Several months ago I was stunned by the news that Tatjana Patitz had died. I was so surprised that I exclaimed, “Oh no. That can’t be right!” in what I was pretty sure was my inside voice, when that sad news popped up on my phone. Apparently it was not my inside voice. It was my outside voice and quite a loud one at that. This all went down as I was waiting in line at Starbucks, getting ready to start mainlining my drug of choice these days, coffee. Her death puzzled, then enraged me. “Jesus H. Christ", I seethed, “what the hell? What’s the point of making something so perfect just to destroy it? It’s like Leonardo painting the Mona Lisa and then tossing it into the Arno. Why would you do that? It makes no sense. In fact, I would say that it’s even cruel.” As I was lost in this furiously muttered thought-cyclone of blaming God for Tatjana's untimely death, the woman in front of me turned around and placed her hand gently on my arm. “Are you ok?” she asked. That gesture undid me. “Tatiana Patitz died today" I whispered, my voice catching in my throat. “I’m so sorry”, she said, “is that a friend of yours?” At this point, I realized that the good Samaritan in front of me had no idea who Tatjana Patitz was. In fact, I'm pretty sure no one in that suburban Starbucks had any idea who she was, but I certainly did. As did any diehard fashionista worth their salt who was working in "the biz" during the eighties and nineties.
Tatjana was one of the five original supermodels from the famous George Michael Freedom music video. It seems to me that everyone knows the other four but not Tatjana. These “original supermodels” are Cindy (Crawford), Linda (Evangelista), Naomi (Campbell) Christy (Turlington) and Tatjana (Patitz). Last names in the fashion industry are not necessary. You know the supermodels by their first names only and if you don’t, then shame on you and the door is over there.
In my years as an assistant photographer I worked with them all. Cindy (professional), Linda (cool as a cucumber), Christy (a yogini), Naomi (I'm pleading the fifth). And then there was Tatjana, my personal favorite. A woman so lyrically beautiful that it almost hurt to look at her. Like looking directly at the sun on a hot summer's day. The first time I worked with Tatjana, it was back in the days when assistants, like children in the 15th century, were to be seen and not heard, ever. But then, Tatjana appeared. She floated into the room just as I was walking out. I looked up into that face and I gasped. That was the level of her beauty, it took my breath away. I felt dizzy, as if I was in the presence of Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty herself, come down from Mount Olympus for a day trip to visit the mere mortals. She side-eyed me with those icy inscrutable wolf eyes of hers and then waltzed on by.
We spent three days together with the small ten-person crew in Louisiana and it was wonderful. Not because we struck up a friendship or because the shoot was easy (it was not), but because I like beautiful things and Tatjana was the most beautiful thing that I had ever seen, or may ever see, in my life.
The shoot was wild and chaotic. Disorganized. We moved around from place to place in rented cars, stopping whenever the photographer felt a flicker of divine inspiration. A broken-down shack deep in the Bayou. A balcony on Bourbon Street. A live oak so fully draped in Spanish moss that it resembled a wooly mammoth more than a tree. We ate fresh alligator meat, the beast having been recently trapped and barbecued by a toothless, enormously muscled and tattooed man. We drank a lot and that was fun too as alcoholism was yet to kick my ass. We went out on the town at night. We shot in a cemetery and in a bathroom, both scenarios the photographer knew the magazine would never use. “Harper’s Bazaar will kill those two” he informed us, looking through the polaroids, “even though they are the best.” “But why?” Tatjana asked him, confused. “Tatjana, you're European, you wouldn’t understand. This is puritanical America. In America, we don’t shit and we don’t die so we can’t ever have a bathroom or a graveyard in the pages of a woman's fashion magazine.” I remember all of us bursting out laughing then, even though I had to muffle mine as I was meant to just do my job - part of which was to remain silent.
There was something different about Tatjana’s demeanor. I was used to models showing up late, high or hungover, arriving at locations in their lovers' private jets and sea-planes or Guns and Roses tour buses. Tatjana was single. Private. Quiet. Contained. She worked intensely and then retired to her ranch in Malibu where she lived alone with her animals - which she seemed to much prefer over people. One night at dinner we were seated next to each other and she asked me how old I was. I was 23 at the time and so was she. I couldn't believe it. We were exactly the same age. But like most models, she’d had to grow up fast. Living alone at 17, learning several new languages, working with people decades her senior. She was a savvy woman of the world with a fabulous custom Hermès handbag. I was a dumpy assistant from the magazine who that night was carrying her wallet and car keys in the plastic laundry bag from the hotel room, having forgotten to bring a purse on the trip. I felt like a big dumb stumpy-legged basset hound sitting next to this sleek, sophisticated, sexy and shimmering Afghan. It was a long night for me and my insecurities.
I read several articles that were published about Tatjana after her death and, in one, she was quoted as saying that she was the way she was - a bit aloof, a bit removed - so she could protect her energy. Protect her soul in the superficial world of fashion. Sitting next to her that night, I had this feeling in my gut that there was something different about her. An intelligence. A deepness. A touch of melancholy even, which just made me adore her more.
So I was outraged when she died. I felt like the world had been cheated. Like I had been cheated. Tatjana was only 56 years old when she passed away. My age. That glowing intimidating radiant beauty of her youth was gone, but she was still stunning. Maybe even more so for having lived life. I cherish my memories of that shoot with Tatjana. And her death makes me sad. And frightened. Life is so random. So frustrating in its unpredictability. Why her? Why not me? Why not someone else? Why not a serial killer? They always seem to live long enough lives - until of course they get caught, imprisoned, and then fatally shivved in the shower, all in rapid succession. It’s hard for me to have acceptance when the world feels so capricious in its nature. So unfair.
My grief lasted a few days and, as it lingered, I realized that it was not just Tatjana I was missing. I was also missing the life I lived in my twenties. That carefree, challenging and incredibly interesting period of my life is gone. As is the most beautiful woman in the world. And these things are hard to bear. I felt defeated, tired, old.
But then, after a few days moping around contemplating the unjust nature of “it all”, I was suddenly filled with a deep warm gratitude. For having had the opportunity to work with all those amazing artists and designers and models and photographers. To have traveled the world for work. To have stepped way out of my comfort zone when I leapt into the highfalutin' world of fashion at twenty-two years old.
But I still asked myself what on earth could be the reason behind Tatjana dying at 56. And then, the thought came to me that the answer to that question is not on earth. It’s somewhere else. Somewhere out of this world. It’s something supernatural. Some grand and glorious design that I pray will be revealed to each of us at our own passing from this earthly plane. Maybe all of our lives really are governed by fate and destiny, whether we like that destiny or not. But isn't that a cop-out? Assuring myself that upon my death the divine way of things will suddenly be made clear to me? I have heard that life is for the living and I don't necessarily want to have to wait until I die to have some divinely inspired master plan revealed to me. So, with practice and patience I’m slowly coming to realize that all life events - "fair" or not - are not necessarily for me to understand but for me to accept. With grace and dignity and strength if I can muster it. I guess the ultimate goal would be for me to live with acceptance of all things and to harbor real gratitude for what I’ve been blessed with thus far. Which, when I really think about it, already feels like a heck of a lot.