His Brother's Brother
After he got to be famous, he was continually being invited out to meals and parties with society people, distinguished people, movie stars. He took it all in the same matter-of-fact Swiss way. "This lunch Brigitte Bardot on my right side, next lunch Catherine Deneuve on my left....Givenchy wants me to go on his yacht with him in the Greek islands. Of course I won't go. What in God's name can you do on a yacht?"
(M. Givenchy was haughtily indignant when I included this quotation in a piece I wrote for the International Tribune, January 10, 1974, the first appearance of Diego in print.)
Sometimes they put him on a committee to award a prize to the most distinguished film of the year. Sometimes he went to the private showings of the candidate films before he voted, sometimes he did not bother to. But he never missed an episode of his favorite television program, which was Columbo.
He always felt a complete rapport with the quiet inconspicuous indefatigable softspoken keeneyed lieutenant in the Los Angeles police force.
Perhaps it was the old rumpled raincoat they both always wore. Diego's had almost gotten him in front of a firing squad when two policemen jumped on him in the Boulevard Saint Germain a few days before the Germans entered Paris in June 1940 and asked why he wasn't in uniform like every patriotic Frenchman of his age, and they poked their fingers through the cigarette burns here and there on the coat which they said must be bullet holes, proving that he was one of the spies and saboteurs the Germans were treacherously dropping all over France. It took him an anxious hour to convince them that he was a harmless civilian from neutral Switzerland.
Perhaps it was simply the unobtrusive competence of the cop, slipping noiselessly out of the wings, noticing everything while talking about trivialities, neatly and single-mindedly getting the job done all by himself. Columbo may talk vaguely of a wife back home, he may trade jokes with suspects, he can make pleasant small talk over a drink, but all he really cares about, all he lives for, is putting things together to make them fit, that is his job.
Diego's job was to be the brother of his brother, Alberto Giacometti, the sculptor, the last of the great sculptors of European art.
Never were two brothers more inseparable, and less alike.
They were born two years apart just after the turn of the 20th century, in the little town of Stampa, in the Bregaglia Valley in the Italian-speaking half of the Canton of Grisons in the southeast corner of Switzerland. It is a valley which runs due east-west between sheer ranges of Alps, and during most of the year it gets no direct sunlight at any hour of the day. Once it had been busy and bustling, a key strategic corridor between Germany and Italy, through which merchants and pilgrims and soldiers of invading armies (like those which Philip II sent to conquer England with the help of the Glorious Armada in 1588) were always passing. But by the twentieth century it was a forgotten rural backwater, living off its meager crops and its herds of hardy goats, completely cut off by snow from the rest of the world for a good part of every year. Life was cramped, conventional, impervious to change. It was, said Diego, the Middle Ages.
Not that the Giacomettis were rude mountaineers. Giovanni the father, though born on a farm, had studied in Munich and Paris and Pont-Aven, had gone on to become a distinguished impressionist painter, a leading artist of Switzerland, who had gone home to Stampa to paint and raise his family in comfort, surrounded by mountain landscapes and books and works of art.
Alberto from early childhood took naturally to the darkness of the Bregaglia. His favorite form of recreation was to sit in a cave up the slope from the family home, sit for hours to brood and to fret and to dream. When he came out he would read books and make sketches. Everyone took it for granted that he was going to become an artist, an important artist, like his father.
Diego was a solitary too, but a gregarious one. He was a self-reliant mountain boy, who could fit in anywhere, make friends with anyone, retaining his inviolable Diegohood whether he was climbing all over the slopes, skiing, caddying at the Maloja golf course, chatting with the marmots and the frolicking otters, helping goatherds smuggle cigarettes and currency across the border during the war years of 1914-18 when the serene Swiss sky was shaken for hours, days, for weeks at a time, by the thunder of the Italian and the Austrian artillery just over the mountains..
