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Chapter 18

"WOULD YOU CALL ME AN ARTIST?"

Simone Calvette, the French singer, had vanished beyond reach of Beman's cables and in her place he reluctantly put his mistress, Tessie Soler.

Lucy worked zealously at Master's to perfect her dances for Beman's Revue but despite her activity gained four pounds and had chocolate malteds cut from her diet. In a way she was disappointed not to feel sad about Carly so she could be certain she really had been in love. Instead she felt relief at being free to apply herself to her profession, wiser and more grown up.

The show opened in Boston and was a success, with her name only slightly smaller than Tessie Soler's. While she was still in Boston a letter came from Ilona Klemper announcing her New York arrival in January, and a long letter from Vida.

December 20, 1922.

Dear Lucy,

Merry Christmas! It is so long since I've heard from you I wonder whether a letter went astray in my home, if you know what I mean. Next time you write, send it c/o Cheever's where I'll be sure to get it. I stop in there every day on my way home from school because Cheever's has a lending library now and I get all the latest books for ten cents. I'm reading Wells' Outline of History. Have you read it? Or Gertrude Atherton's Black Oxen? Congress is still very angry about Main Street and now Babbitt. Mr. Lauter who, you remember, owns the Husker-Sun, made a speech against both books on Congress Day. Semy wrote the speech and put in a poem he rewrote from Wordsworth to apply to Congress. Of course it made a big hit. Semy is a good friend of Herold Lauter's now and goes to all the Lauter parties. By the way, river woods is being made into a park and the river is widened into a pond for boating or, now, skating, and there is a playground for the kids. It's called Lauter Park. It cost Congress so much that Lauter’s political enemies sing, to the tune of "Auf Lauterbach"

In Lauter Park
Have we our pants verloren.

No more hepaticas, but I suppose that's progress. There are three hot dog stands at the entrance and it is rumored that one is a speakeasy late at night. But Congress is getting to be quite an art center too. The woman who has that novelty shop near Clem's studio, Mrs. Doremus, is letting artists exhibit there. She exhibits too, as do Henkel and Larson—remember, you met them at your going-away party—and some others from Clem's new art class. Clem is working hard and I wouldn't be surprised if he is planning an exhibition in Chicago, or even New York. I can't think of any more news except that old Mrs. Winters was taken off to the State Asylum because she took to hanging around the Star Burlesk all the time and asking the girls what it was the men wanted and so on, and then she tried to show Twelfth Street what the girls did on the stage. Doesn't that remind you of Sherwood Anderson?

I'm a second-term sophomore now because I went to summer school and Ma wants me to be a teacher. I don't argue with her but between you and me—no. I'm in my 2nd year French and 1st year Latin and I keep being surprised how many English words come from those languages. For fun I make up sentences containing words from all three. I wrote a short poem in that manner for English class but Miss Bishop did not approve. She said I wasn't being serious. I should think someone could work out an International language that way, don't you?

I read in the New York Times at Cheever's that everyone is being psychoanalyzed. Are skirts in New York really halfway to the knees? Well, this is all my news for now.

Love,

Vida.

"You know," Lucy told Mae, "I can never think of anything interesting to write Vida. I can just see Semy making up to Mr. Lauter as though he was God. And that pimply stork, Herold. Poor old Mrs. Winters. I'll bet she isn't crazy at all."

"Oh but Lucy, she was always queer. I was a little girl when she was married and she locked herself in the attic just because her husband went out with another woman. Not the one he ran away with."

"I wonder if I made a mistake not going to high school? I hate to think of all the things I don't know."

"But, dear, what would you want to know Latin for?"

"I guess I don't really but it does seem nice being able to open a book in any language and read it."

Boston, December 26, 1922.

Dear Vida,

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. I love to get your letters. I haven't written because I haven't any news except work. As you see, I am now in Boston, in a new show. I am the première danseuse which means practice all the time. I wasn't feeling well for a while but I'm fine now except when I'm tired. There are parties every night after the show. Harvard is here and you know how college boys are. One good thing is that they get champagne right off the boat. It's better for you than bathtub gin so don't you go to that speakeasy at Lauter Park! Write me again soon because I love to hear from you. I'm going to read those books rightaway.

