Wednesday, June 1, 1988

The twilight years of Madame Man Ray

Anne-Elisabeth Moutet meets the widow of the great Surrealist in Paris.

What struck me first was the intercom button. It was made of ordinary translucid plastic, one in a row lit from inside, with "Man Ray" inscribed on it, among names like Jean Bernard and Jean-Claude Amselle, and Marie-Thérèse Fischer - who, come to think of it, could have been one of Picasso's mistresses, late Cubist period - and Berthe Michel, who sounded like a late XIXth century revolutionary; and Yolande Zelmanovich, who I was sure could have been one of those bedraggled Russian nihilists throwing bombs at the Czar's carriage. STOP! this was a lot too much to daydream about in this perfectly ordinary early seventies cossu French apartment block, admittedly marble-plated, admittedly in one of Paris's choicest locations (rue d'Assas, in the Sixième, just opposite the Luxembourg gardens, average price per square ft. freehold £ 350,) terribly banal nonetheless. We were about 800 yards and one zillion years away from La Coupole, circa 1922. This was not the kind of building where I expected Juliet Man Ray, widow of the famous Surrealist photographer, painter, sculptor, designer, touche-à-tout, to live.

Juliet herself was more like the real thing - even though, in many ways, she isn't. (For one thing she never knew Man Ray's truly great days, in Paris in the Twenties and Thirties, when everyone from James Joyce to the Marquis de Castellane vied to pose in his studio. They met in Hollywood, in Vine Street of all places, in the Forties: he'd fled Paris, she was a tourist from the Midwest.) She is a slight, vague, elegant little old lady with the dark hair colour she's obviously decided to keep forever, a quiet knit dress, Ferragamo pumps, who won't tell you her age with a simpering "Oh, a lady really doesn't say, does she?"

She has somehow appointed herself guardian of that curious unshrine-like shrine, that white, square-roomed, plate-glass-windowed modern flat on Rue d'Assas, almost entirely filled and furnished with Man Ray oeuvres d'art. There's the chess-set director Albert Lewin used in his best film, the mythical 1946 "Pandora", with Ava Gardner and James Mason. There are variations on Man Ray's Marquis de Sade's famous portrait - in copper, in wood, in watercolour. There are wonderful articulated screens with her name written in Man Ray's round, unchildlike, distinctive handwriting - "the twenty days and nights of Juliette", Juliette happening to be Sade's most famous heroine - the virtuous one. There are priapic compositions of two round stone balls and an erect column, several of them, set on the floor, size from 2 to 4 ft. There is a bronze broom which she urges you to try and use (impossible), giggling at the 55-year-old joke. There are her shopping lists on the coffee-table, presumably written for the French daily, "cibolette" for "chives", "aile" for "garlic", etc. in her bad French, on ordinary squared notepaper (Man Ray wrote grammatically impeccable French). Next to these is a book with a black and white photograph of an impossibly beautiful and enigmatic woman, partly veiled.

"I saw this in a bookstore recently and thought, 'this looks very much like me'," Juliet Man Ray says, in her slightly quivering voice. It doesn't, but you let it pass, because she is rambling on anyway, telling you that she almost got the main part in "A Farewell to Arms." Then she shows you the book, a French coffee-table edition of Man Ray's photographs, and there she is, you know her now, the shape of the jaw, something in the firm mouth, on every page, wonderful photographs etched over with strong lines by Man Ray, evocative of Matisse's or Picasso's drawings, or lit with sensuous softness, or superimposed with the shadows of a decaying stone wall. It is splendid, imaginative, elegant - and yes, yes, something does click now, you can forget about the white-walled, too modern apartment in which she has lived for only three years. (Every single object in the sitting-room, including the hardwood chairs with their inkwell-shaped ashtrays in the arm, was designed by Man Ray.)

"We met in Hollywood," she says. They were married there, with Max Ernst as their witness in front of a Beverly Hills justice of the peace. "It was quieter then," she says, "almost provincial." There she met other exiled surrealists, a French group unhappy in Southern California, the poets Paul Eluard and Tristan Tzara - both communist fellow-travelers; and Jean Renoir who was making movies and would, years later, after some years in France, reconciled with Hollywood, return to California to live his last years. But Man Ray didn't like his native country - he wasn't feted like some of the Surrealists, he wasn't exotic enough. They returned to Paris in 1951.

Then her memory fades a bit; dates and places and time waver just like in one of her husband's compositions. Tim Mayotte, the tennis champion, who's currently playing in the French Open at Roland Garros stadium, is coming to visit her this afternoon, she says. They are friends because his girlfriend in an American journalist and wrote an article on her, she says. He likes the chess-set, she says. Would I like to see her bedroom? Yes, I would, and so we go and see the same casual mixture of impersonal modern furnishing, Man Ray objetcts and paintings, and shelves with nothing but books on him and his work. Would I like to see the chess set? I remember the chess set from a passage in "Pandora", which has been playing in one or the other Paris revival houses almost non-stop for at least twenty years, and is the most surrealistic and romantic film I've ever seen, a blue-lit gem set in an imaginary Spanish coast in the madcap Twenties - no Revolution, no Spanish War, no Republic, no Francisco Franco... - with sets like Delvaux and Chirico paintings, and Ava Gardner as the femme fatale. There it is, in the beige pile wall-to-wall carpeed hallway, the board surrounded by Man Ray's inscription like a poem, in his rounded script: "Le Roi est à moi, la Reine est la tienne, la Tour fait un four, le Fou est comme vous, le Cavalier déraille, le Pion fait l'espion ,comme toute commande, fait de toutes pièces, Man Ray."

The two rooms on the other side of the flat are two offices where Jerome G__ , a soft-spoken American art expert, who doubles as sometimes nurse and dame de compagnie for Juliet Man Ray, quietly toils away at cataloguing all of Man Ray's as yet unpublished photograps and manuscripts, has been working on the forthcoming book and a large retrospective at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, and, like some mediaeval monk, seems exclusively devoted to the anonymous praise of the artist (he didn't want to be quoted or his name printed.) "I will gladly help you to check any facts you need," he said humbly. "Mrs Man Ray can sometimes mix them up, as you perhaps have noticed." (I hadn't noticed that many facts in our rambling conversation.) He showed me photographic plates and prints and explained there were many more. He praised Bloomsbury for republishing Man Ray's autobiography, self-portrait. It was clear he'd written Juliet Man Ray's Afterword himself, although he was quick in denying any credit for it. His selflessness, whatever its motivations, was rather endearing.

And then, of course, next to the matt black filing drawers and the chrome office chair on its hi-tech casters, I saw the wooden filing cabinet, about four feet tall. It was ugly and scratched and overvarnished with the kind of cheap, yellowing varnish used on unexpensive, utilitarian office furniture in Paris in the Twenties and Thirties. It had four drawers with old lttle brass label holders on them, where you slid a card indicating the contents of the drawer. Two drawers were unremarkable but the third had a yellowing bit of cardboard that said "Letters", in a rounded script I'd seen on many priceless objects in the flat. "That was Man Ray's, wasn't it?" I couldn't help asking. "Yes," Jerome told me. "That's his handwriting, isn't it?" Yes, it was, and the drawer was used to store personal correspondence, as it alwas had been. That ugly wood filing cabinet touched me in a way no other art object in the flat had. It was neither on display nor exalted nor catalogued. But it had existed, serving the same purpose, in Paris in the Twenties when La Coupole was just the brasserie next door from Man Ray's atelier, a few yards and a zillion years away from this pretty modern flat. "Nice label," I said. "Label? Oh... yes," said Jerome.

© Copyright The Tatler & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 1988

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