An Interview with Twinka Thiebaud

(About a 5 minute read)

Note to Readers from Paul Sunstone:  This is a re-post from a now defunct blog of mine that will soon be deleted.  It was originally posted in December of 2011.  I think it still might be of general interest to people, so I’m re-posting it here to save it.

I was recently offered an opportunity to submit a few questions to Twinka Thiebaud in connection with reviewing her new book, What Doncha Know? About Henry Miller. Her answers to my questions struck me as quite interesting and I have included them in this post.  For those of you who are not familiar with Twinka, this is from the publicist’s biography of her:

Twinka Thiebaud is a former artist’s model who collaborated with many notable photographers of the 20th century.

“Imogen and Twinka,” created by Judy Dater in Yosemite National Park became one of the most recognizable and iconic images captured by an American photographer. In it, 92- year-old Imogen Cunningham, a groundbreaking photographer in her own right, confronts and locks gaze with Twinka, who appears as a wood nymph frozen before the camera’s lens. The image can been seen in private and major museum collections around the world.

For three years Twinka lived with the aging novelist Henry Miller in his Pacific Palisades home acting as his cook and caretaker while working as an artist’s model, posing for art students and other noted photographers Mary Ellen Mark, Arnold Newman, Lucien Clergue, Eikoh Hosoe, Ralph Gibson and her father American painter Wayne Thiebaud, among others. At home with Miller, Twinka was captivated and delighted along with other dinnertime guests and celebrities by the revered author’s nightly tales of his past exploits. Listening, she began to keep a notebook of her version of what he said each evening. Eventually showing him her notes, he expressed immense enthusiasm, encouraging her to write a book. The result is a compilation entitled What Doncha Know? About Henry Miller which includes both Miller’s intimate conversations and Twinka’s memoirs about the years she spent living under his roof and his lasting effect on her.

Twinka lives in Portland, Oregon and is working on a memoir entitled Twinka From Six to Sixty: Collected Images From the Life of an Artist’s Model.

And now, on to the questions and answers:

PAUL:  I recently reviewed your book, “What Doncha Know?” Do you have any comment on the review — anything to correct or add?

TWINKA: Thanks for the review of What Doncha Know? About Henry Miller. I was pleased to see you have a clear picture of what interests and intrigues me most of all: PEOPLE, with a capital P! Henry Miller was one of my greatest subjects of observation along with becoming a great friend and mentor. I think you summed up the book very well and I’m glad it left you wanting more. I would have liked to keep going but circumstances beyond my control created a sudden deadline I needed to honor. Your review captures, beautifully, the spirit in which I penned the book. Thanks again.

PAUL: How would you characterize Henry Miller’s sense of humor? Did the two of you laugh at the same things? Did you frequently get on a roll bouncing jokes off each other?

TWINKA: I’d like to report I had as great a sense of humor as Henry had at that time but that would be a lie. I was an anxious and uncertain young woman; full of drama and angst, usually looking on the darker side of things and not the humorous aspects of life. Aging has helped me gain a more finely tuned sense of the ridiculous and I laugh and make others laugh quite often.

Henry’s sense of humor was usually based on the stories he’d tell about his failed exploits and adventures and those of his friends. He could make fun of himself brilliantly and his characterizations of the quirky souls he’d run into along the road were positively hilarious.

PAUL: Henry Miller’s influence on you was remarkably positive. Based on that, what advice would you offer to people who find themselves in Henry’s position of mentoring a much younger person?

TWINKA: The first thing would be to remain positive in one’s approach. Henry was always incredibly supportive and caring in the way he spoke to me and others when things weren’t going so well.

Focus on the other person entirely; make them feel they matter, that their feelings matter, that they have everything within them needed to find the right answers, the right path.

Don’t tell stories about yourself unless the story relates directly, and in a positive way, to the other person’s struggle or dilemma.

Henry built me up again and again and when I left him I was changed forever. I had no real confidence in myself when I arrived at his doorstep and I was full of ego and false bravado. Henry helped me to feel strong and capable and urged me to believe in myself and my creative endeavors; to live a more genuine life and to let go of the superficial.

PAUL: What advice would you offer a much younger person who was being mentored?

TWINKA: 1) Open yourself up to the wisdom and experience of the person whose taken you on as your mentor and show gratitude for the time they’re making for you.

2) Be unendingly curious and ask a lot of questions.

