The Lady in Gold’s Footsteps in Vienna

Have you ever take a trip because of a book? I just did.

I’d always wanted to go to Vienna, but every time I got as far as Munich or Salzburg, it seemed I always had a reason to head elsewhere or hurry home. This time it would be different. I wanted to walk in the footsteps of The Lady in Gold by Anne Marie O’Connor.


I enjoyed the movie The Woman in Gold (I enjoyed Helen Mirren’s witty little quips), but it didn’t come close to covering the breadth and depth of the book.

From O’Connor’s book you get the whole story. You learn all about Gustav Klimt, his background, his rise to fame, and his women. About Adele Bloch-Bauer, her affluent Jewish family and her sophisticated intellectual circle. We learn how Klimt came to paint Adele’s famous portrait and how it became the Mona Lisa of fin de siècle Austria.

We don’t just learn what  became of The Lady in Gold after the Germans took over in 1938, we see how the entire Bloch-Bauer family suffered under Nazi rule. The Gestapo terrorized and extorted wealthy Viennese families to gain access to their factories, valuables and bank accounts which would be used to fuel their war machine. The story is much, much bigger than the story of one painting.

The losses of this extended family are staggering. Adele’s widowed husband Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer gave up his home and valuables in Vienna (with The Lady in Gold still inside) and escaped to his castle in Prague until that too was overtaken by the Nazis. Ferdinand lived until 1945, when he would die impoverished and alone in Switzerland. Adele’s nephew Leopold was arrested by the Gestapo and held until he promised to turn over the stock to the family sugar company. (Interesting sidebar: in 2005, Leopold’s heirs would receive $21 million in restitution for the theft of the sugar company, made possible by the collaboration of Swiss banks. Read more here.)

Adele’s niece Maria (played in the movie by Helen Mirren) and her new husband Fritz Altmann were able to sneak out of Vienna to England, thanks to the cash and connections of her father-in-law who owned a factory in Liverpool. Adele’s other niece, the Baroness Luise Gutmann, became trapped in Yugoslavia with her husband Viktor and her children. Viktor was arrested and killed by the Nazis, but Luise and the children survived. The remaining members of the Bloch-Bauer, Altmann and Gutmann families emigrated to Los Angeles and Vancouver after the war, living in close connection with other Austrians.

O’Connor even came upon a fascinating true story about how a different kind of “gay marriage” saved Jewish lives in Vienna. Gay culture had in fact flourished in artistic circles before the Nazis arrived. An underground network of eligible “Aryan bachelors” offered to marry Jewish women and get them out of Austria. A Bloch-Bauer in-law, Ada Stern, found a gay Dutch man who did exactly that.

Not surprisingly, the movie just scrapes the surface of all this tragic and important history of wartime Vienna. The Lady in Gold by Anne-Marie O’Connor is a must-read whether or not you have seen the movie. And once you’ve read it, you too will probably want to visit Vienna and walk in the footsteps of Gustav Klimt and Adele Bloch-Bauer.

First on my Lady in Gold literary tour was a walk to Adele Bloch-Bauer’s home near the Vienna Opera on Elisabethstrasse.



Standing in front of 18 Elisabethstrasse, the home of Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer. They moved into this four-story palatial townhouse across from the Academy of Fine Art in 1919. In 1925, Adele died here, leaving the will instructing her husband to leave her two Klimt portraits to the Austrian Gallery after his death.

18 Elisabethstrasse, where Adele Bloch-Bauer would hold Saturday salons with her artistic and progressive circle of friends, including Alma Mahler, Richard Strauss and Karl Renner, the former chancellor of Austria. (Renner was also Adele’s lover – Adele’s maid had to quietly remove his love letters from her nightstand upon Adele’s death.)

Adele Bloch-Bauer’s lovely and sophisticated neighborhood. She lived across the street from Schillerpark and the Vienna Academy of Art. (The same academy that would reject Adolf Hitler’s application in 1907 after he flunked the drawing exam.) As Anne-Marie O’Connor says in The Lady in Gold: “If Adele had passed Hitler on the street in Vienna in those days, carrying his pants and pastels, she would have seen only an unfortunate young man, lacking in confidence. She probably would have felt sorry for him.”


The Secession Building in Vienna: Gustav Klimt's Beethoven Frieze

The Secession Building in Vienna, 12 Friedrichstrasse: A must-see for Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze. Klimt created the frieze in 1902 for the XIVth Secessionist Exhibit. The frieze stayed in place until 1903, the year that Klimt would begin his portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. If you’re following in my own footsteps, this building is just a couple of blocks from 18 Elisabethstrasse on the other side of the Academy of Fine Arts.

The Secession Building: Unfortunately photos aren’t allowed inside, so you’ll either have to visit for yourself or check out the photos on their website, Klimt made a stunning use of gold leaf and displayed a highly modern sensibility with a great deal of nudity. Adele would have had no illusions about what kind of portrait she would be sitting for.                                                                          By the way, there is litigation over the Beethoven Frieze as well. Heirs of Erich Lederer, the owner of the frieze at the time of its “Aryanization,” have sued the Austrian government for its return. Although Lederer was paid $750,000 for the frieze in in 1973, it was far below its fair market value. The Austrian government and the Secession Building are fighting for the right to keep it. Read Anne-Marie O’Connor’s Huffington Post article here.


A visit to Vienna wouldn't be complete without a trip to the Belvedere Palace, which was once home to the Lady in Gold.

A visit to Vienna wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the Belvedere Palace, 27 Prinz Eugen-Strasse, which is just a short scenic walk from the Secession Building. This art museum might not be the home to the Lady in Gold anymore, but it still holds The Kiss, and plenty of other fabulous works of art.

The view from the inside of the Belvedere.

The view from the inside of the Belvedere.

A terrace of the Belvedere

A terrace of the Upper Belvedere looking through the gardens toward the Lower Belvedere.

Picture Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds right here.

Picture Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds walking in the gardens of the Belvedere.

 I just had to go find the Jewish Memorial that Ryan Reynolds visited at the end of the movie. It's located in the Judenplatz, over in the older area of Vienna. Definitely worth the longer walk from the other sites.

I just had to go find the Jewish Holocaust Memorial that Ryan Reynolds visited at the end of the movie. It’s located in the Judenplatz, over in the older area of Vienna. It is named Silent Library and was designed to resemble book with their spines turned inward, which represents all the life stories that will never be known. Definitely worth the longer walk from the other sites.



The Lady in Gold by Anne-Marie O’Connor: Very highly recommended


For further reading:

The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig. I read this haunting autobiography-memoir while I was visiting Salzburg and Vienna this summer. One of the best book and travel pairings I’ve ever made. Set in Vienna, Salzburg, Paris and much of Europe, it was published after Zweig’s exile to Brazil and his subsequent suicide. It is a beautifully told story about the lost world of old world Vienna and the horror of a world in the midst of war. Fun fact (as revealed in The Lady in Gold): Stefan Zweig was a friend of Adele Bloch-Bauer. Very highly recommended.

world of yesterday












The Painted Kiss by Elizabeth Hickey. The story of Gustave Klimt and his long-time companion, partner and muse Emilie Flöge, the subject of The Kiss.












