A Conversation with Ellis Avery about The Last Nude

Q. When and where did you first encounter Tamara de Lempicka’s work? What struck you about it?

A. My first adult encounter with Tamara de Lempicka’s work occurred in London, at the Royal Academy’s exhibition of her work in 2004. Her paintings, especially the ravishing portraits from when she lived in Paris in the Twenties and Thirties, just blew me away: they’re luminous, commanding, almost chrome-like in the polish of their surfaces. The art of them really rests on the contrast between the form—pure colors and clean lines that are clearly indebted to Renaissance masters—and the content, which is very much of its era: decadent figures from society and the demimonde. You’ve got counts and duchesses and pioneers of industry, but also prostitutes and dancers and nightclub owners and transvestites—some of whom even are the counts and duchesses, or are sleeping with them. And the piece that stunned me most of all was de Lempicka’s 1927 masterpiece, Beautiful Rafaela: when I saw this painting, it literally made me weak in the knees, it’s such a sexually forceful image.

Q. How did de Lempicka meet the model for Beautiful Rafaela?

A. At the Royal Academy show where I first encountered Beautiful Rafaela, I was startled to read, right there on the wall, in prim curatorial presstype, that in 1927, while in the throes of a bitter divorce, de Lempicka met the young woman who posed for this painting on a walk in the Bois de Boulogne and drove her home: Rafaela became her model and her lover, and their relationship lasted for a year, resulting in the creation of six paintings, most of them nudes.

This is what the real Tamara de Lempicka had to say about her first encounter with the real model for Beautiful Rafaela in the Bois du Boulogne, according to her daughter, Kizette Foxhall de Lempicka:

“Suddenly,” Tamara would say, “I become aware of a woman walking some distance in front of me. As she walks, everyone in the opposite direction stops and looks at her. They turn their heads as she passes by. I am curious. What is so extraordinary that she is doing this? I walk very quickly until I pass her, then I turn around and come back down the path in the opposite direction. Then I see why everyone stops. She is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen—huge black eyes, beautiful sensuous mouth, beautiful body. I stop her and say to her, ‘Mademoiselle, I’m a painter and I would like you to come pose for me. Would you do this?’ She says, ‘Yes, why not?’ And I say, ‘Yes, come. My car is here.’

“I took her home in my car, we had lunch, and after lunch, in my studio, I said, ‘Undress, I want to paint you.’ She undressed without any shame. I said, ‘Lay down on this sofa here.’ She lay. Every position was art—perfection. And I started to paint her, and I painted her for over a year” (Kizette Foxhall de Lempicka. Passion by Design: the Art and Times of Tamara de Lempicka. New York: Abbeville Press, 1987, p.80).

Q. How closely does the novel adhere to the historic details of de Lempicka’s life? How much did you depart from the true history?

A. My novel hews pretty closely to Laura Claridge’s biography (Tamara de Lempicka: A Life of Deco and Decadence), though there are places where I made little adjustments (such as moving her apartment to another neighborhood, for example) in order to tell a better story.

Because de Lempicka lied about so much of her past, there are circumstances about which we don’t know what really happened, and I’ve had to rely on either the painter’s own extravagant anecdotes or on the educated guesswork of experts. For example Laura Claridge’s research reveals that Tamara grew up in Moscow and that her father was a Russian Jew, despite Tamara’s claim to have been raised Catholic in Warsaw. I decided to believe Claridge and proceed as if Tamara had been keeping the truth a secret.

All told, I stuck to the historical facts of Tamara’s life—such as we know of them—far more than I departed from them.

More interesting to me as a writer was the choice to introduce a quietly but distinctly counterfactual strand into this novel, which appears in the character of Anson Hall. Hemingway buffs will wonder why Anson has the first name of one of Hemingway’s grandfathers and the last name of the other, and will also wonder why I have claimed the story of Hemingway’s wife losing all his manuscripts on a train as Anson’s story. While Hemingway overcame the loss of his manuscripts and went on to write his great first novels, Anson Hall is the man Hemingway would have become if he had never overcome that loss: a nicer person than Ernest Hemingway, but a sadder one, too.

In thinking about the pitfalls artists can encounter—surfeit in Tamara de Lempicka’s case, loss in Anson Hall’s, history in Rafaela Fano’s—I wanted to play out the consequences of creative failure, which for me meant envisioning a world in which certain works of art have never come into being. I suspect that the world we live in is a drabber and more straitened place for its paucity of works of art by women and other marginalized people, but a negative assertion lacks the force of example. So I needed to eliminate a real artist rather than an imaginary one, and it had to be an artist working in 1920s Paris with whom as many readers as possible were familiar. I know I poke fun at James Joyce in this novel, however much I owe the inspiration for Tamara’s final monologue to Molly Bloom, but because I wanted to make a sacrifice that truly pained me, Hemingway was the author whose life story I altered. What would 1927 Paris be if The Sun Also Rises hadn’t come out in 1926? Jazz Age Paris without Hemingway in it—and an interwar literary tradition in which, say, Gabriele d’Annunzio’s name replaced Hemingway’s—would be pallid indeed, and my own life without A Moveable Feast in it would be so much the poorer.