Lovingly,

Lucy

P.S. Yes, skirts are halfway up.


In Figente's studio Lucy lay naked, half propped up on an olive velour couch hugging a cushion with her arms and legs. Since the night Lyle had taken her to Figente's almost ten months ago she and the sculptor had become friends. She had appeared unexpectedly one afternoon soon after the Yellow Ball, an invitation Figente recalled as not at all precise, and dependent upon his fixing a time convenient to himself. He was unaware that Lucy, unfamiliar with social amenities despite her reading of Emily Post, considered any invitation, no matter how vaguely murmured, definite.

Her innocence of his cool greeting and her breezy western "hello" to him and Hal, the latter still loafing in his pajamas, had diverted him. One could as well try to snub a kitten for entering uninvited. Her dress, he had noted approvingly, was well cut, its line and color alluringly accented, and without the blatant Broadway overtones of a Tessie Soler. At this second meeting he decided, as she chattered candidly, that she was the only refreshing young creature who had turned up in years to enhance his parties, a fragrant bud worthy of his interest, guidance, and help. As her visits grew more frequent his interest became affection, a sentiment Figente rarely felt. He looked forward to her unscheduled visits, sulking if she did not show up every few days and he was deprived of her fresh sallies about her Broadway associates, her uninhibited references to pursuits of the flesh, and even indulgent teasings of himself in relation to the latter. He discovered himself feeling an unfamiliarly paternal ambition to achieve for her a social eminence as the wife of Lyle Bigelow, his second cousin by marriage.

On this blustety end-of-March afternoon almost three months after the Beman Revue had opened in New York, as she lay while Figente modeled, Lucy thought about a problem that perplexed her. An article in a Sunday dramatic section about the Beman Revue had referred to Jackie Jacks, the comic, as an "artist." The term artist had been applied to him but not to Tessie Soler his co-star, herself, or even Damon St. John, who had designed the beautiful settings and costumes. Why was a man, well you couldn't exactly call Jackie a man, who imitated the way women swished their long skirt trains or burlesqued Pavlova's "Dying Swan," an artist just because he had audiences in the aisles, "fracturing 'em" as Phil, the cute stage manager, said?

"I want to ask you something," Lucy said.

"What?" mumbled Figente abstractedly as he modeled on a small terra-cotta Leda for which she was posing. The swan had been easier than the Leda.

"Would vou call me an artist?"

"Assuredly, my dear, or shall we say rather a goddess of love?"

"Oh, you make me tired, you know what I mean."

His bland glance made too clear what he thought. She'd pay him back. She raised her head and smiled mischievously. "I can't be much of a goddess of love—you don't seem to want to make love to me."

"You are a naughty child," he spluttered, unexpectedly embarrassed.

"I don't see why you won't talk about how you make love. I think it is a very interesting subject. Don't you think the idea of love is better than making love?"

No answer.

"I'd really like to know why you like Hal better than me."

He was outraged by this probing. "My dear Lucy, really!"

She laughed. "You're really very conventional, aren't you?"

He smirked. "Far from it."

She shook her finger in mock-severity. "You old rascal, you! Did Hal bleach his hair to match his harp? It's the same color."

"May I remind you that I'm working."

"Why don't you make bigger figures—seems a lot of work for such a little statue!"

"I prefer small exquisite things. I find large sculptures vulgar."

"I should think modeling little figures is fun. It's easier than painting, isn't it?"

"Yes," he said curtly.

That was the wrong thing to say. Clem hadn't liked her to say what she thought about his paintings either.

Figente worried the soft red clay. Naivete could hurt when a direct finger heedlessly probed sore spots. "By the way, I've had a letter from Lyle, he's due from Europe any day."

"He's been away a long time, hasn't he?"

"Yes—very careless of you not to keep in touch, my dear."