The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund DeWaal. Read my prior posts here: Vienna Sites, and Paris Sites.






Freud’s Mistress by Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman (historical fiction set in turn-of-the-century Vienna).


Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation

You really shouldn’t miss this multiple biography of six flappers from the 1920s (Josephine Baker, Talulah Bankhead, Diana Cooper, Nancy Cunard, Zelda Fitzgerald and Tamara de Lempicka).


Each woman’s story is equally fascinating. Author Judith Mackrell gives us all the scoop, including tales of booze, drugs, adultery, abortions, bisexuality and more. It’s the kind of book that makes you want to pour a martini and put on some jazz. I’m already picturing a Flapper theme party for my book club.

But this book is more than a dishy exposé. Mackrell understands that the flappers represented much more than a new sense of 1920s style and glamour. The flappers were at the vanguard of an attempt to redefine 20th century womanhood. Their personal failures and challenges, viewed together and in full historical context, teach us that the history of the woman’s movement is truly a story of fits-and-starts, a seesaw of hard-fought change and regression. No generation of women illustrate this better than the flappers.

And of course, like most interesting stories about women in the late 19th and early 20th century, the story of the flappers takes you to Paris, where they became dancers, actresses, writers or painters. They frequented the nightclubs and cafés of Paris, including Bricktops, the Dome and the Rotunde, as well as the salons of famous women, such as Gertrude Stein and Natalie Barney.

Most interesting to me was the story of Tamara de Lempicka, the iconic art deco painter whose self-portrait appears on the cover of the book. (Have you read The Last Nude by Ellis Avery? It’s a terrific novel about Tamara de Lempicka and one of her models.) You can enjoy my two-part Last Nude Literary Tour here and here.

Tamara de Lempicka, Self-Portrait in a Green Bugatti, 1925 (Private Collection)

Tamara de Lempicka, Self-Portrait in a Green Bugatti, 1925 (Private Collection)

Tamara de Lempicka arrived in Paris in 1918 as a Russian refugee. She came to Paris after losing everything in the Russian revolution and reinvented herself as a professional painter.

Lempicka took only a year of formal instruction from Maurice Denis at the Académie Ransom at 7 rue Joseph Bara in the 6th arrondissement, just off of rue Notre Dame des Champs. Like most art students, she took her sketchbook to the Louvre in the afternoons. At first she rejected the modernist style of Cézanne, Picasso and the Dadaists, preferring the Renaissance masters. But soon she was drawn into the style of cubist André L’hote, an instructor at the Académie Notre Dame des Champs and later at the Académie de la Grand Chaumière. Lempicka studied with L’hote privately for a few months, long enough to absorb his powerful and charismatic portrait style. By 1922, after less than two years of study, Lempicka had three works accepted in the Salon d’Automne in Paris. By 1925, Lempicka had a solo show in Milan organized by Count Emanuele di Castelbarco.

Interestingly, from 1922-1924, Lempicka presented herself as a man in the catalogs for  the Paris exhibitions. She was listed as “LEMPITZKY (Tamara de) Born in Warsaw, Polish (French masculine form)” [].

Lempicka promoted herself with a ferocious sense of ambition, understanding that commercially lucrative portrait commissions would come as much from her talent as her own personal style and connections. She lived a chic and erotic bisexual life, which is exactly what she conveyed in her portraits.

Tamara de Lempicka, Portrait of the Duchess of Valmy (1924), Oil on canvas, private collection

Tamara de Lempicka, Portrait of the Duchess of Valmy (1924), Oil on canvas, private collection














Tamara de Lempicka, Portrait of the Duchess of  La Salle (1925), oil on canvas, private collection.

Tamara de Lempicka, Portrait of the Duchess of La Salle (1925), oil on canvas, private collection.















Tamara de Lempicka, La Belle Rafaela (1927), oil on canvas, private collection

Tamara de Lempicka, La Belle Rafaela (1927), oil on canvas, private collection


Judith Mackrell follows Lempicka’s rise through the 1920s and and her subsequent fall in the 1930s. As Mackrell explains:

[T]he forces of fashion and history that had swept her to eminence were changing course in the early 1930s, and while she was still much talked about in public, in private she felt that she had failed to catch the pulse of the new decade.


The rising political tensions in Europe, a new wave of modern art, Lempicka’s dated sense of glamour and lack of youth all combined to Lempicka’s decline after 1935. She remarried and moved to America, where she had a difficult time marketing herself as well as she had in the Paris of the 1920s. She tried living in Beverly Hills, then the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and finally Houston, where her daughter Kizette had settled with her husband and two daughters. Lempicka found Houston “uncivilized” and mundane.

After Lempicka’s bold life in Paris in the 1920s, can you blame her?


Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation by Judith Mackrell: Highly recommended


For Further Reading:

The Last Nude by Ellis Avery (A novel about Tamara de Lempicka and one of her models)













Camille Claudel: Rodin’s Lover

rodins loverI’ve been anxiously awaiting the release of Heather Webb’s new book  Rodin’s Lover, the story of Camille Claudel, one of Auguste Rodin’s most promising students.

I first learned about her art and her tumultuous love affair with Auguste Rodin when a friend recommended that I read Naked Came I by David Weiss (1970).

But then, during my year in Paris, I got to frequent the Musée Rodin, where I could see her work with my own eyes. Haven’t been? You gotta go, although I’m not sure which, if any, of Claudel’s works are on display since the extensive museum renovations. Check the website before you go.


Musée Rodin, 79 rue de Varenne, 75007 Paris, France

Musée Rodin, view from the south garden

Musée Rodin, view from the south garden

The view from an upstairs window of Musée Rodin onto the south garden

The view from an upstairs window of Musée Rodin onto the south garden


The grounds of the Musée Rodin are like an urban sanctuary in the middle of Paris. There's even an outdoor café where you can grab lunch.

The grounds of the Musée Rodin are like an urban sanctuary in the middle of Paris. There’s even an outdoor café where you can grab lunch.

The old Hotel Biron was a dilapidated mess when Rodin first rented out four south-facing, ground-floor rooms opening onto the terrace, to use as his studios.

The old Hotel Biron was a dilapidated mess when in 1908, Rodin first rented out four south-facing, ground-floor rooms to be used as studios. He shared the space with other artists, including Matisse, Isadora Duncan and By 1911, Rodin had taken over the entire building. (Source: Musée Rodin exhibit)

At the time of my visit, Camille Claudel’s work was on display in one of the upstairs rooms of the museum. I would hope and fully expect that her work will return as soon as renovations are complete. The fact that her work is displayed alongside his is itself remarkable. After her love affair with Rodin came to an end (it ended badly – just read Webb’s book) Camille Claudel suffered from financial, professional and mental health issues. Her father supported her, but after his death in 1913, her mother and her brother Paul had her institutionalized, first in Ville-Évrard in Neuilly-sur-Marne, and then, from 1914 until her death in 1943, in the Montdevergues Asylum, at Montfavet near Avignon. Her family rarely visited and refused to bring her home despite the recommendations of the treating physicians.

