Mama of Dada and friends

Spellbound by Marcel is described as a group biography of Marcel Duchamp, Henri-Pierre Roché and Beatrice Wood, but it is fairer to call it a Cubist take on a triangle. In the summer of 1917, when both were in love with the elusive Duchamp, Roché, the author of Jules et Jim, and Wood, the Mama of Dada, had a brief liaison. What happened between them was momentous to Wood, irrelevant to Roché and a relief to Duchamp. The affair overlapped with their shared editorship of the Dadaist journals, The Blind Man and Rongwrong, and the decision by the Society of Independent Artists to reject from their inaugural exhibition Duchamp’s “Fountain”, a standard urinal purchased at the JL Mott Iron Works store in Manhattan and signed “R. Mutt, 1917″.

Running alongside an account of the players, puns and parties of New York Dada, Ruth Brandon has constructed, from the recollections of Roché and Wood, a multidimensional portrait of opposing perspectives on the same events. Her aim is to not to uncover what really happened, but to explore what she calls “Duchampian truth”, whereby “all accounts should be taken as correct”.

The daughter of socialite parents, Beatrice Wood was, as she put it, “born radical”, and remained so all her life. She became famous in her fifties as a ceramicist, and even more famous when, by then a centenarian, she inspired the character of Rose Dewitt Bukater in James Cameron’s Titanic (1997). Her first six years were spent in San Francisco, after which her family moved, in 1899, to New York. Preferring “danger, adventure and love” to the marriage mart, Wood – likened by Brandon to Daisy Miller – persuaded her parents to let her study art and acting in Paris. The Manhattan she uncovered when she returned in 1914 was a land of good plumbing, self-service cafeterias and sexual confusion.

Roché, a Parisian with taste but no talent, found his forte as a social facilitator. Having introduced Picasso to Gertrude Stein, he encouraged Cocteau to collaborate with Picasso and Erik Satie to produce the ballet Parade. In New York, where he arrived in November 1916, it was his sexual agility that got him noticed. The ménage à trois in Jules et Jim (1953), written in his seventies and transformed by François Truffaut from a pedestrian novel into a masterpiece of New Wave cinema, is not specifically a description of Duchamp, Wood and Roché, because all Roché’s relationships were triangular.

In the autumn of 1916, when Brandon’s story begins, Wood is a twenty-three-year-old actress, full of “American snap”, and Roché a thirty-seven-year-old lothario who refers to his penis as “God” , and the twenty-nine-year-old Duchamp, newly arrived in Manhattan having had his work rejected in Paris, is enjoying the notoriety generated by his “Nude Descending a Staircase”, exhibited at the Armory Show in 1913. demonstrated, as Duchamp said, “the problem of motion in painting”, was seen by the New York Times as “an explosion in a shingle factory”.

Wood first met Duchamp on September 17, 1916 at the hospital bed of the composer Edgard Varèse, who had broken his foot. The event was briefly recorded in her five-year diary (“met Marcel Duchamp”) and elaborated in her autobiography, I Shock Myself (1985), written when she was ninety-two. During her first visit to Varèse’s bedside, she recalled in I Shock Myself, she swallowed a fly that had buzzed into her mouth. This would have amused Duchamp had he been there to see it, but he and Wood did not meet, she said, until her second hospital visit. In her brief memoir of Duchamp, written in 1990 for a collection of commemorative essays (Duchamp: Artist of the century), Wood described the first time she saw him: “A cough made me turn to face a man sitting at the far side of the bed. Duchamp smiled, I smiled, Varèse faded away.”

