On a typical afternoon, Joseph Cornell might stop in at his local Bickford’s restaurant for a cup of tea and a slice of cherry pie. One can see him now, a thin, wraithlike man at his own table, bent over a book while enjoying his snack. He reads intently, absorbed in a biography of Chopin or Goethe or some other formidable figure, pausing only to scribble a note on his paper napkin or to gaze with birdlike keenness at a waitress. Cornell was a great reader of biographies; his library included dozens of books on poets, musicians, and scientists, among others, and they attest at least partly to the difficulty he had in sustaining friendships. He fared better with the deceased. He loved to immerse himself in the lives of the illustrious dead, with whom his identification was intense, and who became his most valued coffee-shop companions as they sprang to life inside his bony box of a head.
One suspects it never occurred to Cornell that one day he himself would become the subject of a biography and that someone, somewhere, would perhaps sit down at a table in a coffee-shop and open a book about him. The idea would have struck him as ludicrous, for his life was less a story than a strange situation. For most of his years, he resided with his mother and handicapped brother in their small frame house on Utopia Parkway in Queens. Cornell was no bohemian, just a gaunt man in drab clothes whose days were spent mainly in his basement workshop, where he arranged marbles, metal rings, and other frugally poetic objects in small shadow boxes—and transported five-and-dime reality into his own brand of unreality, which to him was as real as the objects in his boxes.