Before his death in 1917, Rodin continued to provide some financial and artistic support to Claudel, agreeing to reserve exhibition space for Claudel’s works when Hotel Biron was being turned into the Musée Rodin. In 1952, Claudel’s brother Paul finally donated four major works by his sister to the museum. The museum continues to acquire her available works, recently acquiring Young Girl with a Sheaf. Its website features an educational background file on the relationship between Rodin and Claudel, with photos of her best-known sculptures.

Camille Claudel’s sculpture reveals astonishing talent and emotion. Rodin’s influence is unmistakeable in her early work, less so in her later, smaller work.

Camille Claudel, Bust of Auguste Rodin

Camille Claudel, Bust of Auguste Rodin (Bronze, 1892), Musée Rodin

Camille Claudel, Clotho (1893), Plaster. Donated by Paul Claudel in 1952.

Camille Claudel, Clotho (1893), Plaster. Donated by Paul Claudel in 1952. Musée Rodin

Camille Claudel, The Age of Maturity (1899), Bronze. Donated by Paul Claudel in 1952.

Camille Claudel, The Age of Maturity (1899), Bronze. Donated by Paul Claudel in 1952. This is a partial view of the sculpture, featuring a pleading woman, often said to be Camille begging for Rodin, who is being torn away by his long-time companion Rose. Claudel herself would reject such an autobiographical interpretation, and instead claim that it is intended to symbolize the grass of youth versus age.

Camille Claudel, The Wave

Camille Claudel, The Wave (1897), Onyx and bronze. Musée Rodin, purchased in 1995.

Camille Claudel, The Gossips (1895), Musée Rodin. Donated by Rodin in 1916.

Camille Claudel, The Gossips (1895), plaster. Musée Rodin. Donated by Rodin in 1916. Note Claude’s signature in the lower left corner.

And if this small sampling of Claudel’s work isn’t enough for you, there’s more on the way.  In March, 2017, a new Musée Camille Claudel will be opening in Nogent-Sur-Seine, the a small town southeast of Paris where the Claudel family lived when Camille was young.  Over 77 pieces of Claudel’s art will be on display, thanks to a large 2008 acquisition by Reine-Marie Paris, the granddaughter of Paul Claudel. Here is a link to a video from French television about the plans for the museum. Finally, here is a link to the website of Reine-Marie Paris which includes photographs of even more of Camille Claudel’s sculptures.

Maison de Claudel, Nogent-sur-Seine, France.

Maison de Claudel, Nogent-sur-Seine, France.

Rendering of the future Musée Camille Claudel in Nogent-sur-Seine

Rendering of the future Musée Camille Claudel in Nogent-sur-Seine

I can’t wait to hear more about the completion of the new museum. It will definitely be worth a drive out to the countryside southeast of Paris.

In the meantime, we will have to content ourselves with Heather Webb’s new book, which breathes life into the passionate, turbulent life of Camille Claudel. Book clubs will find much to discuss, above and beyond the historical interest in a female artist of the late 19th century.

For instance, what do you think drove Camille Claudel to mental illness, if that’s what it was? Was she paranoid about Rodin, or did he really manipulate and compete with her? Which injured her more, the lack of support from her mother and her brother Paul, or a sexist society that made success in the arts so extraordinarily difficult for women? Would Camille Claudel have been better off if she’d never entangled herself with Rodin? Finally, do you see any parallels between Camille Claudel’s struggles and those of 20th and 21st century women?

I’m definitely recommending it to my own book club. Bring some wine!

Rodin’s Lover by Heather Webb: Highly Recommended.  

For further enjoyment: Don’t miss the 1988 Oscar-nominated film, Camille Claudel, starring Isabelle Adjani and Gérard Depardieu, available on Amazon Prime Instant Video.

camille claudel 1988 movie

From One Book to Another

This post is about how just one book can lead to many others. I love it when that happens.


I recently finished Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar (previous post here) and so enjoyed the story of Vanessa Bell and her sister Virginia Woolf that I was inspired to keep reading. It seems I just can’t get enough of Vanessa, Virginia and the whole Bloomsbury Group. It has become my own little reading rabbit hole. If that isn’t that a sign of an inspiring book, I don’t know what is.

howard's end

The first thing I set out to do was to read Howard’s End by E. M. Forster. There was a scene in Vanessa and Her Sister where Vanessa mentions a beautiful new novel she’d just read (February 1911):



“And – I finished Morgan’s [E. M. Forster’s] beautiful new novel on the train. It is about sisters: one wild and uncompromising but breathtaking in her courage, And one practical, reasonable, and unhappily bound by her good sense. Elmira Dashwood and Marianne. Margaret and Helen Schlegel. Even the name is haunting: Howards End.”


Although I loved Room With A View, I hadn’t read Howard’s End before, so I was excited to discover something old yet new. And of course I loved it. His sentences can leave me breathless, like this one, which describes Margaret’s thoughts upon the death of her friend Mrs. Wilcox:

It is thus, if there is any rule, that we ought to die – neither as victim nor as fanatic, but as the seafarer who can greet with an equal eye the deep that he is entering, and the shore that he must leave.

Now I’m searching all over Netflix for the 1992 film with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. Anyone know where I can find it?

voyage out

My next inspiration that came from Vanessa and Her Sister was some more of Virginia Woolf’s early fiction. I never knew that most of Woolf’s work I was familiar with was written later in her life. For example, To The Lighthouse (one of my absolute top-ten books) was written when Woolf was 45 years old with only 6 years left before she would take her own life. The Voyage Out, Woolf’s first novel, was written when she was just 25 years old. I was curious to detect the difference in her writing.

The introduction to my edition claims that at this young age, “Woolf was still writing under the shadow of E. M. Forster and the traditional novel. . . . One can see her experimenting, slowly honing the style that was to become her hallmark, but where later she was fearless, here she is tentative, still depending on plot, not style, to drive the narrative.” I love the idea that women grow more fearless with age. So true, don’t you think?

I’m still in the middle of The Voyage Out, but already I can tell you that I am enjoying the insight that I have from reading Vanessa and Her Sister. In fact, the novel was written in the middle of all of the events related in Vanessa and Her Sister, including their brother Thoby’s death, Vanessa’s marriage, and the love triangle with Clive Bell. No wonder Virginia was inspired to write about marriage, about love and death, about women’s choices. I feel like I know Woolf and her milieu; I can see the real-life Bloomsbury people reflected in her characters. It’s fun.

Now that I’m on this kick, I’m not sure what I’ll read next. I’ve got Hermione Lee’s biography Virginia Woolf on my TBR pile, but maybe I’d rather read some more Bloomsbury fiction. Any recommendations?

Hermione lee virginia woolf bio





Vanessa and Her Sister

I just finished Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar (Ballantine, 2015). And I loved it.


