About Women: Conversations Between a Writer and a Painter

About Women: Conversations Between a Writer and a Painter

by Lisa Alther, Francoise Gilot


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A provocative and wide-ranging conversation between two distinctive women—one American and one French—on the dilemmas, rewards, and demands of womanhood.

Lisa Alther and Françoise Gilot have been friends for more than twenty-five years. Although from different backgrounds (Gilot from cosmopolitan Paris, Alther from small-town Tennessee) and different generations, they found they have a great deal in common as women who managed to support themselves with careers in the arts while simultaneously balancing the obligations of work and parenthood. 

About Women 
is their extended conversation in which they talk about everything important to them: their childhoods, the impact of war on their lives and their work, and their views on love, style, self-invention, feminism, and child rearing. They also discuss the creative impulse and the importance of art as they ponder what it means to be a woman.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385539869
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/17/2015
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.29(w) x 8.33(h) x 0.95(d)

About the Author

LISA ALTHER was born in 1944 in Tennessee. She is widely known for her first novel, Kinflicks (1975), a feminist coming-of-age narrative that broke new ground in terms of what could be written and talked about. She is the author of seven additional works of fiction, a memoir, and a narrative history of the Hatfield-McCoy feud. Her books have been published in seventeen languages and have appeared on bestseller lists worldwide.

FRANÇOISE GILOT was born in 1921 in Paris. She was a part of the emerging School of Paris. In 1943 she met Pablo Picasso, with whom she had a decade-long relationship. She is the author of the bestselling Life with Picasso, which has been translated into more than a dozen languages; Matisse and Picasso; and other books. She married the French painter Luc Simon and later the American vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk. Gilot's work is included in the collections of many museums around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. She was made Chevalier and then Officier de la Légion d'honneur.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1
The War Room  

LA: Although we were born of different generations an ocean apart, both our childhoods were impacted by war—­yours by World Wars I and II, and mine by World War II, the Cold War, Korea, and Vietnam. We read a lot about the effect of war on the combatants but not that much about its effect on civilians. Can you say something about how war affected you as a child?  

FG: My maternal grandmother had five children, two of whom died when they were quite young, leaving two sons and my mother, the youngest. The child my grandmother loved best was named André. He was wounded at the front and died on November 1, 1918, from a shrapnel wound to the liver. The armistice occurred on November 11, 1918. Just when my grandmother thought that her two sons had escaped the war, she learned the tragic news. André was only twenty-­three years old. She had had a special relationship with him, so for her it was as if life ended right then and there.

On the third floor of her home in Neuilly, there was a small room where her sons, my uncles, both of them officers, had collected all sorts of paraphernalia from the different phases of the war. Many photographs were pinned to the walls, as well as warmaps with little flags on pins for the various events. This room was left as it had been when André died. On the walls, one could see all these black-­and-­white photographs, some taken from the sky, of destroyed villages and cathedrals and bridges, charredforests, trenches. It was a room entirely full of destruction.  

LA: Why did your uncles do this?  

FG: I think they were so involved in the fight that destruction had grown inside them. They had had to withstand so much horror, and perhaps it was a catharsis to objectify their feelings on the walls of that room.

Years later, when I entered it for the first time, it felt very strange. I was five years old. It was quite frightening. There were also some half-­exploded bombshells that looked like dark and ghostly flowers. My grandmother called that room the War Room.I thought it was the Death Room.

My mother and grandmother installed a seamstress there with a sewing machine. They were planning dresses for me, both in velvet. My mother’s design was to be made of royal blue velvet in a cut called princess, with a little bodice to the waist and a skirt that was corolla-­shaped, like a flower.

Whereas my grandmother’s dress design was modern, Art Deco, straight, and very short, with assorted bloomers since it was so short that it showed my bottom. It was turquoise blue because she felt that was the color that suited me best. From her samples of turquoises, I had selected the one I wanted, as I also had for my mother’s royal blue.  

I was intrigued and pleased to touch the samples of velvet. I chose the material that felt the softest. Then they showed me both pieces of fabric, and I watched the transformations leading from the material to the finished dresses. Maybe it’s even more striking to me in retrospect, because, as a painter, I also give things shape and color. They had drawn models, and the seamstress cut the material and assembled the parts to look like the sketches. It was the first time I had any inkling of that kind of transformation. Paradoxically, this lovely and so feminine process was taking place in that strange room.

