Stan Meisler writes about his story “Soutine and Dr. Maisler”:
Hona Maisler, my father’s brother, was a Parisian doctor who was murdered in Auschwitz during World War II. Chaim Soutine, the painter, was a very distant relative, through marriage. He died in France during the war. Both lived in France from the turn of the century. I thought it would be interesting to imagine the two knowing each other in Paris during the 1930s when France was regarded as the most powerful country in the world. To do so, I used the device of a memoir, putting myself into Paris at that time as well. But I actually was a little child in the Bronx then and never met either of the two men. When I sent this around to a few literary magazines, I labeled it carefully as “a short story, not a memoir.” But I guess I wasn’t persuasive. One rejection slip said, “Sorry, we do not publish memoirs.”
Soutine and Dr. Maisler
by Stanley Meisler (Peace Corps Staff 1964–67)
Compared to the winter storms of Bialystok, it was hardly more than a whimper, leaving only the barest layer of snow, yet Paris shivered and sloshed on that night in January of 1940. I grinned and turned my head in mock wonder at my uncle, Dr. Hona Maisler (he spelled his name in the French way, not the way I spell mine now) as he struggled, seated in a sable-trimmed coat, to pull on enormous galoshes.
He was taking me along that night to see an old friend, the celebrated painter Soutine, who had just come back to Paris from the countryside in the South. Caught there by the war, it had taken him several months to push his way past enough functionaries to return. The government had restricted the travel of all foreigners, and both he and my uncle were classified as foreigners even though they had lived in France for thirty years. My uncle had three Soutines in his living room, two wild, whipped landscapes and a portrait of a terrified old man. In those days, I could see nothing in them.
My uncle, too, was celebrated, a scientist of renown, a battler against disease, although no one back in Bialystok liked to talk about what he battled. He was the scientific director of “Laboratoires de la Maislériase” on rue d’Alésia. La Maislériase, which he had developed, was an ointment used to soothe the symptoms of syphilis and other venereal diseases in women. As a lotion, in different strength, it could do the same for cows and mares. Even then, before the age of antibiotics, everyone knew La Maislériase was not a breakthrough, not a cure, but only a palliative. Yet it afforded my uncle a good deal of respect and income.
I had reached Paris barely six months earlier, just before the Russian troops marched into Bialystok. Bialystok was a vibrant, warm city of shadows and towers whose soul later vanished off the face of the earth. But that is another story. I had made my way to a Paris that was at war but not at battle. It still glowed in romance and awe. But I could feel its hideous fears as well and hear its cries of torment, especially in the flickering lights of night, and I never hesitated in my resolve, despite all the city’s beauty and excitement, to make my way somehow, someday to America.
My uncle stood up, tall and almost regal, handsome, despite a nose a bit too prominent, a bit too long. He was bald in a distinguished way, for the carefully coiffed, silver hair that curled beneath surely attracted more attention than the baldness itself. He perched a matching, Russian sable hat on his head on this night and carried the air of a maned monarch. He was a man of 53 years then, five years older than my father, from whom we heard nothing now in Bialystok.
Before leaving, he slipped into the enormous living room with its high ceilings, carved wood walls, blazing fireplace, door-length windows, elegant bookcases, and three Soutines to say good-night to my Aunt Khinia and her companion, Madame Doublet. My aunt had turned nearly blind a few years before after a series of failed cataract and retina operations and preferred to listen to Madame Doublet, a heavy, blonde French woman, read a novel than go out on this night, even for Soutine. My aunt was the same age as my uncle, for they had been students together at the École de Médecine, but she already had soft, wrinkled, yellowed skin. He whispered to her and kissed her on both cheeks while I waved from the hallway. She waved back, for she could still see shadows or pretend to.
My uncle strode through these streets deep on the left bank of Paris as if he ruled them while I skipped to catch up, marveling how a layer of less than two centimeters of snow could still manage to seep into my shoes and wet my socks. A cold wind whipped at our faces, but I could handle that easily, throwing a scarf up almost to my eyes. The Villa Seurat, the street where Soutine lived, was barely ten blocks from us, and we managed our way there in a quarter of an hour, stopping only for tramcars and an occasional skidding auto. You could still hear the fits of laughter in those days wafting from warm, lighted bars in the night.
