Picasso’s Secret Lover
Geneviève Laporte (1926-2012), mentioned in only three of the great many books on Picasso, was the most shadowy and elusive lover in his priapic love life. Yet for two intensely emotional years, 1951-53, she was the crucial transition between the departure of Françoise Gilot, mother of two of his children, and the arrival of Jacqueline Roque, his second and long-lasting last wife.
Laporte’s charming memoir, Sunshine at Midnight: Memories of Picasso and Cocteau (1973), covers the seventeen years between 1944, when she first met him in his vast Parisian studio-flat on the rue des Grands-Augustins, to their last, chance encounter in St. Tropez on the French Riviera in 1961. Written in a lucid, lyrical style but random order, her book describes her emergence as a budding writer. Her engaging and subtly extortionate personality persuades both Picasso and Jean Cocteau (whose biographies do not even mention her) to lavishly illustrate the first book of an obscure poet and give her many of their valuable drawings. She also faithfully records many of Picasso’s clever and incisive remarks. Her covert theme is the conflict between her desire to live her own life and realize her potential as an artist or, like the sacrificial Roque, devote herself to adoring, serving and nourishing the genius of Picasso.
Laporte first met Picasso in September 1944, a month after the joyous Liberation of Paris. She was an eighteen-year-old student at the Lycée Fénelon, and boldly came alone to interview him about art and politics for her student newspaper. She resembled his ideal feminine type: dark curly hair, large widely spaced eyes, long narrow nose, heart-shaped chin, sensual lips and sweet smile. Patrick O’Brian, author of the popular nautical novels and biographer of Picasso, describes “her fine bone-formation, her cat-like head, her long neck and her thoroughbred air, none of them qualities for which Jacqueline Roque was remarkable.” Laporte noticed the heavy white bull’s hide on his bed, on which she would later recline. But Picasso, with unusual restraint, did not try to seduce the innocent teenaged virgin.
Laporte planned to go to America and the always-generous Picasso helped her with the travel expenses. O’Brian mistakenly says “she went to Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.” A Swarthmore archivist carefully reports: “From public State Department records I can see that she sought a student visa in France in the late summer or fall of 1945, and that in the spring of 1946 she arrived in the port of NYC with her destination reported as Swarthmore. Having said that, there is no record of her receiving a degree from Swarthmore, and in the yearbooks of the period I can’t find any mention of her.” After arriving in America she seems to have found a more promising prospect and changed her plan to attend college. While in New York she saw Picasso’s Guernica, on loan to the Museum of Modern Art. Later on, she learned how to handle horses from Colorado cowboys and became an excellent equestrian.
In 1951, when she was 25 and Picasso was a still vigorous 70, and the long delay had intensified their desire, they finally became lovers. O’Brian writes, ”she loved the man for himself and she had the deepest admiration for his work, while he respected her poetry, her lovely person, and her rare attitude, uninvading, unpossessive, gay, and above all entirely friendly, wholly with him and on his side.”
Just as Picasso had maintained two simultaneous and complementary lovers—the serene, gentle and devoted Marie-Thérèse Walter and the intellectual, intense and complex Dora Maar—so he wanted to have the fascinating but shadowy Laporte as an attractive alternative to Gilot and his two young children. Picasso and Laporte spent the blissful summer of 1951 on holiday in St. Tropez with his close friend, the French poet Paul Eluard. His second wife Dominique, a friend of Gilot, resented Picasso’s new lover.
Laporte is perceptive and revealing about Picasso’s Spanish accent, habits, generosity, entourage, children, lovers, friends, wit and politics. He pronounced gentilhomme as “jean-te-le-men” and Hôtel Meurice as “Meurisse.” She recalls, “He was always very abstemious, generally drank only beer or mineral water, very little coffee, no alcohol and took no stimulants, except heavy French [Gitanes] cigarettes.” Yet there were always several bottles of wine on his dining table. He lived in Vallauris, on the Riviera between Juan-les-Pins and Mougins, and his interest in creating ceramics enriched not only the couple who owned the Madoura Pottery but also the entire village.
