By Francine Prose, from Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932, published in April by Harper. Prose is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine.
I don’t want to name-drop, but Picasso told me a story. One night, I ran into him at a café. It was four in the morning. I assumed he couldn’t sleep either. By then it was unusual for him to appear without his entourage. We remarked on this and chatted about the pleasures of solitude. He invited me to sit down.
Picasso said that there used to be a guy who sat alone every night in a corner of the café Le Select. Long crazy hair, ragged coat, nursing one glass of headache wine, muttering to himself as he shuffled what looked like animal teeth from one pocket to another. Tiger fangs, it turned out.
It seems he’d been a painter who so worshipped Gauguin that he’d tried to walk in his idol’s footsteps. He traveled to some exotic island and went native, but something went wrong. He came home to live in Paris on a tiny pension from the state. If the French know one thing about you, it’s how you make a living, though they mock us Americans for being obsessed with money.
Picasso felt sorry for the guy but also a little nervous. He tried not to make eye contact, though for Picasso it’s always a challenge to dim those glorious brights, as large and wild as the saucer eyes of the dog in the fairy tale.
One night, the guy was shambling back from the toilet when he stopped at Picasso’s table and said he’d heard Picasso was buying tribal masks.
Picasso digressed from his story to talk about masks and carvings. He said they were not merely sculptures but sacred magical objects. They functioned as ambassadors — diplomats — between the human and spirit worlds. The artists who made them were natural Cubists, producing weapons for the arsenal of our war against the demons.
To be honest, I’d heard him say this before, in a different café. Word for word, with the same conviction. Now that Picasso was famous he’d distilled his repertoire down to a couple of subjects. Unless he was talking to a girl, in which case his range expanded.
But I hadn’t heard the story about the guy with the tiger teeth. Anyhow, Picasso and the guy climb up to the guy’s airless, packed-to-the-rafters sixth-floor hovel, where it smells like the spray of a thousand male cats. The guy has been painting. Lurid tropical landscapes. Picasso sort of likes them. No one’s doing anything like it. No one since Rousseau. And this guy’s better than Rousseau.
They’re not there to look at his work. The man shows Picasso a closet full of masks. Not all masterpieces, not all good. But some are terrific.
Picasso’s knees are shaking. But he keeps cool and makes a lowball offer for the entire collection. Generous, he tells the guy. A steal, is what he’s thinking. The man accepts.
A few days after the sale, Picasso feels guilty for having cheated the guy. It’s not as if the maestro hasn’t participated in some sketchy transactions. That great Iberian piece he bought from Apollinaire and claimed not to know was stolen. Those flea-market dealers he charmed into selling him Benin heads for nothing. But for some reason this one gets to him. He can’t get it out of his mind.
So he finds the guy in the usual corner and sits down and orders a bottle of expensive wine. The man drinks and drinks — a different beverage completely from the swill he can afford.
The funny thing is that the wine makes him more, rather than less, lucid. He asks Picasso if he wants to know about his time in the jungle.
Sure, Picasso wants to know. Should he ever want to sell the masks, a good story about their provenance might increase their value.
Well, somehow (Picasso forgets this part) the guy wound up in Malaysia, installed among an especially sweet and attractive tribe of little brown people. And who did they think he was? An artist, an emissary, an outer-space alien? Regardless, they’re so hospitable, they give him a beautiful wife. A goddess. He gets lucky: a ready-made household. He’s never been happier in his life.
For a while a missionary lived nearby, but he was called back to Missouri. Before he left he told the painter that their new friends used to be cannibals, not all that long ago. But they’d been converted and saved by the power of Jesus Christ.
Picasso laughed. He said, “Lionel. You’re a smart guy. Do I have to tell you the rest?”
Eventually, the painter discovered that his neighbors had kept up their tribal traditions. Every Sunday they head-hunted picnickers from Singapore. Picasso couldn’t remember how the poor guy found out. Maybe some weird-tasting liver in the cassoulet he’d taught his wife to make. He had the wife growing flageolet beans! Learning the art of French cuisine!
The people whom this man lived with, slept with, his wife, the men and women he thought he knew — he hadn’t known them at all. They were still killing and cooking and eating human beings!
The truth was too much for him. He went crazy. Disintegrated completely. Hallucinations, raving, the naked sprint through downtown Singapore at high noon on a weekday. Two months in the local jail. The family savings squandered on shipping him home from Asia.
At least he blackmailed his former tribe into bringing their masks to the boat.
Even now, he has attacks. Some days are better than others. Some days he remembers less.
Picasso finished his story. He said, “Lionel, what’s that cut over your eye?”
“Is it bleeding?” I asked. It bled like a statue of a miracle saint whenever I got excited or drank. I’d been beaten up by some right-wing hoodlums outside the Chameleon Club. I’d gotten fed up with the jingoistic floor show that whipped the crowd into a joyous frenzy. Even in a cross-dressers’ club, where you might not expect it.
One night I decided I’d had enough and staged a little personal protest. I shouted that a chorus line was no better than a military parade. Like soldiers, the dancers were puppets who had lost their souls. And that phony slut of a mermaid never had a soul to begin with! As I was escorted out onto the street, I told my friends I’d see them later.
A half block from the club, three thugs were leaning against a wall. The only question was how bad it was going to be. All in all, it wasn’t so bad. A few kicks, and we were done. Mild, as warnings go. Even so, the message was clear: Don’t screw up again.
I explained all this to Picasso. I got the sense that he already knew about it. Maybe that was why he’d told the cannibal story.
He said, “The French are cannibals. Those Malays or whoever they are have nothing on the French. You can live with them and admire their food and culture and fall in love with their women. But finally they are Frenchmen. And finally you are not.”
Picasso said that he and I, a Spaniard and an American, were the same to the French. They would eat us when they got hungry, when there was no one younger or juicier around to braise with carrots and red wine.
Picasso was a celebrity with important, powerful friends. He’d just had a major retrospective. No matter what, he would be safe. The cannibals wouldn’t eat him. No one was going to kick him to the curb outside the Chameleon Club. Whereas I was a defenseless turtle without a shell. The French could boil me into a broth and slurp me down for breakfast. Sure, I had the American Embassy, but to them I was fish food.
Picasso said, “That’s how the French are. Like everyone else, only worse.”
He said he hoped they left the Jews in peace, for the obvious humanitarian reasons and also for selfish ones. All his dealers were Jewish.
I told him, “Let’s hope for the best. After all, Pablo, don’t forget. This is the land of Baudelaire, of Rimbaud and Rodin!”
Picasso took out his pen and drew a few lines on his napkin. Then a few more lines. I watched the image take shape.
It was a guillotine.
He showed me the guillotine, and we laughed.
“That too,” I said. “I know.”
“Cannibals,” said Picasso. “It’s almost dawn. I’m tired. I’m going home.”
I wish I’d taken the napkin. He probably would have let me. Though maybe he wouldn’t, by then. He’d already gotten careful. He folded up the napkin and put it in his pocket.