MY ALMOST LIFE WITH PICASSO
Despite the common wisdom that Picasso never traveled to the USA, he did, in fact, visit Cincinnati a few years before his death.
Why Cincinnati? It wasn’t known as a particular hotbed of modern art, despite its Contemporary Arts Center and quaint Mt. Adams neighborhood. Had Pablo a yen for the Skyline Chili? Or the Graeters’ ice cream, with its barge-sized chunks of embedded chocolate sold exclusively in select (and temperature-controlled) stores by shower-capped sales ladies? Was Picasso perhaps a Reds or Bengals fan? Who knows?
But there he was. Sturdy, bald, shiny, and wild eyed, seated with several sarong-wearing female smokers of a certain age, all eagerly fawning over him (to his immense delight) at the sanitized Chinese restaurant near Kenwood mall. (Kenwood is a Cincinnati suburb. Malls were shopping centers with retail stores; shoppers could try on, select and purchase items, throw them in the trunk of their car and drive home, sated.)
I was visiting my family over the summer before returning to college. Since it was too hot and humid to cook at home, we all headed to China Moon where my father always thought he was charming the restaurant help by saying “Ah So” every couple of minutes.
The eternally pleasant staff scurried successfully to find a gin he and my mom could tolerate in their mandatory martinis. My older, taller, suburban-hippie-haired brothers were also visiting from their respective coasts. (After we’d all left home for college, our parents moved from New York to the Midwest for Dad’s promotion). My brothers drank Tsing Tao beers I desperately wanted, but being underage I was stuck with ginger ale. Despite the repeated “Ah So’s,” the restaurant crew acted as if they were always glad to see our clan. We ate a lot, tipped big, and they seemed to find us sort of funny, as in odd.
I knew Picasso was bold about women but, frankly, I was impressed that he, or any guy for that matter, would come over to flirt with me in front of my parents and my huge, rather scary brothers. I mean, brothers who were close to seven feet tall and had basketball scholarships. One was sweet-faced but trust me, you wouldn’t want to upset him. Later in life, the other resembled a cross between a celebrated cartoonist and the Unabomber, a look that was fairly prevalent at that time.
I had walked all over Italy with my brothers on a family vacation a year earlier, and no one so much as pinched or winked at me. This had an unfortunate effect on my confidence as a viable female. But Picasso’s coming over to tell me in broken English that I had the straightest nose he’d ever seen was a boost.
Picasso brought with him a small bowl of peanuts. We already had our own bowl of peanuts but still, I thought it was a nice gesture. He had a few nuts in his palm and tossed them into his mouth. Let’s face it, he was an old guy by then, a short hairless guy. But you had to give him credit. He had a certain juice about him. You could tell he was ballsy, used to getting his way, but then that described most guys in the 1970s.
My mother, sensing the occasion needed some of her social finesse, encouraged Picasso to try the Moo Goo Gai Pan. Mom didn’t have a lot of opportunities to dine with her now scattered across the country “children” and she wasn’t going to willingly let an interruption from a great artist spoil her family dinner. My brothers and I really didn’t understand her enthusiasm for spending time with us since, to be blunt, we weren’t all that interesting.
Picasso was wearing a striped fisherman’s shirt. I suspect if he’d been younger, taller, and in a suit, or he’d been a medical student like the bland, blond guy Mom met at the golf club and was always trying to fix up with me, she would have been more welcoming to him. She knew he was a successful artist (she volunteered at the museum, after all) but “back off, Bud” was the definite vibe she was sending.
My brothers seemed amused by it all and appreciated the extra peanuts. They both liked art and perhaps felt a bond with Picasso since he, too, for whatever reason, had been obligated to schlep all the way to Cincinnati. While our parents were very happy with their move and told us we’d now have the opportunity to expand our snobby coast existences and gain a perspective on the middle part of the country, we whined that it also meant expanded travel (expense, time, effort) for us to attend command family appearances.
Our dazzling parents stood out even more in Ohio than they had back east. But, you could argue, Picasso’s dazzle exceeded even theirs.
Picasso pulled up a chair and squeezed in next to me. Sitting with his knees far apart, he smiled politely at everyone at our family table, turning his lobe-like dark eyes regularly on me, as if I were an insect under a microscope. I thought he might pull out a surveyor’s tool to see if I measured up.
I knew I didn’t. I knew I couldn’t deliver the signature exotic air of mystery, the angular and art-generating beauty his long list of maltreated lovers possessed. I was from Westchester County, for heaven’s sake.
