Spellbound by Marcel: Duchamp, Love, and Art
(Pegasus Books, 2022)
For those interested in the private life of Marcel Duchamp, Ruth Brandon’s Spellbound by Marcel: Duchamp, Love and Art, might come as a welcomed contribution to the extant literature on the artist. Although we already knew something about this subject—thanks, in part, to the definitive biography on the artist by Calvin Tomkins (from which this book draws heavily)—this is the first time an author has carefully read the unpublished diaries of Duchamp’s two closest friends during his early years in New York: Beatrice Wood, who had spent two years in France studying to become an artist and actress, and Henri-Pierre Roché, a journalist working for the French government in New York during the years of World War I. Wood kept a three-line diary from 1915 to the time of her death in 1998 at the age of 105 (that’s eighty-three years of daily entries). Roché—who was Wood’s first lover—kept a diary for most of his life, but his entries were far more detailed, and included intimate accounts of his many sexual encounters, a rich source of information that is at the core of Brandon’s book. Late in life, Roché used his diaries as the basis for two books that he published, Jules and Jim and Two English Girls, both of which were made into films by the French director François Truffaut. At the time of his death, Roché was also working on his manuscript for a book called Victor, a nickname given to Duchamp by Wood and Roché, derived, as they both later explained, from the word “victorious,” which he seemed to have been in matters pertaining to his art, but also, as this book suggests, in affairs of the heart. During the New York years, this name was shortened by these friends to “Totor” or just “Tor.”
When Duchamp arrived in New York in 1915, he was already a famous name in the art world because of the scandalous reception of his Nude Descending a Staircase at the Armory Show two years earlier. At the age of twenty-eight, he was also strikingly handsome, something nearly everyone who met him in this period remarked upon. He met the twenty-three-year-old Wood on September 26, 1916, at the bedside of Edgard Varèse, the avant-garde composer who was a patient in St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York, having suffered a broken foot from a taxi that ran over the curb. Duchamp had known Varèse from Paris (he attended the same music academy as Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia, wife of the artist Francis Picabia, a close friend of Duchamp’s). Like Duchamp, Varèse was in New York to avoid the draft and the atrocities of war in Europe. Wood, who spoke French fluently, was asked to visit Varèse (who then spoke no English) at the suggestion of Alissa Franc, a journalist whom she had met and befriended a few months earlier. Wood found Varèse overbearing, but she was besotted by Duchamp. “[He] had the charm of an angel who spoke slang,” Wood explained years later in her autobiography. “He was frail, with the delicately chiseled face and penetrating blue eyes that saw all. When he smiled, the heavens opened.”
It would not be long before Duchamp started seeing Wood informally for casual lunches and dinners. Eventually he introduced her to Walter and Louise Arensberg, wealthy collectors of modern art who were Duchamp’s most dedicated patrons, and who paid rent on a small one-room apartment adjacent to theirs that Duchamp used as his home and studio. The building was at 33 West 67th Street, between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue, then one of the most exciting, up-and-coming residential neighborhoods in Manhattan. James Montgomery Flagg—artist of the famous World War I poster of Uncle Sam pointing at the viewer with the memorable words “I WANT YOU”—lived in the same building, and recalled the area as being especially desirable for its active nightlife. The Arensberg home was a resplendent three-bedroom apartment that featured a large, double-height studio room, which, from roughly 1915 through 1918, served as the nightly gathering place for New York’s cutting-edge intelligentsia, creative individuals who were at the forefront of the literary, musical and artistic avant-garde. Duchamp was the star attraction in this crowd, and Beatrice Wood, who still lived with her parents, felt she had finally come in contact with the sort of people who would save her from her overprotective mother. They not only saved her, but they changed the course of her life forever. Through Duchamp’s encouragement, she began to draw, and although her life would take a circuitous path (she had not yet abandoned her career as an actress), she would eventually land upon a career in the visual arts, becoming a renowned California potter by the end of her life.