LA: Did it have photos of dead people also?

FG: No, just those photographs of ravaged landscapes and all the destruction.

LA: Did you have any idea what it meant?

FG: Yes, the adults were often talking about the Great War. Everybody was still fixated on it, maybe because of so many losses and hardships. The war had ended only in November 1918. I was five in 1927, so these events were not so far away.

Yet people were also living in the present, enthused over Josephine Baker and fast cars. The war, which concerned death, provided, by contrast, a reference point for life.

To me, it was all very mysterious and morbid. That seamstress, who could have worked in any other room, had been set up precisely there, with the sewing machine and a life-­sized dummy (similar to those in Giorgio de Chirico’s paintings). The scene reminded me of the story of the sleeping princess who, when she goes up to the tower (the abode of an old crone who is in fact a bad witch in disguise), pricks herself with the tip of a spindle. She goes to sleep for a hundred years, along with everyone else in the castle.  

So for me, the fact that the seamstress was in that room with a needle in hand was dangerous. I hesitated between interest in what was going on—­that transformation of a piece of cloth into a dress—­and terror of a more drastic metamorphosis. The dress my mother had designed, instead of having simply a hem at the bottom, was scalloped. There were teeth, like arcs of circles, and there were also small arcs to end the little sleeves. I thought that was clever and unusual, and maybe also a magical protection.  

The name of that seamstress was Adèle, and she was beautiful in a dark, classical way. I always liked the letter A, maybe because it’s the first letter of the alphabet. I preferred a woman’s name to start with an A or end with one. I thought that Adèle was a strange name. I liked the sound of the A and the d, but not the “èle.”

On top of it all, there was a silly song in French that had a leitmotif: “Car elle est morte Adèle, Adèle ma bien aimée.” And in French “morte Adèle” is heard as “mortadelle,” the name for an Italian sausage. So it meant, “She’s dead, Adèle my beloved,” but it also meant that she was an Italian sausage. And since she was in the War Room with all its reminders of death, I just couldn’t think of anything other than that stupid song.

I guess that, unconsciously, my mother and grandmother wanted to transcend the war with something specifically soft and feminine. They were not conscious of it themselves, for sure, but I suspect that’s why they selected that sad room in which to establish the seamstress.

LA: The good witches, sewing their spells. What an image!

My very first memory is from when my father came back from World War II. He was wearing his olive army jacket. I must have been about three. I think we were at a cabin in Tennessee in which his parents lived briefly after they gave us their house. I remember him looming over me, backlit by a lightbulb in the ceiling, and I remember the floor. It was linoleum, black-­and-­white squares. And I remember a gold-­and-­brown snake, a copperhead, I now realize, slithering across those black-­and-­white squares.  

FG: A snake, an actual snake?

LA: Yes, a real snake. It had gotten into the kitchen somehow. My grandfather chased it out the back door and chopped its head off with a shovel.

I felt a kind of horror about the whole situation. My mother and I must have been very close while my father was gone. I was a baby, and she was probably lonely and unhappy, left alone to cope with my two-­year-­old brother, John, and me. But now my father was back.

FG: Oh, that’s quite a symbolic memory. The living paradise . . .

LA: Paradise lost. He was back, and the next thing I knew, my second brother, Bill, had been born.

FG: Was your crib in your mother’s room until then?

LA: I’m not sure. When I was ten days old, my father went to boot camp in Pennsylvania, leaving my mother and older brother, John, and me at his parents’ house. He was assigned to an army base in Cheyenne, Wyoming, so we followed him out there from Tennessee in our car. My mother drove thirty-­five miles per hour to spare the tires and save gas, so it must have taken us many days to get there.

John sat in the front seat beside my mother. She said he talked nonstop, and she focused on him because she didn’t want him to feel replaced by the new baby (me) or upset by his father’s disappearance. Later on, when I started talking, she said my first complete sentence was “Mommy, please make John stop talking all the time.”

