Too many books are forgotten as soon as they're published—that doesn't mean they're not worth reading, writing, or talking about. My reading list is generated by interest, whim, and chance—and by what's available at the Brooklyn Public Library.
When writing my reviews, I don’t Google anything about the book or author. To draw my impressions, I rely only on the book itself.
Emboldened to take a risk by the existential absurdities of war, a young American soldier stationed in France during WWII instructs a Parisian friend to locate Picasso’s address and “tell the artist before long he might expect to receive the visit of an American soldier named James Lord.” Picasso and Dora: A Personal Memoir recounts the unlikely relationships James forged with the formidable talent and his longtime mistress, the artist Dora Maar.
James Lord was by his own account unremarkable, not particularly distinguished by looks, brains, or talent. Born in 1922 in Englewood, NJ, the second of four boys, he grew up “in the lower echelons of the upper classes rather than in the higher ones of the middle. Stratification was clearer then."
The family spends its summers in Paris, Maine. Young James is introduced to the pleasures of sex by “a boy a few years older” who “undid his pants and showed me what I could do about what was inside,” and is otherwise content to frolic and fritter away his time. Even as a child, his “mind was crowded with thoughts of men who had gained true greatness.” From the biographies he devours, he “noted that the great had often been acquainted with one another, and perhaps it occurred to me that the proximity of greatness might have something to do with the possession of it.”
Around age twelve, James takes a number of trips on his own into Manhattan to see the family dentist. Exploring the city, “[m]useums led to museums…[and finally to] the work of Picasso. I fell for them, the sad-faced but beautiful young men, melancholy acrobats, wistful dogs and monkeys.”
James struggles to finish prep school and finds it a miracle he’s accepted into college. He’s a terrible student and feels oppressed by his suppressed homosexual desires. To get out of school and prove his manlihood to himself, he enlists in the army. Miserable in his surroundings, horrified by the corruption and brutality of the war machine, James “was very much on the lookout for someone to admire.” Picasso’s recent show of wartime works was scandalous, but he hadn’t “yet enjoyed the status of a living legend." James is smitten and takes a chance reaching out to him.
James meets Picasso a handful of times, yet he is in thrall to him for the rest of his life. At the very first meeting, James whips out a sketchpad, asks Picasso to do his portrait, and Picasso obliges, dashing off a quick drawing while Dora ignores them. James is thrilled until he later looks at it. Unsatisfied with the result, he adds a doodle of his own to make the drawing, to his eye, complete. Then he asks Picasso for another one.
Over time, James realizes “there was something more” he wants from Picasso. “I don’t know what it was, or is.” He doesn’t know and we don’t get enough clues. Sometimes James fantasizes that he was Picasso’s son (although James has witnessed Picasso humiliating his son, Paulo); sometimes he fantasizes about being Picasso’s lover. He dreams of Picasso on his bed, in his underwear. He notes in his diary: “‘I would like to contract genius from him as one contracts a disease.’”
James strikes up a friendship with Dora after Picasso has broken up with her. Picasso attacks, naysaying James’s aspirations to greatness: “He’s far too old, not in the least famous. No, no, his doings will never cause us the slightest surprise.” James finds even this rejection thrilling. “’It’s very flattering to have Picasso react so directly and violently toward you,’ Dora assures James. ‘It proves that you are someone.’”
The meat of the story is James’ relationship with Dora. Its unfolding is relayed beautifully, starting with her complete disdain for him, their mutual dislike and wariness, and the slow way they gradually open to one another. Picasso is the sun they orbit around, each in their fixed elliptic. James’s relationship with Picasso hardly compares to Dora’s, either in intensity or duration, yet he boasts, “We were important. Dora undoubtedly was, anyway, being already a historical personage.” He knows his importance will be revealed in time and as a direct result of his relationships with these artists.
Dora and James travel together, squabble about artwork, and take up temporary residence in Dora’s scorpion-infested summer house, where “the furnishings looked like things abandoned there long before by some hasty departure” and “the towels were thin and rough.” James is enthralled because it is a house Picasso gave her. Although Dora is clearly unhappy there, having been dumped by Picasso for the much-younger Françoise Gilot, James romanticizes her misery: “her solitude [was] immaculate and intact, alluring…because it was likewise his creation.” You can imagine how he felt when he found the toilet seat Picasso painted.
James is surprised when Dora is sometimes nasty, when she feels abused, ill-treated by him. Yet if James has an inkling that Dora has romantic feelings for him, “I took it for granted…that Dora must have recognized what my sexual disposition was.” But he sits with her under the light of a full moon, he holds her hand. He stands with her at the top of the stairs before bedtime, touches her face with a tender caress before rushing off to his room as if lovelorn. He benefits by being cagey about his feelings toward Dora. I’d have liked him to square off on that.
Picasso and Dora strikes me as a faithful account, but admirably it’s not to James’s own vanity. He comes across as the worst of the lot. Even his own mother remarks at one point, “‘I’m sure it’s very interesting for you to have met these famous people, but I can’t help wondering what it is they see in you.’”
James often refers to his journals written at the time, as if citing his sources, giving specific dates, locations, and names. But I wonder if this accuracy of reporting can possibly extend to include the pages of conversation which are quoted at length here. What kind of liberties were taken?
Rather than a memoir, this feels the work of a diarist. The story doesn’t benefit from any memoiristic devices—going forward and backward in time, going off on a tangent. James does a good job of dispensing with the facts of his past to get right to the good part—Picasso. But I think it was a mistake to marginalize his own story—the centrality of his feelings and relationships, the people he knew intimately, who he ate with and slept with—as if it couldn’t be compelling on its own. He has a longterm lover or two he mentions by name, but most of his sexual relationships are fleeting and treated as asides. In those relationships, he seeks not depth of feeling, connection, or understanding, but “promiscuous oblivion in the embraces of boys whose names in my diary no longer evoke a tremor of memory.”
What’s really missing for me here is the man telling us the story. We get the James that met Picasso, but what of the James who is reliving, observing, maybe even contradicting the James of then? Memories don’t surprise, overtake, or grieve him. Perhaps the stories, especially the meetings with Picasso, so few, so burnished in James’s memory, have been trotted out so many times over the years, they’ve taken on the patina of legend. The carpet is worn thin in some of these well-trod places.
The book has a few lines of tremendous beauty that suggest untapped poetic reserves in James. He describes trees “like balloons ready to float up in the sunrise,” and creates an intimate picture of Dora smoking: “sometimes a tiny avalanche of ash cascaded down the silk slope of her breasts.”
The end is a slog. With both Dora and Picasso more or less absent from his life, James takes to summarizing. Long, admonishing letters to both Dora and Picasso are reprinted in full, without looking at their contents with fresh eyes and reexamining the motives for sending them. The summing up of old relationships relegates them to an even less central place in his life.
By the end, Picasso is dead, Dora is a little old lady. We’re meant to feel it’s sad. James certainly pities Dora, and nobly asserts that she “shall have flowers in November [for her birthday] year after year till the last.” I get the feeling that this tribute has less to do with Dora than celebrating the monument he’s made of their relationship. No wonder she got annoyed with him.
Shortly before closing, James relays a recent dream of Dora. “Then I woke up, alone, and on the walls of my room were portraits of me by her, by Picasso, Balthus, Alberto, and a few others.” Surrounded by greatness to be sure. “But I was completely alone.”