The Villa Seurat had the air of a village tucked within Paris, a street of little buildings of odd shapes and sizes huddling together for strength. The buildings dated from the time near the turn of the century when entrepreneurs could earn handsome profits by building clusters of homes for the hordes of artists studying and working in Paris. The apartments, all with grand studios and high windows, still housed painters and sculptors mainly, though a few writers rented as well, hoping to absorb some of the atmosphere at the center of the world of art. Even in those days, even for someone like me who did not understand art as yet, the street pulsed with an excitement that made my temples dizzy in joy.
Soutine, a few years younger than my uncle, met us at the door of his apartment. In those days, the Sorbonne, where I attended classes in Napoleonic law, still abounded with tales of crazed bohemian life two decades before: a fiery, disheveled Soutine, unwashed and stinking with drink, a hand clutching the naked buttock of Kiki, often took center stage of such tales. I, of course, knew from my uncle that fertile imagination and wild exaggeration had distorted these stories far beyond reality and recognition. But this still did not prepare me for my first sight of Soutine, dressed like a bourgeois functionary in a wool, ill-fitting, double-breasted, dark blue suit, a black sweater vest, a white shirt, and a striped red and yellow tie. His long, black, oily hair was slicked down to the right, slipping over the tip of a bulbous ear. His features were large, his face blubbery, his head massive for his short height, all in all a sight of awkwardness, of ugliness. But he transformed the image into pleasant warmth with the flash of his smile.
He puffed on a cigarette that he held with long, slender fingers, admired my uncle in silence for a few dramatic moments, and then embraced him. He was so much shorter that he could not reach to kiss my uncle’s cheeks. As his head dropped on my uncle’s shoulder, I could see his eyes brimming.
He stepped back and laughed. “Hona, Hona,” he said. “It is a pleasure beyond all my hopes to see you.” Then he explained that his own apartment was as strewn and confused as a battlefield in the Great War, that Sarah, the sculptress from Russia, had kindly invited us all there for cakes and tea, that Helène, his new companion, was already there chatting and helping arrange the plates, and that we would head there right this very moment. He closed his door but not before I caught my glimpse of a luxuriant and feverish room crowded with jostling canvases in slashes and swirls of burning red.
Except for the dozen carefully displayed busts, the bookshelves and the floors of alcoves, the living room of Sarah, the sculptress from Russia, looked more like the salon of a Bialystoker grandmother than a Paris artist. Little lace squares lay on the heavy arms of the thickly upholstered sofas. Small bowls of almonds and raisins filled the open spaces near the sculptures on the low tables. I could recognize a bust of Soutine and of Léon Blum but no one else. Sarah herself, a heavy woman near sixty years old, wore a long, old-fashioned, neck-choking black dress and kept her grey-streaked hair combed back into a bun.
But it was Helène who attracted most of my attention. I fell in love with her that night like an orphaned pup. She was thin like a wisp of silk with soft golden hair and eyes as blue and green as the sea. She wore a girlish, green dress with petticoats that crinkled above her slim ankles. A small crucifix hung from her neck on a silver chain. The crucifix seemed a little out of place here in the Bialystoker atmosphere, but I put it out of my mind right away. She was like a dazzling princess, a mannequin from the Champs-Élysées, a star of the Comedie-Française, and I have never ceased to feel a raw pang of youth whenever her image flits across my memory. We spoke in French that night so she could understand. I did not realize then that she was crazed but it would not have mattered if I had known.
Sarah offered us a large dish crammed with pirogen. “I filled them with potatoes,” Sarah apologized. “It is so difficult to find good meat these days that I decided not to waste it in the pirogen but save it for the stuffed cabbage instead. Although, to tell the truth, I personally prefer potatoes in my pirogen. It has a taste.” Soutine dropped two into his mouth, quickly sucking in a gush of air. “Hot, hot,” he said, “but like nectar.” “You mean something else,” Sarah scolded him. “Nectar is what gods drink.”
Soutine shrugged. “I agree. The pirogen are not like nectar. Nectar, I am willing to wager, is no good for my ulcer anyway.”
“How is it feeling these days?” my uncle asked.
“Like always, like all my life,” Soutine replied. “I live with it like a wife. But, listen to me, Hona, you have not come here tonight as my doctor. We are not going to poke into my ulcer.”
“I promise you,” my uncle said, “I am only interested as a friend. As a doctor, I do not care one fig about your ulcer.”
