By Marilyn Wright Ford
I arrived on their doorstep so ready to begin the next chapter of my life. It was 1969 and I was 19 and this was my dream come true. To be in Paris. To study — and live with! — working artists for a whole year.
Agnes and Hal Buchanan were an American expatriate couple, well-respected though not well-off abstract painters. My first impression was, they looked exactly like real artists should look. They were imposing figures, both over six feet tall. Agnes had a strong androgynous face reminiscent of Edward Weston’s early photographs of Georgia O’Keefe. She was wearing a caftan and complicated dangly silver earrings. Hal, with his big black-framed glasses, looked like a paint-spattered precursor of Elvis Costello . They had two young children, aged five and seven, named after their favorite artists, ‘Picasso’ and ‘Cezanne’.
On the outside 36 Rue des Coeurs looked like any of the other slightly rundown brick-and-stucco houses in their working-class arrondissement. On the inside it looked like a stage set for an updated version of La Boheme. The rough wood floors of the main room were covered with rugs the Buchanans had brought back from Tunisia. There were a couple of patched beanbag chairs. On the cracked uneven walls hung their own large colorful abstract paintings. The sound of jazz and the faint smell of turpentine wafted down from their painting studio upstairs.
When they showed me the sparsely furnished room I’d be renting, I could immediately see myself working in there every day, at the easel, flanked by a tall typically French window and an armoire whose door was missing.
Aside from studying painting with them, I intently (and surreptitiously) studied them. Like many of my generation in the ‘60’s I was rebelling against my conventional upbringing and eager to jump its white picket parameters. Agnes and Hal’s artistic iconoclastic life seemed a template I might follow instead.
The Buchanans were poor, but they wore their poverty like a badge of honor. “Real, committed artists live wholly by the art they create.” This seemed like a heroic credo to me. I admired their intrepid struggle to make ends meet. In my house money never needed to be talked about. It was the invisible provider, on tap to “take care of” everything from the mortgage to the gardener and yes, to my stay in Paris.
What the Buchanans lacked in money, they made up for in financial ingenuity. They were veteran barterers. One of Agnes’ paintings adorned the wall in the neighborhood recreation center, payment for their kids’ summer day camp. Several of Hal’s paintings hung in the local dentist’s office, a trade for the family’s dental care.
Their most intriguing source of income was what I came to think as the Buchanan Art Sting. Here’s how it worked. Agnes and Hal would take me with them to The Louvre or the Jeu de Paume museum. Once there, they made a quick visual sweep of several galleries. They were looking. not for a particular painting, but for a particular kind of well-heeled American or English couple gazing dutifully at a painting, an open guidebook in hand.
Agnes and Hal would station the three of us in front of a painting near the unsuspecting couple. Pretending to be unaware of them, Agnes and Hal would begin — in loud stage voices — to instruct me with knowledgeable patter about the painting we were looking at. If all went according to plan, the couple would tentatively approach us and say something like, “We couldn’t help overhearing….” And the Buchanans would happily invite them to join us. Before you could say “Toulouse Lautrec” Agnes and Hal were giving them a private tour of the museum, always sure to weave in references to their own art and the Parisian gallery that represented them. Finally, Agnes and Hal would go in for the close. They would oh-so-casually ask the couple if they wanted to come over to their house to see their work. Most of the time, the couple couldn’t believe their luck in making this serendipitous connection with real artists.
Once at the house, Agnes would serve the couple plenty of wine in delicate goblets. She poured it from an antique art nouveau carafe, which masked the fact that it was cheap vin ordinaire. For the next few hours she and Hal would woo and wow the couple with insiders’ tales of the current Parisian art scene and tidbits of historic gossip about Pablo Picasso. They would divulge secrets of the “artist’s process” in creating their paintings. They would flatter their guests for recognizing really good art (specifically Agnes’ and Hal’s paintings which, for the evening’s purpose, covered every wall of their studio). Agnes once bragged to me, “No one has ever left our house without investing in at least one of our paintings.” (Note: the guests were never buying, always investing.)