Alberto started his artistic career by making a plaster bust of his brother at the age of 13. By his early twenties he was established in Paris, a hard-working young sculptor who expected great things and of whom great things were expected.
Diego went off, as younger sons in Swiss mountain families had been doing for centuries. to seek his fortune in the great world. He drifted around. to different places, different jobs, not always in conformity with the law. He never spoke about those years, except for brief references as once when, watching some German sightseeing soldiers as they walked with impeccable correctness down a Paris boulevard, he told me, "I've seen it all before. They won't step on anybody's toes, but they know they own the place. Just like the English soldiers in Egypt."
One day his wanderings came to an end, he turned up at his brother's side in Paris, and the course of his life was set for good. He went to work for his brother, for all the working hours of every calendar day for more than half a lifetime. He might be Alberto's slave, but it was only in that slavery that he found his freedom, the ability to live out the fulness of his life, to do regularly, daily, what he enjoyed doing, which was to work with his hands, make things with his hands, Alberto's things, his own things.
For years he was his brother's preferred model sitting for endless hours in the same pose on the same stool, in the dark dusty studio on the rue Hippolyte-Maindron with plaster reproductions of Parthenon friezes in the entryway outside, while Alberto furiously pursued his goal of finding the precise relation of brow to chin, of ears to nose. When Alberto finally after years of unremitting striving, found his way, the face of Diego turned up everywhere, in galleries and museums and collections, it became one of the best-known faces in the western world.
Yet it remained a very private face. He was comfortably informal with his friends, but he would instinctively throw his coat over his head at the sight of a camera pointed his way.
Diego the model was also Diego the collaborator, technician, confidant, drinking companion, talking companion. He made the needle-thin armatures for his brother's skeletal figures, he mixed the plaster, he made the casts, he carried the finished plaster to the foundry, he polished and patinated the bronze. He was up all night before the shows opened, casting the works that Alberto had destroyed and recreated at the last minute, carrying them still wet to the gallery. And there he would prowl with him till the crowds pushed them aside, while Alberto restlessly scratched a new line here, added a new daub of color there. Then off for dinner and some heroic drinking, then stagger the mile or so to bed, then up in the morning to the eternally dark dusty studio which he called the factory.
For decade after decade, except for the four-year hiatus of the German Occupation, the two brothers slept , at first in the same building, later within a few blocks of each other, worked side by side every day, ate together regularly, shared drinks and gossip with the same artists, critics, dealers, collectors, admirers, sycophants, barflies, streetwalkers. They could talk endlessly together, or they could communicate without speech, it was as if Alberto had four arms, four sets of fingers he could control at once.
At the time I first met them, in the spring of 1940, Alberto already had a great, if underground operation. It was accepted that he would one day be accepted as the great sculptor of his age. He had already acquired the persona which would one day familiar to all, grizzled, frizzled, gnomelike, tart, probing, corrosively intelligent, wickedly witty. (The American critic Clement Greenberg, seeing him for the first time on the terrace of a Paris café was offered a chance to be introduced to him but declined, finding that he looked too "goony" to be a real artist on the scale of a Jackson Pollock or a Barnett Newman.) He loved contradiction ("Do you say it is chilly in here? I say it is terribly stuffy in here'). He loved controversy ("Of course you are right when you call Braque a great painter. But isn't it obvious when you look at one of his paintings that the man is stupid?") He loved generalizations (on the order of, "All generalizations are wrong") and defended them through brandy-drenched hours with a steady stream of precise particulars. Occasionally he loved clowning. One of the funniest moments on film I have ever seen occurs in a home movie made by his dealer Aimé Maeght showing Alberto in the middle of ordinary living-room clatter and chatter suddenly turning himself into a gorilla, lurching around the room, swinging long prehensile arms, knocking over chairs (He was. I believe, imitating the actor Mischa Auer who won an Oscar for his performance in a Hollywood screwball comedy of the 1930s, but he made a more convincing gorilla than Mischa Auer.)
