Lessons from my grandma on art, sex and life

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Lessons from my grandma on art, sex and life
In a photo provided via the collection of Howard and Cherry Kaneff, a painting by Sandor Klein of Annette Nancarrow, born Annette Margolis in 1907 New York, a painter herself and the grandmother of New York Times columnist Bret Stephens. “She was a cultural boundary-breaker in an age of fearfulness and isolationism,” writes Stephens. “She was a sexually confident woman who fell in and out of love with impressive, sometimes domineering men, while never allowing herself to become dependent on any of them.” Via collection of Howard and Cherry Kaneff, via The New York Times.

by Bret Stephens

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- My father once asked his mother, artist Annette Nancarrow, what she thought of Leon Trotsky. It wasn’t a political question. He just wanted her impression of the exiled Bolshevik, whom she had first met in Mexico City in the late 1930s, in the studio of her close friend (and, my father suspected, future lover) Diego Rivera.

“Well, I was surprised to see the leader of the proletariat so elegantly dressed,” she recalled, many decades after Trotsky’s murder by a Soviet agent in 1940. “His attire was impeccable, and I was particularly struck by the Parisian calfskin gloves he took off of his beautifully manicured hands.”

The answer was vintage Nancarrow. As a painter, she saw the part of the surface that revealed the inner man — the bourgeois fop within the fiery revolutionary. As a judge of character, she sensed why he had lost his power struggle with Josef Stalin for control of the Soviet Union: People who take care of their fingernails don’t usually enjoy getting them bloody. And as a connoisseur of style, she appreciated good leather.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about my grandmother ever since I saw the “Vida Americana” exhibit at the Whitney Museum in New York. The exhibit showcases the work of Mexico’s greatest muralists — Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros — and their decisive influence on their American contemporaries, including Jackson Pollock, Isamu Noguchi, Ben Shahn and Thomas Hart Benton. Pollock called Orozco’s “Prometheus” mural at Pomona College “the greatest painting done in modern times.” Benton went further, describing the work of the Mexican masters as “the only great art of our time.”

My grandmother, born Annette Margolis in 1907 to a well-to-do Jewish family in New York, was one of those artists whose work was fundamentally shaped, and life radically altered, by her encounters with the Mexican masters. She was a cultural boundary-breaker in an age of fearfulness and isolationism. She was a sexually confident woman who fell in and out of love with impressive, sometimes domineering men, while never allowing herself to become dependent on any of them. Above all, she was a productive and independent artist who lived by Miles Davis’ creed that “an artist’s first duty is to himself” — or herself — come what may.

And, for the most part, she has been almost entirely forgotten — like so many other women who lived lives that were a generation or more ahead of their time.

In the early 1930s she was leading what by outward appearances was a fairly conventional if privileged life as a young bride and budding painter studying for a master’s in fine arts at Columbia University’s Teachers College. In the evenings, she would return to her Riverside Drive apartment to make supper for her husband, a successful lawyer named Sidney Pepper, whom she had married while still in her teens. At 25, she gave birth to a daughter named Cherry.

Her real life was something else entirely.

She joined the American League Against War and Fascism, an outgrowth of the Communist Party. She had her portrait painted, clothed, by Sandor Klein; and nude, by Igor Pantuhoff, who substituted a different woman’s face to preserve her anonymity. She met the Mexican muralists — Siqueiros, Orozco and Rivera, who was painting the fresco at Rockefeller Center that Nelson Rockefeller would destroy because it included a portrait of Vladimir Lenin.

She also rented an apartment on Barrow Street under an assumed name. Ostensibly, it was meant to be a studio where she could work on her painting. But, as she delightedly confessed in an interview more than 50 years later, its real purpose was to “learn certain things, sexually, so I could teach my husband” to become “a little more capable in that field.”

In 1935 she and Pepper boarded a cruise liner for Veracruz with a recommendation from a friend to look up an American businessman living in Mexico City named Louis Stephens. It was love — and lust — at first sight: She would later write in a letter about my grandfather that “he exceeded my wildest dreams as to his inexhaustible energy and variations on the mating theme.” Pepper, who came down with an apparent case of Montezuma’s revenge during his stay, later came to believe that my grandfather had secretly poisoned him so that he could spend more time with his beautiful wife.

She would return to Mexico twice more within a year. For the second trip, she took 3-year-old Cherry with her, telling her husband that she planned to spend a few weeks in Florida. He got wise to the ruse, accused her of kidnapping their daughter, tracked her down to a hideaway in Mexico City and seized Cherry. My grandmother wouldn’t see her firstborn for years. My father was born almost exactly nine months later.

