Richard Avedon, the world-famous fashion photographer, was not a man to let his 11-year-old son, John, an aspiring writer, give up easily. Since J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, was John’s inspiration, and since the Avedon family was right there in Europe while Dad was shooting the fall collections, Avedon insisted that John meet the creator of Middle Earth. So, having learned it was Tolkien’s birthday, he bought a cake, drove John out to Oxford “and to my complete chagrin and humiliation,” his son recalls, rang the doorbell.
Remarkably, his father’s ploy worked. Although the great author made a stab at pretending to be indisposed with a terrible cold, he quickly warmed to the visitors and invited them to his study for half an hour of chat about writing. “He kept saying, ‘You’ve got to get the leaf mold, the leaf mold—the leaves that fall and make fertile soil,’ ” says John, now 32. “He meant learn Latin and Greek.” The advice didn’t take (“I tried,” John says, “but the leaf mold got me”), yet the lesson in direct action did. The younger Avedon has just published, to critical praise, In Exile From the Land of Snows (Knopf, $18.95), a powerful and shocking account of Tibet—and its ruler, the Dalai Lama—since its conquest by China in 1950.
John’s path to authorship, of course, wasn’t as straight as his father’s bee-line for Tolkien. “Truman Capote [a family friend] gave me a copy of Elements of Style when I was 12, and told me to memorize it,” he says. “I didn’t, and I’ve suffered ever since. I’m still bad at grammar.” As an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence, he wrote a novel for a course taught by E.L. Doctorow, author of Ragtime. Avedon managed 200 pages but never thought enough of the manuscript to submit it to a publishing house. A second novel received 21 rejections before it was laid to rest.
Through it all the elder Avedon lent his own special kind of encouragement. “My father had a completely laissez-faire attitude toward what I wanted to do,” John says. “But then he’d say, ‘Now you go and do it!’ ” His father lent him a car and driver—both supplied by Vogue magazine, where Avedon worked—so he could get to his generation’s celebration of itself at Woodstock. And when, at 16, John got fed up with Phillips Exeter Academy and decided to start his own high school, his father okayed that too. John raised $13,000 from sympathetic philanthropists and friends of his parents. He found a teacher who was willing to take 15 students into his brown-stone for a year of classes.
John grew up in Manhattan surrounded by people who, like his father, had shown that with hard work and audacity one could go far. John first learned about the Beatles when Leonard Bernstein imitated them after dinner. And in the Avedon’s living room he saw Nureyev demonstrate how he had defected from the Soviet Union by leaping into the arms of French policemen at Le Bourget Airport in Paris. Because his father photographed celebrities and models around the world, John had visited 40 countries by the time he was 20. But his spiritual Odyssey into Tibetan Buddhism was sparked by courses in mythology and religion and by a visit to a Tibetan monastery in New Jersey.
After graduating from Sarah Lawrence and a stint writing business news at Newsweek, Avedon began freelancing articles about a Himalayan Shangri-la, eventually culminating in his first book. It is the story of a virtually secret holocaust. In their 34-year occupation of Tibet, the Chinese have executed, starved or worked to death 1.2 million people, Avedon claims, and 100,000 remain imprisoned as dissidents even now. The invaders, he writes, tore down the country’s 6,254 temples and unleashed two decades of famine by replacing native barley with wheat and then carting off the wheat to China.
According to Avedon, a guerrilla army of Tibetans subsequently was trained at a Colorado CIA base so secret the men didn’t even realize they were in America. However, aid was cut off in 1971 when the U.S. decided to normalize relations with China. The Chinese now blame the Tibetan genocide on the Gang of Four.
To research his book Avedon lived for four months in Dharmsala, India, the Dalai Lama’s residence in exile. In stark contrast to Tibet, which he was not allowed to enter, Dharmsala, he says, “was one of the last refuges for all the flower children in the ’60s, so there were wild dancing parties. But, mostly in moments of sadness at being away from home, I’d sit and drink hot lemonade at Khunga’s Cafe and watch reruns of The Mary Tyler Moore Show broadcast from Pakistan.” Avedon became close to the Dalai Lama, whom he accompanied on the exiled leader’s recent six-week U.S. tour. “The Dalai Lama,” Avedon says, “is very similar to the present Pope in many ways. On the one hand, he’s a man of incredible intellectual ability, the head of the faith. On the other, he’s a real backslapper who’s constantly saying, ‘Just talk to me as a human being.’ “
In 1981 Avedon returned to his sons, William, 4, and Matthew, 22 months, and to his wife, Elizabeth Paul Avedon, 33, whom he met in 1972 at his father’s studio. As an art director, she has designed Richard’s books and museum shows. Elizabeth supported the family during the three years John spent working on his book. The Avedons divide their time between their New York apartment and the family house on Long Island. There the walls are hung with steer skulls and Audubon prints of coyotes and rabbits, evidence of the book about the West that John’s father is now working on. On the lawn outside flies a green-and-red prayer flag, the last reminder of a party on the Dalai Lama’s birthday. Each flap supposedly releases a mantra into the breeze, and the flag is meant to stay in place for a year. By that time, John hopes, he’ll be deep into a book about another passion, molecular biology. After that he wants to try fiction again. “My father financed his creative work with his fashion business,” he says. “I’m trying, in my own way, to strike a similar balance.”