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Picasso, Cocteau and my life with the French avante-garde
Personal Reminiscences of Francois Lucet
As told to Marianne Berardi
July 9,12,13,14,15,17
Francois Lucet has been involved in the art world all his life, as an artist, collector, dealer, and inveterate world traveler. His artistic and personal journey began in his native France in the decades following the Second World War-when the giants of early French modernism were in their late maturity, and still creating with incredible fervor and energy. Heritage Magazine is pleased to present this never-before published account of Mr. Lucet’s experiences as a theatre apprentice to Jean Cocteau in Paris, as an assistant to Pablo Picasso in Mougins, and as a friend of the first-generation collectors of African art in France. Mr. Lucet immigrated to the United States in 1968, and has lived in San Francisco, New Orleans, the Berkshires, Dallas, and Los Angeles. He currently lives and works in California. Heritage’s fall fine arts sales will feature a number of works from his personal collection.
My early life
My birthday was 15th August 1946. My family was from Normandy. I was born at home in Chevannes, a small village 32 kilometers south of Paris, and raised in a beautiful bourgeois house in Corbeil-Essonnes some ten miles from Paris. My mother was from Bayeux.

My father was a spoiled brat. He had been born wealthy. In some ways he was a good man, very artistic, but he disregarded his kids. I had five brothers and one sister. He was a selfish man. He got into politics, but wasn’t any good at that. Then it was teaching. He loved to play the piano and violin--but he would never allow us to touch these instruments. Never. Never. Never.

My mother was a goddess. She introduced me to sensitivity, which every artist must have. Mother inspired me in the arts. She was my guide of the love for art. She also taught me to respect women.
Moving to Paris:
Gerard Gauguin, Jean Cocteau and Alexandre de Paris

I graduated at 13 1/2 and had my first love affair. It was with a gorgeous woman, a very wealthy widow friend of my mother’s, although my mother never knew. I was a very tall guy who looked much older than I was, and I felt l could do anything--conquer the world--because I had the love of this beautiful woman. My interests were in the art world.

So I went to Paris in 1959, leaving behind the beautiful woman who didn’t want to go with me, and there met Gerard Gauguin. We both loved the theatre and enrolled in theatre courses on the Place de la Contrescarpe close to the Sorbonne. Gerard apprenticed with Raymond Rouleau, a powerhouse with the stage, and I studied with Jean Cocteau, one of the most multi-talented artists of the 20th century. He was a director, poet, novelist, painter, playwright, set designer, and actor. His most famous film was Beauty and the Beast (1946). When I got to know him he was at the end of his film career but still heavily involved theatrical productions. He was a very social person, very much en vogue with high society of Paris. Cocteau was gay, and made no attempt to hide it, but he didn’t push it in your face either. His favorite actor was his close friend and longtime partner Jean Marais, who was in almost every one of his films.

I remember a funny story. One night I was with my girlfriend, a stunning model who worked for the elegant couturier Madame Gres, at a club with Jean Cocteau, Jean Marais, and some of his friends when some guy pinched my butt. I said, “What the hell,” protesting and everything when Jean Cocteau came to my defense and said to the guy: “Non. Propriete privee.” In English that means “Private property.” I loved that Cocteau.

I remember in September 1959 when I told my father I was certain I wanted an artistic life, and an artistic education, he said “I will never finance your study if you go to the art world.” He said it with no animosity and never raised his voice. I remember so clearly that we were standing in the garden, and his words sounded as though he couldn’t care less. So I left home for good and never regretted it. I shared a one-room flat with Gerard Gauguin near the Porte St.-Denis, a red-light district of Paris. We stayed together for 3 months and I did everything to be able to pay for my studies with Cocteau: cleaned dishes in a restaurant, sold books in stalls along the Seine and red balloons at the fair, and was a guide on a tourist bus. I remember an American once asked why everyone was so busy cleaning their buildings. I told him, “In France if you restore your property, you can deduct those expenses from your taxes. In effect, you can avoid paying taxes altogether in this way. This was one of Malraux’s laws. He was a genius. Everything looked beautiful!”