Diego, on the other hand, was undemonstrative, easy-going, retiring, with an almost morbid dread of the limelight. He had no use for argument, he simply made his statement about what was right and what was wrong, and that was that.
And he had little use for art talk. He had very high standards, he detested incompetence, he knew what was good or bad, and there was no need to make things complicated. When the voice of a Spanish sculptor was heard one night rising like John the Baptist's over all the chatter in the Coupole in Montparnasse to proclaim, "I create forms in space," he mumbled, "What else does he do?" and went back to sipping his brandy.
Once at the bar of that same Coupole, Marion and I found ourselves sipping champagne alongside a familiar looking stranger. We struck up a conversation and eventually formally introduced ourselves. Bob Wernick. Marion Wernick. Jean-Paul Belmondo. "Oh," said Marion, "the sculptor's son." Jean-Paul was delighted; he was very devoted to his father, who had once been one of the bestknown artists of his day, whose works can still be seen on Parisian bridges and other public places but is now regarded by the art establishment as hopelessly old-fashioned, academic, pompier. I thought it was an effective way to start an animated conversation, but Diego did not see it that way at all.."Here you had a chance to talk to a great actor," he said, "why did you have to choose to talk about a mediocre sculptor?"
He never considered himself a sculptor of any sort, even when he came to be generally recognized as an artist of the first rank in his own right. He was a workman, the best of workmen. He made useful bronze objects for sale: chairs, tables, banisters, ashtrays, ornamental animals to stand in the center of dining-room tables or on mantel-pieces. As far as he was concerned, there was room for only one Giacometti in any particular artistic generation: his father Giovanni, the most distinguished Swiss impressionist painter, his brother Alberto, the master sculptor of the twentieth century. If he bothered to sign his works at all, he signed them Diego.
He liked to tell stories, mostly of bizarre incidents in the life around him. The first time I met him, he had just come back from a date with an American tourist.(He dressed almost nattily in those days, he cultivated a sleek if sloppy Argentine-gigolo look.) They went to dinner at a fancy restaurant, where she was delighted to find canard à l'orange on the menu, a genuine French specialty, and asked him to order it for her. "No, no," he said.. It was her money, but as a good Swiss he could not bear to see her throw it away on overpriced badly cooked food. "No no, it is five francs extra, take the goulash, take the goulash." Alberto roared with delight.
His stories generally had a wry turn, told with something of Thomas Hardy's "half-apathetic expression of one who deems anything possible at the hands of Time and Chance except, perhaps, fair play."
Like the story of the friend who liked to boast that whatever went wrong with this job or with the stock market, he had nothing to fear because he had a gold mine in his home, in the form of an original Corot painting bequeathed to him by his father. He kept it well hidden to avoid the attention of potential burglars, but Diego talked his one day into letting him have a look at it, and one look was enough to show that if it was indeed a Corot., it was not a painting but a photograph of a painting.
Of both brothers it could be said that they had only the simulacrum of a private life. Or at least, private on their own non-negotiable terms Their real life was working in the studio, unending toil, punctuated by lengthy animated talk in drinking sessions with their friends at the Flore, the Dome, the Coupole or a handful of cosy little restaurants.
The closest approach to a lineament of satisfied desire I ever saw on the face of Alberto's pretty little wife Annette, whom he had, to the surprise of everyone who knew him, brought back with him from Geneva to Paris after the war was over, was on the day she breathlessly pulled me into the bedroom behind the studio on the rue Hippolyte-Maindron to show me the oblong piece of sky-blue Chinese cloth which, after weeks and months of pleadings and poutings and cryings and cooings, she had prevailed on him to permit her to pin up on the wall behind their bed, which like all the other walls in his living and working space he had insisted on keeping just as cracked and stained and dusty as it had been since he moved in an eternity before.
