NEW YORK — Paris in the late Forties and early Fifties might have lost its Lost Generation, but it was still a good place to be a young American — and it was a particularly good time to be James Lord.
Lord, now 71, equipped then with little more than charm, intelligence and a great deal of naive optimism, managed to meet — and work his way into the lives of — many an older luminary. Among them were Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar and Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.
In his latest book, “Six Exceptional Women” (Farrar Straus Giroux), Lord recalls his encounters with Stein, Toklas, the saloniste and eccentric Marie-Laure de Noailles and the French actress Arletty, along with two less-celebrated women, the Greek patriot Errieta Perdikidi and his own mother, Louise Bennett Lord.
Lord, who has a tart tongue and seemingly total recall (backed up by his own extensive journals, which appear to rival those of his contemporary, Ned Rorem), writes in a polished, wicked and witty prose that spares few, least of all himself.
He has written five books, the best-known of them the critically praised “Giacometti: A Biography” (1985) and “Picasso and Dora: A Personal Memoir” (1983). Lord still spends most of his time in Paris — when he isn’t at his country house in the Languedoc — and, he says, about two weeks a year in New York. On his most recent trip here he sat down for a talk in a friend’s Greenwich Village apartment.
The most radical change in Paris today, Lord notes, is that “the most interesting, creative people are all gone, and nobody has come to take their place.
“The strange thing about it is there doesn’t seem to be a real explanation for it,” he says. “There are still people painting, writing music and books, but there’s no new Picasso, no Stravinsky. I often ask my friends if they can think of a single really great creative person born after the First World War. There are highly creative people in the sciences. But in the arts, I can’t think of a single one.”
This is hardly the only strong stand he takes. In “Six Exceptional Women,” Lord is particularly unsparing in describing the last years of Alice B. Toklas, who outlived her companion Gertrude Stein by two decades.
Toklas, he alleges, was cavalierly and cruelly treated by Stein’s heirs, who managed by legal maneuverings to strip her of Stein’s extraordinary art collection and leave her penniless.
“It was their monetary worth that interested the heirs, it wasn’t [the paintings’] esthetic value,” says Lord. “I hope the Stein heirs who read the chapter writhe in shame when they do.”
Asked about who he finds interesting in Paris today, he praises Lilianne de Rothschild, “the wife of Elie; she’s extremely intelligent and a very lively, interesting person and enjoys the company of writers,” but insists no one in Paris today really has a salon.
Marie-Laure de Noailles, though, certainly did.
“Her house was stupendous,” Lord says, “more stupendous than any Rothschild’s. The accumulation of treasures; the opulence, the daring, the mixture of things…In her bedroom, it was completely Louis XV walnut boiserie. There were paintings by Cranach and Picasso, drawings by Ingres and Delacroix, but one wall was entirely given over to little knickknacks, hammered into the beautiful boiserie with thumbtack and nails. It was very amusing.
“At the David-Weills, for example, everything is perfect — every single thing. There isn’t much life there; it’s all too perfect.”
Lord seems to take pleasure in puncturing other reputations he considers inflated. “People have made a great fuss over Francis Bacon,” he says. “He was an absolutely charming, delightful and very funny person, but I never thought that he was a great artist. I think there was something too calculated in his work. I also felt he was an extraordinarily indifferent colorist. Picasso was shocking, profoundly shocking in a way that Bacon never was. His cruelty, his perversity, his violence — all that comes through in his paintings. Francis was basically a very nice person. He could be quite nice, whereas Picasso behaved really abominably at times and caused other human beings great suffering.”