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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 enough to be his granddaughter and “almost ostentatiously pregnant” the first time Lord met her. Dora Maar had suffered a nervous collapse on being discarded and been admitted to a psychiatric hospital, from which she was rescued by Jacques Lacan. He “put her in a private clinic. Later she underwent analysis with him. That seemed to do her good”; but she was still living more or less in seclusion, around the corner from Picasso. As for Lacan, he was married to Sylvia, the former wife of Georges Bataille, whose lover Dora Maar had been at the time of the marriage (of Lacan to Sylvia). Lacan, according to Lord, “enjoyed peculiarity-prone imbroglios in his milieu.”

One day when Lord was staying with Douglas Cooper in Provence, his host took him to see Dora Maar at Ménerbes, where Picasso had given her a house just before the war. It was grand but derelict, half empty and full of mysterious closed rooms. Lord was bowled over by Maar’s intelligence and proud demeanor, by her great beauty, by the silvery timbre of her voice; and also, of course, by the thought of her history. Douglas Cooper was sorry for her loneliness, but Lord found it “grossly presumptuous of Douglas to dare to pity her, Douglas who had nothing to offer posterity but his shrewd purchase of masterpieces and his knowledge of art history, who had never himself been instrumental to the fructification of genius.” This was Lord’s own intended and acknowledged route to immortality. No publisher had so far wanted to publish his novel, and if it contained phrases like “the fructification of genius,” one can see why. But that was many years ago. The present book does not contain many expressions as horrible as that, and is a good read if you don’t mind the occasional cliché or pretentious locution.

Lord went to Egypt on an art-peddling trip, and bought an antique ceramic ring for Dora. She was thrilled, but when she was putting it into the glass-fronted cabinet where she kept her treasures (mostly works by Picasso), she dropped it and it shattered. In her mortification and to console him, she gave Lord a small Picasso sculpture of a bird made of wood, wire, and plaster. It was his turn to be thrilled. Giving presents figures in this book. Dora Maar’s entry in the index contains the following subheadings: “cigarette lighter,” a present from Picasso and engraved by him; “gift to Lord of Picasso bird”; “gifts to Lord”; “gifts from Lord”; “Picasso’s gifts to.” Lord complains a good deal about the paucity of Maar’s gifts to him, and about the fact that she let him pay for every meal, although she was fifteen years older and had an apartment stuffed with priceless works of art. He also disliked her habit of structuring travel around free meals and free overnight stays with friends along the route.

Still, they saw more and more of each other. In spite of a steady affair with a Frenchman and a summer with a beautiful Swedish boy, Lord was under Dora Maar’s spell: “her beauty, the lambent gleam of her gaze, the bird-of-paradise voice, the aristocratic tilt of head, all the aura of tense serenity and power and pathos so poignantly portrayed by Picasso.” He thought of asking her to marry him, confident that he could manage sex if absolutely necessary. She invited him to Ménerbes for the summer. They had separate rooms: Did she want him in hers or not? When bedtime came, he never managed to read her signals. So he did nothing. She was always telling him he couldn’t understand her. And she was unpredictable: affectionate and confiding one day, haughty and dismissive the next, critical, governessy, humiliating; she was given to minding about what neighbors and acquaintances might think, to taking offense (Lord himself is no stranger to huffs), and to fending him off with the devout Catholicism she had adopted after the break with Picasso. Lord is very good at describing the power games they played, and the fluctuations in the intensity and intimacy of their friendship. He writes sometimes with a kind of yearning, sometimes with compassion, sometimes with irony, even self-irony.

By Dora’s grace a unique beauty had pervaded our friendship” is how he sums up the summer at Ménerbes. Before they set out, Lord asked Dora to keep his Picasso bird safe for him in her treasure cabinet. Later in the year, he was to go to the States for a long visit. He came to say goodbye and collect it. She refused:

I’m going to keep it. Let’s say for the time being. It will be perfectly safe with me, you needn’t worry…. I’m keeping it as a guarantee of good conduct…. Lest you be tempted to betray my confidence in some way unbecoming to a gentleman…. You’re a writer. Writers can’t be trusted. They write about what they know. Even novels are made up from what they know. And I don’t want to be written about.

This is the climax of the James and Dora story. It happened in 1954. From there the relationship unravels bit by bit, to end in a dagger thrust, though not exactly a coup de grâce: Picasso and Dora.

The book destroys Dora Maar’s hope of living on only in Picasso’s portraits and never in writing: of being, as Lord rather elegantly puts it, “historic without a history.” She is now eighty-five and literally bent double with the arthritis which Lord could see encroaching the last time they met, in 1980. It would have been kinder to delay the book’s publication until after her death.

