Mistress of the master
In that peculiarly French tradition, their love was a decade-long battle of wits and wills, more mortal combat than romance. When she met him, Gilot wrote, “I knew that here was something larger than life, something to match myself against. I had the feeling that even though the struggle between us was so disproportionate that I ran the risk of resounding failure, it was a challenge I could not turn down.”
Picasso, Gilot explained, “tired of most women because they let him win the battle . . . He always thought of the other person in a love relationship as an adversary at the same time. I had no intention of losing. You were only loved if you were winning.”
Gilot had two children, Claude and Paloma, with Picasso. Two years after she left Picasso, she married a young artist, Luc Simon, whose family had made cathedral stained glass windows since the 13th century. She had a daughter, Aurélia, before divorcing Simon. In 1970, she married Salk, and stayed with him until his death in 1995.
As we talk in Gilot’s sitting room, with its Persian carpet, inlaid Syrian table and an enormous vase of lilies, the lyrics of that old Cat Stevens song, “I’m looking for a hard-headed woman”, comes to mind. Gilot is “fed up with” the “three-quarters of women who bug us all the time with their subjectivity”. She prides herself on keeping a distance. “It doesn’t prevent me having passions, but I don’t live them in a subjective way,” she says.
“Feeling and being chamboulée [overwhelmed by emotion] are completely different,” Gilot says. So she’s never been overwhelmed? “Apparently not,” she replies offhandedly. Now I understand why Picasso told her she was monstrous each time they argued, I tell her. “Picasso said something I never repeated but which is amusing,” she continues. “He said I ran through the chamber of love. Isn’t that pretty? I’m hard to catch. I don’t know why there aren’t more women like me. Because in reality men like it when we elude them. I’m the perfect example of the woman who escapes.”
Picasso’s first wife, the ballerina Olga Khokhlova, followed Picasso, Gilot and their infant son Claude to the Côte d’Azur. “While I was finding my keys and unlocking the door, all the while holding Claude in my arms, Olga would come up behind me and start to pinch, scratch and pull, and finally squeeze into the house before me, saying, ‘This is my house. My husband lives here’, and pushing at me so that I couldn’t even go in,” Gilot wrote.
When Gilot had qualms about taking the place of Maar, Picasso’s previous mistress, he told her: “Life must go on, and life is us.” He recounted with amusement how Maar and a concurrent mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter, the mother of Picasso’s daughter Maya, once wrestled angrily on his studio floor while he painted.
Gilot says she tried not to succumb to jealousy for Picasso’s other women “because Picasso often played on that. One woman was jealous of another, while he did whatever he wanted.” Walter hanged herself in 1977. Jacqueline Roque, Picasso’s last wife, shot herself in 1986. “They both did it after he died,” Gilot says. “But it meant they only existed through him. I didn’t go mad or take my own life or anything at all. I don’t need someone to exist.” Picasso often said that women were either goddesses or doormats. “I have no talent for being a door mat. I’m better at being a goddess,”Gilot laughs.
Gilot’s marriage to Salk was “totally different,” she says. “With Picasso, it was a passion on both sides. It was a mortal passion. It could have killed me.”
Salk was so generous that he refused to patent his polio vaccine because be believed it should belong to everyone. Gilot thought scientists were boring until he ordered pistachio and tangerine ice cream when they met for tea.
“My life with Jonas Salk was a great friendship based on shared intelligence and understanding, on an art of living, sometimes together, sometimes apart,” she says. “It made it possible for us to stay together for 25 years. We didn’t step on each other’s toes. A lot of people don’t know how to do that.”