It was in the Arensberg apartment that Wood met Henri-Pierre Roché, Duchamp’s friend, who arrived in New York in the fall of 1916. According to Wood’s diary, this meeting took place on February 25, 1917, but in her autobiography (written some sixty years later), she erroneously inverted the chronology of events, indicating that she met Roché before Duchamp. The actual sequence is historically important, for Duchamp was not interested in Wood romantically, but rather encouraged his new friend to date her. Roché promptly acted on his suggestion, but at first, Wood found him somewhat unattractive (“tall, with keen eyes and a large nose dominating his narrow face”) and too old (at the time of their meeting, Roché was thirty-seven years old, fourteen years older than Wood). His charm, however, proved irresistible and, after about three months of seeing one another, they finally slept together. While Roché was a seasoned paramour (he later told her that he had made love to as many as one hundred women), it was Wood’s first sexual encounter. This momentous event likely took place on the night of May 22, 1917, although Wood did not disclose it in her diary, as she feared her domineering mother might eventually find it. She wrote only: “Dinner Picabia at Brevoort [Hotel]. Later dance. Arthur Craven, Frost – Roché, Duchamp.” Roché’s diary, on the other hand, was more explicit, although he wrote in an abbreviated and coded format (recording the specifics of what occurred sexually), making the entries somewhat difficult to decipher. In his entry for May 22, 1917, he also mentioned that he had had dinner at the Brevoort with the Picabias, as well as with “B[éa] and Tor [Totor],” but then he writes “Girl chez je – Cubile – 4[:00].” Years later, apparently in an effort not to forget what he had written, he wrote at the top of the page “Girl = Béa.” Cubile is Latin for bed, but in this context, it could also be taken to mean the matrimonial bed.
Whereas the encounter was not recorded in Wood’s diary for this date, what occurred is revealed in drawings she made the next day, the existence of which seems to have eluded Brandon when she was writing her book. On May 23, 1917, Wood made at least three drawings that record the event, two showing her lying in Roché’s bed and held tightly in his arms, one of which is labeled première nuit [“first night”]. The third of these drawings shows Wood standing next to the bed, her naked body covered only by a sheet that she holds in her hand as Roché lies asleep beside her. This drawing is inscribed dix heure du matin / il faut partir (“ten o’clock in the morning / must leave”). Two details of this drawing are quite revealing, although they might have been done unconsciously. Wood drew her pubic area in the shape of a boldface letter “Y,” and the circular post of Roché’s bed—which she draws right above her head—takes on the appearance of a backward question mark, indicating exactly the sort of thought that might have gone through her mind as she contemplates how this first sexual encounter will impact her life. In Brandon’s account of Wood’s relationship with Roché, she questions whether penetration had ever taken place, as Wood would only later insert asterisks in her diary to chart her period in order to avoid pregnancy; since they are absent in this part of her diary, Brandon concludes that the sexual act might not have taken place, but there is too much evidence to the contrary, as her later accounts and these drawings attest.
Before they had sex for the first time, Wood and Roché had spent much time together working as editors of The Blind Man, a magazine intended as the mouthpiece of the Society of Independent Artists [SIA]. The SIA was an organization that began through conversations in the Arensberg apartment regarding the need for a group that would hold annual, jury and prize-free exhibitions, similar to the Salon des Indépendants in Paris (suggesting that the idea for the organization might have been Duchamp’s). To the first exhibition of this group, Duchamp, under the pseudonym R. Mutt, submitted a glistening white porcelain urinal provocatively titled Fountain. He wanted the organization to accept the item without disclosing his identity, since he feared that if they learned it was coming from such a famous artist, they would have been inclined to accept it. Instead, he wanted to test the principles of the society, so he arranged for a female friend of his to submit the urinal on his behalf. This friend was likely Louise Norton, the former wife of Allen Norton, one of Arensberg’s classmates from Harvard and publisher of Rogue magazine (which Arensberg financed). Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, Louise was then Duchamp’s occasional lover. The work was refused from display by the society’s board of directors, so it received very little fanfare in the press at the time. (Thankfully, Brandon does not buy into the farfetched theory that the female friend was Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.) What drew a great deal of attention in the exhibition, however, was the work submitted by Beatrice Wood, an image of a nude woman emerging from her bath with an actual bar of soap affixed to what she called “the tactical position.” At first, she tried to paint a bar of soap in that spot, but Duchamp suggested that she use an actual bar, so he helped her go out and shop for one and affix it to the canvas. When she titled the work Un peu d’eau dans du savon (“A little water in some soap”), she meant it the other way around, a mistake that Duchamp preferred, so she left it.