Diego never got around to marrying anyone, though for many years he had a mate in the form of a pretty girl named Nelly. Perhaps it was their fondness for stray animals which brought them together. And Nelly was something of a stray animal herself.. H never took her out with him for drinks and dinner - she was, Alberto said, insortable, untakeoutable -she could not bear the thought of human beings eating flesh torn out of living animals, let alone watching them do it. She was outraged that in the French language the word bête means both "animal" and "stupid." When Diego one day over aperitifs reported her latest pronouncement on this subject (Je ne comprends pas pourquoi on appelle les bêtes les bêtes, je trouve qu'ils sont beaucoup plus intelligents que les êtres humains -- I do not understand why bêtes are called bêtes, I think they are much more intelligent than human beings), Alberto doubled over and banged the table and said it was the funniest thing he had ever heard.
A day was to come when she could take the stupidity of mankind no more. I ran into her on a sidewalk on that day , she was flushed and distraught and she said, "Have you heard what they have done now? The Russians have put a dog in their Sputnik, put him there to go round and round alone and to die. I have had enough of the human race." And she was as good as he word, she went off to live in the woods somewhere in the south of France, and for all I know she may still be there.
I never heard Diego mention her in the thirty years afterwards.
His devotion to animals, however, remained constant. From his early days on the mountain slopes he had retained an affinity for animals, the less domesticated the better, because, like him, they were furtive and shrewd, bashful, dignified, self-assured but ready to meet kindness with kindness, loyal to their own, baffled by civilization, endowed with a sly sense of humor.
He could spend happy hours, during many grim gray months of the German Occupation, with a spider who had become his pet. She had turned up one summer day in his studio and had produced a beautiful web between one end of his work table and the electricity meter up on the wall above it, and while he was working he could enjoy watching her catch and imprison and devour flies in the adept traditional way of spiders. Unfortunately the web was at the other end of the table from his stove, and when cold weather came, the flies naturally gravitated toward warmth. What was the poor spider to do, alone with her web, waiting in vain for her prey? Diego knew how to help her out. He spread bread-crumbs over his table, and when a happy fly would settle on one of them he would clap an upside-down glass over it and, ignoring the frenzied protests inside, push the glass over to the edge of the web, and tilt it enough to let the fly rush out to its doom. He grew fond of this little exercise, he kept stocking and overstocking the spider's larder, which was soon festooned with dead flies all wrapped in silk, hanging there like hams around a Swiss peasant's fireplace. The spider grew fat and reigned in dignity over it all
All went well until one day the man from Electricité de France came in and climbed up on a chair to read the meter, and in the process he destroyed the web with one impatient flick of his hand. The panic-stricken spider fled upwards as fast and as far as she could go and ended up on a rafter of the high studio ceiling. She soon set to work to build herself a new web. But that long stretch of pampered idleness had undone her. She could still spin out threads, but she had lost the art of weaving them into patterns, They hung here and there in pitiful little patches from the rafter. Diego felt sorry for her, and did his best to lure her down but he was not going to risk breaking his neck by putting a rickety chair on the table and climbing up to help her change residence. And one day she ceased spinning.
I was back in Paris shortly after the Liberation, and my first visit was to the studio on the rue Hippolyte-Maindron. There was Diego, but he was no longer the sleek Diego of old, he had begun to look more like Alberto, gaunt and grizzled and Swiss. For he had kept on working in the old studio in the old way. It was as if the Law required a spiritual Alberto on the rue Hippolyte-Maindron even if the physical Alberto had to be away in Geneva during all those war years.
When Alberto did come back, he had only to step in the door, step up to the sculptor's stand in the middle of the usual clutter and start scratching away at a tiny piece of plaster he had left unfinished four years before. The celebrated bronze of the disemboweled woman, a Surrealist masterpiece if there ever was one, was still there on the floor, to be used as an ashtray.