I was so naive – and Agnes and Hal so smooth — that the first time I saw them in action, I had no idea it was all staged. When they told me, I was shocked (and hoped it didn’t show). To myself I thought, wasn’t this sort of underhanded, a little predatory? Weren’t they treating these hapless tourists as marks? Then I did some mental recalculation. Weren’t Agnes and Halt just exercising creative resourcefulness, a necessity when they barely scraped together a living by their art? And ultimately wasn’t it a fair trade? The Buchanans got paid some serious francs. And the guests got a big impressive painting and maybe even more gratifying for them, great tales to tell their friends when they returned home.
Agnes and Hal sometimes let me tag along with them to parties, which were well stocked with their fellow artists, poets, and musicians. I couldn’t have been more thrilled at these gatherings than I would have been at one of Gertrude Stein’s famous Parisian salons where the guests were Picasso, Matisse, and Hemingway.
I’ll admit that sometimes, I felt out of my depth.. At one of these parties, Agnes brought a blank canvas and her oil paints. After she had set up the canvas, some friends starting improvising jazz on the piano and the bass. Agnes proceeded to move her body in sync with the music as she let her paintbrush fling, swoop and spatter across the canvas. I knew I should think she was being cool and very Isadora Duncan. Was it closed-minded of me to think she looked silly? Then there was the resultant painting, which I thought a three-year old could have done. A moment later I was horrified by my own reaction. That was exactly the kind of thing I’d heard ignorant adults say about Jackson Pollock paintings! I scolded myself for my bourgeois thinking.
“Bourgeois”! “Middle class”! These were the most scalding words the Buchanans could ascribe to anyone or anything. (They claimed to be part of the superior Artist Class.) And, boy, was I ever eager to prove that I’d recanted all the bourgeois attitudes I’d grown up with.
Food was one area in which I longed to be re-educated. I had grown up on minute steaks, frozen vegetables and tater-tots, the usual fare for much of white America back then. One day I was in the kitchen as Agnes was making a Moroccan stew. She was mincing a clove of garlic and I mentioned that before moving to their house I had seen garlic only in powdered form. With a gleam in her eye, she placed a clove of garlic on the counter in front of me. “Do you want to try real garlic, Marilyn?” I sensed that this was a test. Of course I said yes and dropped the pale benign-looking little clove into my mouth and bit down. Tears instantly spilled from my eyes. My mouth and nose were engulfed in a soaring, piercing conflagration. I managed to squeak, “Wow! Strong!”
She tempted me with other culinary challenges too. There was the boudin (blood sausage), the incendiary Tunisian peppers, and, hardest to stomach, the sheep’s brain. During a dinner of African peanut stew, Agnes said, ”This is not exactly the white-bread cooking of your mother, is it, Marilyn?”
“It sure isn’t,” I laughed. But as I laughed I felt insulted and protective on my mom’s behalf. How dare Agnes insult my “white-bread” mom? It wasn’t her fault that she hadn’t raised me on Moroccan tagines and Provencal ragouts (nor, thank God, on sheep’s brain.) I felt bad about joining Agnes in her little dig. Silently I said, “Sorry, Mom.”
Living with the Buchanans I couldn’t help but witness some of the intimate workings of their marriage. It fascinated me. It was so different from the quiet, tense, never-a-raised-voice marriage of my parents. From my 19-year old perspective, my parents’ marriage was like a small stagnant pond. The Buchanan’s marriage was like a vast ocean roiling with white-capped waves, dramatic and unpredictable.
One morning, early in my residence there, before I went downstairs for breakfast, I heard a commotion in the kitchen. Agnes and Hal were exchanging volleys of angry words. Then came a heavy crash accompanied by the tinkle of shattering glass. This was followed by a brief silence. Finally, laughter. When I figured it was safe to venture down, I was horrified to see the kitchen table overturned on the floor, all its contents in a broken chaotic mess around it. I couldn’t believe that Agnes and Hal were actually smiling at each other. “This was Hal’s doing,” Agnes said, looking indulgently at him.
He responded with a smile and a shrug, “What can I say?”