Q. What was your method of research for this novel?

A. First I spent a long time just looking at Tamara de Lempicka’s paintings from the 1920s, especially the dozen or so she painted in 1927. I bought a used extra copy of a book with reproductions of those paintings, cut the images out, and arranged and rearranged them on my desk until I could see links between paintings, and even imagine stories leading from one to the next.

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Then I read everything I could get my hands on about Tamara de Lempicka and 1920s Paris: I’ve included a selected bibliography in the back of the novel, but I especially recommend Noel Riley Fitch’s excellent work of scholarship, Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties. I read Michelle Tea, Virginie Despentes, Corinna Wyckoff, and Mary Gaitskill in order to write about sex work. I audited excellent Milton and interwar poetry classes at Columbia University with Julie Crawford and Edward Mendelson respectively. (I thought I’d use the Milton more at the time, but I think he belongs in my next novel.)

To supplement my book research with experiential research, I lived in Paris for three months while working on the first draft of the novel, and also made another research trip back when I finished the third-to-last draft: I found the apartments where Tamara had lived and traced the walks she and Rafaela took. A friend of mine who lived in Gertrude Stein’s building on rue de Fleurus let me come into her courtyard so I could peek into Stein’s apartment from the outside.

When I came home from Paris, my favorite dress designer, Jill Anderson, allowed me to spend a day in her East Village atelier to help me write sections about Rafaela’s dress shop which I cut from a much longer version of the novel. My friends Emily Barton, Aaron Hamburger, and David Henkin offered help with the Hebrew in my book. Lisa Pasold, Geoff Gilbert, and Adam Biles, all better grounded in Paris history than I, read through the manuscript for Paris bloopers. Art historian Carol Ockman allowed me to interview her about Tamara de Lempicka’s place in the tradition of western painting. My painter friend Caroline Wampole read the manuscript for painting-related accuracy. I went to Christie’s one morning and spent an hour in front of two de Lempickas that sold for a total of ten million dollars that night. It was significant to do so both because these paintings might be in private hands for the rest of my lifetime, and because in doing so I saw a level of detail no art book could ever reproduce. Last but not least, partway through rewriting the book, I also took a figure painting class. I had modeled for two paintings in my twenties, but until working on this book, I had never attempted to paint a live model before, so it seemed necessary to find out for myself what the experience was like on the other side of the brush.

Q. What do you find most extraordinary about the story of Tamara and Rafaela?

A. What I find extraordinary about the story of the biographical Tamara and Rafaela is both Tamara’s account of how they met in the Bois de Boulogne and the fact that I learned about it at all. I wasn’t so much shocked to learn that lesbian cruising had occurred before 1990 (okay, maybe a little) as I was astonished  to see the story right there in black and white in a major art museum. What’s more, the story of a woman going to a park and propositioning another woman isn’t just one fable of sexual transgression, it’s two: didn’t your mama ever tell you not to get into a car with a stranger? But Rafaela did. And nothing bad happened to her.

That said, even more extraordinary than how Tamara and Rafaela met is how Rafaela persisted in Tamara’s mind decades after their affair. But I’ll get to that when I answer the next question.

Q. What was de Lempicka working on at the time of her death in 1980? What does this signify?

A. Fifty-three years after painting Beautiful Rafaela, the very last painting Tamara was working on when she died in 1980 was a copy of Beautiful Rafaela. Imagine! I get goosebumps just thinking about it even now.

What does this signify? The biographical Tamara didn’t say.

It could mean that she knew that Beautiful Rafaela marked a high point of her career, and she wanted to have the pleasure of creating that painting again. Art historian Carol Ockman draws a beautiful parallel between Tamara’s last nude—in which at 80 she revisits Belle Rafaela, first painted in her late twenties—and one of Ingres’s, in which the 82-year-old painter of The Turkish Bath revisits The Bather of Valpinçon, executed at the age of 28: this is especially significant given how much de Lempicka revered Ingres.

So maybe, in her end-of-life choice to paint another Belle Rafaela, Tamara was taking part in a larger tradition of revisiting one’s early work. And—or— maybe this choice of subject means that all those years later, Tamara had Rafaela on her mind, and wanted to travel back in time to the months they spent together. Maybe it means she loved Rafaela.

We can’t know. All we can do is imagine. That’s why we read novels, and why we write them.

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