The writer Thomas Mann, responding by letter to a young James Lord, wrote that he possessed ‘the gift of admiration’ which ‘above all enables a talented person to learn’. James was the third of four sons, born to Albert, a stockbroker, and Louise, whose family had made their wealth manufacturing stoves. He spent his early childhood in a tranquil suburb of New York – holidaying in Paris, Maine. By the age of just eight Lord already displayed a talent for writing, completing a biography of Beethoven before his early teens. But he struggled with the strictures of his private education and eventually left Wesleyan University, Connecticut, without graduating.
Lord served as an officer in the intelligence services and by the age of twenty-two found himself in recently liberated Paris on a three-day pass. Wasting no time, he located Picasso’s address on the Rue de Grands-Augustins in Montparnasse. Lord writes ‘[I] braced my brashness at the pinpoint of Picasso’s doorbell.’ Shortly afterwards he was sharing breakfast with the artist and his long-time muse and mistress, Dora Maar, who was a photographer, poet and painter in her own right, as well as the inspiration for many Picasso masterpieces, most notably The Weeping Woman. It was start of a relationship that would have defining consequences for all three. ‘It is important to know,’ wrote Lord later of the experience, ‘how perverse, cruel, ruthless, sentimental, and promiscuous Picasso could be. Indeed, how could anyone honestly study his work and imagine him to be otherwise? It is also important to know that upon occasion no one could be more charming, witty, incisive, magnetic, responsive, and generous.’ It was after Picasso separated from Maar that her relationship with Lord acquired a new intensity – the two are alleged to have had an unconsummated affair. While Lord never explicitly mentions the affair in his memoirs, he writes with fervour about Dora’s presence: ‘[I] never ceased to be under the spell of her beauty, the lambent gleam of her gaze, the bird-of-paradise voice, the aristocratic tilt of her head, all the aura of tense serenity and power and pathos so poignantly portrayed by Picasso.’
Picasso did not take kindly to this newfound closeness between his old mistress and Lord. One evening in 1954 while at the house of mutual friends Douglas Cooper and John Richardson, Picasso confronted Lord. Writing of that evening, Richardson reflected, ‘James’s account tallies with notes I made at the time. The only difference – we were prepared for Picasso’s onslaught, whereas poor James wasn’t.’ It was to be the last time Picasso would see either Lord or Maar. In 1956, Lord publicly criticised Picasso’s refusal to denounce the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary, but that was as close as they ever again came to personal contact.
Lord soon turned his attentions to writing fiction, a long-harboured ambition. He had already written many short stories and begun several novels, but it was only in the wake of his separation from Picasso and his milieu that Lord could fully embrace his own artistic aspirations. He moved to Brittany for greater seclusion, funding the move partly with the support of his parents and partly by selling paintings he had acquired including Picassos. Two novels – No Traveller Returns (1956) and The Joys of Success (1958) – were published to an unenthusiastic reception, overshadowed by the success of his memoir and criticism. Lord’s fiction was cursed by the perception that his own life contained a cast of characters more compelling than any he could compose. And yet paradoxically, it was his ability to render these illuminating figures in prose with both autobiographical precision and virtuosic flair to which Lord, in part, owes his reputation as a writer.
Removing himself from Brittany, Lord began to travel around Europe, having numerous affairs along the way and supporting himself by dealing paintings. Despite his ambiguous ‘affair’ with Dora Maar, Lord had been aware of his homosexuality by the time he left university. His experiences in the army had confirmed it. With characteristic wit he observed that he was far from alone in his persuasion in the army, noting in his diary ‘how many of my comrades-in-arms were as eager as I to sleep in the arms of their comrades’. By the time of his break with Picasso he had embarked on numerous relationships and trysts with men – despite the prejudice of the age in which he lived, including some he had already faced at home. (After confessing he was gay to his father a young Lord was sent straightaway to a therapist who recommended that he stop wearing Old Spice immediately.)
This was also a time of fresh exploration in terms of curating. Lord roamed the continent, creating a museum at Paul Cezanne’s Aix-en-Provence studio and mixing with luminaries such as Gertrude Stein, Jean Cocteau, Balthus and Peggy Guggenheim, capturing them all in exacting and sometimes less than sympathetic portraits. He likened Gertrude Stein to ‘a burlap bag filled with cement and left to harden’. No one, it seemed, escaped Lord’s unflinching gaze, not even himself: ‘My friends say I am secretive and devious,’ he wrote in the introduction to Picasso and Dora. ‘They’re right.’
In 1950 Lord met Alberto Giacometti, beginning his second career-defining relationship with a great artist. After their first meeting in the Deux Magots café in Paris, Lord wrote that he was ‘instantly mesmerised’. The fascination was apparently reciprocated. Giacometti asked Lord to sit for a portrait, commenting at the first of eighteen sittings: ‘You look like a real thug. If I could paint you as I see you and a policeman saw the picture, he’d arrest you immediately.’ It was not until fifteen years later that the full extent of Lord’s fascination and deep appreciation for Giacometti would finally come to light with the publication of Giacometti: A Biography, which to this day stands as the definitive single-volume work on the artist. It was the artist’s death in 1966 that partly prompted Lord to undertake this great work of biography. Giacometti’s widow Annette attempted to obstruct Lord from publishing it, but he eventually succeeded with the aid of the artist’s brother – a dramatic episode which he recounts in Some Remarkable Men (1996). Lord’s singular achievement was to represent with a steady gaze Giacometti’s struggle to attain the purity of his artistic vision – a struggle he maintained he was perpetually losing. Lord’s study is still a seminal work in part because it mimics the artist’s dilemma in chasing down a shifting artistic truth.
From the time of his arrival in Paris, when Lord began cultivating artists, he had been the subject of numerous portraits. Lord recounts that Picasso had barely said more than a few words to him before dashing off a sketch of the young opportunist who had just rung his doorbell. As Giacometti observed, he was a broad-shouldered man with heavy-set features, a military-style side parting and forbidding, troubled eyes nestled beneath a tall, furrowed forehead. It was a face that captured the imagination of the century’s great masters, but many of the portraits have been lost, sold by Lord, or remain the subject of contestation to this day – many are labelled as ‘plausible’ portraits of Lord by some art historians. And yet when confronted by one of these so-called plausible portraits, there is an unmistakable character that comes through the daunting features – the character of a tireless observer, the eyes looking straight back to the artist in rapt attention and wonder.