"To tell you the truth," she began confidentially—

"You mean you don't always?" he interrupted.

"No—why should I?"

They were laughing when the house phone rang. "Ask him to come over," Figente said, meaning to the studio which was the old carriage house across the garden courtyard of his home.

"Lyle?" asked Lucy distressed.

"No, Paul Vermillion—perhaps you'd like to dress."

Behind in the dressing room she listened inquisitively.

"So you decided to come home. What happened?"

She could tell it was someone Figente was glad to see.

"Did something have to happen?" a pleasant medium-low voice said.

"Don't be like that—where's Simone?"

Lucy dressed hastily. She'd heard that that French singer, Simone Calvette, Beman had wanted had gone off with a lover and here he was.

"I have no idea."

She mustn't miss any of this. But Figente didn't pursue the subject.

"When did you get back?"

"End of February."

"A month before you came to see me! What have you been doing?"

"Working."

"Secretive—as always." "I'll give you an itemized account. Had to find a place to live and paint, get a job to do both, and take another look at New York."

"What kind of job?"

"I went down to see Bitot—he's the Frenchman I worked for in the Mail's art department before I went to Europe. In fact, I got my Paris job indirectly through him. Along with a smattering of French he taught me enough about lithography to get by. Well, he knows a man here who's gone into making artists' colors—seems there's an art renaissance."

The two men were laughing.

"It's a workable arrangement," the man was explaining. "I can work half days supervising the grinding of colors, so I can count on some daylight to paint."

"I don't think much of that arrangement. You ought to have full time. Why don't you use this studio, I can work in the house, or you can have the top floor which has nothing but boxes of books now. Denis will bring your meals when you don't want to have them with us."

Silence, then the man's voice was filled with warmth as he said, "Thanks, it's a decent and seductive offer—but I've come back to disentangle myself from—people—and art movements. Perhaps, off by myself, I'll become a personal art movement with a little meaning all its own."

Lucy, dressed and waiting for a good time to go in, was puzzled. What did the old song "Every Little Movement Has a Meaning All Its Own" have to do with being an artist?

"Well, any time you change your mind—I should have thought you'd find Paris a—well—more congenial atmosphere in which to paint and live."

"It's the congeniality that's paralyzing. It's easy, sitting at cafés boozing, or nights whoring, all in the name of art. It's fun but after a while the only work you do is in bed. And when you don't produce you justify—all art is baloney—the war shot all values, the only true value being that there are no values. Dada! Affirm negation. Everything, everyone, is rotten, corrupt, without meaning. Especially your painting which doesn't have to mean anything to anyone but yourself—if yourself at that."

"But Dada is necessary today—to sweep away the aesthetic clichés," objected Figente.

"Sure—sure—some artists will be liberated to work in their own way—but in the meantime Paris is a hotbed of fringe lice playing at being 'lost' because they've no talent, or think they've discovered fornication. The town's crawling with 'lost ladies'—gallant, of course—on the prowl to be found. After a while it's like being an American spectator at one of those houses where the limited variety of sexual acts are performed. I mean the multiplying art-twists called movements."

"Did you attend the Dada performances?"

"I sure did. Have to be au courant. One was with the Dadaphone. Tzara stood on a small platform next to a machine resembling a coffee mill and which made a similar sound, only amplified to scare your pants off when the handle's turned. Tzara yelled 'Dada Dada Dada' as he ground away, and we yelled back 'Dada Dada Dada.'"

"It must have been amusing." Figente laughed.

"My objection that the machine didn't produce coffee got me the bum's rush. But I don't have to worry about being excommunicated. Dada's dead. The new church is something called Surrealism, its chief protagonists being the old Dada Rover Boys—some of them fine painters."

"But that's a virtue of Paris—I should think you'd miss not being in touch with all the new movements—know what's going on."

"You can have so many irons in the fire none of them get hot. There's such a thing as knowing too much. It mixes one up. At least, me. You begin to see with too many other eyes—which is blindness. There's a difference between being one who shows what he sees, and being an audience. Besides, most of these new movements arc based on formulas. Surrealism, for example."

