More Than a Muse

KIKI MAN RAY: Art, Love, and Rivalry in 1920s Paris

By Mark Braude

We open just as Kiki de Montparnasse begins to sing. It’s a scene narrated in the present tense, stitched together from a patchwork of memories — for who didn’t leave a record of their time in 1920s Paris? Especially if they’d managed to elbow their way into the Jockey, with its sticky floors, graffitied walls and stiff cocktails, where Kiki — queen of the neighborhood — purred her nostalgic songs. If you could smell it, said one contemporary, her voice would be “garlic hitting a pan’s hot butter and wine”: pungent, irresistible and impossible to recapture once it’s gone.

Mark Braude’s exuberantly entertaining biography sets out to rebalance the much-told story of Left Bank Paris, in which Kiki — model, memoirist and muse — is usually cast as a bit player. He brings that milieu to life in all its grit and energy — but also the larger sociopolitical pressures that myopic mythmaking leaves out: the still-vivid trauma of World War I and the growing conservative backlash against everything the cosmopolitan city represented. Montparnasse, like Greenwich Village, was a carnival, a permitted inversion of the expected order, where, for a moment, society’s outcasts could rule.

Kiki was one such outcast. Born Alice Prin in 1901 in a Burgundian village to an unmarried country girl, she was raised by her grandmother alongside five illegitimate cousins. Alice didn’t hide or reject her origins. They forged her character: her charm, her wildness and, especially, her generosity. Even when she was singing for a few sous in a dive bar, she’d buy you a drink if you were short. But she didn’t pine for country life. At 12, a lanky adolescent with tumbling black hair and a pointed nose, she was sent to live with her mother in Paris. In artsy, down-at-heel Montparnasse (then known simply as “the Quarter”) she found her home, her people and her calling.

Alice was just 16 when a sculptor invited her to pose at his studio in a ramshackle alley where a slew of artists eked out a living — one of his neighbors, a Romanian named Constantin Brancusi, trapped and ate the chickens that wandered the street. She found the work fun, easy, lucrative and — despite the age-old association between modeling and sex work — perfectly safe. Her mother disagreed, marching into the artists’ den to drag her daughter home. But Alice had found something she was good at, and broke off contact with her mother in order to keep doing it.

To gain steady work, she needed to meet more artists, and in order to do that, she would have to conquer the Café Rotonde. Located in the heart of the Quarter, the Rotonde had a huge terrace, a bohemian clientele and a strict pecking order. Alice worked hard to charm the proprietor and soon became a fixture, gaining entree to the studios of Jewish émigré artists like Modigliani, Chaïm Soutine and her good friend Moïse Kisling. Nicknamed Kiki — often a slang term for a prostitute — she grew assertive; people liked her jokes and her belligerence. When a waiter at another cafe insisted she dress more respectably, she shot back that “a cafe isn’t a church” and besides, “All the American bitches come in without hats.”

Ah, yes, the Americans — what would 1920s Paris be without them? Among the thousands flocking to the city was a “short, scrappy and swarthy” Philadelphia artist born Emmanuel Radnitzky, “a pure product of immigrant America” in both his ambition and taste for self-reinvention. Man Ray, as he styled himself, had first fallen in with a crowd of expat Europeans in New York who — under the banner of Dada — toyed with tossing out the whole edifice of art, society, culture and its accompanying rules. In 1921, he followed his friend Marcel Duchamp to Paris, only to discover that all anyone wanted to talk about was America. He’d deliberately left America behind, along with his given name and his first wife, a Belgian poet who went by Adon Lacroix. When they separated, he beat her with a belt, telling her “to explain the marks to her lover.” Although Braude doesn’t dwell on the incident, it gives a horrifying glimpse of Man Ray’s vicious temper, and his dehumanizing attitude toward the women with whom he was intimate.

6 Paperbacks to Read This Week

Miguel Salazar�� Reading in Brooklyn

6 Paperbacks to Read This Week

Miguel Salazar�� Reading in Brooklyn

This week’s roundup gathers a range of titles, from Colson Whitehead’s first crime novel set in 1960s Harlem to a reported account of the believers working to stave off climate apocalypse and slowly repair the planet.

Here are six new paperbacks we recommend →

6 Paperbacks to Read This Week

Miguel Salazar�� Reading in Brooklyn

HARLEM SHUFFLE, by Colson Whitehead.

Whitehead’s first crime novel is a sweaty and authoritative portrait of 1960s Harlem and follows a striving furniture salesman who becomes entangled in an illicit side hustle that begins with selling stolen jewelry and snowballs into his involvement in a major heist against his will.

6 Paperbacks to Read This Week

Miguel Salazar�� Reading in Brooklyn

BELIEVERS: Making a Life at the End of the World, by Lisa Wells.

A journalist visits environmentalists, professional trackers and restoration radicals dedicated to creating a life at the end of the world. Wells “never loses sight of her inspired objective, to restore and revive what she refers to as ‘the promised land,’” our reviewer, Gretel Ehrlich, wrote.

6 Paperbacks to Read This Week

Miguel Salazar�� Reading in Brooklyn

THE COLLECTION PLATE: Poems, by Kendra Allen.

An established essayist echoes recent greats — from Lucille Clifton to C.D. Wright — in a wide-ranging debut poetry collection that includes gospel traditions as well as musical quotations from Earl Sweatshirt to Ace Hood.

6 Paperbacks to Read This Week

Miguel Salazar�� Reading in Brooklyn

REIGN OF TERROR: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump, by Spencer Ackerman.

Ackerman’s endless reserves of knowledge as a national security journalist are deployed in this shrewd narrative of the last 20 years of the War on Terror and how it has left an indelible mark on the American psyche.

6 Paperbacks to Read This Week

Miguel Salazar�� Reading in Brooklyn

EVERYBODY: A Book About Freedom, by Olivia Laing.

Laing, whose nonfiction has blended criticism and memoir to explore loneliness and addiction, draws on a stable of luminaries, from Susan Sontag to Malcolm X, and on her personal life to explore the body, its relationship to freedom and the historical forces that have constrained it.

6 Paperbacks to Read This Week

Miguel Salazar�� Reading in Brooklyn

THE ARCHER, by Shruti Swamy.

In this assured, vibrant novel, Vidya, a young girl in 1960s Bombay, navigates the sudden absence and rediscovery of her mother and baby brother, who disruptively burst in and out of her life just as Vidya finds her calling in Indian classical dance.

Published on August 5.

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