My apprenticeship with Jean Cocteau at the Theatre Royale included setting stage lighting, designing perspective for the sets, constructing and painting them-everything. The best production I worked on was La Facture starring Jacqueline Maillan and Bernard Noel. I even tried acting. I learned diction, vocabulary, how to move, and, oh, I was terrible! Once I had a role in Racine’s Andromaque-but not a production of Cocteau. I was supposed to be Pyrrhus, but tripped when trying to kill Hermione. I said “merde” so loudly that everyone started smiling. Then turning aside I said, “We are now improvising Moliere.” Trust me, we had a good time but that was the end of my acting career.

Jean Cocteau was immensely talented, and became the biggest influence on my life in art. Some years later Pablo told me how important Cocteau had been to him, too. “I never would have been anything in life without Jean Cocteau,” he told me. “There were plenty of talented, good-looking artists like myself when I came to Paris. I was able to achieve what I did because Cocteau introduced me to all the right people. He knew everyone and made sure I did, too.”

At one point I had to tell Monsieur Cocteau, “I have to stop my studies. I don’t have any money.” “Give me a couple days,” he said. Then this man, with the best address book in Paris, introduced me to the famous hairstylist Alexandre de Paris [born Louis Alexandre Raimon], who did the hair for movie stars, socialites, celebrities, the glitterati, and leading couturiers during the 1960s. For example he styled Elizabeth Taylor’s hair for the 1963 Hollywood film Cleopatra. When I knew him, Alexandre’s shop on the Rue du Faubourg St.-Honore was a huge operation employing 28 hairdressers, 7 colorists, 4 who did permanents, and a general manager.

Alexandre knew I was an art student, knew I could draw, so he hired me to draw his clients -not so much portraits of them but portraits of the amazing hairdos he made for them. “With these sketches, l earned good money, big tips, and I could pay for my art study. I was also introduced to the world of film and theatre, the world of both Alexandre and Cocteau, where Cocteau was creating these magnificent set designs. Surrealist. Completely revolutionary.” Gerard and I continued our studies while I drew for Alexandre, who called me “Bebe.” Unfortunately, when my father sold our childhood house in Corbeil-Essonnes to return to Normandy, nearly all the work I had done with Alexandre was gone.

On one occasion, Alexandre, who didn’t speak a word of English, was so swamped with work that he said, “Bebe, I need your help. Go over to the Maharanee de Baroda and do her hair.” I started to protest but Alexandre said to me, “Francois, you are an artist and you’ve watched me do hair for over a year. Just go over and do it.” So, you must know I never touched hair, but I donned the hair piece of Alexandre, kept my mouth closed, smiled, and did her hair. Thank God she was so drunk. She was unable to see how bad it was. But Alexandre said to me the next day that I had done a good job.

Meeting Picasso

Jean Cocteau invited me to a dinner he hosted at his Paris apartment on the Rue de Montpensier in 1962. Pablo was there and movie stars were there. The great cultural minister of France, Andre Malraux, was present, too. This is when I first met Pablo. The discussion centered around the French government’s plans to put on a big show of Pablo’s work in the Grand Palais and its neighbor, the Petit Palais. Cocteau was an advisor, and I eventually had a hand in assisting with the installation of this ambitious exhibition of paintings and sculptures from Pablo’s personal collection.

In 1965 I moved to Marseille in the south of France got a job a cruise line Paquet line (the Renaissance) traveled the world for 3 years. I visited Pablo every 3 weeks in Mougis and helped with Jean Leymary for the show at the Grand Palais in 1966. He was 82 or 83 at this time. The man I met I did not ever read about in any account of Pablo. Pablo was very fragile. A fragile genius, sensitive, caring and very careful with people, never bragging, very kind and respectful, never belittling anyone, but he had lost his masculinity, and feared that he was not a man anymore. He never talked to me about it, but it was clear to me. Here was this Spaniard, who was as strong as a bull, but fragile now, which bothered him so much. His wife, Jacqueline, was devoted to him all the same, and was very feminine. As a man, I had to be very careful: I liked very much Jacqueline. With me she was very feminine, too, and I just loved those two people.

In fact, I have a funny story. One time Pablo and I were having coffee and I said to him, “Gosh, I think Jacqueline is so pretty. So feminine. I love her.” Pablo looked at me a moment and said, “Why did you never say that before?” “Well, you never asked me,” I said to which he replied, “Oh thank God, Francois. I was wondering if you were gay since all of Cocteau’s `boys’ are always coming to visit you!”

Jacqueline shielded Pablo from the leeches. People would come, even the children, and want things from Pablo, ask him for things. Francoise Gilot [his ex-wife] who was much younger than Pablo used him as a platform to be known.

