Wednesday, December 12, 2007

School of Paris

She did a little stripping at the Lido, a little chorus work at the Moulin Rouge, a little cocktail hostessing here and there. She got her face into the margins of society photos now and then, somewhere behind Cocteau's shoulder or beneath Zizi Jeanmaire's hairdo. She came from Bergerac and kept in touch only with her younger brother in veterinary school. She lived in a maid's room on Boulevard Voltaire but contrived to spend as little time there as possible. She was popular with the Corsicans.

He came from Ivry but pretended to be something more exotic, employing a highly variable accent and a series of misleading biographical details. He told people his name was Paco. He had prepared for a brilliant career as a painter, but he'd gotten the decade wrong. It was pretty much over by then unless you were a Tachiste or an American. But he couldn't help himself. He wanted to be some hybrid of Dufy, Matisse, Foujita, and Modigliani, and that's what he did. He sold a canvas now and then to tourists who thought Montmartre was still happening.

They met when they ducked into the same doorway during a police riot. He thought she was a vision. She thought he could afford her modeling fee. His studio was around the corner, so when it was safe they went up. It turned out he didn't have enough scratch for her to pose nude. She opened her shirtwaist as a favor, also because he served her a no-name wine that wasn't half bad. She smoked five cigarettes, kissed him and left.

He took the canvas to galleries, where they laughed. He thought it was too good to stick out on a blanket on Place Blanche for foreigners to gape at. He took it to publishers of portfolios of sensitive figure studies for the discriminating connoisseur, where they told him she had too many clothes on. He took it to publishers of calendars, where they told him they only used photographs now. Finally he found a publisher who wanted to put it on the cover of a novel. His heart raced with joy.

It was an 80-page train-station novelette, part of a series of underworld potboilers written by minor ex-Surrealists addicted to paregoric. Across the picture they had a staff letterer slap that month's title, Autant s'en foutre, which means "you might as well give two shits," more or less. She spotted the book and bought a copy to send to her younger brother in veterinary school. One of the Corsicans bought the original to hang in his office bathroom. Later that same month the painter was killed by off-duty cops who took him for an Algerian.