“You know what rich people love? Fucking Egypt,” says Alissa Bennett, director at Gladstone Gallery, zine queen, Lena Dunham’s newly minted podcasting partner, serial muse to artists like Alex Bag, ex-model, and ex-ex-wife of Banks Violette, the bad boy breakout artist of the early aughts. (They married and divorced, twice.)
Gesturing at the majestically tacky granite sculptures of sphinxes flanking the entrance, Bennett murmurs in her wry deadpan, “I can’t believe no one leaves this bitch any flowers.” We’re marveling at the hulking Egyptian revival mausoleum of Barbara Hutton, famously dubbed “Poor Little Rich Girl” by the press for throwing a deb ball at the Ritz during the Depression that would have cost $842,000 today. (Within a few years, Woolworth Girls—the little-appreciated cogs in the machine that was Hutton’s father’s well oiled fortune—would lie in wait outside hotels to throw eggs at her.)
I’ve tagged along to Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx for Bennett’s annual pilgrimage to celebrate the socialite. Bennett dedicated one of her zines about bad behavior to Barbara Hutton, out of reverence for the heiress’s belief that money should be spent, and happiness can be bought. The grave’s opulence mirrors its inhabitant’s distaste for boredom and being scaled, and highlights her yen for exoticism, largesse, and trinkets. For one wedding—she married seven men—Hutton demanded Cartier make her a “Balinese wedding tiara of tortoiseshell, with a diamond pattern identical to the blossoms of her wedding veil.” (Later, she bought Catherine the Great’s jewels.)
This isn’t Bennett’s first time in a graveyard. In fact, most of Bennett’s interests start with a dead body. As a young fashion model with bleached eyebrows, she was locked in Père Lachaise, in Paris, after drinking too much champagne on Chopin’s grave with “two boys, one of whom was later hit by lightning and died.” She remembers, as an ex-model, “hauling my gigantic pregnant body past 29 Avenue B” to see the building GG Allin died in. When that baby was in elementary school, she guiltily stalked a memorial using her “young child and his poor skateboarding skills as a means of moving closer to the gathering in the park.” (The next day her anonymous sources at the memorial clandestinely sent her the “holy grail” of postmortem ephemera: “A link to a 13-page typed transcript of the seven eulogies delivered at the funeral.”)
I should mention that—besides having a rolodex of people who want to talk about dead people—Bennett is whip-thin and translucently white as a ghost. And that her dear friend, the artist Bjarne Melgaard, put a picture of her brushing her teeth on the cover of a book called Alissa Bennett: Laying the Ghost? And that we were originally introduced, one person removed, by a decorator who selected rosewood closets for Larry Page’s house, only to get an irate call that the scent was “killing him.” (The decorator has since died, unexpectedly, of unrelated causes.) And that she’s published an entire series of zines about criminally-minded fuck-ups, many of them now deceased, with the cult avant-garde publisher Frank Haines, a psychonaut from Florida who moonlights under an alter ego anagram of Ted Bundy.
This year, she launched The C-Word with Lena Dunham, a podcast that trawls through binders of dead or forgotten women dismissed by society as crazy, cataloging crimes and misdeeds, from murder to merely having once been alive. The opening line of the podcast? “I’m internationally reviled celebrity Lena Dunham, and I’m Alissa Bennett, historian of bad behavior.” Who better to talk about women society hates—from Judy Garland to Johnson and Johnson heiress, Casey Johnson—than a celebrity we all love to hate, and a woman who dedicates her free time to stalking dead people?
The podcast is a savvy marriage of Dunham’s mood—the distillation of years watching people online say she’s nuts—and Bennett’s life’s work, a series of true crime revisionist zines: Dead is Better (2016), Legalize Crime (2016), Bad Behavior (2017), I Expected Something Nice (2017), and Pretend You’re Actually Alive (2019). I say revisionist, because Bennett plays a sympathetic graverobber of sorts, retelling the stories of those who have been subject to the “drive we have to exsanguinate public women.” It might be more accurate to call Bennett a eulogist gone off the rails, in that she addresses the dead directly. She’s written “short devotional texts” personally addressing Michelle Carter (the teen who texted her boyfriend to kill himself), Anna Nicole Smith, Heidi Fleiss (Hollywood madam), and artist Theresa Duncan (“You began attending 9/11 truth movement meetings…people still wonder if we will ever get to read the 27-page legal document you were preparing for your Scientology lawsuit”).
Bennett takes a non-consequentialist tack in writing about her heroines’s tragedies. She appreciates, above all else, a story girded by a kind of tragic, even poetic, optimism. “I appreciate your commitment to the idea that a new life is just a Greyhound bus ride away,” she writes. “Oh I have dabbled in reinvention myself—I have pretended to be studious and organized and ‘engaged.’” Activities someone else might write off to derangement, Bennett celebrates as creativity: “Your interrogation tapes are incredible…You used the euphemism ‘nose job’ to describe the initial gunshot to Ryan’s face.”
