In her relaxed, informative writing style, Wilson described a crab apple tree "in a full coat of snowball blossoms" that Weston photographed "forty-six miles from Glendale on U.S. No. 66." She reduced Death Valley to "a hundred miles of desolate geography" and noted "a wheezy rattletrap" truck that passed them on the empty road.

She also traveled with Weston as his assistant for "Leaves of Grass," his books of photographs to go with the poetry of Walt Whitman, published in 1942. She is the co-author of "Cats of Wildcat Hill," (1947), with photographs by Weston.

Artistic beginning

She was born Helen Charis Wilson on May 5, 1914, in San Francisco and raised in Carmel. She was the only daughter of Harry Leon Wilson, a popular novelist and humor writer in the 1910s and 1920s whose best known work, "Ruggles of Red Gap," was first adapted as a movie in 1918. Her mother, Helen, was an amateur artist and actress who performed in local theater.

Wilson's older brother, Harry Leon Jr., was editor in chief of publications for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City for some years.

As a child, Wilson was shipped from boarding school to summer camp, she wrote in her memoir. After her parents divorced, she graduated from Catlin, a boarding school in Portland, Ore., and was awarded a scholarship to Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. Her father said he could not afford to pay the expenses that the scholarship didn't cover, so Wilson had to turn down the scholarship.

For some months after that she lived in San Francisco, worked as an actress in a French language theater and did secretarial work. She "acquired a number of boyfriends and patronized the last of the speakeasies" and was "desperately unhappy," she wrote in her memoir. She returned to Carmel and soon afterward met Weston.

"My eyes keep returning to a short man in brown clothes . . . across the room," she wrote in her memoir. They were at a concert in Carmel, and before they were introduced, "we were keenly aware of each other," she wrote. At intermission, Weston made his way across the room to meet her.

He also wrote about the event. "A new and important chapter in my life opened on Sunday afternoon, April 22, 1934," he wrote in his daybook. "I saw this tall, beautiful girl, with finely proportioned body, intelligent face well-freckled, blue eyes, golden brown hair to shoulders -- and had to meet."

Relationship fades

Most of the photographs he made of Wilson call attention to her beauty. That changed toward the end of their 11 years together.

In “Civilian Defense” of 1942, she reclines on a couch, wearing only the gas mask that was requisitioned to her when she served during World War II at the local aircraft warning post.

The next year she posed for “My Little Gray Home in the West.” Standing outside the work studio behind the main house in Carmel, she holds a sign with her husband's name on it that partly hides her nudity. Her sullen expression adds to the sarcasm of the photograph's title.

"When I look at the nudes Edward made of me during our last years together, I am struck by the sad face of that young woman who was me," Wilson wrote in an essay for the 1977 book "Edward Weston: Nudes."

"We had broken the backbone of that strong bond of love and understanding that keeps daily life from turning stale and deadly."

She fell from her place as "exalted goddess to the more human, unenviable and inglorious role of helpmate and art wife," author Francine Prose wrote of Wilson in her 2002 book, "The Lives of the Muses."

Wilson left Weston in 1945. Soon afterward, she met Noel Harris, a labor activist who lived in Eureka, Calif. They married in December 1946, the day after her divorce from Weston was finalized.

"I can see now that falling in love with another person finally allowed me to leave Edward, something my physical absence from Wildcat Hill hadn't accomplished," she wrote in her memoir.

During her second marriage Wilson had two children, Anita and Rachel. She worked various jobs and taught creative writing. The marriage to Harris ended in divorce, but they remained close friends.

Anita died in 1967. Wilson's only immediate survivor is her daughter Rachel.

Weston stayed in the house he and Wilson shared. She owned it but rented it to him and eventually sold it to him for $10,000.

He died there, of Parkinson's disease, in 1958. She continued writing to him through most of his life.

"I would love to see your children," Weston wrote to Wilson in September 1955. She brought them to him. It was their last meeting.

Rourke is a former Times staff writer.

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