Laporte liked Picasso’s brusque but devoted doorkeeper and major-domo, the Catalan Jaime Sabartés, who considered her a promising prospect and allowed her to see Picasso. He “was married to a white-haired Spanish woman, who was charming, devoted and capable of introducing a warm ambience” into their dreary residence. Sabartés, with the attractive French maid Inès, whom Picasso had discovered picking jasmine in the fields near Mougins, and his long-serving chauffeur Marcel, formed Picasso’s small private court.
When Marcel “borrowed” the rare and precious Oldsmobile, given to Picasso by an American art dealer, drove off to Deauville on the Normandy coast and smashed it up, Picasso was furious and unforgiving. He told Laporte, “I simply informed him that as I no longer had a car I no longer needed a chauffeur.” He then fetched out of the garage his ancient but still handsome Hispano-Suiza and turned Paulo, his older son with Olga, into his chauffeur.
Laporte notes Picasso’s contradictory character. A distant but loving father, Picasso remarked that when his young daughter Paloma “is in the next room making a noise, I get angry because she disturbs me. But if she makes no noise at all, I get frightened and go in to take a look.” He was attracted to young virgins to stimulate and rejuvenate him, and fastidiously declared, “I couldn’t sleep with a woman who had had a child by another man. I would have feelings of disgust.” But Roque, his second wife, had a young daughter from her first marriage to a French colonial official in Africa.
Picasso was jealous, possessive and unpredictable about all his friends. He said that Eluard, who had provided their secret love nest in St. Tropez, would sometimes “disappear into a hotel with a whore, while Nusch [his tolerant first wife] and I waited and chatted in some café near-by.” He resented Cocteau’s patronage of Laporte and felt that his old friend, though homosexual, was poaching on his territory. She reports that he “never missed an opportunity to say something unkind about Cocteau,” who was a terrible snob, sucked up to the rich and fraternized with the Nazis. Picasso maintained that Cocteau (like so many others) “is always trying to imitate me,” and Picasso also imitated himself. When an innkeeper asked if he were really Picasso, he cleverly replied, “Well, I don’t know. I try to be!” Roland Penrose reports that when Laporte “brought the announcement of her new book of poems illustrated by Cocteau, Picasso joked affectionately about girls becoming poets nowadays and wearing trousers.”
Picasso, self-exiled from fascist Spain, gave Laporte the most convincing explanation of why he unexpectedly and incongruously became a communist: “I’m Spanish. I’m opposed to Franco. And the only way I have of publicizing this is to join the Communist Party and demonstrate that I am on the other side.”
Picasso continued to see Laporte secretly. In September 1953 Gilot, tipped off about the affair, walked out on him and took the children with her. Inès, Picasso’s faithful confidante, immediately told Laporte the fateful news: “Françoise has finally left. Monsieur hadn’t the courage to telephone you, but I told him to go ahead and do it.” Picasso couldn’t bear to be without a woman to take care of and inspire him. Though he clung to life and feared death, he told Eluard, with considerable exaggeration: “ ‘I was in a terrible state and Geneviève saved my life. I was on the point of killing myself, but she made me laugh.’ And with anguish in his voice he reiterated: ‘Laugh—do you understand?—she made me laugh,’ ” but gave no examples of how she had amused him. Seeking more sympathy, he complained, “You can’t imagine what life is like with that poor Françoise who makes a drama out of everything.” To which Eluard sagely replied, “Even if Geneviève had made you cry, she would have saved you.”
Picasso, continuing to lament, claimed that “all my affairs of the heart have been spoiled by friction and suffering: two bodies enveloped in barbed wire, rubbing against each other and tearing their flesh. With Geneviève, it’s been all sweetness and honey. She’s a hive without bees,” and Picasso eagerly consumed her honey. Though Gilot and Picasso’s first wife, the Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova, had caused him considerable anguish, he had no pain with the sweet and obliging Marie-Thérèse Walther, and Picasso’s weeping women suffered far more than he did.
