Sunday, January 20, 2013

From My Memoir: Posing and Modelling

Posing at the famous art school, La Grande Chaumiere was no more embarrassing than being discovered unconscious while trying to take a bath. Soon I no longer felt a raised arm, and I liked having my two feet firmly planted on the ground, in contrast to the fatigue of a fashion fitting in high heels. As for models ‘getting into trouble’, when I undressed and stepped onto the dais, I left ‘Deena’ on the dressing room stool with her clothes and became ‘the model’. I liked the atmosphere of quiet concentration, the silence as everyone worked, the smell of paint, the people coming to look, quietly, with a handshake here and there, night falling, and finally, breaking the silence, the word “Rest". During the break I was myself again, covered and mixing with the others. The young men had no ulterior motives: they simply admired a good-looking girl.

Having realized I could do this, I sought out the well-known artist Segonzac. A tiny old woman with glasses opened the door on the top floor of an old building on rue Bonaparte: "You're a model? I don't know if he has time to see you. Come in."

14.Modeling, 1953

A dark, narrow, crowded hall, a large room covered with linoleum, paintings stacked against the walls, near the window a table with an enormous typewriter. The woman went toward a door at the back and called out in a grand-mother's voice:

"It's a model.”

Segonzac appeared, the grandmother's spouse. "Monsieur Jos sent you from the Grande Chaumiere? May I look at you?"

He disappeared. I undressed in an alcove in the hall. "Take off your glasses", the grandmother advised. She called him, he came and looked at me from afar. "Very beautiful, unusual - I'm going to work with you. Here, my child, for the subway," handing me 200 Francs, enough for half a dozen rides. I almost refused, but realized he would be offended. Alas, I never did pose for Segonzac, perhaps because I couldn’t be reached at the left bank hotel where I lived.

After several months working at the art school, I had saved enough to take a Christmas vacation. I wanted to ski, and chose the resort of Cortina d'Ampezzo, since I’d never been to Italy. (Killing two birds with one stone had become my standard modus operandi.) After half an hour on an easy slope I fell and twisted my ankle. A very sweet young man who had struck up a conversation on the way up helped me back to the boarding house. A doctor bandaged my ankle and ordered bed rest. The young man brought me fruit and flowers, stayed to keep me company, and learned to make love. He and his more sophisticated cousin took turns sacrificing sport to a different pleasure, and that’s when I discovered that casual lovemaking can be perfectly charming when carried out in a spirit of respectful complicity.

I managed to get into the School of Oriental Languages, notwithstanding my rudimentary Spanish, and my failure, at the oral, to know that Baku, in Azerbaijan, was where the Russians got their oil. At the annual ‘Langues O’ dance, I met Leo Boyer, an alumnus who had grown up in China. He was hardly taller than me, but an excellent partner, with the green eyes and blond hair that would be my damnation for years to come. We danced all evening, then made love all night.

Leo had not been as lucky as Ping, the Chinese duck of my childhood. His father had engineered railroads for Chang Kai Chek, then for Mao, and been killed by the Japanese during the war. Leo’s mother consoled herself by marrying a banker, but when the family returned to France in 1950, Leo was unable to transfer his law credits from Shanghai University to the Sorbonne. He got a degree from the School of Oriental Languages, hoping to become a diplomat; but just at that moment, relations with Communist China broke down, and the French Foreign Ministry stopped recruiting Sinologists. At twenty-seven, he was more or less estranged from his family and unemployed. The day after the ball, he moved into my hotel room on rue Mazarine, where I had installed a rented piano. The cabinet de toilette doubled as kitchen, Leo was an excellent cook, and a former student at the Paris Conservatory gave me piano lessons.

While taking Russian classes, I modeled at Lanvin's, but Leo and I didn’t mix with the fashion crowd: among our wannabe friends was a sculptor who admired my large peasant feet. Leo looked endlessly for a job, while I fell fatally behind in a Tolstoi text that consisted mainly of footnotes. The one thing I retained from those classes because I saw it demonstrated in the successive languages I did learn, was that spoken languages change according to the law of least effort. (Whenever I proffer this knowledge, I feel slightly superior.)

Leo was convinced that politics was a hopelessly dirty business. As for me, I had never been able to get past the messy appearance of French newspapers. The screaming headlines, like the bandwagon aspect of American politics, echoed the aggressive family atmosphere of my childhood. I wanted to understand rather than judge, and although we noted the incessant changes of government, it was not until I began reading The Economist, many years later, that I would make sense of French politics.


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