The Semi-Cautionary Tale of Dora Maar

I recently came across a feature article in the Summer 2017 issue of Porter magazine about Dora Maar, who was a brilliant artist and photographer in her own right yet was remembered almost exclusively as being one of Picasso's muses and mistresses. This story captivated me because Picasso the Great was able to bend, and eventually break, this strong and intelligent woman. Still, she did not allow herself to be completely destroyed.

I wanted to know more.

On one fateful day in 1936, a young Dora met Picasso at Café des Deux Magots. Besotted, they carried on a seven-year long, obsessive love affair. But he was a cruel man. He pitted Dora against Marie-Therèse Walter, another mistress, to battle for his affections–vile–which downright drove her mad.

(Most women–like most people, in general–naturally have a deep-seated fear of having her significant other leave her for someone else. This toxic fear can be all-consuming and manifests itself in detrimental ways–shattering one's sense of self and creating the illusion of becoming nothing without the other. That is why it is so important to maintain a wholeness and completeness within ourselves. We cannot prevent someone from leaving us; we can only say "Goodbye and good luck.")

Picasso, with his mean, narcissistic ways, couldn't stand that Dora excelled in photography. He urged her to abandon her art form for painting instead, convincing her that inside every photographer was a repressed painter. The second she did, though, he swooped in and took over her equipment, lights, and backdrop. Moreover, he wielded his influence by imposing his signature Cubistic style of painting on her, shutting out the possibility for her own individuality to bloom. 

The final blow fell on Dora in 1943 when Picasso left her for Françoise Gilot. With her heart gouged and discarded, Dora was found sitting on the steps of her house naked and unhinged. Picasso's psychoanalyst then administered three weeks of electroshock therapy for the treatment of her nervous breakdown, which was forbidden at the time. Thereafter, Picasso bought a home for her, in which she lived alone and haunted by painful memories for many years.

But the story doesn't end there:

In the late 1950s, Dora Maar was resurrected. She returned to her art and a vibrant social life. Picasso never ceased his attempts to cause her pain and humiliation. She outlived him by 24 years.

To sum it up, here's a passage from Dora Maar: With and Without Picasso by Mary Ann Caws:

Her poems, kept in a medium-sized notebook, end with a sketch headed ‘Stage set for a tragedy’. The stage was indeed set, and the drama enacted. But Dora Maar’s recuperation through her painting, her photography, and her private poetic record of pain and something beyond it, is not a tragedy, but rather a courageous reclamation of her own life, even in–perhaps especially in–solitude.

A Brunch Burger Story

From the menu at Manuela

A burger on the menu is a fail-safe item for when nothing else interests you–not the braised rabbit; not the lamb skewers with couscous; not the grilled quail with cherry sauce. It's a solid stand-by. You know what you're getting with a burger: a bun and a patty of beef. However, when it's rendered unfamiliar, you can feel as though the rug has been pulled out from under you.

This past weekend, I met my friend Carmen for late brunch/early lunch in DTLA. She had been in her home country of Switzerland for months and we were long overdue for a catch-up. As we hit the streets, she suggested we go around the corner and check out Manuela, the restaurant that recently opened in the same building that houses the art gallery Hauser Wirth & Schimmel.

Originally, she thought we could casually grab a burger at Umami Burger, but discovering something new together sounded far more enticing. The restaurant had been open for less a week and we easily found two seats at the white marble bar. Louise Bourgeois' Spider sculpture loomed behind us in the open courtyard.

After skimming the menu, we engaged in the usual "what are you having" exchange. The dishes on Manuela's menu were distinctly rooted in Tex-Mex cuisine yet infused with a locally-sourced and seasonal spin. Everything was elevated for the sophisticated and in-the-know crowd--the duck breast is cured, the chicken is smoked and the hot sauce is fermented.

"What are you thinking?" I asked Carmen, still undecided.

"I think I might get the burger," she replied, clearly intent on it. "Wait, what do you think they mean by 'deer burger'?" 

"Deer... Like venison. You know, a cute little deer."

"Oh my god, no... I can't do that. I can't eat a deer!" she exclaimed with widened eyes. "Especially not for brunch! Why would they do that?" 

We both envisioned sweet, little Bambi weeping before us with thick wet lashes. Needless to say, our reliable burger option was effectively nixed off the list. Meanwhile, the biscuits and gravy sounded too heavy, the cornmeal pancakes seemed too breakfast-y at that hour, and we weren't quite hungry enough for the BBQ ribs. It was at that moment that I knew what to order. 

"I'm going to get the chilaquiles!" I declared. (As a Texan at heart, I do love chilaquiles.)

"What's that?" she wondered. 

How could I explain this hot mess to a Swiss-Italian person? "It's tortilla chips sautéed in a tomato-chile salsa. Some bits are soft and some are crispy and then they put a fried egg on top."


You really can't lose with what is, essentially, breakfast nachos. I was delighted to have seen it on the menu. Manuela's version was top-notch. Every chip was perfectly coated with the tangy, spicy salsa and simultaneously soft and crispy, which is key. The delicious pile of chips was garnished with guacamole, crumbled queso fresca and a drizzle of crema. The egg, which came from one of their 12 rare-breed chickens from the garden out back, was truly the cherry on top.