Mexico transformed my grandmother — or rather, it allowed her to become most fully herself. “She swung into the dining room with a mambo rhythm,” Anaïs Nin, my grandmother’s longtime friend, recalled in her published diaries of their first encounter at Acapulco’s Hotel Mirador in the winter of 1948. “When I met her she had become so international, so well-traveled, so multilingual, so at ease with all kinds of people, that no one could imagine her childhood, her origin.”

Her conversation was filled with recollections that weren’t so much a case of name-dropping as they were an epic of history-dropping.

There was her account of painting side-by-side with Orozco on his mural “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” up several flights of scaffolding on the ceiling of one of Mexico City’s oldest churches. There was the story of her pet spider monkey Quismalona, which she insisted my grandfather give to Rivera after having a nightmare about it strangling my father in his crib. (The little creature is almost certainly among the ones featured in Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits.) There was her marriage to Conlon Nancarrow — third of her four husbands — a veteran of the Spanish Civil War’s Abraham Lincoln Brigade who is now recognized as one of the 20th century’s seminal composers.

And there was the time she rented out her Acapulco home for $25 a week to Norman Mailer, sometime after “The Naked and the Dead” had made him a literary sensation. During his stay Mailer busted down a door in a drunken rage, assaulted his girlfriend, arranged to watch a sex act performed on a donkey and finally — this is the part that seemed to scandalize her the most — stiffed my grandmother on the rent and the maid on her pay.

A flavor of my grandmother’s social life in Mexico from the late 1930s survives in a letter she wrote about an evening she and my grandfather spent with Kahlo and her husband, Rivera.

“The food was excellent if the conversation did turn out a bit spiritless, there being just so many topics labeled taboo by Rivera,” she observed. While he monologued on the “exploitation of the masses, capitalists, ideology, etc.,” Kahlo, “a tiny small person,” berated her “great hulk of a husband in strong acid words”: “You’re a liar, don’t know what you’re talking about, are full of stupid prejudices.” All this made it “very difficult for the listeners to smile and bandy about gay fluff, if you know what I mean.”

Growing up, I knew I had a very unusual — if sometimes narcissistic — grandmother. A memory from when I was about 12 or 13, having a lunch of leftovers in her apartment in Mexico City:

“Bret,” she said, deadpanning it, “When sex is good, it’s really good.”

“Uh, OK, Grandma.”

“And when it’s not as good — it’s still pretty good.”

She died in 1992, when I was in college. The older I got, the more I recognized her talent as an artist. She had always seemed overshadowed by the formidable company she kept. Where Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros sought to depict Mexico through ideological, and largely idealized, lenses of class struggle and revolution, she tried to paint Mexicans as they really were.

In an oil painting from 1944, she portrays a peasant couple tenderly touching, the man gazing down in seeming defeat, the woman looking out, determined. A painting from a year later captures a boy sitting on a stool, holding what looks to be either a cigarette or a piece of chalk, and thinking. A charcoal sketch from 1960 shows a ranchero, his face turned to the side, anxiety in his eyes and sorrow in his mouth. Her only explicitly political work, “Homage to the Women Who Lost Their Lives in the Spanish Civil War,” from the mid-1930s, expresses a sense of utter bereftness, something she must have felt at the loss of Cherry.

Perhaps most striking, for me, is the contrast between Orozco’s famous portrait of my grandmother and her self-portrait. In the first, she is confident, alluring and glamorous; in the second, vulnerable, unadorned. The gap between the woman seen through the gaze of an infatuated man and the way that woman saw herself could hardly have been wider.

This isn’t to say that she was a great painter. Compared to Kahlo? Not close. Some of her work is extraordinary; much of it feels competent and interesting but not compellingly original. Today, she might be accused of “cultural appropriation,” particularly on account of her fascination with pre-Colombian figurines, which she fashioned into sculptural pieces of jewelry. But having made Mexico her home for more than half a century, to her it probably felt more like cultural celebration.

I feel deep pride in being her grandson, all the more so as I learn as an adult to appreciate qualities of her character that were obscure to me as a child. Born into enough wealth that she could have glided past the traumas of her age, she consistently chose rebellion and risk. Lucky in the leaps she took from one place, and one marriage, to another, she kept moving wherever her restlessness took her. She participated in one of the great artistic movements of her time, and — to adapt Winston Churchill’s line about alcohol — got more out of it than it got out of her.

Above all, she was unfailingly true to herself. That this was the case at a time when so many doors were closed to women, and so many taboos enforced upon them, makes her that much more remarkable and inspiring. The real masterpiece she painted was her own life.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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