“Good,” said Soutine. He paused for a few minutes in a grin and then went on, “I remember when beef was cheap and plentiful. Do you remember my slab of beef, Hona? Sarah?”
“Who could forget?” my uncle replied. Sarah nodded with a little, contented smile. But Helène said, “No, no, Soutine, I don’t know about the slab of beef. Please tell the story, for me.” Her voice was soft and sincere like that of a child. I, too, had not heard the story before and leaned forward eagerly, chewing happily on the wonderful pirogen.
“In those days, almost twenty years ago, you could buy a side of beef at La Villette for almost nothing,” Soutine said. He sat up straight, speaking softly and slowly, using his slender hands to punctuate his phrases, the curls of cigarette smoke moving across his face, turning it into an exotic, smiling mask. “I believed then, I suppose I still do,” he went on, “that Rembrandt had trapped all the secrets of death and life in his painting of the slaughtered ox in the Louvre. I can not explain it but, when I was a student at Beaux Arts, I could spend an hour at a time, perhaps even a second hour, standing in front of it in the dim light and trying or at least pretending to fathom its secrets. It was in the twenties that I decided I would attempt to set down in my own paintings of beef the few secrets that I had mastered. Of course, for my whole life, I can not tell you now a single one of those secrets that I thought I possessed then. Oh. But, what a bore, how stupid, how dull to tell you this. It has nothing to do with my story.” He tapped his forehead twice with the butt of his hand.
Sarah nodded and sighed. “Soutine, my Soutine,” she said. “It has everything to do with your story. But, never mind, go on and tell us your story. I love the part about the health inspector. He always tickles me.” She suddenly put a handkerchief against her mouth to stifle laughter.
“I was living with Paulette then in a studio near the Denfert-Rochereau station,” Soutine said, widening his eyes and turning to Helène. “She was not an angel like you, my dear, but Paulette had certain exaggerated, pleasing physical features. She also worked very hard. Oh, my God, what a wonderful model.” He stopped himself with a half-smile, as if afraid he was talking himself into trouble. Helène smiled back at him and moved her angelic, happy head from side to side in a gesture that told the rest of us nothing.
“We bought ourselves a whole side of beef at La Villette, and I hung it from a meat hook in the studio,” Soutine said. “I painted in a fever, working with all my soul to capture all the carmines in the beef. Every day Paulette would go back to La Villette to buy a liter of blood to freshen the colors in my beef. The neighbors did not like the project very much. They scorned my studio as the ‘Soutine butchery.’ Every once in a while, a neighbor would pound on the door and cry out, ‘Soutine, you worthless, foreign ninny, your stink is beyond belief.’ They were right, of course, but what could I do? I had to finish my beef.” He shrugged and held out his hands, asking us for understanding.
My uncle waved a finger at him. “If I had been a neighbor, I would have complained to the health inspectors,” he said.
“But that is the point,” Soutine said. “Someone did.”
“Of course, of course,” my uncle said. “I forgot the most important part of the story.” He puckered his mouth in good-natured embarrassment.
“Two inspectors showed up one cold, terrible morning,” Soutine said, “and announced that, as a result of numerous complaints, they had come to confiscate my beef. I turned pale like the snows of Mont Blanc. My heart shuddered in fear. My ulcers churned in pain. I needed two more days to finish my painting of my beef. I could not complete it without the beef hanging in front of my eyes. If they took my beef away, I would slash the canvas with a knife in despair. But I did not know how to protest, how to cry out, how to beg for mercy. Lucky for me, however, the chief inspector was a stylish young man with a waxed moustache and lucky for me Pauline was there to talk with him.
“Ah, Pauline,” he went on, looking away from Helène but rolling his eyes a bit so everyone could see he was hoping to provoke her a little. “She liked to walk around the studio in those days with nothing but a kimono over her nakedness. She was, after all, the eternal model. She let her kimono part in front and explained how the great artist Soutine needed only a few more days to complete his great painting and how it would be a sin against the culture and honor and glory of France to interfere with the work of the great artist Soutine.
