Because, you see, I was not just an artist. I was a woman who had been blinded as a child and whose sight had been brought back by magick. And in the process, I had been given a gift—or, depending on your point of view, a curse. I had the ability not just to see people for who they were but also to see the secrets they harbored. The darkest, most hidden desires of their souls.
And like a thief, I plucked those images from their hearts and turned them into a parlor game. Surrealistic caricatures they could take home and frame. Or burn. And therein lay the source of my compassion, my sorrow, and my own ruination.
I had already sketched a dozen guests by midnight on that cold February 5, 1925, in Betsy and Fred Steward's penthouse. I'd delighted and surprised my sitters with silly secrets and made them ask over and over again how I knew this or that about them.
"I hadn't even told my wife I was planning that!"
"I only found out yesterday. How did you know?"
"Yes, yes, I had forgotten all about that little escapade, it was so long ago!"
Clara Schiff was the last portrait of the evening. Twelve was my limit, but my employer for the night had begged me to do just one more, for it was Clara's birthday that week.
I agreed. But I shouldn't have. I was a little tipsy and very tired. Is that an excuse? If I'd been more alert, would I have realized that the image I was committing to paper was so incendiary?
I'll never know, but I don't think so. I've never been adept at censoring the scenes that come out of the shadows. A little more than four years before, I'd done a painting that changed the entire trajectory of my future. It haunted me still. If only I were able to understand more about the images that came to me. Not just for poor Clara's sake. But for my own.
She sat in the black velvet armchair Betsy Steward had set up next to my easel and stool, in the corner of the living room adjacent to the terrace doors. For ten minutes, I drew her portrait. Quite a long time when you are wearing a blindfold. Even longer for the person sitting and watching the artist draw and not being able to see the sketch.
The graphite in my silver pencil, number 5B, glided over the eighteen-by-twenty-four-inch cream-colored, smooth-grain stock as smoothly as swimming in a currentless sea. The movement of my hand, the pressure of the stylus, all part of the sensuous nature of the act. The paper took the line and held it in a lover's gesture. The sensation never ceased to thrill me.
For that reason and more, I am particular about my supplies. In a pinch, I went to Sam Flax, where the quality and variety were the best I could find in New York. But I preferred the shipments my brother sent from Sennelier, on the Left Bank. My mother had bought her very first paints there in 1894 with money she made by pawning a jeweled jade frog she had stolen from my great-grandmother. It was a story I loved to hear her tell when I was a little girl. I'd picture her pocketing the bibelot, frightened that she was going to be caught but desperate to get money for her supplies. Then I'd see her standing on the line at the pawnbroker's with my father, whom she'd only met a week before. As she described it all, I would experience the wonder of her walking into Sennelier's marvelous shop for the first time. Looking around at the shelves and shelves of paper, paints, crayons, pastels, easels, canvases—an Ali Baba's cave of treasures for any artist.
My mother and I are descended from a long line of artists going back to the sixteenth century, when my ancestor, a famous courtesan named La Lune, seduced an even more famous painter, Cherubino, into teaching her how to paint in exchange for being his muse.
For a while, the arrangement worked. Then La Lune made the mistake of falling in love with him. Cherubino returned her emotions, but then he cast her aside for Emperor Rudolf of Prague, no less.
Distraught but determined to win Cherubino back, La Lune traded her most valuable jewels for an old crone's lessons in witchery. The plan was to cast a spell to make her irresistible to her lover once again.
But the spell failed.
In the story my mother repeated to me, my sisters, and my brother, Cherubino became ill from the potion and died. And La Lune's ability to fall in love with anyone else died with him.
Refusing to accept her loveless fate, La Lune, using the crone's magick, extended her life while she searched for an antidote to the curse. Even after her body failed, she kept her soul earthbound as she continued her quest. La Lune spent the next three hundred years trying to merge with one of her descendants so she could feel love once more. But her spirit was too powerful. Those she chose to incubate died, often by their own hands, driven mad by the succubus inside them.