It’s the story of the Stephen siblings of London (Vanessa, Virginia, Thoby and Adrian) who formed the nucleus of the Bloomsbury Group when they moved into a bohemian Gordon Square neighborhood together in 1904.

Vanessa Stephen is 25 years old at the beginning of the novel, and has already studied art at the Royal Academy School of Art, taking painting instruction from John Singer Sargent. Her younger sister Virginia, also single, is recovering from a bad spell of mental illness after the death of their father and has yet to write her first novel.


This novel has as its heart the story of two intensely intelligent, unconventional and competitive sisters. Virginia is jealous and toxically dependent on Vanessa, and feels threatened by Vanessa’s first successes in art and romance. The two sisters are happiest when Virginia poses for a portrait by Vanessa, which she does often. As Vanessa says in the novel:

I always paint Virginia. I tell myself that it is the lean planes of her beautiful face that draw me, but really, it is her company I seek. . . .

She posed for an hour this evening, until the June light failed, her eyes closed in comfort, and her face settled into her hand in a way it never does when she is in conversation. Her fine hair, a paler brown than mine, was swept back from her elliptical face into a loose knot and lay in the shallow curve of her long neck. She did not speak nor try to break the moment but kept impossibly still. When Virginia knows I am watching her, she does not try to be anywhere else.


Vanessa Bell, Portrait of Virginia Woolf (1912) Virginia Woolf (c. 1912), © Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy Henrietta Garnett. Photo © National Trust / Charles Thomas

Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf (1912),  Estate of Vanessa Bell


Vanessa Bell, Viginia Woolf [In An Armchair] (1911-12), Oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, London

Vanessa Bell, Viginia Woolf [In An Armchair] (1911-12), Oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, London


























Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf in a Deckchair (1912), Oil on board, Mimi and Peter Haas. (Leonard Woolf once said that this portrait was "more like Virginia in its way than anything else of her.")

Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf in a Deckchair (1912), Oil on board, Mimi and Peter Haas. (Leonard Woolf, Virginia’s husband, once said that this portrait was “more like Virginia in its way than anything else of her.”)




















Vanessa and Her Sister more than a tale of sibling rivalry and codependence: it’s also about the differences between two forms of art: writing and painting. Priya renews our appreciation for the talent of Vanessa Bell, the lesser known sister, and does a fabulous job exploring and expressing the mind of an artist, which is less accessible than that of a writer. Priya understands that Vanessa feels slighted because their highly literate Bloomsbury crowd seems to prefer words to images. Vanessa broods (p. 66):

Painting does not qualify as work in this family of literati. Work is not work where words are not involved. The unfixed mark of paint alters when it alteration finds. The distribution of colors is a curious sort of hobby to them. A lightweight experiment with insubstantial shade instead of the integrity-bound dimensional shape of letters on a page.

I love how Vanessa (p. 33) explains the mind of a painter:

I think in mass, In color and shape and light and volume and texture. Not in words. Words delicately sewn around an abstract idea leave me feeling large and awkward and with nothing to say. What is the meaning of good? My mind asks “What is the color of good? What size? What light? Where to put the bowl of poppies?”


In 1905, Vanessa experiences the thrill of her first exhibition. A commissioned portrait of her friend Lady Robert Cecil (“Nelly”) is exhibited at the New Gallery in London.

Photograph of VAnessa (Stephen) Bell painting a portrait of Lady Robert Cecil (1905). Source: Tate Archive Showcase.

Photograph of Vanessa (Stephen) Bell painting a portrait of Lady Robert Cecil (1905). Source: Tate Archive Showcase.















In the novel, Parmar has Vanessa describe the feeling of seeing her own painting on the walls of a gallery for the first time, knowing it has changed her experience of being an artist (p. 29):

We stood in the gallery. Watching people watch the painting. It was exhilarating but mixed with an elusive bittersweet I could not place. Nelly looked lovelier hanging on that wall than she ever did resting on my easel, but she had grown unfamiliar in the weeks since I handed her over to the gallery. It is true that we do not understand the boundaries and dimensions of what we have created until it is consumed by another. I loved being an artist today.


Vanessa expands her circle of artist friends and her view of the art world. Clive Bell, a Cambridge pal of her brother Thoby becomes a frequent visitor to their Gordon Square Thursday Night “At Homes.” Bell is an art critic, and he and Vanessa share their interest in the leading-edge art scene in Paris, including Manet, Cézanne and Picasso. They discuss the recent Durand-Ruel exhibition at the Grafton Galleries in London, debating whether “it take[s] vision to understand beauty.”

Vanessa Bell, Interior Scene with Clive Bell and Duncan Grant Drinking Wine, Birkbeck Collection, University of London

Vanessa Bell, Interior Scene with Clive Bell and Duncan Grant Drinking Wine, Birkbeck Collection, University of London (painted at Gordon Square – check out the red slippers!)

Vanessa and Clive will marry in 1907 and head off to Paris, where they spend time with their bohemian British ex-pat friends, including Duncan Grant and Henry Lamb. Their artistic newlywed idyll will be interrupted by the birth of their first child Julian within a year of the wedding. Vanessa is blown away by childbirth and her love for the baby. Clive, not so much.

Vanessa Bell, Portrait Julian Bell (1908)

Vanessa Bell, Portrait of Julian Bell (1908)

Vanessa Bell, Portrait of Julian Bell (1908)

Vanessa Bell, Portrait of Julian Bell [Sleeping] (1908)

















The year Julian is born Vanessa learns that Clive and Virginia have become involved in what is (at the very least) an emotional affair. Their betrayal shakes her to her core and leaves her marriage forever altered, but Vanessa is able to turn to her painting for relief.

In 1909, Vanessa finishes what is now known as one of her most famous early paintings: Iceland Poppies

Vanessa Bell, Iceland Poppies (1909-10)

Vanessa Bell, Iceland Poppies (1908-9), The Vanessa Bell Estate, The Charleston Trust, Sussex, England.















The painting is chilly and deeply psychological. As Vanessa says in the book:

I am painting well, given all that has happened. I am pleased with my quiet still life and have decided to call it Iceland Poppies. Each time I come back to it, I am surprised at how well I like it: the wintry palette, the antique medicine jar and pale matching bowl, the green glass poison bottle, and the contrasting poppy. Yes, they are right together. Of course, I could fall out of love with it in an afternoon. Rightness can be a transitive thing.

Clive wanted to know if the painting is about Virginia’s suicide attempts. How very obvious of him. He did not see the triplicate nature of the canvas. The three stripes on the wall. The three vessels: two white, one tree. The three flowers flying in the foreground: the two white, turned to the wall, and the one short-stemmed, poppy facing outward and painted in a fresh bolt of red. I alternate. Sometimes I am the white flower and sometimes I am the red.


Vanessa is thrilled when Iceland Poppies is exhibited at The New English Art Club, right alongside John Singer Sargent, Augustus John and Duncan Grant: “So something good has tumbled out of this appalling year.”