“The sight of her luscious globules of breast maddened his heart and, of course, his loins and made him lose touch with reason. He announced a few ridiculous medical decisions. He would allow the great work to go on if only she would pledge to drip enough ammonia on the carcass every day to stifle the stench. He, of course, would come by every other day to inspect the meat and, of course, her breasts. Oh, what a glorious triumph for Paulette, for me. During the era of his health inspections, I managed to complete four paintings of the beef. None compared with Rembrandt, but, though I could not sell them for many years, they were among my best work. I do not believe the inspector ever indulged in any more than an inspection of Pauline, but, of course, I do not know for sure. He was a handsome, dashing, young fellow, unlike the great painter Soutine.”
“From the point of view of health,” my uncle said, “the ammonia was not a bad compromise.”
Soutine laughed at him. “Hona, Hona,” he said, “you are always the great scientist. It was a compromise for art and love, not science.”
Helène could not shake away a frown. “I do not think my bust is so very small,” she said.
“No one here said that it was, my little katchka,” Soutine replied, adding, “But shhhhh. You are embarrassing the young man.”
Soutine was right. My ears and neck had reddened beyond hope, inflamed by the fear that someone would notice my eyes boring into her dress for a glimmer of the depth beneath. I quickly stared ahead and prayed for someone to change the subject.
My uncle did. “I enquired about a visa at the American Embassy yesterday,” he said. “The lines are very long, too long for such cold.” He spoke softly and elegantly, his head raised, his nose high, almost evoking the splendor of a baron.
“So you, too, want to leave for America?” Sarah said.
Uncle Hona shrugged. “In truth,” he said, “I really want to see the New York World’s Fair. They tell me that it is even more spectacular than our Paris Exposition.”
Soutine grinned and wagged a finger at him. “But it does not have a dozen Soutines like our exposition did,” the painter said.
My uncle sighed and held his hands out for forgiveness. “That is its only failing,” he said.
“Well,” Soutine mused, “maybe that’s not such a terrible failing.”
“In truth,” my uncle went on, “I might want to look around in New York. I have cousins in the city. I have their addresses somewhere. But, in my heart, I would never want to leave Paris. We are as safe here as anywhere. I have faith in the Maginot Line. I have faith in France. Vive la République Française.” He raised his voice ever so slightly and lifted his glass slightly as well. Everyone else repeated his toast, and I remember wondering then if I could detect a wisp of irony in the care that the expatriates gave each word. But I could not.
“But, Soutine,” my uncle said, “you are someone who should go down to the American embassy and enquire about a visa. You are a great painter. Should the fascists, God forbid, ever multiply, they would harass great people like Soutine. But for you a visa would be easy, a simple matter. You have sponsors in America. You have rich people eager to purchase your paintings. They’ll sponsor you without a single argument, not one.”
Soutine laughed, clasped his hands and lifted his shoulder in the glow of comic memories. “Of course I can have a sponsor,” he said. “Dr. Barnes will be my American sponsor. He is a great scientist, a great scientific inventor, like Louis Pasteur and you, Hona. A word from him is all America would need to anoint me as a Yankee Doodle.”
“Ah, yes,” said my uncle, “Doctor Barnes, the inventor of argyrol, the medicine for every child in the world. But he is a different inventor from me, Soutine. He is a rich inventor, wealthy enough from his one medicine to buy all the Manets in the world, all the Monets, all the Van Goghs, all the Renoirs, all the Cezannes.”
“And,” interrupted Soutine, “all the Soutines.”
“Yes, and all the Soutines, all the Soutines in the world — except three, Soutine. I have three.”
“Tonight, you will have the fourth.”
Uncle Hona frowned and looked troubled. “No, Soutine,” he said, “you must not. Your paintings have become too valuable to just hand away to friends.”
Soutine smiled and poked a finger into the air. “All right, if you are foolish, Hona,” he said, “you will not have a fourth Soutine. I will give your fourth Soutine to this young man.”
I looked at everyone in the room, took in Helène’s little smile, felt a confused dryness in my mouth, and did not know what to say. But it did not matter. Soutine had started to tell another story, this time about Doctor Barnes.
“It happened almost twenty years ago,” Soutine said. “Dr. Barnes, rich and tall and wearing an overcoat of camel’s hair and thin glasses rimmed in gold, stood in the gallery of little Paul Guillaume on the Rue du Faubourg St. Honoré looking for another Monet or Renoir, I suppose, and spotted, by some accident of God, the only Soutine carried in Guillaume those days, a little pastry chef, perhaps my best pastry chef. And Doctor Barnes threw up his hands in joy and cried out that my little painting was a fruit, a pear…”
“No, Soutine,” my uncle said, “a peach.”