"It's the Freudian approach in painting, isn't it?"

"Partly. Assuming—and I confess I don't know enough about psychoanalysis to say surrealism is the correct approach, Freudian or the variants—I am not trying to be a psychoanalyst but a painter. Wrong as I may be, I don't accept the psychoanalytic dividing-up of the human personality into three parts. It may be scientific but to me it's a formula approach. I read an interpretation of Leonardo by a celebrated psychoanalyst which was unbelievably uncomprehending. It may have been good psychoanalysis—but it was absolutely without perception of Leonardo as a creative worker. I'm not saying my perception is superior—but that that psychoanalyst had no understanding of man as an artist because he attempted to explain with a scientific formula the creative process. It never seemed to occur to him that perhaps Leonardo could not be explained except by Leonardo in his work. That is to say, you might know all the facts about Leonardo and yet, adding this up, get nothing, as this psychoanalyst did."

"You mean you don't accept psychoanalysis! Oh, but it explains human behavior—corrects its aberrations, divagations—its healing—"

"Certainly I accept it—it's like asking whether I accept the rain—but I don't accept it as a know-all touchstone, and especially as a guide in painting. I believe I can learn more about human behavior from any creative artist than from the good doctors, that's all. And I don't want my aberrations, divagations, corrected—without them I am not myself as a painter. The human being doesn't exist who can't think up some alibi for his behavior—but if you're not a complete imbecile you know what you are doing. I simply do not believe that the human personality can be split up into a honeycomb of pigeonholes. In fact, how do I know whether what the Viennese doctors tell me isn't one long alibi for themselves? Another thing—they're so lacking in humor."

"But—"

"No—don't tell me—I know the explanation for humor—spare me! I like this green world. I know an apple can become rotten, but in the meantime I like apples that are bursting with the juice of life and I'm not going to stop eating apples because I know they can become rotten. Nor am I going to spend my life painting rotten apples. I won't accept dark findings as answers to light."

"Your approach to psychoanalysis is hopelessly unscientific—nevertheless, it's all of a piece, your, shall we say, youthful contrariness—reversing the trend. You are going West, young man, when everyone else is going to Paris. Did you bring back any canvases?"

"Sure. For sentimental reasons, and to remind me of my mistakes."

"I'd like to see them."

"Maybe sometime. By the way, I brought you this."

A rustle of paper.

"It is good," Figente admired. "How is she?"

"I don't know."

My goodness, Lucy thought, Figente has forgotten all about me stuck in this dressing room. She had made up her mind not to like the man who talked in puzzles she could not understand. Sex, art, coffee, baby talk—dadadadadada—all mixed up.

She opened the door and walked in, her high heels resounding on the parquet floor. He was narrow shouldered and slender, a few inches taller than herself, and with a long narrow head that reminded her of a small painting of a sad young man with a ruff around his neck in Figente's library.

"That's a Veronese, my dear," Figente had said.

The young man turned his head toward her with only a slight lift of his eyebrows, as though she was only one of hundreds of girls he had seen come through doors.

"Paul," said Figente, "this is Lucy Claudel. Lucy, Paul Vermillion."

"Hello," she said noncommittally.

"Hello," he said with an unexpected warm smile which put her on guard because it made her feel like a child.

It was getting dark and Figente switched on the light.

"Lucy is being Leda for me," he explained, turning the modeling stand for Vermillion to see.

"Don't do much more to it," Vermillion said.

Lucy looked at it and at him to see what he meant because she thought the figure too rough. But Figente seemed very pleased. Then, turning from the figure, the strange young man looked straight at her and said to Figente, "I'd have said Olympia rather than Leda."

It might be a compliment but she wasn't certain.

"Olympia sounds to me like a bareback rider," she said.

"In a way she was," this Paul Vermillion said.