In 1910, Clive and Vanessa renew their acquaintance of Roger Fry, famous art critic and former curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Fry asks Clive to help plan his exhibit at the Grafton Galleries, “Manet and the Post-Impressionists.” The show stuns London with the avant-garde art of France, including works Manet, Cézanne, Gauguin, Derain, Matisse, Van Gogh, Seurat and Picasso. After this exhibit, Vanessa’s view of art expands, her style matures and she becomes more and more liberated from convention.

Roger Fry, Self-Portrait (1928)

Roger Fry, Self-Portrait (1928)

In 1911, the Bells travel to Constantinople with Roger Fry, and Vanessa and Roger spend much of their time painting side by side. Free from the constraints of a conventional marriage any longer, Vanessa allows a romance to commence with Roger.

Roger invites Vanessa to exhibit in the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibit at Grafton Galleries in 1912, where Vanessa Bell’s painting Nursery Tea will appear in the same room as works by Matisse, Picasso, Braces and Cézanne. Vanessa Bell has become one of Britain’s most noted Post-Impressionists.

Vanessa Bell, Nursery Tea (1912)

Vanessa Bell, Nursery Tea (1912)









Vanessa Bell, Monte Olivet (1912)

Vanessa Bell, Monte Oliveto (1912), Art Gallery of South Australia

Although Vanessa and Her Sister ends here, in 1912, Vanessa will go on to have a long, satisfying career in art. And as we also know, her sister Virginia will have a brilliant writing career, but a tragic life marred by the ups and downs of mental illness. Virginia Woolf will take her own life in 1941. Vanessa survived until 1961, leaving two surviving children, Quentin and Angelica. Her first child Julian would be killed in the Spanish Civil War in 1937.


Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya  Parmar: Highly Recommended

For Further Reading:

The Art of Bloomsbury by Richard Shone

The Art of Bloomsbury by Richard Shone


Portrait of a Woman in White

portrait of a owman in whitePortrait of a Woman in White by Susan Winkler is the story of a family of wealthy Jewish art collectors in Paris that begins before World War II. That’s all I need to say, and you can imagine the rest. You already know what tragedy will befall them even if they don’t. We know they will be forced to flee France, or worse, and that their art will be looted.

But it’s what we don’t know that makes us keep turning the page. Who will survive and how? What becomes of the family’s most precious possession, a Matisse portrait of their mother? And finally, what will become of the young lovers who are separated at the border of France and Spain?

By now most of us know about The Monuments Men, the story of how the Nazis systematically looted the art of Paris. We’ve seen the images of Hermann Göring marching into the Jeu de Paume in Paris to claim more trophies for his art collection under the watchful eye of Rose Valland. But to hear the story from the point of view of one young woman, Lili Rosenswig, brings it all to life and makes the tragedy that more real.

First, Lili witnesses her mother posing for Matisse in his studio on Boulevard Montparnasse in a lovely white satin gown. The portrait becomes a prized family possession, and hangs from the wall of the Rosenswig’s salon in a gilded wood frame. As the Rosenswigs prepare to flee France, they hide the Matisse at their relative’s country villa, planning to see it again soon. Instead, the family is betrayed and the portrait is seized by the Nazis along with most of their other valuables, and taken to the Jeu de Paume.

As Winkler explains in the book:

The Jeu de Paume was a serene pavilion set in the northwest corner of the Tuileries Garden, opposite the Louvre, in the center of Paris. Napoleon had built it to house tennis courts, and its high white walls had served most recently as an impressionist museum. But when the Nazis arrived in Paris and began seizing private Jewish collections, the initial storage rooms in the nearby German embassy were soon filled to overflowing. Urgently, four hundred cases of work were moved to the Jeu de Paume, which then became the official repository and sorting center for all the art that the Nazis confiscated in France.


Rose Valland is the lone French member who remained on the staff of the Jeu de Paume after the Germans requisitioned it, and managed to keep a secret record of all of the stolen art that came in and out of the museum.

Jeu de Paume Plaque

The plaque on the side of the Jeu de Paume commemorating Rose Valland’s heroism on behalf of French art. It explains that from the fall of 1940 until the summer of 1944, the building was requisitioned by occupying German forces storing art stolen from the French. Rose Valland took great risks to record the location of the stolen art, which resulted in the restitution of over 45,000 works.


Rose Valland (on the right) and Edith Standen posing with art being returned to France in 1946

Rose Valland (on the right) and Edith Standen posing with art being returned to France in 1946. Source: Archives of American Art,

In Winkler’s book, Valland watches as Göring marches into the Jeu de Paume with his entourage of German officers and curators. The Matisse portrait catches Goring’s eye and leaves him breathless. Lili’s mother looks just like Göring’s deceased wife Carin. Göring claims the painting for his personal collection in his hunting estate near Berlin, named Carinhall after his first wife.


Goring and the SS at Carinhall. Source: Wikipedia

Göring and the SS at Carinhall. Source: Wikipedia


The painting has its own journey, just as Lili Rosenswig and her family do. What became of the thousands of pieces artwork that Göring had installed in Carinhall by the war’s end? As bombs fell near Berlin, Göring was loading trucks and trains with his 1,375 paintings, 250 sculptures, 108 tapestries, 75 stained-glass windows and 175 objet’s d’art, sending them to secret locations in various mountain villages, including a mine shaft in Altausee, Austria and Bertchtesgaden in Bavaria.

Matisse, Woman in Blue in Front of a Fireplace (1937)

Matisse, Woman in Blue in Front of a Fireplace (1937)

The story of A Woman in White is even more interesting because a very similar art mystery was just resolved earlier this year. A real-life Matisse painting called Woman in Blue in Front of a Fireplace was the property of Paris art dealer Paul Rosenberg, was looted by the Nazis and sold to an unscrupulous French art dealer. A Norwegian art collector bought it in 1950, unaware of its provenance, and proudly installed it in the Onie Onsted Art Museum near Oslo, Norway. In 2012, Rosenberg heirs asserted a claim against the museum, and in March, 2014, after its own investigation, the museum agreed to give the $20 million painting back to its original owners, in accordance with the 1998 Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, to which Norway is a signatory. To read more, click here.

The road to reunite pre-war owners of Nazi looted art is long and complicated. And so it is for Lili and the Portrait of the Woman in White. Will Lili and her family every see their beloved painting again? You’ll just have to read Susan Winkler’s book to find out.


For further reading:

A previous post reviewing the book Pictures at an Exhibition by Sarah Houghteling












My prior post about The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal



Flirting with French

flirting with french

I just fell in love with a new book: Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me, and Nearly Broke My Heart by William Alexander (Algonquin US paperback 2014). People might raise an eyebrow when I say that a book about learning French is hilarious, but it really is text-your-friends-and-family-funny-quotes-from-the-book funny. I’m spreading the word with all of my friends in my Alliance Française classes. They’re going to love it.