My car seat was an orange crate on the floor of the backseat. It must have been very unsettling for a new baby, all alone on that shadowy floor, the car swaying, not knowing where I was or where my mother was or what was happening. The seat back was very high and padded, and my mother couldn’t really hear me over John’s chatter and the music on the radio and the roar of the engine and the hum of the tires on the road. So I was unable to signal when I was wet or hungry or frightened. I was fed and changed whenever we stopped for gas or for meals.

Once we reached Wyoming, my father was sent to Abilene, Texas, and we followed along in the car. I’ve seen some photos from Abilene, including one of my parents and my brother taken on Thanksgiving Day, but I don’t appear in any of them. It makes me wonder if they’d forgotten me on the back floor of the car.

In Abilene, my father, who was a doctor, was put on a troop train with the window shades closed. It was a secret mission, and we weren’t told where he was going.

He ended up in England, after a voyage across the North Atlantic on a troopship that was swarmed several times by German submarines. He talked of his horror at watching oil slicks and body parts and debris from the destroyed subs rise to the surface ofthe ocean. During one attack, he had to perform an emergency appendectomy using dinner forks as retractors because someone had forgotten to send along any surgical instruments. He received some kind of medal for this feat. One of his main jobs was to give shots of penicillin to the several hundred soldiers with syphilis on board.  

Meanwhile, my mother and John and I drove back to my grandparents’ in Tennessee. And eventually we drove to my mother’s home in upstate New York, where we lived in a cottage on a lake with two of my aunts and their children. Their husbands were also away fighting in the war.

I traveled forty-­two hundred miles in my orange crate during my first ten months, and I lived in seven different places by the time I was two and a half, to say nothing of all the motels we stopped at during our travels. It’s no wonder I became a bit of a nomad once I grew up.

I’m told I woke up crying many nights during this upheaval, at about 3:00 a.m. My poor mother would walk me to calm me down. But when she tried to put me back in my crib, I’d start crying again and wake up John, so she sometimes brought me back into bed with her. I can imagine that having been alone all day in the orange crate, I must have needed some human contact—­too bad for me that it was given by an exhausted and annoyed mother and only to shut me up.

No doubt my happy hours in my mother’s bed ended abruptly when my father came back. He used to complain that I was a show-­off, making cute faces at neighboring tables when we went out to dinner and rolling down the lawns outside restaurants in my smocked dress. But I was probably just trying to retrieve some of the attention I’d lost upon his return and the birth of my baby brother.

I hate to say it, but the tragedy for many babies born during wars was not that their fathers went away but rather that they came back! We never bonded with our fathers as infants, or they with us, because they weren’t around.

After my parents’ deaths, I read in my mother’s daybook from the year of my father’s return that he hit me in the head with a golf club. She gives no details, and it was never mentioned later on. I assume it was an accident, but I wish I knew for sure.

I must have complained a lot that I wasn’t a boy because I remember my mother always saying to me, “Yes, but you’re our only little girl.” What I minded most was that unlike my brothers I couldn’t pee standing up. Despite this handicap, I did believe Iwas a boy for several years. In the summer, I wore only shorts, no shirt, like my brothers. But when I was about six, the other kids started making fun of me, so I began wearing shirts. That same year, I started school and discovered I couldn’t wear jeans as my older brother did but instead had to wear dresses. This was a horrible shock.

When my father came home from working at the hospital, whoever was sitting in his chair had to move. My mother, who had been working just as hard as he all day, jumped up and began to serve him. Sometimes he went straight to bed with a headache, and she brought him a meal on a tray. But if she were sick, he was always at work. Marriage didn’t look like a fair deal to me.

FG: It seemed to me also that men were much more privileged in life than women. I had a tendency to say, “Yes, what a pity I’m not a boy.”

At the same time, my grandmother was telling me, “A woman is in no way inferior to a man, only different.”

I just couldn’t make sense of all that. Why should you think it was so impressive to be a woman when obviously women got the short end of the stick? All their preaching about feminism fell on deaf ears at that time.

Also, they were always talking about the Virgin Mary. But I wasn’t interested in the Virgin Mary in the least. It’s convenient because in Catholicism monotheism is mitigated. You can choose to be devoted to the aspect that you prefer. I didn’t feel allthat much enthusiasm for God the Father, and Christ was an ascetic, a little bit alien to my nature. The Holy Ghost was the only one of the Trinity I was interested in. The spirit of creation was my thing. I could understand it. I thought it was marvelous.

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