Juxtaposing the reminiscences of Wood’s old age with her diary records and the extended love letter written to Roché detailing the course of their affair (which she titled Pour Toi: Adventure [sic] de vierge), Brandon reflects on the ways in which the stories we tell ourselves differ from the versions we offer to the wider world. In doing so she spins a tale of her own, describing in Spellbound by Marcel how Duchamp arrived at Varèse’s bedside just as the fly buzzed into Wood’s mouth. “Behind her”, Brandon writes, “someone laughed. She turned, and found herself face to face with a tall, thin young man with ‘a delicate, chiselled face and penetrating blue eyes that saw all’.” What Wood remembered as a “cough” on “the far side of the bed” becomes, in Brandon’s version – in which Wood’s first and second hospital visits are blended into one – a “laugh” “behind her”. Is this flight of biographical fancy another example of “Duchampian truth” or a simple misreading of the sources? It is not unusual for biographers, immersed in their material, to fantasize scenes. In The Hidden Wordsworth: Poet, Lover, Rebel, Spy (1998), Kenneth Johnston puts Dorothy Wordsworth in “bridal white” as she says a tearful goodbye to her brother on the morning when he marries Mary Hutchinson. It’s a nice touch, straight out of Johnston’s imagination.

“We acted like lovers from the moment we met”, Wood later recalled of herself and Duchamp, though “the act itself did not occur for quite some time”. Brandon suggests that the act did not occur at all, with Wood clinging on to her virginity throughout her encounter with Duchamp and Roché.

Wood’s diaries suggest that Duchamp introduced her to Roché in February 1917, and Pour Toi suggests that the affair with Roché began the following April, when it became clear that Duchamp was not interested in her. By the time she wrote I Shock Myself, however, Wood remembered things differently, which is perhaps not surprising given that it was seven decades later. “Marcel knew I was in love with his good friend Roché and did not approach me amorously. Secretly I wished he would. My love for Roché could not keep me from being a little in love with Marcel.”

Roché, meanwhile, also kept diaries (a list of sexual conquests written in a hodgepodge of French and English), which Brandon reads against his self-serving, unfinished autobiographical novelVictor (the name bestowed on Duchamp, victor of all he surveyed). According to Roché, Duchamp threw Beatrice into his arms in order to get her off his hands. Roché was happy to add her to his harem, which included another of Duchamp’s lovers, Louise Norton, Duchamp’s patron Lou Arensberg, and Wood’s best friend, Alissa. “Whole situation with Marcel is normal”, Beatrice reassured herself in her diary. “My emotions are bound to shudder, my spine cold and hot. Marcel like a knife, but he is right.”

Following Wood’s and Roché’s accounts of what happened next is like watching a jerky black-and-white film in which people with exaggerated gestures hop into and out of bed with one another, while title cards containing Brandon’s exclamations comment on the action. “Poor Beatrice!”, Brandon cries as her heroine, clinging on to her virginity, sinks deeper and deeper into the bog created by Duchamp and Roché. “How can it have it come to this?” Brandon despairs when Wood, escaping from Roché, falls straight into the grips of Paul Renson, a foul-tempered Belgian theater manager whom she immediately marries. It was a “charming” wedding, Wood noted in her diary, but I Shock Myself suggests otherwise: “No bride could have been unhappier.”

Duchamp was spellbinding because he was unreadable; both Roché and Wood describe his face as a mask. “My irony comes from indifference”, he told Roché. “It’s meta-irony”. What, then, was Roché’s secret? He was a surrogate Duchamp whose hobby was re-reading his collection of love letters, and his spell soon wore off. The character of Wood is the more interesting puzzle, and it is to Brandon’s credit that she does not try to solve it.

Spellbound by Marcel is both novel and incomplete. The French is sometimes translated, sometimes not; the author sometimes explains Duchamp’s word plays, sometimes not; Sometimes, but not always, she tells us in a footnote the source of a quotation. There are no endnotes. To get the best from the book, it should be read alongside Wood’s diaries, which are available online, and I Shock Myself. Duchamp’s record of his life can be found, says Ruth Brandon, in his art, in which case his comments on the summer of 1917 can be found in “Fountain”.

Frances Wilson‘s most recent book, Burning Man: The ascent of DH Lawrencewas published in 2021

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