William Alexander is a middle-aged American guy, who like so many of us, has a giant crush on France. He hopes to (finally) learn French, even though he is well aware that at age 57, he is on the downward slope of the cognitive and learning curve. He tells us his story with a light and snarky humility, laughing at himself so we can too. Over the course of a year, we follow Alexander as he blunders alongs on his learning challenge, only to find him facing an even greater health challenge. Through it all, Alexander’s love of France and his enthusiasm for accomplishing an elusive goal will charm and seduce you too.

So for my fellow Francophone-wannabes out there who are tormented by their own efforts to (finally) learn French, here are some delightful tidbits from the book.

The French . . . always tangle up everything to that degree that when you start into a sentence you never know whether you are going to come out alive or not.” –Mark Twain

Because it is female and lays eggs, a chicken is masculine.” –David Sedaris

” ‘Je suis a stranger here,’ I said in flawless French. ‘Je veux aller to le best hotel dans le town.’ ” –F. Scott Fitzgerald

Alexander has delightful three-page rant about the way the French count past sixty. Finally! Someone who shares my frustration! How many times have I tried to explain to my French teachers how silly it is that the number eighty in French is “four-twenty.” They say, “it’s just the number for eighty.” And I say, “No, it’s multiplication!” And then they look at me like I’m the crazy one. Not Alexander. He’s on our side.

And then. And then! A whole chapter on gendered nouns. Thank you! Here’s a fun list that demonstrates just how nonsensical the whole system is: a vagina and a woman’s breast are both masculine, while a beard, a screw and a necktie are all feminine. Hens are females, roosters male, and chickens (as David Sedaris knows well) are male. Alexander traces the history of gendered nouns, explaining how they came to be abandoned in the English language (the only one of the entire Indo-European family of languages to do so, believe it or not.) Apparently, we have the English peasants to thank: “Life was too short and too hard for a peasant to worry about how to address the bloody cow.

I’ve always been curious about those Immersion French programs you read about in the back of French magazines, and Alexander actually went to one. He went for two intense weeks at Millefeuille Provence, a bain linguistic (linguistic bath) in southern France. His conclusion? “The immersion approach is assumed by everyone in the field to be the best way to learn a language, and it probably is, but there’s a fine line between immersion and drowning.” So maybe that’s not the panacea for our French language acquisition either!

Every French student will be able to relate to Alexander when he describes his self-consciousness speaking French to a Frenchman. As Alexander says:

The real problem for Americans and Brits, according to some linguists, is that the phonemes of French, with its rolled r’s and nasal intonations, sound so silly to us that when we pronounce them properly we feel like we’re doing an Inspector Clouseau parody, so we shy away from the correct pronunciation.

I know exactly what he means. I call it the “A-hole American Tourist” syndrome, when we come back to the States and try to keep using our hard-won French accents, calling Paris “Paree” and the croissants “cwahssahn” — until our friends and family all roll their eyeballs and beg us to stop. Pas plus!

But still, against the odds, despite the frustration, and in the face of linguists who insist it is just not possible (c’est impossible!) to become fluent in another language post-childhood, we keep learning and trying and practicing our French. And thanks to William Alexander, we are not alone. And we’re laughing along the way. Pas mal, pas mal.


Flirting With French: Highly recommended


For Further Reading: (Only kidding a little bit. Don’t know what I’d do without it.)












–The American Girls Club in Paris, by Margie White

Seven Letters From Paris

seven letters from paris

Who doesn’t wonder about a long-lost love? Especially when life has got you down, and you’re wondering where and how your life took such a wrong turn. . . .

You pull out some old love letters, and you wonder: will they make me cringe, or was he really the dreamboat I thought he was?

And then. . . because we can, we Google him.

This is how Samantha Vérant‘s incredibly romantic Seven Letters from Paris (Sourcebooks, October 2014) begins.


Five years later, and Samantha is married (after a fairytale wedding in California) and living with her adorable Jean-Luc and his two children in southern France. She’s still stumbling over her French conjugations (who isn’t?) and coming into her own as a writer, wife and stepmom. It’s tailor-made for a romantic comedy starring, oh, who knows, Reese Witherspoon? Julia Roberts? Just saying.

Samantha and I had big plans to meet up in southern France in September. I was eager to meet somebody who felt like my younger, crazier little sister. After all, I felt like I knew her after I just finished her memoir. I even stole some slippers from my hotel to give her and Jean-Luc as a belated wedding gift!

But toward the end of an entire month in France, you can lose track of what day it is (hmmm, too many wine tastings?). Samantha and I missed our planned connection in Montauban, but that didn’t stop us from sharing a happy hour together on Google Hang-Out after I trained back to Paris. I had a good bottle of Bordeaux to finish before I had to return to Chicago, but thanks to Samantha, I didn’t have to drink alone!

I’m here to tell you that Samantha is the real deal. She’s funny and honest and brave, just like in the book. She’d be a great author for your book club to Skype with, if you can figure out the time difference!

So for all those book clubs out there looking for a really fun conversation starter: pick Seven Letters From Paris for your next book club, and trust me, you’ll have late-into-the-night chats about your own long-lost loves. (Hmmm, whatever happened to that French-Canadian firefighter you met on a ski trip in college?)

I’m happily married, but what the heck. Maybe even I’ll start Googling. . . .


Seven Letters From Paris: Highly recommended



Madame Picasso in Paris

madame picasso

I heard about Anne Girard’s new novel Madame Picasso (Mira Books, August 2014) and made sure it was packed in my carry-on bag when I boarded my recent plane to Paris. The cover is gorgeous and the book is that luxurious kind of trade paperback that feels soft and good in your hands.

Madame Picasso is the story of Pablo Picasso’s love affair with Eva Gouel from 1911 until her tragic death in 1915. Picasso had many other lovers, muses and wives over the course of his long life (1881-1973), but Eva Gouel can show us a side of the young Picasso we might never have known.



I began marking up the pages and taking notes of all the scenes from the book, eager to walk in Pablo and Eva’s footsteps through Paris. It’s a walk that will take you from one end of Paris to the other, from the top of Montmartre all the way across the Seine to the center of Montparnasse. I walked it all on a beautiful fall day in September. When I was done, I was exhausted, inspired and very thirsty.

Madame Picasso begins at the Moulin Rouge in Paris. Eva Gouel arrives from her family’s home in the outskirts of Paris and is lucky and talented enough to get a job as a seamstress. Eva is well on her way to becoming a costume designer, but fate interrupts. Pablo Picasso comes to the Moulin Rouge one night and notices the pretty girl working behind the scenes.

The Moulin Rouge in Paris where Eva first meets Picasso

When Picasso and Eva first meet, he is already involved with his long-term mistress Fernande Olivier. He has a studio in the run-down Bateau-Lavoir in Montmartrre. The studios got their famous nickname from the artist Max Jacob, who thought they were so rickety that they rocked like a houseboat on the Seine. Once Picasso had some success, he moved out, but still kept a studio there to keep up with his artist friends and have a little privacy with his models.

There is a little piece left of Bateau-Lavoir that you can still see today. It’s located near the top of Montmartre in place Goudreau.