Everything could go on just as before, the same tireless work, the same plaster dust over all. There was one change in the household economy, Diego had a new companion. A friend of his who had been working on a farm as a prisoner of war in Germany came back home, carrying with him a baby fox he had found one day in the fields and nourished and cared for. Back in Paris, he was keeping her in a closet in a dark cramped apartment, where she was of course miserable. Diego could not stand the idea of a frisky, adventurous little animal being shut up in a closet, and talked the friend into setting her free. He promptly christened her Miss Rose and moved her to the rue Hippolyte Maindron where she could take her meals with him, curl up at his feet while he was working, frisk around the studio and the courtyard outside to her heart's content.
Miss Rose and Diego lived there in utter happiness for many months, until Alberto moved back in. He would later receive great praise for saying that if he was in a burning building with the choice of saving a Rembrandt or saving a cat, he would choose the cat. In real life he was less sentimental. He could put up with the presence of Miss Rose during the day, what he couldn't take was the nights when her feral smell stirred up atavistic emotions in the city-bred dogs of the neighborhood, and they would trouble his sleep, never too calm in the best of times, with their howling. One night, staggering home after hours of wide-ranging conversation at the bar of the Dome, his mind concentrated on what twist he would give to chin or nose, he neglected to shut the courtyard gate after him, and when Diego got up a couple of hours later, Miss Rose was gone. It was quite unintentional, Alberto maintained, a mere oversight. But Diego, who knew his brother, was convinced that he had done it deliberately, and for days he oscillated between anger and anxiety. What had happened to Miss Rose? Had she been able to slip through all those hostile miles of concrete swarming with savage dogs to the sweet friendly fields which in those days were much closer to te 14th arrondissement than they are today? Never before or since did I see him make such an open display of concern for a living creature.(1)
Diego's furniture swarmed with animals - cats, dogs, foxes, lions, eagles, owls, lions, pigeons, hedgehogs, rats - and they all had certain stamp: a gravely mischievous self-sufficiency, a polite aloofness. They are always animals living their own animal lives, without reference to any dramatic human interpretation that might be attached to them, they belong to their own private world.. Horses heads may surge in baroque s splendor out of a table center-piece done for the American painter Frank Parker; a little fox's head peeps out curiously at the base, with an air of equal belonging. Saint George goes charging, one concentrated rush of blazonry, on his steed under the table made for Signora Angeletti in Rome; the dragon coming out of his lair to face the knight has a simple earthy look, a creature like any other defending its home and its existence.
If sex was a constant and semipublic obsession of Alberto's - his Surrealist masterpieces were blatant Freudian symbols, he made sure that his friends and readers of highbrow magazines would share every unseemly detail of his priapic activities which were mostly exercises in frustration, Diego as a good mountain boy took sex as a pleasantly necessary part of life, not worth overmuch talking about. After Nelly's exit, he might occasionally go prowling with his friend Marcel Scossa, who ran a corner bar a block away on the rue Didot. Marcel, who thought of himself as a Parisian man about town, used to love to tell boisterous tales about his girl friends like the aristocratic one (at least she was married to a viscount) who would hide him under some blankets in her closet and leave the door ajar so that she could see her bizarre and endless dallyings with her husband ("You wouldn't believe what she made him go through"), was critical of Diego's performances. "He just paws them with a languid hand," he said, "and he mumbles at them, but you can tell that his mind is somewhere else."
He had all the street smarts necessary to get along in Paris under no matter what regime, he spoke all the underworld slang, he knew that when all the other bars were closed by laws or customs there were some open around the Vaugirard railroad station where the slaughtered animals used to come in before dawn to be taken to the central market and the butcher shops.
