Kiki of Montparnasse was a voluptuous, ribald woman with a mop of curly brown hair. Born into poverty in the provinces, she had traveled to Paris for work and and was adopted by the artists who gave Montparnasse its special life. Kiki sang in nightclubs and painted and modeled for Man Ray’s bizarre photographs. Like Desnos she knew everyone. She went to every party and was always in the center of the photograph, striking a provocative pose with a huge smile, and her vulgar jokes were never mean. Desnos adored her and every time she saw him she came running with her arms flung open to embrace him. I always teased her, “Eh, Kiki, cut me off some of that Brie,” in honor of her distinctive, triangular nez.
“My mother said I would never be pretty, with this nose,” she told me once as I sat at a table on the terrasse with Louis before work. We sat here every morning, and our friends came and went.
I asked, “Your mother never heard of Cleopatra?” Kiki looked quite the vamp in her trademark black dress and hose.
“When I was twelve I finally got a job, as an artist’s model,” Kiki laughed, “and my mother yelled, ‘Whore!’ and kicked me out. And there I was, out on the street and still a virgin—and unable to earn a centime for it. The soldiers returning from the War thought me too innocent! But I was frightened to sell my body. Nobody believes that but it’s true. A whore’s life is a shit existence.”
The Queen of Montparnasse stood on the terrasses every morning to survey the tables, and when her heavily made-up eyes picked out some shocked tourist or prim-looking family she’d trill, “What can I do for these nice people?” Up went her skirt to give them a view of her buttocks. Kiki never wore undergarments.
“It is the Rising Sun!” yelled Tsuguji Foujita, the Japanese painter, when Kiki’s bare bottom regaled a visiting doctor of the Samuri class from Tokyo. “A new flag!” Foujita saluted and Kiki dropped her skirt and laughed. Foujita was both distinguished and strange with his straight black bangs and round glasses, his moustache shaved into a tiny “M” and his ears pierced with rings. The Japanese doctor stood up then, and in pained politeness he bowed low to Kiki. Foujita rose from his table too, and he craned his neck to see the sketch of Kiki that Louis was holding over his head to show her. Foujita bowed to Louis’s sketch and then turned and bowed to the doctor. The doctor, deferring to his more famous countryman, bowed even lower but Foujita matched him, forcing the poor man to fold himself in half. Then with her skirt over her head, Kiki bowed low too.
Another man stood up to look at Louis’s sketch, but he did not bow. This tall, gangling stranger walked toward us. “That’s Marcel Duchamp,” Louis said to me. “He’s back in Paris.” Duchamp had a bony and angular face somewhat like Artaud’s but he was nowhere near as handsome, and his eyes were beady. I recognized him from Entre’Acte, the first Surrealist film, playing chess on a rooftop with Man Ray. Never truly a Dadaist and not really a Surrealist, Duchamp had maintained his bizarre, intercontinental psychic relationship with Desnos without ever meeting the poet, and he managed to hang on to an amicable, if less spectacular, friendship with André Breton. As Louis had put it, “Duchamp admiringly mocks Breton from afar.”
“He’s the one who drew a moustache on the Mona Lisa,” I remembered. “We heard about that even in Spital!”
“It was actually a reproduction of the Mona Lisa. But Duchamp received threats to his life for it,” said Louis.
Seeing Marcel Duchamp now in real life after all the stories, I was struck by a certain callousness about him, an inert quality. His round eyes darted animatedly about but his full lips hung silent, almost slack, like those of a dead man or one who had suffered a stroke. Yet as Kiki watched, her hands on her hips, Duchamp seized Louis’s charcoal pencil and, with Louis still holding high the sketch, began to add a moustache and a beard to the portrait. Louis laughed. Kiki’s cheers rang out.
“Look down the street,” said Louis, still holding the paper for Duchamp to mangle. Foujita had stopped and was drawing a face on each of the eggs of a street vendor. A crowd of young women gathered to watch while the owner stood nodding a little. Louis said, “Now, there’s an idea! I could sketch the women I want to pick up. I’ll do it with chalk on the sidewalk tomorrow.”
“Ah, women trail after Foujita because he has hot running water and a bathtub,” I said. “You need to invest in a washroom, Louis.”
“They cost too much,” Louis complained. “But I have hot water now. What’s wrong with a sponge bath?”
“Not romantic, man. Women want to soak,” I teased him. “They want bubbles, candles.”