The plaque on what is left of the old Bateau-Lavoir located

The plaque on what is left of the old Bateau-Lavoir located at  No. 13 rue Ravignan at Place Emile Goudeau. A fire destroyed most of the building in the 1970s, leaving only the façade.


Bateau-Lavoir, Montmartre

Bateau-Lavoir, Montmartre. Eva and Pablo spend their first night together here after meeting at the Moulin Rouge. Here’s a passage from the book: “Picasso squeezed Eva’s hand when they finally arrived at the ramshackle building in the center of a sloping square, lush with rustling chestnut trees. She knew this shabby old place, with its sagging roof of filthy glass skylights, was a haven to impoverished painters, models and thieves.”


The historical marker at Bateau-Lavoir

The historical marker at Bateau-Lavoir tells the story of the old piano factory that was turned into art studios in 1889. This was where Picasso spent the end of his blue period, as well as his rose period with his lover Fernande.


rue Ravignan is a lovely spot near the top of the hill of Montmartre.

rue Ravignan is now a lovely little street near the top of the hill of Montmartre.



Place Emile Goudeau from below the steps, in front of La Relais de la Butte, a great place to catch a café or a beer in the sun.

Picasso had been living in Paris since 1901, and by 1911, he was sufficiently on the rise that he and his lover Fernande Olivier could afford a nice apartment on avenue Clichy. To get there from the Bateau-Lavoir, all you have to do is keep walking down the butte of Montmartre, across the bridge that spans over the Montmartre Cemetery, down to place de Clichy and past the Blanche Métro stop. It’s now a bustling, somewhat seedy area, but back in their day, it was considered very nice.

11 boulevard de Clichy, the upscale apartment where Picasso lived with Fernande Olivier when he met Eva.

11 boulevard de Clichy, which was then an upscale apartment where Picasso lived with Fernande Olivier. In the novel, Fernande says to Eva: “It’s such a grand place we’ve got now. . . . Did you know Pablo rented me an apartment on the boulevard de Clichy? Everyone who is anyone lives there.”


Picasso lives near place de Clichy, not far from the Moulin Rouge and the

In 1911, Picasso lived near place de Clichy, not far from the Moulin Rouge where he met Eva.

Pablo Picasso in his boulevard Clichy apartment/studio,

Pablo Picasso in his boulevard Clichy apartment he shared with Fernande Olivier.

In the novel, a mutual friend introduces Eva Gouel to Fernande Olivier at the Dome in Montparnasse. To Eva’s surprise, Fernande calls herself “Madame Picasso” although Picasso and Fernande are not married. Eva is drawn into Fernande’s social circle and tries to avoid a love triangle with Picasso. But of course she can’t.

Le Dome in Montparnasse where Eva meets Fernande Olivier.

Le Dome in Montparnasse where Eva meets Fernande Olivier. “The Dome was the best of the four cafés on the corner of the bustling boulevards Montparnasse and Raspail. It was shaded by an elegant bower of horse chestnut trees and had a butter-yellow awning, Le Dome was a lively spot, harboring a tangle of closely packed tables with chairs spilling out onto the sidewalk. All of it was full of such life, young Parisians chattering endlessly about politics, art and literature.”

You can almost picture Fernande and Eva chatting over un verde du vin at these café tables outside Le Dome.

You can almost picture Fernande and Eva chatting over un verre du vin at these café tables outside Le Dome.

Eva, Picasso and Fernande meet again at Gertrude Stein’s Saturday night salon at 27 rue de Fleurus on the Left Bank. Eva and Picasso find that their initial attraction is undeniable, despite his relationship with Fernande. They make plans to meet again.

Gertrude Stein's apartment still stands at 27 rue de Fleurus not far from boulevard Raspail in Montparnasse.

Gertrude Stein’s apartment still stands at 27 rue de Fleurus not far from boulevard Raspail in Montparnasse. There is a plaque that says, “Gertrude Stein lived here with her brother Leo Stein, then with Alice B. Toklas, she received there a number of artists and writers from 1903 to 1938.”


Gertrude Stein's apartment still stands at 27 rue de Fleurus. It's just a short walk from Luxembourg Gardens or boulevard Raspail.

Gertrude Stein’s apartment still stands at 27 rue de Fleurus. It’s just a short walk from Luxembourg Gardens or boulevard Raspail.


The attraction between Eva and Picasso deepens, but Eva is shocked when Picasso is arrested in connection with the theft of the Mona Lisa. This set of events presents a nice little historical touchpoint for the story. Most people have heard about the shocking theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911, but to see unfold from Eva’s point of view is really interesting. Picasso is eventually cleared of the charges and Eva surrenders to his persistent charms.

Le Petit Parisen - La Jaconde

What follows are beautiful scenes in which Picasso paints Eva in his Bateau-Lavoir studio. Anne Girard imagines the chemistry and energy that buzzed through Picasso’s studio, and bring this famous cubist painting of Eva (“Ma Jolie”) to life.

Pablo Picasso, "Ma Jolie" (Woman with a Zither or Guitar) 1911-12, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Pablo Picasso, “Ma Jolie” (Woman with a Zither or Guitar) 1911-12, Museum of Modern Art, New York


Pablo Picasso, Ma Jolie (1913-14), Indianapolis Museum of Art

Pablo Picasso, Ma Jolie (1913-14), Indianapolis Museum of Art

Eva and Pablo spend a golden summer together in the south of France. They stop in Cérete where Pablo meets up with Geroges Braque, and paints side-by-side with him in a large borrowed villa. Then Eva and Pablo move on to Avignon, where they run into Henri Matisse and his wife Amélie. They finally find a quiet villa in Sourges, where they spend the rest of their summer in inspired seclusion.

Eva and Pablo return to Paris as a committed couple and live at 242 boulevard Raspail. Eventually Eva finds them a beautiful well-lighted studio apartment at 5 rue Schoelcher, directly across from the Montparnasse Cemetery, where they lived from 1913 to 1915.



The view down the lovely rue Schoelcher as it runs alongside the Montparnasse Cemetery. Pablo and Eva's apartment actually overlooked the cemetery.

The view down the lovely rue Schoelcher as it runs alongside the Montparnasse Cemetery. Pablo and Eva’s apartment actually overlooked the cemetery.


Picasso and Eva's home at 5 rue Schoelcher, Paris

Picasso and Eva’s home at 5 rue Schoelcher, Paris. The most beautiful building on the block, still.


A photograph of Picasso in his rue Schoelcher studio 1915-16. I can almost see what Eva saw in him. . . .

A photograph of Picasso in his rue Schoelcher studio 1915-16.

Of course, everyone knows that Eva only survived until 1915. Picasso could barely step foot in the rue Schoelcher studio again.

It was hard to leave Eva behind, but I couldn’t finish my Madame Picasso Walk through Paris unless I stopped at what might be Picasso’s most famous studio on rue Des Grand Augustins in the 6th arrondissement. It was where Picasso lived from 1936 to 1955, and where painted he Guernica in 1937.