He could also be quite innocent in some respects. The Parisian art world had more than its share of homosexuals, some of them were his friends. He enjoyed mimicking their mincing ways, but he never understood what made them tick. Once, with infinite circumlocutions, he approached David Sylvester the London art critic and with many a hesitant hum and stutter said, "Tell me David, you went to one of those English schools, and you know what they say about them...did you...you know...did you do, you know what I mean, did you..." "Of course I know what you mean," said Sylvester impatiently, "what do you think we did, what would you have done, shut up in a godforsaken place with dozens of growing boys for months at a time with hardly a single sight of live female flesh, of course we all did it." "But it's, it's not natural," said Diego. "Bloody hell," said Sylvester, "you weren't brought up in a nunnery, you spent twenty years in a mountain village, you must have known before you could read or write that sexual relations are not restricted to young people who are certified virgins when they marry." "Well yes," said Diego after some thought, "of course,,,of course, there were... goats," and he paused before hastily adding, "But still and all, it's not the same thing."
Alberto died in 1966, and went into the ultimate dark silence which had always haunted him. (He never slept without a light shining in the room.) Diego went home to Stampa to see him buried, then rushed back the very next morning to save his last work, a brooding portrait of the Romanian photographer Elie Lotar. He had to hurry because the clay was wet and the fire in the coal stove was sinking, and it was winter; if the water in the clay froze, the statue was ruined. He made a proper plaster cast, and eight bronze casts of it were eventually made. Diego under Swiss law had a right to one-sixth of his brother's estate and thus inherited one of the bronzes - it was almost he did inherit, for Alberto always spent his money as fast as he made it, and always aware of death, never made provision for his own. He left no will, and Diego who might a picked up a fortune in his life by making his own collection of the statues he had worked on, had never thought of asking for any, since he lived with them all the time. A few years after his brother's death he placed his cast of the Lotar portrait on his grave in Stampa, along with a little bronze bird of his own. It was soon stolen, and only the bird remained to sit studiously, calmly, on the remains of what had once been Alberto Giacometti..
Diego for months after his brother's death wandered disconsolate through Paris. "What is there for me to do now?" he would say over long brandies at the bars where Alberto had burned away the nights of his last years. "I might as well herd goats in Patagonia."
He did no such thing of course. A faithful brother and a good Swiss, he went back to his trade. He had already begun to make a name for himself with little ornamental figures and pieces of furniture, at first as gifts for his friends, later snapped up by collectors. Little by little, these objects began to become fashionable, and over the years a Diego table with dog's head finials or a Diego chair with lion heads on the armrests became objects that were vied for in auction rooms. They had come to be regarded as important works of contemporary art. He took this, or said he took it, as all nonsense.
The self-depreciation was never meant to be taken too seriously. Alberto had said of him early on that he had talent to burn. He spent his life in the world of art, he moved through it effortlessly, his knowledge was great, his judgments precise.
Eventually he moved around the corner from Alberto's studio to a pleasant shaded little house with a workshop in the courtyard in front of it, a modestly friendly little retreat soon to be squeezed in by high-rises, with a deep-eyed bronze lion door knocker that was as close as he ever came to doing a self-portrait. He worked as regularly, with the same nonchalant determination as ever, till a ripe old age, still staying out until two or three in the morning at the old haunts with the surviving old friends, eating and drinking whatever was in front of him despite a stomach which his doctor likened to the battlefield of Verdun, but getting up at seven every morning to go back to his armatures and his mixing bowls and working all day except to go out occasionally for a black coffee at Mado's (formerly Marcel Scossa's) bar around the corner. He lunched regularly at the same familiar restaurant, and when they closed the restaurant he stopped having lunch.
Diego's work never had any of his brother's tragic intensity, or its sometimes melodramatic insistence. His furniture is not meant to be conspicuous, though it always instantly recognizable. It is meant to be used. His chairs are comfortable to sit down on. His tables area pleasure to eat off of. They have a spare solid eloquence, they can make themselves at home in anybody's house.