The way Figente was squealing she could tell it had something to do with sex and she looked at this Paul Vermillion without smiling. A speck of light in his eyes came straight at her, striking the base of her throat, and she had to swallow and be the one to look away first.

"I'll ring for drinks," Figente said crossly. Such exchanges between men and women revolted him.

"Not for me, thanks, I just stopped in on my way uptown," Vermillion said, wondering where Figente had found this nymph with Astarte eyes.

Lucy felt strangely piqued that he left so casually. It seemed to her that Figente could have tried to urge him to stay as she would have liked more time to study him and figure out what she didn't like about Paul Vermillion.

When Figente returned from seeing him off, the first thing he did was to put a narrow framed drawing on the mantelpiece. It was of a woman, her strapless black dress splashed on a slight diagonal as though the slim figure leaned back against its weight while advancing. The tilted triangular face with its pointed chin was a mask of narrowed eyes and fine half-smiling carmine lips, and over the broad forehead a swirl of copper-brown hair fell from a side part like a disarranged cockscomb over one eyebrow.

"What's that?" Lucy asked, determined not to speak of the departed visitor.

"It's a lithograph of Simone Calvette, the French singer, that Vermillion made from memory after the first time he saw her in Paris."

"Why, she's the one Beman wanted for the show but couldn't get because she wouldn't leave her lover. Tessie certainly was glad because she was dying for the part and Beman wouldn't give it to her until the last minute even if they are living together. He thought two of the songs were too sad for Tessie because she had no depth. Tessie's got a name for a lighter style, you see. But Tessie really wants to be a dramatic actress and she worked hard to get the sad songs just right. She went to a Russian coach every day. Simone Calvette isn't very pretty, is she?"

"She has great beauty," Figente said.

She took another look. "I suppose it doesn't show here."

"You are mistaken. Vermillion has realized her image evocatively."

"Is he her lover—the one she wouldn't leave?"

"He was, last I heard," Figente said, pleased at her discomposure. He was fond of Lucy and wanted the best for her—save Vermillion. She wasn't for Vermillion who had serious work to do and mustn't be distracted by a mistress who would require too much watching.

"Well," said Lucy crossly, "if she's so wonderful, what's he doing here?" These two certainly were special in Figente's eyes, she thought jealously.

"That, I should think, is his private concern."

"She looks older than Vermillion in this picture."

"She is, somewhat, not that it matters."

She persisted though Figente acted as if he didn't want to talk about them.

"He's sort of odd, isn't he? He looks foreign—like that Veronese painting—his name too. But his accent is New York, like yours. I know your father was a foreigner but you look more American."

"Not at all! I resemble the San Figente side," he quickly corrected, inferring a denial of his princely and unusual appearance. "Vermillion is not an uncommon name, merely another word for red, just as there are many color names—Brown, Black, White, Blue, Green, Rose, Gold, Silver. He is of partly French ancestry. His father, a physician, came over as a child, and his mother was from upstate New York, English I believe. They were both killed in an accident when he was two and he was taken care of by his grandmother who died when he was sixteen. He's been on his own since then."

"Have you known him long?"

"I consider that I really discovered him in Paris, though I had encountered him once before. I went to browse among some old drawings in the back of a small lithographer's shop. In Paris the artists don't print their own drawings and this shop, Daudin's, has done such printing for generations so I thought I might discover a Gavarni or Forain or Degas or something. Instead I discovered Vermillion, who was working there. We recognized each other immediately, but our friendship actually began at Daudin's. The first time I saw him was at a cafe in Bordeaux, that was in 1919, he was celebrating his nineteenth birthday and arrival in France. He'd worked his passage on a freighter and was celebrating with its engineer. My French sailor friend and I were at the next table and I insisted on sending over a bottle of good wine to replace what he had ordered so that his education might begin immediately. One bottle led to another and at last we all put him on the train and I had no further interest in him until Daudin's, where I saw this memory drawing he had made after seeing Simone Calvette in the theatre. She was a friend of mine and I introduced them soon afterwards."

"But I can't see what such a grown woman can see in such a boy."