“Ah, yes, Hona, you are right, a peach. In English, a peach is a symbol, an image, as well as a fruit. It means something excellent, maybe something wondrous, something very good, a true compliment. But Guillaume did not know this. Guillaume was a good art dealer, and he knew how to charm rich Americans, but his English was not as good as he liked to pretend. ‘No, you are wrong,’ Guillaume said to Doctor Barnes. ‘It is not a peach. It is a little pastry chef.’ Ahhh, the great eyebrows of Doctor Barnes arched in fury. ‘I know it is a pastry chef, you fool,’ he thundered at poor Guillaume. ‘Show me more.’ Those words would change my life.”
I remember now an evening of soft talk and gentle laughter and the clinking of glasses of tea and the munching of wondrous pirogen and later of luscious stuffed cabbage. I remember as well the large sculptress Sarah like a Bialystoker grandmother fussing over all of us and the lithe, blonde Helène in her crinkled dress soothing my heart and the short, animated Soutine softening his large and ugly features with love and smiles and my Uncle Hona so measured, calm, wise, so brimming with admiration and kindness for his friend, the painter. That night transpired in a first moment of the most terrifying cataclysm in the history of mankind, but I do not recall any real discussion of the war. There was no more than the few words about visas and my uncle’s expression of hope in the Maginot Line. At home, Uncle Hona talked often of war. It worried him sleepless. He feared the Nazis and smothered that fear only with faith in the glory and universality and myth of France. Yet he held himself back from talking about war that evening because he worried more in those moments about the fragility of Soutine. My uncle did not want to upset him. “You do not meet many great men in a lifetime,” Uncle Hona whispered to me later. “You learn to cherish them.”
As we bundled ourselves to leave, Soutine hurried to his rooms to bring me something. He rushed back, walking awkwardly like an overweight midget, holding out a canvas on a board. “A Soutine for you,” he said, handing me the painting. I held it gingerly, my Uncle Hona steadying it to help me. It was a portrait of Helène but one that did not allow her to look like a golden child. The lips of the portrait were too large and the hair too dark and the wrinkles of age too twisted and clear. The eyes glistened in terrible fright and a cry of despair burned through the thick, angry swirls of paint racing around her head. But none of this made her grotesque. Her beauty remained etched for me like a Botticelli despite the age and despair in the thick, wild strokes. It was signed “C. Soutine” but had no date.
Helène turned red like borscht, her little mouth open in surprise. Her eyes widened in wonderment. “But, Soutine,” she said, “I thought that was your. . .” She caught herself and, still red, smiled at me, a puff of white that made me soar. Soutine smiled at me as well, a little elfin grin, blissful, happy, kind. He then winked at me as if I were a conspirator in some sly joke. That is my last memory of him. I never saw him again, and, when I try to conjure an image of Soutine now, I see first that wink on elfin, kindly, bulbous features.
My last memory of Uncle Hona comes from that night as well even though I lived with him and Aunt Khinia for another eighteen months. Soutine had tied old newspapers around the canvas, and Uncle Hona carried the large package in one arm, shielding it with the other, as we walked home in the cold on the thin layer of slush of the Paris streets. “You can not imagine,” he told me, “how proud I feel that he gave this painting to you.” The sable hat made my uncle seem even more towering and powerful and noble, and, not knowing what to say to him, I simply sighed in awe. “This may sound silly,” he said, “but you know that your Aunt Khinia and I have never had a child and somehow I felt when he handed you his wonderful gift that he was doing so as if he thought I had a son. I know it makes no sense.” I hugged him and inhaled the faintest trace of a French cologne. I suppose I hugged him that way because I knew then that I would not have a father. “Be careful,” he said. “The painting.” But he smiled at me. After we walked in silence for a few more steps, he said, “I wonder if she has the strength to take care of him. She seems so fragile as well, like a child.”
There is not much more to tell. On July 16, 1942, the French police, in a general sweep, arrested Uncle Hona at his laboratories and took him away to a camp at Beaune-la-Rolande. Many years after the war, records, kept meticulously by the Germans, reported that he was deported on train convoy no. 15 with 1,013 other Jews on August 5. The convoy reached Auschwitz on August 8. There were only five survivors.
