I haven’t posted any of my assignments lately, but here’s the latest. It was a very open assignment – 1,200 words of a story, however I wanted to do it and a choice of prompts. I picked the one ‘Where’s The Baby?’ and returned to my non-fiction interests. I’m a little uncertain about this one as I don’t think it is what the tutor has in mind, but well, we’ll see. Your thoughts extremely welcome, as ever!
The problem with biography is that there is never a way of uncovering the truth of a person’s life; instead, all we ever have are partial stories; well-lit official versions and candle-lit private versions, and in between them, glimpses of dark shapes under dustsheets in the shadows of a person’s life.
So here’s an official version of an intriguing story: Tamara Gorski, spoiled and cosseted daughter of a wealthy Polish family living in Moscow, marries Tadeusz de Lempicke, playboy lawyer. They live in St Petersburg in luxury appropriate to their class, but the Bolshevik revolution is coming to change their lives forever. Tamara’s family flee, in good time, but the Lempickes stay on because Tadeusz is wrapped up in politics. The secret police arrive in the middle of the night and take him away, a common story this one, although no less terrifying for that. But Tamara shows her mettle. Nourished on a rich diet of entitlement, she has the conviction of her family that everything can be bought, somehow, and she finds herself a corrupt official whom she pays with sexual favours. Tadeusz’s release is agreed, but there’s a delay. Tamara is packed off on the train to her extended family, awaiting her in Finnish exile. They move on to Denmark and finally France, where they settle in Paris. At some point, Tadeusz joins them, but he is a broken man, depressed and apathetic after his incarceration. From the depths of dislocation and genteel poverty, Tamara saves them again. In 1919, she begins art studies, by 1922 she is exhibiting and selling her work, by 1925 her style is refined, and by 1927 she is winning awards and painting the pictures that will sell to collectors like Madonna and Jack Nicholson by the end of the century for over a million dollars. It is a meteoric rise to fame and fortune by anyone’s standards.
But this is by no means the whole story. If we only heard this story, Tamara de Lempicke would be straightforwardly a heroine, a romantic hybrid between a female savior, a proto-feminist and an artistic genius. What complicates this admirable image is the presence of a small daughter, clinging cheerfully to her mother’s arm in a series of black and white photographs, as the two stroll down the promenade in Nice, a few months after the family’s arrival in France. There is nothing secret about these pictures; family history has opened up and found a place for little Kizette de Lempicke, who must be all of three years old. But Kizette would always be problematic when it came to Tamara creating her own legend. When Kizette was grown up, she was instructed to pass as Tamara’s sister, when she was little she was shunted around between relations and boarding schools. Kizette was ostensibly the sacrifice Tamara made to art. There was no place for a small child in her studio where she worked, or in the Parisian cafés where she smoked and drank the afternoons away, or at the wild socializing in the evenings, the crazy parties of les années folles that competed in outrageousness. When Tamara threw them, her trademark was to have naked serving girls acting as plates for the food. The bohemian life was not sympathetic to childcare, and if Tamara was going to be a famous artist, it was then, as now, not simply a question of painting pictures. Art was a lifestyle choice, not just something you did.
So, the official line of the unofficial history, is that Kizette was neglected in a good cause, while her mother took on the role of the family breadwinner and made art history on the side. But there’s still the problem of those photographs. If Kizette was a small child when they arrived in France, when was she born? Tamara de Lempicke made several adjustments to her age as she grew older, and with admirable foresight kept Kizette’s birth date a well-guarded secret. One possible version of Tamara’s story is that she fell pregnant in order to ensure marriage to Tadeusz. She had chased him since her mid-teens, turning up at a ball in a peasant girl’s costume with a flock of live geese in order to get his attention. There was no great incentive for the families on either side to marry them off, and we know for sure that Tamara was ruthless where her own desires were concerned. A potentially embarrassing pregnancy could certainly account for the abrupt haste with which they were married.
But where, then, was Kizette as a baby? Was she in the flat that night, when the secret police broke in and arrested her father? Was she starving alongside her mother as they tried to track him down in the conflict-torn city? Did she accompany her mother on the train ride that took them away from their homeland forever? If she was there, it is a very different story we would need to tell ourselves about Tamara’s battles in revolutionary St Petersburg, and one that might give her an air of nobility, one that might justify more convincingly her intense need to restore the family fortunes on the profits of her art. And yet there is not a single mention of Kizette during this period, and it seems much likelier that shortly after her birth, she was handed over to Tamara’s extended family, and cared for by her grandmother and a battalion of aunts. It seems much likelier that she escaped with them in the first wave of refugees; a sensible move that protected the little girl, but which makes a nonsense of Tamara’s later desertion of motherhood in the cause of art. If Tamara never really brought up Kizette until poverty and exile in Paris obliged her to do so, then her escape from domesticity into the decadent art world is not the act of a dedicated, unexpectedly talented mother, but the work of a selfish and self-preserving bohemian who ought never to have become a mother at all.
And yet those black and white photos from Nice celebrate this strange, unconventional mother-daughter relationship as much as they damn it. In the pictures, Tamara and Kizette are clearly swinging hands, the little girl skips and on their faces are genuine, carefree smiles. This is loving connection. The absence of baby Kizette in Tamara’s life history, or at least in the one that she fabricated for public consumption, is awkward because it works to unravel the other stories that she built up about herself. But when it comes to understanding mothers, I wonder to what extent we allow certain acceptable stories to take precedence over the improvisations of reality. Perhaps one of the most tenacious stories in our culture is that women must put motherhood first, above all other demands and concerns; that no woman is sympathetic unless she can be humbled by love for a child. Is the story that we need to tell here one about Tamara de Lempicke’s selfishness and dishonesty, or does it really concern culture’s stubborn inflexibility in its beliefs as to what a mother should be? Perhaps little Kizette’s smile tells us all we need to know.