"I would hardly say you are old enough to be his mother. Simone is celebrated as a singer of songs of the feminine heart and, with her talent in interpreting human longings, her knowledge of art, she perhaps perceives in Vermillion a quality you cannot see."

"You mean," she asked in dismay, disregarding the side remark that she wasn't experienced as a woman, "you have to know about everything like that, in addition to technique, to be an artist?"

"I would not describe such knowledge as knowing everything, but an artist must acquire and develop an extra vision to make visible what others do not see."

"Like your painter friend taking another look at New York, I suppose," she said sulkily.

"Something like that, but there must be talent to communicate what is seen."


On the dim stage, before the crew came to set the first scene, Lucy was practicing. The harder she worked the angrier she became at Figente. A lot he knew about success. She was almost sixteen, already a première danseuse, and what was he—a fat old society Queen who was important only because rich and in the Social Register. He didn't have to work for anything. She ought to tell him all the things she knew. Then he'd think she was an artist. Some joke. Clem, Carly, those girls in the Crofter Hotel and their Madam, Horta, and, for heaven's sake, Miss Shaver way back in school in Denver. What did he think she was, a kid! Sometimes he sounded like Vida. And that boy, Paul Vermillion, he treated like something special. And some old French singer.

"Pussy," Mae chided, "you've practiced too much, let me give you an alcohol rub before makeup. I have a surprise for you—Miss Klemper is in New York, she's going to start an art dance school."

"Oh, she is?" yawned Lucy, relaxing under the soothing rub. She had heard enough about art for one day. "I did twenty-eight fouettés today. Not bad. Let's go shopping tomorrow. I'd like a black satin evening dress, I'm tired of all those kid colors."


Ilona Klemper had arrived in New York belatedly but comfortably cushioned with a legacy from an aunt. Her father had protested her plan to open a dance school in New York, still hopeful the legacy might lure a husband. Mrs. Klemper had sided with Ilona, deciding that since not even the publicity of being a putter-on of dance acts in the movie theatre had attracted any Denver men her now twenty-eight-year-old daughter couldn't do worse in New York. What Ilona did not confide to her mother was an urge to exhibit to the world what she felt was an extraordinary attunement to the art expressions she had discovered in avant-garde publications. Isadora Duncan was sixty and still dancing, Ruth St. Denis was in her forties, and in New York anything could happen. Look what happened to Lucy Claudel, in a cheap Broadway show. If one was an artist, how much more. Then too her former pupil could be of help getting her started, and in time one with so much to express need not compromise with the commercial theatre. Someday she would have a small select group like Isadora's "Adorables" and all the important artists would come to her monk's cloth hung studio.

In a not-yet-draped studio on West 72nd Street Ilona explained to violet velvet coated Lucy, "You see, ballet is no longer the expression of our times. Even Diaghilev recognizes the machine age. The dance, which is the mother of the arts, must take the lead, like the cubists and futurists, in expressing our time. One must throw off old styles and follow the trend. Even Isadora is using modern themes."

"I heard about the Russian poet."

"That's not what I mean," Ilona said primly. "I am talking about art."

She elaborated her idea of forming a group which, she hoped, Lucy would join, and thus help to convince Broadway of the value of bringing art into its shows.

"You see," Lucy elucidated in turn, "Broadway is mostly interested in a good high-kicking chorus and showgirls showing all the law will allow and dirty jokes, but I would love to join your class. I'm really very interested in art even if I am only a ballet dancer."

Ilona made her feel humble though she couldn't help wondering why her first ballet teacher who had been so anxious in getting her girls into vaudeville should now talk of art, like Figente. There must be something she was missing somewhere in all this talk about art. The trouble was there were so many things to think of as well. Making a success, which meant a life as Mother and she had seen it reflected in Mode in Denver. Or now, be one of those special people, like Simone Calvette or that Vermillion whom Figente admired. Or, most important, love. What was that all about? And, after all, most people thought being a première danseuse pretty good, she thought defensively.