As we were chowing down, a waitress breezed past us carrying a classic-looking hamburger. You could say that if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck...

"That must be the deer burger," Carmen remarked. "It looks good... But it's still a deer."

Ironic how what she thought was unfamiliar turned out to be more familiar than the seemingly familiar. We continued on with our chilaquiles




Is That All There Is? Que Sera Sera.

I've been reading my daily horoscope on a near-religious basis since I was eighteen years old and there's only one astrologist that I turn to for these forecasts: Holiday Mathis. She's masterful and wise and eloquent. I haven't found a better written horoscope column than hers, though, I can't take full credit for discovering it.

It was the year 2000 and I was hostessing that summer at a swanky restaurant in Downtown Houston to make extra money before moving to New York that August. I noticed that an attorney from L.A., who was in town on a three-month long case, would ask for the Houston Chronicle every time he came in for lunch. He told me that, despite traveling far and wide, he had never read a better horoscope column than Holiday's. Like him, I became hooked.

What I love about the way Holiday Mathis writes her forecasts is that there's always some guiding principle in it. She never says bogus things like "You will meet your one true love at the coffee shop around the corner at 3 p.m. on Friday." Her words paint a bigger perspective about life, and the beauty in her art lies in how she connects all of that greatness to you as an individual. "How does she know?" you'll wonder.

There are indeed times where you wish she didn't know. Like on the morning of Wednesday, June 19th, 2013, when I read this:

LIBRA (Sept. 23-Oct. 23). It goes something like this: You stray from the boring path, get lost, struggle, think you know where you're going, wind up worse off, try again, find your way back and are happy for the adventure of it all.

I mean, the woman summed up my whole adulthood in one sentence! If that's not talent, I don't know what is. I couldn't have said it better myself. You'd think she had to have lived a hundred lives to be that wise.

Please, oh please, tell me that this is not the story of my life, Holiday Mathis. 

This particular forecast really scared me because it's true. If you were to follow my life story up until now, you'd find that it's a bunch of scribbles instead of a strong, steady line. If you want to experience what that might feel like, imagine a really bad parallel parking job where you have to make a million minor adjustments before fitting into a parking spot. Yeah. That. It gets to the point where you wish the universe will just throw you a bone. Or, better yet, a fortune cookie. With the answer to all questions inside.

Then again, I'd have no material for this blog. (Could enough scribbles become a masterpiece? Like a Cy Twombly?)

Anyway, point is, I'm taking matters into my own hands. I'm going to consult a psychic. 







On Being a Guest

Many years ago, while I was on a buying trip in Paris, I attended a dinner at the home of an artist's widow. She was an elderly woman who was Spanish by descent and still fiery and sharp despite her age. As the after-dinner conversation lingered on into the night, she suddenly got up from her seat and asked the table, "Is there anything else that I could offer you? A nice dessert wine, perhaps?" Obviously, it was a cue that she was ready to call it a night. I graciously shook my head, but another guest, an art dealer, shouted out, "That would be lovely! What do you have?"

Unbelievable! I recoiled, aghast that someone could be so insensitive to her polite signal. She, herself, was taken aback. "Oh!" she exclaimed, "I didn't think anyone would actually say yes. I'm actually very tired, but, I suppose, since I offered, I should be a proper hostess."  She went into her kitchen, brought back a bottle of dessert wine, and poured him a splash. 

It's a memory that sticks out like a sore thumb; a reminder that always made me aware of what it meant to be a guest. Guests should be as gracious as the hosts, as I was taught. My father drilled it into my head at a very early age. I used to think that he liked to impose his rules, just for the sake of it:

"Never go to a dinner party empty-handed," he would say, "Always bring something. Like a tin of cookies." Yes, Dad. (This would later become a bottle of wine or something of the like. But he would bring anything thoughtful, really. Even when visiting a neighbor, he might bring over an interesting newspaper clipping or a sack of ripe pears from our tree.)

"Don't forget to pay compliments to the host" Yes, Dad. "Even if the food isn't good, tell them that it was a wonderful meal. After all, it's never about the food."

"And send a thank you card when you get home. A handwritten one. Nice penmanship; no mistakes." I know, I know—use a pencil and a ruler to draw faint lines and erase them after the message has been written in ink. 

"Wait until the eldest person or host has taken the first bite before you start. It's rude to dig in." Yes, Dad. I've always waited! When have I not done this?

"When you put food on your plate, don't take too much. Don't be greedy. If you're still hungry after you've finished what's on your plate, only then do you take a second helping." Got it. I'm very aware of that.

"Don't slurp or eat too fast. If you're eating soup, remember to tilt the bowl and spoon the soup away from you." I know! 

"If there's one bite left, offer it to the table before taking it." Sigh.

"Oh, and if you have to use the bathroom, turn on the bathroom sink faucet." Geez! Okay, Dad!  

As a child, it felt like a lot to remember. How can I have fun if I'm thinking about all of these rules, I used to wonder. Like all of the ingredients that go into a cake batter, everything gets folded in and fully incorporated. Before you know it, it's baked into you. I like to think of myself as someone who's acutely aware of manners and etiquette, but not a total stickler. Although, admittedly, I do find myself cringing at the occasional social misstep. What can I say, like father, like daughter.