In September 1953 Picasso, deeply upset by Gilot’s departure, traveled from Vallauris to Laporte’s home in Arbonne-le-Foret near Fontainebleau, 45 miles southeast of Paris. They dined alone in a restaurant and slept together that night. But the next day they had had a strange, mysterious and unfortunate misunderstanding that fatally severed their relations. Picasso loved her and desperately wanted her to live with him. But, wounded by Gilot, he held back instead of declaring his love, and Laporte had quite reasonable doubts and fears.
Laporte gives a long, poignant account of their unintentional break, a crucial turning point in her life, provoked by her few impulsive and ill-considered words:
Next morning Picasso told me he intended to have himself driven back to Vallauris by Paulo. I was both surprised and hurt, because I thought that he would stay a few days either at Arbonne or at the rue des Grands-Augustins. At the last minute, he turned round to me and abruptly said, “Are you coming?” I don’t know what was happening in my head at that moment, except that I was still trying to catch up with the developments of the past few hours. I had been once with Picasso to the villa La Galloise [that he shared with Gilot in Vallauris] and had not liked it, probably because it was associated first and foremost with a period in Picasso’s life which did not concern me. But no sooner were the words out of my mouth than I began to feel ashamed of the reply I made, and I am still embarrassed today. For my only answer was: “First of all, change the sheets.”
That very evening, I was taken to task by Dominique Eluard for not having understood how intensely Picasso desired me to become his intimate companion. Looking back now many years later it seems to me that during the months of our separation, Picasso had increasingly come to desire that I would share his life. Yet, when, after the disappearance of François Gilot, the opportunity presented itself, he lacked the courage to tell me so during the day we spent together. He had waited till the last moment, when he was retiring again into solitude, to show his hand. But at that moment I myself, wounded to think that he would leave without me, was in no mood to hear what he said.
She immediately regretted her angry words but could not take them back, and he drove off to meet Jacqueline Roque. Laporte found the sudden transition from Gilot to herself rather squalid, spoke out frankly and offended him by mentioning what Hamlet called “the rank sweat of an enseaméd bed.” She wanted to be a well beloved companion who inspired Picasso’s deep commitment rather than a convenient substitute and consolation prize. She was probably wise to keep out of the minotaur’s labyrinth. She justified her rash response and cautious pudeur by asking, “his ex-girlfriend leaves one morning, and he asks me to move into the house the next day. Would you have gone?”
Another apparently trivial but irreparable malentendu occurred in the summer of 1954 when Laporte visited Picasso’s house, La Californie, near Cannes. He was living there with Roque, who discreetly left them alone. Picasso and Laporte both loved dogs. When his Boxer brought her a piece of wood during an awkward silence, she threw it for him to fetch. Picasso, in a bad temper and with uncharacteristic pomposity, very different from his usual laughing mood with her, declared, “This is no place to play with a dog”—though he himself often played with them indoors. Once again, a few harsh words destroyed their tender feelings. He thought she had carelessly spoiled a precious moment, their last parting, in his sacred house. Laporte felt “at that moment he died to me and I began to bury the Picasso I had known deep in my heart and my memory.” She had had enough of his “kitchen-knife of ridicule.”
Their last, unexpected meeting took place in a restaurant in St. Tropez, where they had spent their first romantic summer in 1951. She egoistically recalls: “I was there with the man to whom I was briefly married. Picasso saw me, his eyes lit up and I felt that I had found him again. He kissed me with great affection. He did not take his eyes off me for the rest of the meal, while my mind was flooded with memories” of their time there together.
Unlike the embittered Gilot, Laporte had escaped with only minor wounds and was still fond of Picasso. She felt “our relationship remained on a plane of affection and tacit collusion.” Despite Picasso’s twenty-year relationship with and marriage to Roque, Laporte still naively “believed that I was the only profound love of Picasso’s life and probably the last one.” In June 2005 she auctioned off the twenty drawings, which Picasso had given her in St. Tropez, for 1.54 million Euros, and created a foundation to preserve the environment and protect animals (like herself) threatened with extinction.
Jeffrey Meyers, FRSL, has had 33 of his 54 books translated into fourteen languages and seven alphabets, and published on six continents. His most recent book is Resurrections: Authors, Heroes—and a Spy (2018).
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