I rushed up, down Paris in a panic, in a fury for three months groveling for scraps of news but knew nothing. At night I held Aunt Khinia’s cold hands in my own while she sang mournful songs for me. On October 23, the French police came to the apartment for poor Aunt Khinia. I protested and screamed that Aunt Khinia was blind and weak, could they not see. A fat flic, a contemptuous smile on his brush mustached lip, spit in my face. Two others threw me against the wall. I was not on their register so they did not take me. Aunt Khinia said nothing as she left, a broken twig of a woman, carrying a small bag. Madame Doublet was not there that night so my aunt had to pack the bag herself. She tried to wave good-bye to me but, not knowing where I was in the tumult, gestured at the wrong wall. My shoulders would swell and blacken and ache for many weeks. According to the German records, she and 744 other Jews were deported from the internment camp at Drancy on November 11, the twenty-fourth anniversary of the armistice that ended the Great War. The train, convoy no. 45, reached Auschwitz on November 14. There were only two survivors. I tried often years later to imagine what it was like for my naked uncle and aunt to claw over naked friends in the chamber for a catch of air as the gas streamed in, but I could not.
I did not return to the apartment for fear that my name would soon appear on the lists for roundups of Jews. I left with little but did remove the Soutine canvases from their boards and frames and roll them into my valise. I do not remember now why I did that then. Perhaps I wanted to save them from vandals so that my Uncle Hona would have them should he return. I know that I did not want to sell them. Madame Doublet, my aunt’s companion, returned to the apartment every few days and brought out things for me to sell: a silver menorah crafted in Crakow a hundred years before, elegant, soft books bound in leather, their French, Russian and Hebrew titles shining in goldleaf letters, crystal vases, silver knifes, bronze medals, platinum fountain pens. I sold them for very little and, refusing to wear a yellow star, dashed like a fugitive from the apartment of one Sorbonne friend to another. They were all frightened but swallowed their fear to save my life, each of them a saint; they deserve a thousand blessings every moment. So does Madame Doublet, a saint as well, smiling, laughing, shivering with fury at Marshal Petain and his scum. She brought me Uncle Hona’s mail every few days. They were almost all notices, bills, advertisements, occasionally a note from someone I did not know, but I devoured every line of everything.
One day a printed card came with black borders. The card, which had been addressed to my uncle and aunt and delivered by hand, said,
“You are invited to attend the burial of
Monsieur Ch. SOUTINE
dead in Paris, 9 August 1943, at the age of 49 years,
which will take place Wednesday the 11th, at 14 hours, precisely, in the Montparnasse cemetery.”
The card was sent on behalf of Madame Helène Morrisot. Too much had happened for me to feel anguish at another death. I remember thinking only how wise it was of Helène to use an abbreviation for Chaim in those times; a snooper would assume that a Monsieur Charles Soutine had died. And then I realized it was already Wednesday and past two o’clock.
I ran on this grey, sticky summer day, my shirt flapping at the back. I stopped my run out of decorum when I came upon the gates of the cemetery, walking swiftly instead, my heels thudding on little stones of the path. I passed the tombs of César Franck and de Maupassant and could see a knot of people far in the corner near the tomb of Baudelaire. I caught my breath and hurried to the back of the group, careful not to disturb any of them. The services were over, and the mourners, perhaps fifteen of them, stood silently or milled silently around each other. At first I could recognize only the Spanish painter Picasso, fishgoggle-eyed, slight, smiling, arms folded. Just before leaving, he stepped to the open grave to squeeze a woman’s shoulders in sympathy. Only then did I find Helène.
I waited until last to face her. Only a couple of bored gravediggers hovered near. No other mourner waited for her. I realized that none of the friends of Soutine were friends of hers. The sky turned in kneads of black and blue as if a hot summer storm were coming. I looked down into the grave at an unfinished pinewood coffin like a packing crate. I then looked up into the fearful, glistening light blue and green of her eyes. She had aged, strong lines creasing below her eyes and from her lips. Her golden hair was stringy, sticky, a shade darker. Her mouth opened to show stained teeth. Her brow crinkled in anguish and panic. Yet she still glowed with an uncanny beauty, somehow enhanced in the fear and turmoil of the sky turning behind her. She looked, in fact, like the portrait that I now kept rolled in my valise. It was as if Soutine had painted her in the moment of his death.