In the summertime of 1965, the same year I began as an assistant to Pablo, I also went to work for the Paquet Line, on a cruise ship called the Renaissance, a job I got through a close friend of mine. His parents were the owners of the Paquet line, the Defferre from Marseille. She was a Paquet. They were launching their new boat, the Renaissance, and my friend asked me if I would be interested in running both the boutique and the salon, for men and women. I went to see the cruise ship, it was fabulous, and said yes. We had the galleries Lafayette, and thought Alexandre might like to run the salon. He told me that he did not want his name connected with a cruise ship, so he would not get involved. Then I asked the stylist Jacques Dessanges and he said yes. So, this was the way I ended up exploring the high seas, from 1965 to 1968. I ran the boutique on the ship- a convenience store, really, for travelers who needed bathing suits or suntan lotion or whatever. We sailed the Mediterranean and to Africa. In Africa I began buying African sculpture (L’art premier, as it is now called in France) and began bringing it back to France with me on board the Renaissance. I bought some for myself, I gave some to Pablo because we shared the enthusiasm for it, and I sold some.

African Art and Helena Rubenstein

During my early years in Paris I met a fabulous woman, Helena Rubenstein, who was the person who first got me interested in African art. Passionate about art, she always had artists, writers, dealers and collectors at her house on the Quai de Bethune on the Ile St. Louis. Helena was a grande dame. She would go to the Paris flea market, marché aux puces, and buy African sculpture and I would go with her. She had a fabulous collection and also loved to go to the [Pierre] Vérité [Gallery] where Matisse, Malraux, Leger and Vlaminck were all regular visitors. At the marche aux puces I met Henri Kamer, Charles Ratton, and other important early collectors of African art. This was before lots of other people started collecting African art.

In the 50’s and 60’s in Paris if you really were a serious collector Charles Ratton was number one, and Henri Kamer and the Verite were numbers two and three. Henri built the Tisch collection (eventually sold to Disney and donated to the Smithsonian) and Nelson Rockefeller’s collection.

I used to assemble boxes and boxes of African carvings, masks and baskets for Henri Kamer when I was in Africa with the Renaissance. He had great taste and respected that in others. He was a great piano player (jazz), and a great cook--a Renaissance man of sorts. During the 1960s, Henri was in and out of new York all the time. He had a gallery on Madison Avenue in the building Sotheby’s Parke-Bernet bought. He also had a place in the Olympia Tower on Fifth Avenue--an Onassis building-as well as a loft in Soho. Henri died 14 years ago in Rome after having a fabulous meal, which was so apropos. I have no idea what happened to his collection. Through him I was able to meet the president of Cote d’Ivoire Houfouet Boigny, Mobutu of Zaire (that is another story). He was the biggest collector of art premier in the world before he was deposed of his power, and he was planing to build the best museum for art premier in the world in Jebolite north of Kinshasa. Sadly nothing happened. I always wonder what happen to all the tresor he had. I went there, into three warehouses the size of an airport hangar. I will always wonder what happened to his collection.

My old roommate Gerard and I made money by going to the Drouot and buying baskets of African sculpture. Drouot would sell these, art deco pieces, and all sorts of objects by the basketful. We would take these baskets--cram them into Gerard Peugeot at 4 AM on Friday mornings and go sell them at the Paris flea market. It was better money than I made with Alexandre; in France at that time you had to do what you had to do. Gerard and I engaged in this trade for four years until he decided to leave Paris to become a chiropractor! He worked first for the Tour de France and then opened his own practice in Royan north of Bordeaux where he spent the rest of his life. But for me, the work with Cocteau, and then Alexandre, was the springboard to many wonderful people and opportunities. I had a very good time.

African art, Picasso, and the Chouette

In 1965 I brought back some crates of African sculpture, masks, and baskets on the deck of the Renaissance, and gave one crate to Pablo. He was so happy to have it. He just loved gifts, and it was easy for me to oblige because he was good to me. I knew he particularly loved baskets so I always brought him crates with baskets resembling animals and funky objects. Anyway, because the crates were on the open deck during the crossing, they were bombarded with the excrement of seagulls, and we had to hose them off when I got them home.

The following year, in 1966, I remember Pablo saying to me, “Here, take this chouette (owl) and put it on the crate next time to scare off the mouettes (gulls)!” The chouette was Pablo’s sculpture of a metal owl painted with house paints. The piece already existed, and was hanging around in what we called his “plaster studio” where he made his sculptures.