All of this information has already been provided in countless articles and books on Duchamp and the Arensberg circle of artists, but, regretfully, Brandon fails to consult many of them. The majority of these books were written by art historians, including the present writer. Whereas she cites my biography of Walter Arensberg that was published in 1980 (now more than forty years ago), she seems unaware of my New York Dada 1915–23 (1994), which not only dealt with Duchamp’s years in New York, but included separate chapters on all the members of the Arensberg circle, including Wood and Roché. In her close reading of Roché’s diaries, she learns that while he is sleeping with Beatrice, he is also having affairs with Beatrice’s friend, Alissa Franc, as well as with Walter Arensberg’s wife, Louise (information that I had already published in a chapter on Roché in my aforementioned book). Of course, it would be in bad form for a reviewer to complain about the fact that his or her writings were not consulted, but Brandon neglects others as well, publications that would have allowed her to present the main actors in her narrative within a broader cultural context. Among these books is Dickran Tashjian’s excellent and well-researched Skyscraper Primitives: Dada and the American Avant-Garde, 1910-1925 (1975), or the exceptionally well-written book about the various artistic groups in this period by Steven Watson with the appropriate title Strange Bedfellows: The First American Avant Garde (1991).
There is also an ocean of literature out there on Duchamp and Beatrice Wood, of which Brandon seems equally unaware. I first met Wood in 1976—when I was only twenty-eight years old, and she was eighty-four—yet we remained exceptionally close friends for the next twenty-two years, until her death in 1998. I sought her out in her home in Ojai, California, to interview her on the subject of Duchamp and the Arensbergs, but within the first half hour of our conversation, she told me she had lost her virginity to Henri-Pierre Roché. This was information that I wanted to know, to be sure, but something I only expected to find out after spending much more time with her. In my naïveté, I assumed that it was details such as these from which real history was made. That assumption, however, proves inadequate to telling the whole story, which is where Brandon’s book—which concentrates on the more salacious aspects of these sexual encounters—falls painfully short.
During the course of my friendship with Wood, I published many articles and catalogues about her life and work. I even wrote the introduction to her autobiography, I Shock Myself and, with my wife, Marie T. Keller, edited excerpts from her diaries relating to her life in the art world for her retrospective exhibition at the Santa Monica Art Museum in 2012 (again, an important and available resource about which Brandon seems to know nothing). Of course, I was curious to know what it was like to have slept with Duchamp, so I once asked her. “He was as gentle in bed as he was out of it,” she responded. A more fitting and touching tribute to an artist I held in such high esteem could not have been expressed with greater sensitivity, so I asked nothing more.
Once Brandon leaves the subject of Roché and Wood, the promise made in the book’s title—that we would learn more about the others who fell in love with Duchamp—continues, but in a far more truncated format. Indeed, two-thirds of the book is really about the love affair between Wood and Roché, but their names alone would not sell books. Brandon does tell us that Roché was just as much in love with Duchamp as was Wood, but it was a platonic attachment that he harbored to the end of his life. Almost in the form of an afterthought, Brandon does discuss Duchamp’s nearly thirty-year relationship with Mary Louise Reynolds, the American widow who lived in Paris and who fell in love with him, an affection that does not seem to have been entirely reciprocated (although he did harbor a deep affection for her, as he cared genuinely for her wellbeing, especially during the years of World War II, and he returned to Paris in 1950 to be by her side as she was dying). Here, too, Brandon could have gained a great deal of valuable information on Reynolds and her relationship with Duchamp from the recent biography by Christine Oddo, Mary Reynolds: Artiste surréaliste et amante de Marcel Duchamp, which appeared only last year (2021) and, therefore, might not yet have been available to Brandon. However, Oddo’s book is largely based on the archival research that Paul B. Franklin published in the journal Étant donné, which appeared in 2007, and, therefore, was available to all Duchamp scholars. Brandon does consult and relies heavily upon the autobiography of Lydie Fischer Sarazin-Levassor, whom Duchamp married in 1927 but divorced just seven months later. According to one of the stories about her that was circulated, Lydie grew impatient with the time her husband spent playing chess, so she glued the pieces to the board, an accusation she denied, but which Brandon found so appealing she repeated it.