Yes, my eyes were blue, my nose was very straight but also way too long in my opinion. My skin was both freckled and as pale as pre-stirred Dannon yogurt. My pronounced jaw jutted. I had a slight fang and Cro-Magnon eyebrows. The faces of Picasso’s women contained multitudes. My face contained tuna fish.
Maybe Pablo had jet lag? Maybe in the dim flattering light of China Moon he had missed these flaws? Or, maybe feature-wise, I was already Cubist. Maybe he could simply plug my features into some clay and presto! He’d be done for the day and could go take a nap.
At some point, my father tired of humming along to The Carpenter’s “Close to You” on Musak while he patiently waited for the visitor to depart. He’d had enough of this underdressed foreign guy disrupting their dinner and inappropriately gazing at his only daughter. Dad’s sweet “Ah So” voice disappeared, replaced by the deeper, more serious tone he used when he meant business.
“Thanks for stopping by,” Dad said as he stood up. I thought my brothers would take Dad’s cue and do the same. Instead, my seated mom smiled and said “It was so nice to meet you. Enjoy your visit!”
Picasso seemed momentarily confused to be collectively spurned by all these tall Americans at a Chinese restaurant in a place he had been told was called the Queen City. But he was not intimidated. He was not afraid. He stood and gallantly (I thought) locked his eyes on mine, lifted my delicate hand, a hand I knew he could crush in a heartbeat if he wanted to, and brushed his rough lips across it. He bowed and strutted over to his table of smokers and never looked back.
“Well, that was fun. Let’s eat,” said Dad. We dug in, using silverware, of course, not chopsticks.
It was for the best. My Spanish wasn’t that good. I would have missed any nuance in the insults Picasso would have inevitably and eventually hurled at me when he grew tired of my straight nose and moved on to the next dame, leaving me with illegitimate children who’d contest his estate.
A few years later, both Picasso and my dad were gone. A day or so after Dad’s funeral, after all the out-of-town relatives had been driven to the Cincinnati airport (which confused them since it’s actually located in Kentucky), and it was again too hot and humid to cook, my exhausted mom and brothers and I returned to China Moon. The hostess warmly greeted us and asked, “Where is Papa San?” We quietly explained why he wasn’t with us. The hostess gasped “Oh, Papa San!” and started to cry. Before we knew it, the waiters and the chef all surrounded our table with expressions of sympathy. We were touched and surprised. Maybe Dad’s “Ah So’s” had not offended but actually charmed them? It’s possible, I suppose.
* * *
Recently, I recalled the Picasso event with my oldest and ailing brother. He was contemplative for a while and then asked, “Are you confusing Picasso with Telly Savalas?”
Let me explain. While traveling on business for my first job out of college, I stayed in the same Boston hotel as Mr. Savalas. He was then a TV star as Kojak. His catchphrase was “Who Loves Ya, Baby?” He too was bald, but better dressed and taller than Picasso.
Telly and I got to chatting in the lobby. I admired his classic camel hair coat and he offered to give it to me. When I laughed and declined, since among other things it obviously was too large for me, he kissed my hand and said, “True. But it’s as close to you as I’m ever gonna get, isn’t it?” This, too, was true.
While Picasso had his sarong supporters, Telly had a brother with a full head of curly, possibly dyed, dark brown hair, who was glued to his side and filled his every request. The brother bore a striking resemblance to a long-ago comic Marty Allen but didn’t seem to possess any humorous qualities; he had the weary look of a constant handler and soother of a celebrated sibling. I imagine some of Picasso’s women may have chronically worn a similar expression.
At the time of the Telly episode, I was reading Lillian Hellman’s book Pentimento. I realized only recently that in the decades since then, I had misunderstood the meaning of the title. I’d clung to the mistaken notion that it referred to the passage of time layering paint over paint over an image until it was no longer recognizable; you could no longer tell what the truth or the original was. I smugly supported this view all these years, believing that memory became fuzzier, like a pre-cataract state, leaving you with glimpses, or a recall of the recalling of events, not the true details of the actual occurrences.
But I recently discovered that in Hellman’s view, the pentimento process referred to the idea that “old paint on a canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent” so you see what was originally intended.
I don’t see how I could be confusing Pablo and Telly. And I don’t think I am. I guess it is strange in this era to have had two encounters in one lifetime that involved successful bald men and hand kissing.
I’m also not sure about things becoming more transparent.
I keep waiting to see what was really there.
In the meantime, I am sure that no one, not even a diplomat, a royal, or Godfather lackey, would ever want to kiss this now veiny, gnarled hand of mine.
I’ve also learned that pentimento in Italian means repentance. As far as Telly and Picasso are concerned, I repent nothing. I was a Girl Scout all the way. Nothing happened. Almost.