As he grew older, his work flowered into new shapes. The furniture, still sound and comfortable as ever, its craftsmanship always as impeccable, now let a note of the odd and phantasmagoric come in, the way it did in Alberto's early surrealist sculptures, but with none of their cruelty and bite. If they have a dreamlike quality, it is of pleasant dreams, never nightmares. A chandelier made for Mrs. Paul Mellon (whom he called Mrs. Lemon, c'est un fruit, n'est-ce pas?) in Palm Beach becomes a floating garden of surging white flowers. Table legs swell into prehistoric goddesses, their struts and crosspieces look like a keel for a an orderly boat of the dead.
He would be over a hundred years old today, and he would undoubtedly be exactly what he was when I first knew him sixty three years ago, quiet, private, generous, cheerful, detached, devoted, careless of his appearance, curious, unattached, with an air of unkempt elegance.
He never stopped working. He was working away as usual when someone called up to announced that he had been chosen for the biggest commission of his life: the architect who was designing the Picasso Museum had insisted on him to do the chairs and tables, the staircase and the light fixtures .
He went to work as on any other commission, and you can see the result today
The Picasso Museum is something of a cave of the winds, where you can always feel if not hear the ornery old master blaring and boistering and bellowing and belaboring his way as he breaks and twists poor old mother Nature to his will. Picasso always had it in for her: as he said when someone had the audacity to praise Bonnard, it is the duty of the modern artist to dépasser ("transcend," is the way Ralph Waldo Emerson put it) Nature. And you can hear her squeals as he flattens her out in an Avignon whorehouse or blows her up in a bullring. In the middle of all the ruckus the Diego objects lie in wait. Strong and sure and quiet. Especially the chandelier hanging over the main staircase, with little clumps of four leaves and two little birds each perched on its rods. As if to say, What else does he do?
He never lived to see this, his last work, in place.
One day he had to check into the American Hospital in Neuilly for a routine operation, a cataract operation, which these days is considered less bothersome than having a tooth pulled. But he chafed at the discipline. Marion and I were in Iceland at the time, visiting the endless empty moor where the aged saga hero, the Viking Egil Skallagrimsson had gone out with a horse and two slaves and all the treasure he had collected in a lifetime of piracy, buried the treasure so expertly that no one has found it in eight hundred years, then murdered the slaves and rode back home to die content. When we called Diego he said to Marion, "you are in Iceland, but I am in jail." When I called the next day I was informed he was no longer there. He had come through the operation perfectly satisfactorily, he had dressed and called for a taxi. His doctor had warned him against any unusual physical activity, but he was probably anxious to get back to the factory and finish off his latest chair or table or fox or cat, and he picked up his suit-case, and his heart stopped beating. .
It was the kind of death he would have wanted, quick and clean and unobtrusive, in an environment where they knew how to take care of such matters, without putting any burden on his family or friends.
It must have been in that last year before the American Hospital, we were having a drink together and reminiscing about the neighborhood, the disappearing old friends, the unforgettable characters, the chummy bars, we could no longer remember all their names, all the tumults and feuds and bloody mishaps which had once seemed so important and were now part of fading history.
"There is one thing I can never get out of my mind," said Diego. "I still ask myself: Did Miss Rose make it safe out into the country?"
In the days after his death, Marion and I would take a daily pilgrim walk past his house on the narrow little rue du Moulin Vert, barely wide enough for a car, keeping a sharp eye out for the motorists who always enraged him, barreling at fifty miles an hour to gain a couple of minutes time they would have lost in traffic jams on the rue d'Alésia.. One day we ran into a fellow pilgrim, a policeman named Pierre who used to moonlight by working for Diego, and he suggested we all have a drink and a cry together. Over the drink he said that we had all been so close to Diego, and working for him had been part of his life for so long, didn't we have a job of some sort he could do for us, it would cheer him up, it would remind him of working for Diego and what fun, and pleasure and privilege it could be. Why yes, we said, Marion's studio needed painting. Why not? We put in a stock of white wine, chose the right paint, told him to go ahead, and took off for Amsterdam where I had a rendezvous with the world's greatest authority on Rembrandt. A few days later we were back and everything was in great shape.