At first she did not recognize me. I reminded her that I was the nephew of Dr. Maisler and had met her once for tea and pirogen and stuffed cabbage in the apartment of Sarah the sculptress. She smiled and laughed, a glint of joy appearing in her eyes. “Oh, yes, my young admirer,” she said. “Soutine made fun of me without mercy for two weeks after that night.” Her voice sounded like the chirping of a shivering bird. She wore a high white dickey over a black, threadbare dress that crinkled over petticoats like that other dress on that evening long ago. A crucifix still hung from a silver chain around her neck, but it did not, of course, look out of place in the cemetery the way it had in Sarah’s apartment. I did not know what to say in my embarrassment, but she did not wait for me to say anything. She told me that I must come back with her to the Villa Seurat; she had much to show and tell me. I tried to protest, but she hushed me and insisted.
It only took a half-hour to walk across the gloom of Paris to the Villa Seurat. She said little but pointed out shops that she had once adored but now found lifeless and almost bare. She cursed artists and writers who had made their peace with the Nazis and Vichy and now lived in bountiful homes. She hissed names out like Cocteau and Guitry. “And everyone is cursing me,” she cried out just before she unlocked the door of the building.
She led me into Soutine’s studio. I had only caught a glimpse of swirling reds through an open door on that night in 1940. Now, I could see walls crammed with paintings, mainly landscapes in turmoil. I could feel a group of a half-dozen or so paintings pulling me toward them, as if I were caught in a whip lashing me from one to another. My eyes fixed on a cluster of little houses pushing relentlessly leftward, the anthropomorphic buildings standing on their hind legs, their roofs reaching upward like the beaks of great birds. Years later I read that Modi had once said after a night of drunkenness, “Everything dances around me as in a landscape by Soutine,” and I understood.
The room itself was dusty and grey with a few old, sinking sofas and sturdy chairs, an oak table, a bed covered in a fading, flowered quilt. Except for the paintings, the room was empty of anything valuable, any silver or crystal or gold; there were no candlesticks or vases or bowls or figurines. I could not find any paints or brushes or easels or canvas either. Soutine had obviously not painted here recently. She sat me down on the sofa next to her and explained that they had lived in a village near Chinon in the Loire Valley for two years.
She spoke rapidly, her voice high and trembling, her eyes widening in loveliness. Little bubbles of perspiration emerged on her upper lip, and I shuddered in embarrassment, for, in a moment of fantasy, I felt that I wanted to taste each one. I smelled a faint, stale odor like musk, and it troubled me more than perfume would have. I hoped that she would not notice my foolishness but knew that she did, for she smiled for a lingering moment before beginning her morose tale.
She told me that she had persuaded him to leave Paris for both his health and his safety. Soutine seemed unhappy at first. He cursed the flatness of the landscape and the calm of the trees. He felt humiliated by his yellow star and, unable to pretend that he did not require one in a village so small, hardly left the farm where they lived. But, after six months, he started to paint again, creating wonderful, tumultuous landscapes despite the flatness and calm of the land around him. But they lived in tension. The nearest German post was only six kilometers away. Soutine kept his ear close to the forbidden Voice of America to hear of the sufferings of his Russian people. She had not realized the full horror of his illness before. Excruciating pain knotted inside more often than ever. The terrible war, the tension, the lack of news of his friends in Paris, the failure to sell more than a few paintings now that American buyers could not come to Europe — all this twisted the pain inside even more.
Only a week ago the pain had turned his face into a ghastly, pale grey grimace. He folded his arms against his middle and cried out for peace. She bundled him into their car and drove to the hospital in Chinon. A young doctor with cropped blond hair like a German examined him quickly, too quickly, and ordered immediate surgery. The ulcer was bleeding so profusely that Soutine was weak with anemia. But she did not like the doctor, his glibness, his sneer, the contemptuous way he poked into Soutine. Nor did she like the hospital, antiseptic, empty, glittering. She did not want him operated there but in Paris. Perhaps she did not want him to die there but in Paris. She refused the surgery and hired an ambulance for Paris. On the way, still anguished in pain, he told her that he wanted to see the sea once more before he died. It was a strange and woeful request. Soutine had never loved the sea, never painted the sea, never cared about the sea. But she ordered the ambulance to drive by way of Normandy. They stopped once so that she and the driver could drag him out for a view over a cliff. The black-blue sea hurled its foam upon islands of rock. He did not look for more than a minute before he begged for them to take him back. They had lost many hours for that minute.
