Six Exceptional Women

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

As a young army officer, James Lord was stationed in France for the last few months of World War II. During this period he formed ties with well-known artists and writers that led to his eventual residence in Paris and to the books on the distinguished French sculptor Alberto Giacometti that made his reputation as a writer. These ties also led to his friendships with five of the six women whose stories he recounts in this volume.

These women appear at first glance to have little in common. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas have taken on almost mythic qualities as part of the much-chronicled group of American expatriates in Paris in the 1930’s. The French actress Arletty won great popularity in such films as Les Enfants du paradis (1945; Children of Paradise) but tarnished her reputation by engaging in an affair with a Nazi officer during the German occupation of France. Marie-Laure de Noailles, the fabulously wealthy wife of a French aristocrat, fascinated and scandalized her world during the middle decades of the twentieth century with her flouting of social conventions. Errieta Perdikidi, daughter of a prosperous Greek merchant, shocked family and friends by marrying an uneducated young carpenter and settling with him on the isolated island of Skyros. Louise Bennett Lord, the author’s mother, a suburban American, is seen as remarkable chiefly for her unwavering belief in her son’s potential as a writer.

What links this unlikely group is the willingness of each one to follow her own nature and her own desires, however unwise or unpopular these desires might seem to others. In the five sections of the book (Stein and Toklas are, appropriately, treated together), Lord combines astute character analysis and revealing anecdotes to illustrate the striking individualism of each woman.

Stein, to whom Pablo Picasso introduced the author, was in Lord’s view arrogant and uncongenial; at their last meeting he accused her of being “a stupid old woman.” Nevertheless, he makes clear his grudging admiration for her indomitable spirit and expresses his appreciation that she read and commented on a play of his “with a thoughtful seriousness not in the least condescending.”

He treats Toklas with considerably more sympathy, at least partly because he knew her much better. He describes her valiant efforts, after Stein’s death in 1946, to carry out her friend’s wish that she oversee the publication of Stein’s unpublished manuscripts. Unfortunately, Stein failed to leave Toklas adequate funds to do this. Consequently, in her later years Toklas entertained visitors such as Lord in a shabby apartment, denuded of the great paintings that had once surrounded her. She completed her commissions, however, and remained, even in her eighties, “a conversationalist. She delighted in telling stories, too, recounting in great detail picturesque anecdotes and vivid reminiscences of people and places.”

Like Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, Arletty intrigued those she encountered throughout her long life. When Lord met her in 1947, she was a charming woman nearing fifty. In the prewar years she had moved from an impoverished childhood to fame with memorable roles in popular films and affairs with wealthy men. Her politically disastrous liaison with a German colonel, however, turned public opinion against her. In late 1944, she was put under house arrest. When she was freed after the war, her career was essentially over, but she remained a personality in the eyes of the public, and she never hesitated to charm her friends, including James Lord, into meeting her needs.

Lord remained in touch with Arletty until her death at ninety-four, noting that to the end she retained her individuality. “The verve of her conversation, the music of her laughter, the brilliance of her personality remained changeless. Or almost so. Sometimes the effort required for her to be herself, the self she had always been, became visible, but it was only the more moving and noble for being perceptible.”

Marie-Laure de Noailles, described in a chapter almost twice the length of the first two, is an even more distinctive figure. Lord begins his account with her deathbed outburst, “I don’t want to die,” a revealing plea from one who lived her life both extravagantly and intensely. As an infant she inherited the enormous wealth of her Jewish father, who died at only twenty-eight. She was married suitably to the Viscount Charles de Noailles and soon became the mother of two daughters and mistress of several estates. She and Charles joined a rather bohemian social set and evoked considerable criticism when they sponsored the showing of a film by Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel that was widely regarded as blasphemous.

While Marie-Laure early embarked upon a convention-defying way of life, Lord suggests that her more scandalous patterns of behavior were precipitated by her discovery of her husband in bed with a male gymnastics instructor. From then on she entertained a train of lovers, some homosexual, some...

(The entire section is 2079 words.)