Pierre had had a great time. It was a hot August, and he naturally preferred to do the work at night. Periodic bottles of white wine kept him in a merry mood, and he sang merrily as he scraped way at the cracked soiled thirty-year-old paint and splashed on the new. This led to some grumbles and then some shouts from our neighbor, a girl named something like Albertine, and her boyfriend, who from their bed on the other side of the thin wall yelled at Pierre that no one could sleep with that racket going on, and if he didn't stop it right away, there was going to be a call put through to the police. Pierre politely but firmly reminded them that he was the police, and that if it came down to a formal investigation he would demand to know the source of some curious odors coming out of their door. That shut them up, and he went back to his merry songs till he had finished the job properly..
Now this studio next door was one we had been wishing for years might become available to us, it would give us just the extra space we were yearning for. But the landlord had told us our dreams were vain. Thirty years before, at the moment of Liberation, the parents of our neighbor, having performed some patriotic service while working in the Communist underground, were placed by a grateful government in the apartment, previously occupied by a man suspected of collaboration with the enemy. Shortly afterwards a decree was issued providing that tenants placed ex officio in apartments under such circumstances could never, repeat never, have their rent raised.
Forty years had now passed, and while the other occupants of the building had seen their rents go up some seventytwofold, Albertine's parents and -- when they retired to their mountain village -- Albertine herself, went on counting out the equivalent of a couple of weeks' subway fares every three months with a satisfied smirk that drove the landlord and his wife into frenzies of impotent rage.
Until the day when I was walking upstairs and there was the wife of the landlord with the broadest smile I had ever seen on her face, and when I asked her what had happened, she said it was by God's grace that suddenly and unexpectedly, Albertine had become pregnant, and it was a difficult pregnancy at her advanced age, and she couldn't make it up all the 103 steps to her apartment, and though she produced an aunt who was willing to talk it over, the door was slammed in that aunt's face, and in short, the place was vacant, and all our wishes on both sides could be dramatically fulfilled.
I informed Pierre of these developments and after careful calculations and a calibration of dates we determined to our satisfaction that the blessed event had occurred directly under the poster of Che Guevara which looked down on her bed during one of the three nights when Pierre's joyous caroling had prevented any sleep next door till far into the morning. We agreed that this was the kind of story about the unexpected twists of fatality in human life that Diego loved to hear and to tell.
1. I insert here part of a footnote from my work on Gossip [which you may find elsewhere in this website] Part I, Section iv, a Critique of Practical Gossip, dealing with Miss Rose and he perils of biography:
A few years ago, at a dinner in Paris, I was spinning out my story about Miss Rose. Among the guests at dinner when I told the story was a man who was preparing a biography of Alberto, and when the book came out some years later, after both brothers were safely dead, there was my anecdote, with the facts given more or less as I have related them here, and ascribed to me courteously enough in a footnote. Only the author, in the way of irresponsible gossips everywhere, had felt the need to prettify the story a little, by turning Miss Rose into "a fox from Auschwitz, the infamous concentration camp," where Diego's friend had "somehow in the pit of inhumanity managed to catch, tame and feed a baby vixen." Diego, this account continues, in the schoolmarm style affected by this author, "bore in mind what she had lived through. . . For those sensitive to the animal spirit perhaps her very insignificance gave her a singular meaning, while a sense of animal virtue was fostered by knowledge of the place from which she had come."
It never occurred to the author that, wherever Miss Rose came from, it could not possibly have been Auschwitz, which was a death camp where food rations were scientifically fixed at a level somewhat below the minimum necessary to sustain human life. A prisoner at Auschwitz, in the most unlikely event that he came across a fox there, would have eaten it, no matter what sense of animal virtue might have been fostered in him. If he had an unusually noble character, he might have shared it with a friend Feeding it meat while men and women were starving around him would have revealed a degree of callousness that is unpleasant to contemplate.