Innumerable errors of fact permeate this book, many of which a good editor should have caught. In her chapter on the Armory Show, for example, Brandon identifies the purchaser of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase as a “lawyer” from San Francisco, when in actual fact he was an art dealer. This may not seem like much, but that error has already been repeated in a major review of this book, making it now firmly entrenched within the literature and virtually impossible to erase. She also says that the painting was referred to as “an explosion in a shingle factory” in The New York Times, when it was actually first said in The New York Tribune (a mistake that was again regretfully repeated in a review of this very book published in—of all places—The New York Times). Brandon tells us that Duchamp’s painting was hung in the show next to one by Picabia, when we now know that it hung between a large Cubist painting by Albert Gleizes and another painting by Duchamp. She describes Walter Arensberg’s poetry as “derivative and unremarkable,” a conclusion she can only come to after reading only his early poems. During his years in New York, Arensberg wrote some of the most experimental and extreme verse ever published, something I have characterized “as radical for the history of literature as the readymade was for the history of art.” Brandon calls Clara Tice a bisexual, for which there is no evidence, and she calls Joseph Stella a doctor (twice), even once mistakenly referring to him as Frank Stella! She tells us that Duchamp’s The King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes was shown in the 1917 Independents Exhibition, when it was not (Duchamp’s name is not given among the participating artists in the exhibition’s catalogue). Brandon calls Florine Stettheimer’s La Fête à Duchamp her “best known work,” apparently unaware of her monumental four-part “cathedral” paintings in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. She tells us that when Duchamp returned to Paris in 1919, he met many of the Surrealists, whereas he actually met the Dadaists (Surrealism would not get its name for another five years). When she mentions Man Ray—for reasons that baffle me and will probably come as a shock to any scholars who have written about his life—she tells us that Man Ray “had fallen unforgivably in love with [the] fourteen-year-old daughter” of his first wife Adon Lacroix. Man Ray had his faults, to be sure, but pedophilia was not among them. Where she got that information, I will probably never know, since it is pure fiction.
Duchamp’s relationships with his lovers were all one-sided, that is to say, they fell in love with him, but he did not fall in love with them. That all changed in the early 1940s, when he was back living in New York and met the Brazilian artist Maria Martins, who was married to the Brazilian ambassador to the United States. Martins had three children, and no intention of disrupting the flow of her domestic and social existence to live the bohemian life of an artist, however intelligent, charming, and engaging she found that artist to be. I was the first to write about how important Maria was in Duchamp’s life at this time and, more importantly, as an influence on his art, but my studies have been superseded by the excellent catalogue on the Étant donnés by Michael Taylor (2010) and the monograph on Maria’s sculpture by the Brazilian art historian Graça Ramos, Maria Martins: Escultora dos Trópicos (2009), a book written in Portuguese but with an English translation. Consulting these publications, for example, Brandon would have known that Duchamp might have met Maria as early as 1942, shortly after his arrival to New York, but no later than 1943. It was not in 1946, as she has it in her book. That was the year that he made his first drawing of a nude Maria, a study for the Étant donnés, an environmental tableau he would work on intermittently and in secrecy for the next twenty years, only to be revealed to the public after his death.
Brandon follows this excursion into Duchamp’s private life with his marriage to Alexina [“Teeny”] Duchamp, who had been recently divorced from the art dealer Pierre Matisse (the son of Henri). It was perhaps the most satisfying and comfortable liaison of his life, for she was a sympathetic and deeply intelligent person who loved watching and reviewing chess games with her husband. It was only at this moment, fairly late in (when they married in 1954, he was sixty-seven years old), that Duchamp finally met his equal, someone whose life he was not trying to change and someone who made no effort to change his.
When evaluated in light of today’s standards, neither Duchamp nor Roché come across as exemplary actors in their relationship with women. Duchamp’s detachment and lack of commitment turned some of his lovers into victims, such as Mary Reynolds, with whom he famously refused to be seen in public, lest people conclude they were a couple, not to mention his inexplicable marriage to Lydie. Roché’s simultaneous and overlapping love affairs (including sometimes threesomes and foursomes) certainly inflicted emotional pain on many of the women with whom he had intimate relations, including Beatrice Wood, whom he referred to disparagingly in Victor as “a little dog he had looked after for a while.” In the end, as Brandon’s book reveals, it is the women who survived their relationship with Duchamp—Beatrice Wood, Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia, Louise Norton, Mary Reynolds, Maria Martins—who are the ultimate heroines of this tale.