Friend of the Great

Picasso and Dora: A Personal Memoir

by James Lord
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 340 pp., $35.00

This book is not so much about Picasso and Dora as about Dora and James, James being the author James Lord, and Dora Picasso’s mistress and model, the photographer-turned-painter Dora Maar. The subject is their friendship. Dora’s affair with Picasso is in the past, and he himself doesn’t come in that much, except as the raison d’être of the book and the joint obsession of its hero and heroine. His greatness as an artist is beyond any question for both of them; they have both invested heavily in it. As a human being, though, Picasso comes out a monster. Lord’s Personal Memoir is constructed as a psychological thriller, artfully working its way to a denouement that comes as a shock, but then—like all the best denouements—turns out to have been half-expected all along. A pretentious mystificatory preface warns that “truth is famously stranger than fiction but no stranger to fiction.” So one can believe what one likes.

This is just as well, since many of the artistic and social lions and lionesses of the 1950s in Paris and the South of France are put on parade and receive conduct marks, whether they happen to be dead or alive: Picasso and his mistresses, Balthus, Nicolas de Staël, Cocteau, Lacan, Marie-Laure de Noailles, Eluard, Aragon, Max Ernst, the André Massons, the Berniers, Douglas Cooper, John Richardson, and so on and on. Lord declares that he worked from daily journals, but he must have worked them up. There is no pretense at naturalism or verbatim reporting. Exchanges such as these can never have taken place; they are as lucid, expressive, and free from irrelevancies and hesitation (though not, of course, as poignant or beautiful) as the dialogue in a play by Racine; and the text is studded with aphorisms whose neat cynicism reminds one—distantly—of La Rochefoucauld. Altogether, the book has a seventeenth-century French feel, since many scenes are set in salons where people have proper conversations. Without the seventeenth-century reticence, though; a good deal hangs out.

The author arrived in Paris in 1944. A good-looking homosexual GI on leave, he bluffed his way into Picasso’s apartment in the rue des Grands-Augustins. More amazing still, he persuaded the artist to make a portrait drawing of him and let him have it. Lord is an art groupie, and afflicted with a specialized form of narcissism that gets excitement from submitting “to the concentrated gaze of the portraitist.” In A Giacometti Portrait (1980) he wrote about what it felt like to submit to Giacometti’s gaze.

After the war he returned to Paris, intending to write a novel, and supplementing his parents’ allowance “by a bit of art-peddling.” He bought “a French naval officer’s cap and wore it everywhere, outdoors and in, glad to be conspicuous.” Picasso welcomed him back—Lord wonders why, and so may the reader. He will find out later; that is part of the suspense strategy.

By this time Picasso had dropped his longstanding mistress Dora Maar and set up with Françoise Gilot, young…

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