When they arrived at the clinic on rue Lyautey in the 16th arrondisement in the early hours of Saturday, an aging surgeon with a grey-streaked beard and pince-nez glasses shook his head at her. But they operated immediately. By 6 a.m. on Monday, he died of a perforated ulcer. Doctors and friends soon demanded to know why she had delayed the operation so long. She lied in the face of their anger. She told them that no one in Chinon would operate. She told them that the ambulance had taken a circuitous route through Normandy to avoid German soldiers on the direct route from the South hunting for Jews. She told them anything to try to placate their anger but failed.
Her eyes shined now in the glint of fever. Her face came close to mine, the sweat streaking, an odor of staleness slipping from her lips. “When the war is over,” she said, “I will sell some of these Soutines on the wall and build a great marble monument over his grave with a wondrous cross from end to end.” She explained rapidly that he had never converted before his death but had spent endless hours on the farm in the village near Chinon asking her questions about Christianity. “I know he would have converted if he only had lived just a few more months,” she said. “What good was being a Jew to him anyway? It only brought him that despicable star.”
She pulled me to her in a sudden fury, tugging at my hands to show me what to do. I groped for the depth of her breasts and the darkness under her petticoats. Despite the heat of August, her skin was cold and hard and blue. I could sense a flush of fear within me, and I remember feeling for a moment like a traitor, a traitor to Soutine and to my Uncle Hona and to my Aunt Khinia, but I clapped the thought out of my mind. I knew she was crazed, but I loved her then in a time when such things did not matter.
She was my first love, and those moments in Paris should have seared my memory like first love seared the memory of Proust. Yet those moments came out of an era that people like myself have long tried to forget. For years, I did not flaunt my meeting with Soutine. I did not prattle about my love for his mistress. I pretended that I kept four Soutines on the walls of my living room only for aesthetic pleasure. I did not identify the woman with frightened eyes. I was not alone in letting memory sleep.
Only in recent years have I tried to remember and conjure images of Uncle Hona and Aunt Khinia. Like others I have felt the need to remember and witness and set it all down as if history could make sense out of obliteration. Yet it is not so easy to remember even when you want to. I remember my first love, of course, and then the images of that night with Soutine come to me in exquisite detail like dollops of joy, and then I can feel the warmth and love of Uncle Hona and Aunt Khinia. I still see Uncle Hona best that night with Soutine. Every image of my uncle that night was stamped upon my mind, waiting for my will to recall. But I can not make out his features after then. I do not really remember him after then.
I did not see Helène again. My chance to escape from France came swiftly, and I did not let it slip away. Guided by a Communist friend, I made my way across the Pyrénées to Franco’s fascist Spain, carrying my four Soutines all the time. But that is another story. After the war, Helène did as she vowed. She sold enough Soutines to pay for a huge slab with a carved cross to cover his grave. In the last few years, I have looked at it on visits to Paris, smiling gently, as if it were no more than the echo of a prank from my youth. The tomb is far less important anyhow than the wonderful statue of Soutine now in Place Gaston-Baty not far from his favorite cafés of Montparnasse. He stands there short, squat, a hat slouched over his eyes, hands deep in the pockets of a long winter coat. The crazed and beautiful Helène committed suicide in 1960, plunging a kitchen knife into her lovely, blue-tinged breasts. At her request, she was buried alongside Soutine beneath the crossed slab.
Stanley Meisler’s own story —
An early Evaluator for the Peace Corps, Stanley Meisler is the author of the biography Kofi Annan: A Man of Peace in a World of War, United Nations: A History and When The World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and its First Fifty Years. Meisler served as a Los Angeles Times foreign and diplomatic correspondent for thirty years, assigned to Nairobi, Mexico City, Madrid, Toronto, Paris, Barcelona, the United Nations and Washington. He still contributes articles to the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Sunday Opinion and Art sections and writes a News Commentary for his website, StanleyMeisler.com.
For many years, Meisler has contributed articles to leading American magazines including Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the Atlantic, The Nation, the Reader’s Digest, the Quarterly Journal of Military History, and the Columbia Journalism Review. While most of these articles focus on foreign affairs and political issues, Meisler has contributed more than thirty articles on artists and art history to the Smithsonian Magazine.