Casual acquaintances, except his mother

May 17, 1994|By Judith Wynn | Judith Wynn,Special to The Sun

Don't turn to "Six Exceptional Women" for inspiring success stories. Three of the women in this odd, meandering memoir -- writer Gertrude Stein, her companion Alice B. Toklas, and film actress Arletty ("The French Garbo") -- won artistic fame in pre-World War II Europe. The other three subjects, which include the author's mother, were wealthy heiresses with artistic interests.

All six women knew author James Lord. All of them met sad and (except for Stein) lonely, embittered ends.

James Lord grew up in Indiana and moved to Europe after serving with U.S. military intelligence in France during World War II. He won the French Legion D'Honneur in 1988 for his work to preserve Cezanne's studio. He has written about artists Alberto Giacometti and Picasso.

In "Six Exceptional Women," the accent is on decline, disappointment and death. It's not clear, though, why Mr. Lord thought his relationship with these particular women merited a book.

Despite his professed admiration for his subjects, there remains a chilly reserve, a distinctly disturbing distance between himself and them. This is partly due to his stiff, lofty and prolix diction. Another factor is his fleeting contact with the women themselves.

Mr. Lord was a casual acquaintence of most of them. Acquaintance with Gertrude Stein -- for Mr. Lord, as for most people -- was that of hushed audience to Miss Stein's forceful, nonstop monologues. The author tells how he brought this one-way exchange to a screeching halt one day by calling Stein "a stupid old woman," then stalking angrily away, never to see her again.

His later acquaintence with Alice B. Toklas after Stein's death was more pleasant, if not warmer. Stein's will had placed "trustee" Toklas between Stein's blood relatives and the treasure BTC trove of artwork that Stein had purchased for low prices before the artists became famous. Stein's relatives eventually seized the priceless collection. The unwordly, improvident Toklas wound up in a cut-rate suburban sickroom, supervised by a nurse whom she despised.

Blinded by a freak accident, actress Arletty met a gentler fate -- her nurses were young volunteers who loved the impoverished film star's work, notably the 1944 classic "Children of Paradise." Arletty's romance with a Nazi officer derailed her career after the war, but that is not explored here, beyond noting Arletty's insistence on her "very private perpetuation of her own dignity."

As for Mr. Lord's fourth subject, millionaire Marie-Laure de Noailles, the most notable thing about that art-collecting autocrat's life was her noisy, reluctant exit from it, after a stroke, in 1970.

The best chapter concerns Errieta Perdikidi, the author's landlady at a Greek vacation spot in the late 1950s.

A fateful tale of misplaced trust, so full of ironic foreshadowings that it could have been subtitled "The Postman Always Rings Twice," Perdikidi's story details her mistake in spending most of a large inheritance on her young blue-collar husband. Mr. Lord was disappointed by his own fickle young male companion at the time and quickly gave his landlady notice and fled. Misery does not necessarily love company.

The account of the sixth "exceptional woman," Mr. Lord's mother, is mostly the story of the author's quest to live on a permanent family allowance and resist Mrs. Lord's pleas to get a job. Mrs. Lord was the recipient of inherited wealth and feared that her unemployed son would come to a lonely, deprived old age, but, as her son points out here, that was to be her own lot.

As biography, "Six Exceptional Women" is sketchy. As autobiography, it's too superficial to hold one's interest for long.

Ms. Wynn is a writer who lives in Somerville, Mass.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Six Exceptional Women"

Author: James Lord

Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Length, price: 372 pages, $27.50

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