Tuesday, December 30, 2014
Fame, Part I
My maternal grandfather, Henry Février, was brushed by greatness. So was my mother, Marie-Thérèse, and, I suppose, so was I
My friend Raoul, a playwright, also had his close encounter. His plays were produced throughout the United States and there was no reason not to think he wouldn’t become a Miller or an Albee. Jimbo, a guitarist friend, was among the founding members of a pretty well-known band that moved on without him, though he’s still called upon when the group does nostalgia tours. Karen, a Baltimore girl with a wondrous voice was flown to Europe to sing and open for a major act, and James, a prolific yet unknown writer, has had his work mentioned in passing in the New York Times and the New Yorker. None of them became really successful at their chosen trade. If I were to really think about it, I’m sure I could come up with a dozen more names of people–most of them artists of one ilk or another–who came very close to fame, and then saw it elude them.
Grandfather Henry wrote operas when such things were the equivalent of heavy-duty rock ‘n’ roll shows. In 1910 he composed Monna Vanna with the then-renowned Maurice Maeterlinck who a year later would win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Henry’s Monna Vanna was pretty well panned in Paris, but he accompanied the opera’s cast on a tour of the US Midwest where he garnered praise and good press. He returned to France and, although a prolific and talented composer, he was for all good purposes never heard from again.
My mother, Marie Thérèse, grew up in an environment that bled music from every pore. Ravel was a frequent houseguest. Her brother, my Oncle Jacques, much favored over his sister by Grandfather Henry, would in time become a celebrated concert pianist whose interpretations of Ravel and Poulenc are to this day considered sans pareille. Mom, a troublesome child from the get-go, started hanging out with the artists of Montparnasse when she was 16 and in no time at all found herself pregnant. The father was a Jewish physician and film-maker from North Africa. They got married, much to the displeasure of Henry and company.
In time my mother contributed to the creation of Babar, and later published a well-received children’s book that was compared to St. Exupery’s Little Prince. But fame did not come quickly enough for her. She went back to her first love, painting, and did both oils and watercolors of beautiful scenes from the Belle Époque, weddings, wooings, picnics, and strolls through the park, Parisian neighborhoods, proud men in boaters posing before large automobiles, and a stunning little oil-on-cardboard Bastille Day that remains one of my happiest possessions. Her style was called naïf by the critics. She was featured in Paris-Match and had several shows in Paris and later in Washington. Her paintings sold quite well, but not well enough to please her.
When we came to the United States, her works were displayed in some local galleries, and she undertook a massive project: a single, 12-foot-long oil showing each and every First Lady from Martha Washington to Jacquie Kennedy. My father built the frame and stretched the canvas himself. The painting dominated our living room–the only space in our home long to house it–and it took her two years to finish. A reporter wrote a story about it for the Washington Post, and somewhere I still have a faded clipping showing my mother wielding a camel hair brush and looking properly bohemian.
The painting never sold so she sought to donate it to the Smithsonian, thinking, perhaps, that it might hang in the same room where the First Ladies’ inaugural dresses were displayed. The Smithsonian turned down her gift.
Though she never said so, I think this was the ultimate rebuff. She seldom painted after this, limiting herself to small pen and ink sketches of friends, and pelicans when she was in Florida.
I’m not sure if she was bitter about her brushes with fame, or if she simply accepted them. She was a fatalistic woman seldom surprised when things went wrong. I think she passed that trait on to me.
I’ve had my minor brushes with fame as well, though mine, compared with Grand Père Henry and my mother, were truly ephemeral. I’ll write about those next time.