Mistress of the master
He was 61, she was 21 and their love affair was a decade-long battle of wits and wills. LARA MARLOWEmeets artist Francoise Gilot, the former muse and mistress of Pablo Picasso
Olga and Dora lost their senses. Marie-Thérèse and Jacqueline took their own lives. Francoise Gilot was the only one of Pablo Picasso’s long-term wives, mistresses and muses to survive and lead a long and happy life.
When I meet Gilot in a hundred-year-old building of artist studio apartments off Central Park West, six days after her 91st birthday, she recounts the tale of Bluebeard, the 15th century French nobleman who murdered his first six wives and buried them in the dungeon of his château. “I was the seventh wife of Bluebeard,” she laughs, referring to the bride who escaped by ruse.
“Since I knew in advance that bad things happened to the others, why would I put myself in that position? It was as if I had accepted an impossible wager.”
One night in May 1943, Gilot was dining with friends in Le Catalan restaurant on the Left Bank. Picasso brought a bowl of cherries to their table. “I was 21, he was 61,” Gilot recalls. “He had such power that one didn’t notice his age at all. He was a man of intense physical energy.” Gilot began sporadic visits to Picasso’s studio, to see his paintings.
“I had said I would come to see him and I knew what that would lead to,” she wrote in Life With Picasso. First published in 1964, the book has sold more than a million copies in 12 languages. “I was willing to accept the consequences but I didn’t really want to. Whatever I might have done I would have done to please him, but not wholeheartedly.”
On one visit, Picasso cupped his hands over Gilot’s breasts “as if they were two peaches whose form and colour had attracted him”. The first time he kissed her, Gilot’s passivity unnerved Picasso, as she calculated it would. “How do you expect me to seduce anyone under circumstances like that?” he said. “If you’re not going to resist – well then it’s out of the question. I’ll have to think it over.”
The young woman from a good family in Neuilly held the most famous artist of the 20th century at bay for months. “I met him in May 1943 and the flirtation went on for nine or 10 months,” she recalls. “So our sexual affair didn’t start until 1944.
“I wasn’t trying to make him wait; I didn’t desire him. I was more intelligent than most of the women he met. I think he wasn’t used to that kind of challenge.”
Picasso took Gilot to the haunts of his youth in Montmartre. He introduced her to the most celebrated writers and artists, including Aragon, Braque, Cocteau, Éluard, Gide, Malraux, Matisse, Prévert and Sartre. They called on Gertrude Stein in the rue Christine. “Pablo, who was proud of my sharp mind, was very pleased to take me to see her,” Gilot says. “But Alice B Toklas hated me the moment she saw me.” Because she was young and beautiful? “Because I was intelligent,” Gilot says proudly. “Being young and beautiful was the least of my concerns.” But she was aware of the power she exerted over men? “Obviously,” Gilot replies. “Could a woman who was not beautiful have the life I’ve had? No; it goes without saying. But that was only part of it. It comes from within . . . It’s my facon d’être, my way of being . . . I never show more than one self at a time . . . I succeeded in keeping my mystery.”
Years later, after she had married Jonas Salk, the American scientist who invented the polio vaccine, Gilot was amused to overhear two women talking about her at a reception. “One of them said, ‘Look at her! What does she have that we don’t? There’s nothing special about her’,” Gilot laughs heartily.
Gilot calls Picasso “the greatest passion of my life” and describes him as “one of the most intelligent, amusing, interesting men I ever met.” Yet the artist she revealed in her book was also moody, capricious, superstitious, demanding, unfaithful, self-pitying and sometimes violent.