One summer in the late nineties I was invited by the writers Edmund White and Michael Carroll to come and stay with them at a house they were renting in the south of France. I’d been there for a wonderful, lazy week when Ed announced to me that an old friend of his wanted to take us all out for a meal at what was supposed to be the best restaurant in the region. ‘Who’s your friend?’ I asked.
‘James Lord,’ Ed said. ‘Have you heard of him?’
I admitted that I hadn’t.
‘Oh,’ Ed said, casual as could be, ‘he’s an American biographer who’s known practically every famous artist in the twentieth century. Picasso, Pollock, Bacon, de Kooning. He wrote a book about Picasso and Dora Maar, and the definitive biography of Giacometti. A few other books, too. He’s lived in France since the end of World War II, and he’s fantastically rich.’
Thankfully, I’d packed a jacket and tie.
James was to arrive just before 5 p.m. At 4.30, the three of us were sitting at the stone table beside the house, dressed and sweating in the July heat. Ed suddenly realized he had no food. ‘Michael and I are going to the grocery store in town. Now, listen, when James gets here, offer him champagne – there’s a bottle in the fridge. Offer it right away and tell him we’ll be back in minutes!’
Fifteen minutes later, a light-blue Mercedes came barrelling down the drive, dust lifting behind it. A dapper man with a full head of neatly-trimmed white hair got out and said as he walked toward me, ‘Hello, I’m James Lord.’
I introduced myself and explained that Ed and Michael would be right back. ‘Would you like a glass of champagne?’
He glanced at his watch. ‘Certainly not! It’s 4.45.’
We talked about the weather. We talked about the snails in the yard that clung dying to the reeds of grass. At 5.05 he looked at his watch again. ‘Where’s the champagne?’
I scrambled for it.
The restaurant was in the valley below Les Beaux. Our table, on a patio overlooking the Pyrenees, was surrounded by waiters. James spoke with a mid-western accent, even when speaking French. He was sweet and engaging and funny with his guests – but he was gruff with the staff. He wanted the wine, nestled in a stand that held a bucket of ice, to be placed next to him so he could pour as much as he wanted when he wanted. The wine steward was confused, hurt, and ultimately furious. He refused. ‘Mettez le vin içi,’ James barked over and over in his drawl.
The owner came over to see what the problem was.
‘Mettez le vin içi,’ James repeated. The sunset winked in the Legion of Honor button pinned to his lapel.
The wine was moved.
When the team of waiters arrived with our food and lifted the covers, the head waiter began to explain what everything was.
‘Sweetie,’ James said, cutting the man off (Ed later translated for me), ‘I’m going to astound you by telling you that we already know what’s on these plates. And do you know why? Because we ordered it.’
The meal was the best of my life and the bill probably cost what I earn in a month. Michael had driven us, and on the ride back to the house, James announced that he wanted to take us all to Aix on the following day to see Cézanne’s studio.
Ed emitted a low groan but then immediately added, ‘That would be great!’
Once James pulled away, Ed groaned again.
‘You don’t want to go to Aix?’ I asked.
‘No, I do. It’s beautiful,’ he said, but then added, ‘James isn’t the best driver.’
Ed doesn’t have a licence and is a nervous passenger, so I chalked up his reluctance to those two facts.
The hour-long drive the next day proved to be one of the two most terrifying of my life. The traffic was heavy, and James drove at speeds that topped ninety. He zig-zagged in and out of lanes, came right up on the bumpers of cars and, on a narrow stretch of just two lanes, played chicken with oncoming tractor trailers. He talked all the while – about the region, about Picasso, about the other drivers. ‘Look at her – brushing her hair behind the wheel of a car! Put down your hairbrush, you stupid bitch!’ (No one could hear him but us; I hadn’t even seen the woman, we’d passed by her so quickly.) ‘Get this guy! Where’d you get your licence, asshole? A box of Cracker Jacks?’
This is how terrifying it was: I decided I was going to die. I hoped I was going to die rather than be maimed in the crash. I thought, I’ve had a pretty good life. I can’t complain. And there are certainly uglier places to die. I didn’t want to see it coming, however, and I was afraid of appearing rude by closing my eyes. Michael had his sunglasses resting on top of his head. I asked him for them, put them on over my glasses, and closed the curtain on the image of an oncoming truck.
Ed was right on all counts. Aix was beautiful, and Cézanne’s studio was a marvelous, humbling thing to behold. Years before, James had single-handedly saved it from destruction. The town was planning to level it and build a high-rise, and James had spearheaded a fund-raising campaign that prevented that from happening. The staff greeted him like royalty when we walked in. They served us coffee and showed us every corner of the place. Ed prompted James to tell the story of how he’d pulled off the preservation, and James recounted the gruelling process. ‘You know who donated almost all the money?’ he said. ‘Americans. And you know how much the French coughed up?’ He made a circle with his thumb and forefinger and peered through it. ‘Zero.’
We walked around the town. We had a nice lunch that James paid for. He was gracious and encouraged me to talk about my life, which I thought of as so horribly dull. And I could barely enjoy the day because I knew we had the car trip home looming ahead of us – a trip we all managed to survive.
James died in August of 2009 at the age of eighty-six, before he could see the publication of his memoir My Queer War. The last story I heard about him – told to me by Ed – was in October of 2001, when he was checking in at Charles de Gaulle for a flight to New York. The airline attendant asked him if he’d packed his own bag.
James winced and replied, ‘Certainly not!’
The extract of James Lord’s memoir My Queer War is now published online – read it here.
Photograph by Alexander Baranov