Engaging essays about an odd mix of artists, writers, tycoons, trendsetters, and con guys from the worlds of literature and art.
Richardson, noted author of the ongoing three-volume Picasso life (A Life of Picasso, Vol. II: 1907–1917, 1996, etc.), has taken time off from that work to bring us some lighter but equally mesmerizing mini-biographies. His 28 delightfully gossipy essays are also extremely insightful, taking us behind the scenes in the lives of the famous, if not always the rich and famous. These are articles about people the author has known, or would like to have known, intrigued by their genius or quirkiness. And readers will be, too. Richardson’s flawless style, incisive wit, and extensive knowledge make the volume a pleasure. Openings are colorful: “Most people who had dealings with Salvador Dalí’s Russian wife, Gala, would agree that to know her was to loathe her.” “Those cultivated American playboys of the 1920s who drew upon sizable trust funds to support their forays into the avant-garde and lavish bohemian lifestyle tended to end sadly or badly.” Although it helps if you’re already familiar with the cast of characters—like Dr. Albert Barnes of the Barnes Museum in Merion, Pennsylvania, whom Richardson says had an “acute case of paranoia”; Lucian Freud, the youngest of Sigmund’s three sons, who set his art school on fire by smoking at night; or Pablito Picasso, the grandson of Pablo who committed suicide by swallowing a bottle of bleach—the author provides just enough history and background to fill in readers who may be newcomers. Ten pages or so on average, these crisply written pieces focus on the compelling idiosyncrasies of each subject, whetting the appetite and impelling readers to move on to full-length biographies.
Richardson (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a memoir, 1999), once head of Christie’s US operations and now a contributor to Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, etc., proves again that he’s one of our foremost biographers.