I smiled along with them but I was completely confused. I had no idea a relationship could work like this. It was a revelation that fighting didn‘t necessarily destroy a marriage! In fact, like a thunderstorm, it might clear the air and brighten the entire environment. I decided this was the kind of romantic relationship I wanted from now on. I’d usually gone with sweet, even-keeled boys. Well, no more Mr. Nice Guys for me! Two months after moving in with the Buchanans I broke up with my tres gentil French boyfriend. Not long after that, I took up with Agnes and Hal’s handsome draft-dodging studio assistant Sam, who lived in the attic above my room. (Actually, Sam was a nice guy, too, but his draft evasion status gave him a rebel’s aura in my eyes.)
Agnes was unnervingly enthusiastic about Sam and me becoming a couple (which we had unsuccessfully tried to keep secret). One evening at dinner, shortly after Sam and I had gotten together, Agnes, with a sly smile, asked her children, “Did you know that Sam and Marilyn have been having sexual intercourse?” I was shocked and speechless.
Five-year-old Picasso sounded like a precocious little scholar as he recited, “That means Sam puts his penis in Marilyn’s vagina.” He looked at his parents to make sure he’d gotten it correctly. Hal smirked and Agnes said proudly, “That’s right, Picasso.”
I grew accustomed to, but never really comfortable with, the frank sex-ed talk in their household. I wasn’t sure it was such a great idea to have their five-year-old son entertain the grown-ups, not by singing an age-appropriate song like “Old MacDonald,” but with an impression of a sperm swimming up a vaginal canal. (He did this by running in circles and wheeling his arms like a windmill.)
Under Agnes’ tutelage my painting technique and my sense of composition improved. Sometimes, however, when she said, ”You are making progress”, she made it sound as if she didn’t expect any progress from me and didn’t care whether I progressed or not. At those times, it struck me that she might see me the same way she saw the couples in the museum: mainly as a source of income.
One day I was about to go to the Wednesday open-air market and couldn’t find my string shopping bag. I went into the kitchen where Agnes was sitting at the table drinking coffee and reading Freud. I saw my white string bag on the table and said, “Oh, I guess I left my bag here.”
Agnes stood up, towering over me, and articulated sternly, “That is my bag.”
“But Agnes, I know it’s mine because it’s white and, look, there’s this beet stain on the side. Anyway, I thought your bag was green.” (I knew hers was green.)
She said, “That’s a stain from some red wine I spilled. And…the bag…is…mine.”
Horrified, I mumbled “Oh. Oh, okay,” and fled the kitchen.
My heart was still pounding when I sat down on my bed. What just happened? Why did she lie? Why did she say the bag was hers? It was just a stupid, cheap string bag. And she spoke with such venom about her claim to it. And then it came to me. The venom wasn’t really about the bag. It was directed at me. ”Jesus! Agnes really doesn’t like me! Maybe she even hates me. But why?”
Agnes’s string-bag meltdown seemed to unleash a pent-up dislike for me that she didn’t bother to hide anymore. “So Marilyn,” she would needle me, “do you really think you have what it takes to continue painting once you leave here?” Sometimes she barged into my room uninvited and went on a rant about my privileged upbringing. Hal, always pretending to be oblivious, stayed busy on his side of the studio, painting.
Finally Sam and I decided to leave the Buchanan’s house for good. Very early one morning, we shouldered our backpacks and stole silently out of 36 rue des Coeurs before anyone awoke. We hurried down the still-dark street to the Metro. I was feeling jittery and exhilarated. We took the Metro to Boulevard Saint Michel. Once we emerged from the station I stood on the sidewalk for a moment, just breathing in the warming fragrance of roasting chestnuts, the oily fumes of diesel-fueled buses, and the intoxicating haze of Gauloise cigarettes.
How did I feel at that moment? I felt free.
Marilyn Ford lives and writes in Berkeley CA, where she ran a food blog for several years. Her essays have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The East Bay Express, and Cooking Light.
Copyright 2016, Marilyn Wright Ford. All rights reserved.