James Lord – Author of a Picasso memoir and biography of Giacometti
- Christopher Hawtree
- guardian.co.uk, Thursday 24 September 2009
Lord in 1994. He got to know Picasso by turning up at his house Photo: Liz Calamari
The US writer James Lord, who has died aged 86, leaves several books that display his diligent scholarship and talent for gossip, among them the racy Picasso and Dora (1993), which relates Lord’s postwar involvement with Pablo Picasso and his lover Dora Maar. Equally elegant is Lord’s 600-page biography of the sculptor Alberto Giacometti (Giacometti, 1985), the result of 15 years’ work. Lord describes him as “the one person encountered in my entire lifetime for whom I could feel unequivocal admiration”.
Among his Six Exceptional Women (1994), Lord included his own mother, Louise, and in this account of her he elaborated on his childhood in Englewood, New Jersey. He was the third of the four sons of Albert, a stockbroker, and Louise, whose family’s money came from stove manufacture. After Albert’s Wall Street career was hit by the Depression, he overcame his embarrassment at using his wife’s money by cannily investing it, although she tried to insist on funding their son’s writing, on which James had already embarked as a boy.
He was expelled from one severe boarding school, but found Williston academy in Massachusetts little better. His writing ambitions were mocked by fellow pupils and when he told his father of his nascent homosexuality, Albert responded by arranging sessions with an analyst, who advised James to stop wearing Old Spice.
In 1941, at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Lord remained despondent, and volunteered for military service in 1942. He soon learned “how many of my comrades-in-arms were as eager as I to sleep in the arms of their comrades”. (He describes more of this in My Queer War, due to be published next year.) He served in intelligence and after D-day was sent to France, where he boldly called on Picasso in Paris. The artist welcomed him in, and drew him.
Back at Wesleyan, Lord was determined to write. Partly by selling paintings he had acquired (including Picasso’s) and partly through parental support, he returned to Britanny and wrote many novels, two of which were eventually published as No Traveller Returns (1956) and The Joys of Success (1958). He travelled throughout Europe, dealing in pictures and embarking on frequent affairs. “Living was inexpensive, restaurants were cheap, and nobody was expected to spend money in order to be worth knowing,” he commented. He created a museum at Paul Cézanne’s Aix-en-Provence studio.
In 1943, the enchanting, domineering Picasso had taken up with Françoise Gilot, but kept a psychological hold over his former mistress Maar. She and Lord, 15 years her junior, now became so close that many took them for lovers.
In 1954, they visited the art collector Douglas Cooper and his companion, John Richardson. Picasso was also there. As Richardson writes in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1999): “James’s account tallies with notes I made at the time. The only difference – we were prepared for Picasso’s onslaught, whereas poor James wasn’t.” After that awful evening, which delighted Cooper, Picasso never saw Maar or Lord again. In 1956 Lord further angered Picasso by publicly excoriating his refusal to denounce the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Although Lord admired Richardson’s formidable, continuing biography of Picasso, they too remained “irreparably unfriendly”.
Lord had first met Giacometti in 1952 in the Deux Magots cafe, Paris, and was “instantly mesmerised”. Then 50, the artist and sculptor was becoming better known. They talked for hours, with Lord fascinated by his companion. They met again (“I was fairly often on hand, or underfoot”) and, over 18 sittings, Giacometti painted Lord, as described in his A Giacometti Portrait (1965).
Giacometti’s death in 1966 prompted Lord to embark on a full-scale biography. Although Lord was helped by the artist’s brother, Giacometti’s widow, Annette, was obstructive – as detailed fully in Lord’s memoir Some Remarkable Men (1996).
His biographical work gave Lord’s life new direction after further novels had been rejected. It proved very slow work, but in 1975 he was encouraged by meeting the 28-year-old Gilles Roy, with whom he subsequently lived, and he was also spurred on by the hope that his mother would live to see the biography published. Although she was over 90 when it finally appeared in 1985, she duly read it three times.
The completion of this widely praised work brought Lord a creative block, so he drew on the journals he had always kept as a source for various memoirs. As well as describing the by-then reclusive Maar (she died four years after the publication of Picasso and Dora), he wrote unflinchingly but sympathetically on Jean Cocteau, Harold Acton and Arletty, among others.
He is survived by Roy.
• James Lord, writer, born 27 November 1922; died 23 August 2009
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