial, where Ashe's gravestone was dedicated.
"I didn't just want to sit around and feel badly for the things that we weren't able to do when there were so many good things we did," says Moutoussamy-Ashe, who plans to write a book about their life together "for cathartic reasons and so Camera and I can have a voice.
"And I'm going to keep celebrating," she says. "The fact that Arthur is not here physically has not stopped my communicating with him or my relationship with him."
Her communication with Ashe takes many forms. "I keep his book, Days of Grace, next to my nightstand with books by Howard Thurman," says Moutoussamy-Ashe who says she has found great solace in the writings of the late theologian ever since a friend sent her some of sermons some five years ago.
"I never thought Days of Grace would have been that for me," she continues, "but often I pick it up and have conversations with Arthur. Home videos that we took over the years, I pop those in the video recorder and I look at those and I visit with him. And when I pick up the Howard Thurman books and read some of his sermons, I visit with Arthur because we often shared our feelings and our thoughts about his messages. Whenever I reread those passages, it's like a visit with Arthur."
So was her birthday letter to Ashe this year. In it, "I let him know how incredible this discovery was," she says. "And even though I miss him a lot, the discovery of the everlasting power of love has been so incredible to me; how much it has sustained me."
And helped her to navigate the unknown, often rocky, waters of single parenthood. "I don't often feel like a single parent," she says, "because Arthur's values are so much a part of me and my understanding of him, when I have questions, he's my frame of reference."
And he'll remain so, she says, as she and Camera move forward with their lives without him. "I feel him," she says, "with the power of his love."
That's probably why the day Camera asked her "Why didn't Daddy say goodbye?" Moutoussamy-Ashe didn't have to hesitate a single moment before answering.
"I told her that even though we didn't get a chance to actually say goodbye, we told Daddy goodbye in the way that we loved him. And he knew how very much we loved him. "