After Maar confiscated the Picasso bird, Lord broke his leg and had to postpone his journey. Maar did not visit him or write during the ten days he spent in hospital. When he got out he wrote her a letter whose translation occupies seven pages of text. He blames her for her conduct toward him—not just over the bird, but for her distrust, her mystification, her caprice, her avarice, and her constant lecturing “on the errors of my conduct.” Now it is his turn to lecture her; and so, inevitably, and even though he takes the precaution of saying that he knows he will sound ridiculous, he sounds not ridiculous so much as presumptuous and pompous; especially when he uses words like “verily” and adopts minatory inversions of word order as though he were a Victorian clergyman in the pulpit. Still, whether he wrote it in 1954 as it stands or more recently, it is an impressive letter, highly dramatic, almost worthy of Adolphe—of whose relationship with his mistress Picasso and Dora can’t help reminding one. The only consideration he leaves out is that he forced himself on Dora Maar as he had on Picasso.

Lord seems given to writing admonitory letters. He reprints one that he wrote to Picasso in 1956, asking him to come out in public against the Russian invasion of Hungary. The letter is strong stuff, comparing Picasso’s hands to the indelibly blood-stained hands of Macbeth: “Can you remain silent while the cries of patriots and the screams of innocent victims echo still among the ruins of Budapest? Can the painter of Guernica remain indifferent to the martyrdom of Hungary?” And so on. However strong one’s feelings about Hungary, this seems impertinent from a groupie who had dropped more or less out of touch. It was also “very close to blackmail,” according to Lord, because he threatened to publish his letter in a newspaper if Picasso did not make a public declaration. Picasso and “nine other intellectuals” duly signed a letter of protest to the central committee of the French Communist Party which was duly leaked to the press.

Outbursts of anti-Communist ranting, sometimes accompanied by small explosions of American patriotism, occur throughout the book. They erupt apropos of the Korean War, the unveiling of the Picasso statue in the square in Vallauris, the death of Stalin, the peace movement, and, of course, Hungary. Lord is always getting at Picasso for his membership in the Party and referring back to an early conversation in which Picasso justified it by saying: “Everybody has to belong to something…to have some tie, to accept a loyalty.” All this indignation seems out of key with Lord’s other preoccupations, chief among them the pursuit of immortality through contact with great artists.

During the war he served in the Military Intelligence Service, and at demobilization time “an MIS officer made vague representations to me concerning possible advantages and excitements available to intelligence personnel disposed to continue in the same line of business.” He refused; but in 1971, as he passed the Deux Magots where Douglas Cooper was sitting with friends, “Douglas shouted out in his most strident tone, ‘Oh no, we don’t speak to that one. Everybody knows she’s in the CIA.’ ” Is the reader meant to wonder whether Cooper was right? It would add extra piquancy to an already feline yarn.

But the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question, the mystery to be solved, is

what it was Picasso saw in me, and not only Picasso but Giacometti, Balthus, and the many lesser artists with whom I have been friendly throughout my life. Oh, I wanted to be their friend, to admire them, to deserve their consideration, certainly, and artists do appreciate esteem. But there was something more. I don’t know what it was, or is.

This question is put on page 132 and the answer is artfully withheld until page 314. It is Françoise Gilot who supplies it. Years after she left Picasso and published her controversial memoir, Life with Picasso, she recalled how in 1944 the idea that the young American intelligence officer had been sent to spy on him occurred to Picasso too. He never really believed it, but it amused him and his conspiratorial secretary, Jaime Sabartés. “Françoise went on to say that [Picasso]…seemed, in a way, to be almost infatuated by me. She recalled his having said on some occasion, ‘I am a lesbian.’ Anyway, in Picasso’s mind, she felt, I had been a sort of counterpart of her. If he had thought of her as a daughter, that is, he had thought of me as a son.”

The revelation has gained by having been so cunningly delayed. If Françoise was right and Lord reports her correctly, then it fulfills the author’s lifelong aspiration. And if it doesn’t seem very momentous to the reader, then at least its pursuit has given him an entertaining angle on Picasso and his set, and a gripping, sometimes even moving account of the friendship between a difficult woman and a homosexual man, both martyrs to mystery. What kind of a man? Thornton Wilder in his journal described him as “a sort of less vivacious Boswell, diligently and unsuppressibly cultivating Picasso and Gide and Cocteau and Marie-Laure de Noailles, and anybody who is anybody in Paris.” Lord quotes the entry and comments: “I know that Wilder did not mean to be complimentary, but I count myself the gratified recipient of, at least, an amenity.”

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