It’s important to note that she doesn’t frame anything as a cautionary tale. They’re more like sendups, as if she’s submitting a post-mortem application for her subjects’s icon status. Of Elizabeth Siddal—the 19th-century artist’s model who miscarried “rowing a boat around a lake at night and writing a poem to the dead baby” inside her—Bennett writes, “I understand why you finally had enough and overdosed by your fireplace with a note pinned to your nightgown.” Her subjects aren’t A-list celebrities, or rarely. “There are always going to be people who are interested in investigating culturally significant people. I’m more interested in failure. I relate most to disappearance,” she says. Spectacular failure, really, is her subject, and it throws her into a “death obsession lustmord.” (Of Peaches Geldof: “I read that Reddit feed about the time she did heroin with a stranger and then took him to the Hollywood Scientology center where they took tons of Niacin and sat in the sauna…”)
Much of Bennett’s scholarship occurs in semi-abandoned corners of the internet flat with the dust of understimulated hit-counters. She scours websites like Bestgore, Websleuths; FindaDeath.com (“Amanda [Peterson] you are special to me as the only celebrity I ever commented on in a public forum. I would call this forum a must read.”); dead people’s mother’s blogs; even self-published, unauthorized, fan-written scandal biographies. In Bad Behavior, she addresses “Call Girl Killer” Alex Tichelman, the woman who accidentally killed a Google executive: “In my experience, the parents of murderers are not reliable judges of character, so I felt very lucky when I stumbled upon a 46-page-long Topix forum… One of the most remarkable things about these comments is that almost everyone who knew you as a teenager uses exactly the same word to describe you, and that word is off.” Bennett happily watches YouTube tapings of 48 Hours, Dateline, Hard Copy, Dr. Phil, E True Hollywood Story; Nancy Grace; Lifetime re-enactments of crimes; Candice DeLong’s “Deadly Women”; episodes of Unsolved Mysteries. She sources National Enquirer post-mortem photographs; she reads non-fiction books like Mike Sager’s Scary Monsters and Super Freaks and Suicide in the Entertainment Industry (which she read while attending “a pathetically produced murder mystery weekend in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania”); and pornography forums.
She notes that a Yahoo group dedicated to Brittany Murphy claims that she picked up her Vicodin under “Lola Manilow,” and uncovers a website Murphy’s ex created after her death “where he posted a lot of horrible photographs that he took of you [dressed] as a clown.” She finds someone selling the handles from Judy Garland’s casket.
At the end of the day, though, the most interesting person in the zines, again and again, is Alissa herself. Like most obsessives, she’s worth obsessing over. It’s hard not to view her as a little touched. A snapshot of her 20s (I’ll let you find out about the rest of her life in the zines): Seventeen-year-old Alissa follows an older man to New York from Rhode Island after high school. He dumps her, so she rents an apartment in Brooklyn with the money she steals from her cashier job at a hair salon downstairs from the Saint Mark’s Hotel. (“A real loser job for 1996.”) Within a year, she’s discovered by a model scout, who cuts her hair and sends her to London to meet Edward Ennufil, who books her for two shows on the spot: Junya Watanabe, and the now infamous Hussein Chalayan “Burka show,” with models dressed in successively diminishing fabric. (“I was the cut-off before Zora Star showed full bush.”) She’s twenty years old. Steven Klein starts booking her for dozens of magazines. She moves to London, where lands the cover of i-D, and Dazed and Confused, and Juergen Teller includes her in his famous Go-Sees portrait series. She meets her future ex-ex-husband Banks Violette, the catalyst for an epiphany that “this guy is so smart and I’m like a stupid idiot.” This is the kind of epiphany, for a normal person, that would lead to a new hobby, or something.
But Alissa, incapable of doing anything halfway, quits modeling and moves back to New York to become a “passionless shop girl at If Boutique.” It’s just more dignified. For a few years, she actually believes this. She marries Banks, and gets another shopgirl position. But watching people spend money all day is demoralizing. Her whole life was suddenly demoralizing. (Banks was getting “really, really famous and I’m like, I’m just a loser who works at the Alexander McQueen shop.”) In a fit of panic, she applies to college at the New School, where she…meets a virginal 18-year-old Lena Dunham, crying in a bathroom stall after their Fashion and Identity Formation seminar. (Lena transferred to Oberlin soon thereafter, but their friendship was clearly written in the stars.) She graduates, and Banks gets her a better job, working at the gallery Luxembourg/Dayan. They divorce, remarry, and divorce again. She’s still in her twenties, by the way, and coming to the only worthwhile lesson from that decade: it’s just easier if you make something of yourself than to be somebody’s +1.
“Not only did I feel contaminated by the failure of a marriage that I had been counting on to save me from ever having to accomplish anything myself, but I also suddenly understood that I’d been foolish to believe that a rich person could like me on my own now that I was without an art-star husband,” Bennett writes in her newest zine.
It makes sense, in retrospect, that someone so committed to seeing herself as a loser, a word Bennett uses a lot to describe herself—despite everything always being, in my opinion, kind of glamorous—would become a historian of fuck-ups and bad behavior. (For the record, Bennett remains in the art world to this day; she has the same job as Jennifer Lawrence’s fiancé.)
No one tell her she’s cool; the work would suffer.