Pablo must have loved the shape of the owl because he produced more than one. I did not see him making this owl or painting it. He just gave it to me as a finished piece to use as a scarecrow, which we strapped onto one of his crates with rope for my next trip. When I went back two months later to Notre Dame de Vie in Mougins, I gave Pablo back the crate filled with the African art and the chouette, and he said, “Keep it. Cela t’aidera avec les mouettes.” I thanked him and that was it. I’ve had it ever since.

Another thing happened that same day. Pablo was not feeling too well and a
British gentleman named Roland Penrose (the famous collector), was waiting to see Pablo, but Jacqueline was not happy. So I left with Jean Marais and went and had dinner at the Voile d’Or in Villefranche. By the way, Jacqueline did like to cook and Pablo loved to play in the kitchen.

Some time later I gave Pablo a crate of African sculpture, and he handed me an envelope containing a drawing of a picador inside as a gift. “Look at it when you leave my house,” he told me. Pablo was shy. Although he was extremely generous-you should see the paintings he gave his hairdresser!-he hated it when people expressed themselves about his art in front of him. For him it seemed phony, so I only opened it and looked at it when I left him. Then on other occasions Jacqueline gave me envelopes with other gifts of drawings, which included the
Artist and Model in the Studio.

Last period with Picasso

In 1968 I took an apartment in Beausoleil so I could be with Pablo in the summertime. He was working on prints. He worked alone and produced many gravures. He loved working during the night when no one could bother him. Although he lacked strength, he still had the energy of a bull. I know he was impotent but he never complained about anything, never raised his voice, always had a smile on his face. He worked and Jacqueline shielded him from leeches and hangers-on.

Pablo did not speak English, only French and Spanish, so he used to ask me what this article or that letter in English meant, and I used to translate for him.

“Francois,” Pablo once asked me, “Don’t you want to have your photo taken beside me?” I replied, “No, I’m not a tourist.”

With Pablo and Jacqueline I spent two evenings with the Zervoses, who were compiling catalogues of the artist’s work. I loved those two people. They were real art lovers, very serious, and she was a wonderful cook.

In 1968 Pablo was not well, and Jacqueline did not want any one to know. I was in and out of Mougins that all summer (1968). Eventually Alexandre needed me in Paris, so in 1968 I gave away the boutique on the Renaissance to a young couple in Marseille and went back to Paris. But France was in a big mess-students in revolt.

The last time I stayed with Pablo was when I said goodbye to him when I was coming to America in ‘71. I told him, “Pablo, I will have a look and go to America.” He said to me, “I wish I was welcome in America.” As he had been involved in the Communist party in France, he was very generous. But he loved money, and was always a very smart businessman.

In November 1971 when I was leaving France, Pablo said, “I am going to send you a drawing, Francois.” Some months later I received a tube in the mail and inside was the big drawing [Homme et Courtisanes]. No note, nothing. Only the drawing he promised me.

I went to America, first to New York which I didn’t like much except for Soho and seeing friends. Then I went out to California, first to San Francisco, and then to L.A. I fell in love with L.A. But I went back to France in February 1972 and talked with Malraux in Paris. I didn’t know whether to stay in America. Malraux, a brilliant man, told me, “Francois, listen to your heart. If you can feel that you can do more as a human being in America, then follow your heart. Go there.” I did and I’ve remained in this wonderful country ever since.

On learning about Picasso’s death

On the 8th of April at 8am my time I got a call from Jacqueline to tell me Pablo died (1973). She adored that man. It was an unconditional love she had for him. She really loved without conditions. Three or four years later she called me to ask if I wanted to buy their house at La Californie, near, Cannes but I said no, I didn’t have the money. That was the last time I spoke with her. About ten years later she killed herself. She was depressed after Pablo died, and after spending more than twenty years with him she just couldn’t live without him.

Everything happened to me because of my friendship with Cocteau or Helena or Malraux or Alexandre or Pablo. They all were connected. I was a very, very fortunate young man to have had these geniuses as my mentors. There is nothing I’ve ever done as an artist that wasn’t affected by Pablo. He worked with such joy and freedom. Even handling his materials-a piece of rope-was something inspiring to watch. He made it look so easy to create. That has had a lasting impression on me.