3)Hang out with your mentor; go to the theater, watch a film, listen to music together and take long walks (with your cell phone turned off).

PAUL: Please tell me a bit about the direction you’re headed with your painting? What do you feel you’ve accomplished and what more do you hope to accomplish in the immediate future? I’m quite fascinated by what little I’ve heard of your work, so please feel free to go into any amount of detail you wish.

TWINKA: This is the hardest question for me to answer. My painting is all about learning to “see”. I’m searching, learning and feeling my way along quite slowly.

I don’t show my work publicly and, perhaps, I never will. It’s all about the process and the joy of not having to make a career or produce paintings for anyone but myself.

I have been in a bit of a rut for a few years with my painting so I turned to interior design projects to give myself some new challenges which I find incredibly rewarding.

Still, I love being alone in my studio with oil paint loaded on my brush, listening to great music and feeling connected to all the artists in the world throughout time…. all of us searching… and all of us learning how to see.


Readers interested in the famous Imogen and Twinka photo by Judy Dater can find a post on it here.  The comments section contains a response to the post by Twinka.

4 thoughts on “An Interview with Twinka Thiebaud

  1. Pingback: Imogen and Twinka | Café Philos: an internet café

  2. Can I ask you something personal? (It’s okay to gracefully decline.) This was an interesting article. I am guessing (although please forgive if otherwise) that you are a little order, although doubtful as old as Henry Miller was when this happened in his life.
    Could you picture yourself living, platonically, with a young model? Would that be something that would fascinate you? I’m not sure why I’m curious, simply that I am. Perhaps it’s that you found the article interesting and what about it peaked your interest. The offer to decline still holds…. : )

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    • Thanks for the question, Deanna! As it happens, I can answer your question from experience, rather than needing to rely on speculations about how I might feel in such circumstances.

      You see, when I was 39, I moved into an apartment in the downtown area of Colorado Springs, where I knew no one. I then started frequenting a nearby coffee shop. That shop was also frequented by a very wide range of folks, including the mayor, two or three city council people, professionals, business people, and many homeless people. But the largest group were by far the high school students. The shop was just a little more than a block from Palmer High. Within a few months I was had met maybe 200 young men and women from 15 – 22 years old.

      Most of the young women were not at all sexually interested in me. But at one time or another over the next few years, about six or seven offered themselves to me — for reasons of their own, because I wasn’t doing any soliciting nor any seducing. Now, I’m no Brad Pitt, but all but one of the women could have fit in at a Hollywood party. Two of them had done actual modeling, including one who had modeled for Victoria’s Secrets. To top it all off, these were kind, intelligent, and sometimes very creative people.

      Yet, each time, I declined as gently as possible, including when faced with repeated offers from the same woman. I say, “as gently as possible”, but in some cases I was actually horrified to discover myself spontaneously doing things to discourage the women and change their minds about me.

      Now, if I’d been the person I was at 30, I probably would have accepted every last offer. And in truth, I didn’t understand myself well enough during the years this was happening to grasp what was going on with me. All I knew at the time was that their offers made me feel rather strange, almost intimidated.

      I now believe there were three big reasons — and perhaps a half dozen little reasons — why I had such little sexual interest in them. That’s not to say I had none, but just that what little I had wasn’t enough.

      The greatest reason was that I was scared of intimacy. I don’t want to get into a pity story here, but my second wife was so emotionally abusive that I wound up scared of becoming in most ways intimate with women. The friendships I had with those young women were one-sided in the sense they were open and confiding in me, but I wasn’t sharing with them a whole lot about myself. As for the other reasons, I’d prefer not to mention them here. That’s not because they’re too personal, but mostly because they’re too complicated to easily explain.

      Today, I’m sixty years old, and I have discovered that I’m even less sexually interested in young women than I was back then. I mean, I will look at a beautiful young woman, I might even feel a mild tug of sexual desire, but — with very very rare exceptions — I haven’t met any much younger women in years that can really tempt me. A nice middle age woman, though, that’s a different story. Someone with some life experience, some character, some insights, etc.

      Now please don’t ask me too many “What if” questions, such as “What if you hadn’t been scared of intimacy?”, because I’m not terribly fond of speculating about such things. It’s hard enough to understand myself as is, let alone as might have been.

      Thank you for an interesting question! At least, interesting to me, Deanna. I probably have bored you to tears.

      Liked by 1 person

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