IMG_9207 IMG_9208



After a long day walking the streets of Paris in Eva and Pablo’s shoes, you are no doubt in need of liquid reinforcement at a sidewalk café. I recommend you stop in for a glass of wine at Café La Palette on rue de Seine in the 6th, not too far away from Picasso’s studio on rue des Grand Augustins. In fact, the café boasts that Picasso used to frequent there back in the day.

And while you’re there, you can think of Picasso and Cézanne and Braque and all the other artists who drank there, but also? Make a toast to Eva, and to Anne Girard, for bringing Eva out of the shadows of history.


La Palette, rue de Seine, Paris

Café La Palette, at the corner of rue de Seine and rue Jacques-Callot, Paris


Madame Picasso by Anne Girard: Highly recommended

For Further Reading: Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa by R.A. Scotti

vanished smile by RA SCOTTI












The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein

Autobiography of Alice B. toklas

Lee Miller: The Beautiful American

The Beautiful American by Jeanne Mackin 

Beautiful American Jeanne MAckin

Jeanne Mackin‘s new historical novel (NAL 2014) offers us a captivating story of love, friendship and betrayal during the heady days of 1920s Paris, based in part on the true story of the famous American model and photographer Lee Miller and her lover, the celebrated French photographer Man Ray.

The story is told by a fictional character, Nora Tours, who grew up with Lee Miller in Poughkeepsie, New York. They meet again in Paris, and Nora tells us the whole madly tragic story. And much of it is true.

Perhaps you’ve heard of Lee Miller, but chances are you don’t know her whole story. All I really knew about her before I read the book was that somehow, she was  not only the iconic 1920s face on the cover of Vogue Magazine, but also, the famous female combat photographer who was photographed in Hitler’s bathtub.

Who wouldn’t want to read more about a woman like that?

Her story begins, of all places, in the town of Poughkeepsie, New York. Lee and Nora are acquaintances but only because Nora’s father is the Miller family gardener. Lee endures a devastating childhood event and Nora knows her secret.

Lee moves to New York where she is discovered by Condé Nast (he actually saved her from stepping into the path of a truck on a busy city street). Miller becomes a famous model and her face becomes the iconic image of 1920s beauty.


In fact, this image is so iconic, I spotted it just yesterday at a Brocantes Fair on rue Cler just the other day:

An image of Lee Miller at a brocantes fair on rue Cler in Paris.

A copy of  Lee Miller’s famous Vogue cover at a brocantes fair on rue Cler in Paris.

Lee Miller flees to Paris, as so many Americans did in the 20s, and brazenly introduces herself to the famous photographer Man Ray. The embark on an intense love affair and creative partnership. In the meantime, Nora and her boyfriend, an amateur photographer, are also lured to Paris, which by that time had become “the center of gravity” in the art world.

The two couples – Lee and Man, Nora and Jamie – meet at the Jockey Club on rue Rabelais, and Mackin captures the moment nicely:

A moment, frozen in my memory like a photograph: a winter night on rue Rabelais outside the Jockey Club, where two girls from Poughkeepsie bumped into each other, each clinging to her beau’s arm; the four of us in the falling snow, music from the club wafting out with the smell of tobacco, perfume, whiskey; each of us looking in a different direction . . . .


From there, the story goes on, advancing through the magical years of Lee Miller’s partnership with Man Ray, their glamorous life in Paris alongside such legends as Pablo and Olga Picasso, to Lee and Man’s tortured break-up, and finally, into Lee Miller’s own career as a professional photographer.

Nora suffers a devastating betrayal and escapes on her own, without Jamie, to southern France. Nora comes into her own as she pursues an interesting career in the perfume industry and she waits out World War II . Lee Miller becomes famous as a female World War II photographer.

The Beautiful American is a well-crafted novel, a pleasure to read and hard to put down. Nora Tours might be make-believe, but she feels just as real and interesting as the real-life characters, in fact, maybe even more so. Lee Miller is a difficult subject. She was brave and daring but also heartless and damaged. But good Nora? She suffers and she endures an unbearable loss. In the end – with the surprising help from her old friend Lee Miller, whose horrible secret Nora never reveals, Nora prevails.

And who wouldn’t want to read about a woman like that?


The Beautiful American Literary Tour of Montparnasse:

rue Boissonade, the short little street where Nora and Jamie lived in Montparnasse, just two blocks away from Lee Miller and May Ray.

Rue Boissonade, the short little street where Nora and Jamie lived in Montparnasse, just two blocks away from Lee Miller and May Ray.



A look down Rue Boissonade and possibly, the convent that Nora and Jamie live near in The Beautiful American.



Hotel Istria, 29 rue Campagne Premiere, a famous haunt of the Surrealists. Man Ray’s studio was next door, but he was known to rent a room in the hotel so he could have more privacy with his mistress Kiki of Montparnasse. Kiki would leave Man Ray and Lee Miller took up with him a year later.


The plaque at Hotel Istria, noting such visitors as DuChamp, Man Ray and Kiki of Montparnasse.

The plaque at Hotel Istria, noting such visitors as Marcel DuChamp, Man Ray,  Kiki of Montparnasse and Rainer Maria Rilke.


30 rue Campagne Premier, Man Ray's home and studio. He first moved here in 1926. He lived here with Lee Miller for three years. The architecture of the building is still beautiful after all these years.

31 bis rue Campagne Premier, Man Ray’s home and studio. He first moved here in 1926. He lived here with Lee Miller for three years. The architecture of this distinctive looking building is still beautiful after all these years. It was designed by André Arfvidson in 1911 and featured ceramic tiles by Alexandre Bigot.


The view of 31 bis rue Campagne Premiere from the Raspail Metro stop.

The view of 31 bis rue Campagne Premiere from the Raspail Metro stop.




The Passage d'Enfer (Hell's Passage), just around the corner and behind Rue Campagne Premiere. Here you can see the back side of Man Ray's home and studio.

The Passage d’Enfer (Hell’s Passage), just around the corner and behind Rue Campagne Premiere. From here you can see the back side of Man Ray’s home and studio.


Man Ray's gravesite in the Montparnasse Cemetery. Maps are available at the entrance of the cemetery to help you find it. I might never have found it if I hadn't seen a photo online so I knew what to look for. It's right in the middle of Section 7.

Man Ray’s gravesite in the Montparnasse Cemetery. Maps are available at the entrance of the cemetery to help you find it. I might never have found it if I hadn’t seen a photo online so I knew what to look for. It’s right in the middle of Section 7.

"Unconcerned but not indifferent."

“Unconcerned but not indifferent.”


The Beautiful American by Jeane Mackin: Highly recommended


For Further Reading:

You should really go to the Lee Miller Archives, a site maintained by her son Antony Penrose. That’s where you can see many of Lee Miller’s original photographs, which are all subject to strict copyright. That’s where you can find the photo of Lee Miller in Hitler’s Bathtub, photos of Pablo Picasso, as well as her wartime photographs.

Also recommended: The Golden Moments of Paris by John Baxter, which contains an excellent Montparnasse Walk and Map at the end of the book.