Eve Babitz on the Time She Played Chess Nude with Marcel Duchamp

Looking Back at the Allure of the 1960s LA Art Scene

In 1963 Walter Hopps forsook the Ferus Gallery, and even though it was only to become director of the Pasadena Art Museum, someone should have noticed how fast he was moving. He was only 28 and suddenly he was all the way in New York sweet-talking Marcel Duchamp into a Southern California retrospective. The thing about Walter was that he was able to persuade not only artists to go along with his ideas but people with money to back him up. He looked so Waspy they figured he was one of them. And he was, it was just that they were changing—suddenly they had eyes to see.

Suddenly they weren’t just after a nice Matisse. Suddenly they were becoming complicated.

Suddenly everything was a lot more fun.

Pasadena, whose sole claim to fame was the Rose Parade, was now anxiously awaiting the Big Private Party at the Green Hotel before the Public Opening of the Duchamp show. Elsewhere was going public!

It was around this time that Walter called me up and suggested I come meet this friend of his who was very nice, but short.

“How short?” I wondered.

“Well, he can drive a car,” he said.

This sounded very suspicious. “You mean he’s a midget?”

“Well, sort of like Toulouse-Lautrec,” he said.

Suddenly I felt things had gotten too weird, even for Walter, and for the first time in my life, I realized I had a great reason to hang up on someone—like women do in the movies—a thing I’d never imagined myself doing until just then.

This was the wrong time, of course, for me to have pulled this move, because in a month the Duchamp show would be happening and the beautiful old Green Hotel would be filled with everyone in the LA art world, champagne, bands, clothes! But Walter never called me back, and I wasn’t invited. Everyone I knew was going. Even my sister, who was only 17 (I was 20), was going, with this bold photographer, Julian Wasser, a Time photographer who drove around with a police radio in his car.

When he came to pick up my sister, Julian noticed that I was to be left behind and he invited me, but I felt so banished in spirit and it didn’t seem to me the sort of thing you could crash. And obviously I’d disappointed Walter so much he forgot all about me.

Anyway, I knew that a couple of days later there’d be the public opening of the show and my parents had been invited, so I could go with them. My father didn’t care about Duchamp but he did have this interest in chess, and since Marcel had announced that he was “retired” from art to only play chess, my father thought he might go and see just what a master this guy was.

Maybe this was just Julian trying to get the clothes off one more girl—which he was famous for doing.

At the entrance to the show, there was an old photograph from a long-ago opening in Paris that showed Marcel and a woman as Adam and Eve. I noticed this as I went in, and it seemed sweet to me, they both were so young and French and skinny.

The public opening was very crowded and lots of fun. I got myself some red wine and wandered over to a raised platform where Marcel and Walter were playing chess, and my father came by and watched with a cynical expression. (He told me later, “That Marcel is not very good, I could have beaten him on the fourth move. And your friend Walter can’t play at all.”)

Maybe it was the spectacle of Walter playing chess with Duchamp “for art” that gave Julian the idea. After all, by 1963 it had been about 40 years since Marcel had retired to play chess (or so he wanted the world to think). For 40 years someone could have come up with the idea of photographing the master of Nude Descending a Staircase playing chess with a naked woman. But nobody in Paris or New York thought it up.

“Hey, Eve,” Julian said, grinning. “Why don’t I take pictures of you nude, playing chess with Marcel Duchamp?”

Heretofore, the only nudes in LA were calendar girls—starlets trying to make the rent. Of course, me being the nude sort made me feel like I was pretending I was way bolder than I really was. But then, anything seemed possible—for art, that night. Especially after all that red wine.

Still, this was Pasadena, the home of gracious ladies painting watercolors on afternoon outings, so I said, “You better ask people, Julian, and make sure it’s OK.”

I have known plenty of great photographers in my life, and if there’s one thing they can do, it’s trample over objections. Julian disappeared, and when he came back he said, “It’s all set.”

“Does Walter know?” I asked.

“They’ll tell him,” he said. “Anyway, he’ll think it’s a great idea. It is a great idea.”

All my ideas about Pasadena—about LA itself—were undergoing a molecular transformation. We were going from Little League to a home run in the World Series. Even my father thought it was a great idea, driving home in the car, although my mother did say, “If you change your mind, darling, it won’t matter.”

The only trouble was, I had been taking birth control pills for the first and only time in my life, and not only had I puffed up like a blimp but my breasts had swollen to look like two pink footballs. Plus they hurt. On the other hand, it would be a great contrast—this large, too-LA surfer girl with an extremely tiny old man in a French suit. Playing chess.

(After I saw the contact sheets, I never took the Pill again.)

The next day Julian called to make sure I didn’t chicken out, which seemed a sensible idea after I woke up and realized that I had never taken my clothes off in public—and certainly not in a museum at  9 am to play chess for a photograph. I mean, maybe this wasn’t art. Maybe this was just Julian trying to get the clothes off one more girl—which he was famous for doing, living across the street from Beverly Hills High School as he did and always making lascivious cracks.

But with Marcel there, I figured he’d cool it, and I knew enough about him to realize that when Julian took pictures, he took pictures. (His greatest photograph was the one of Madame Nhu and her daughter when they heard her husband had been shot, and they stood weeping in each other’s arms—surrounded by news photographers, a sea of flashbulbs—which appeared in a two-page spread in Life.)

When Julian came to pick me up, I was wearing clothes of nunlike severity so nobody would have the slightest reason to believe I’d take them off: a gray pleated skirt down to my shins and an Ivy League blouse.

We arrived at the museum at 8:00, and Gretchen Glicksman, one of Walter’s assistants, was waiting for us. I had never been in a museum before it opened—it was so quiet and cold. Gretchen told me I could change into a smock upstairs in a studio, so I ran up while Julian set up his lights. He was completely in photo mode, determined to get pictures the way photographers are once they know nothing can stop them.

The year before, I had lived in France, supposedly to learn French at the Alliance Française, but all I did was hang out at La Coupole picking up Americans. My sister, who did learn French, had to drag me to museums since going inside a building to see art never would have occurred to me. In Rome, where I lived alone for six months after Paris, I never once set foot inside the Sistine Chapel, but at least in Italy I learned some Italian, and as for art, you could watch it while you ate tartufo outside, and large nudes were everywhere, abundantly, galore. Except for Rome, I thought Europe was nowhere compared with LA—everywhere I went, everyone I met was in awe of California and dying to go to Hollywood. Not a single one wanted to go to New York.

It was hard to believe that only about 50 years earlier, in 1907, in The American Scene, Henry James had written: “I had the foretaste of what I was presently to feel in California—when the general aspect of that wondrous realm kept suggesting to me a sort of prepared but unconscious and inexperienced Italy, the primitive plate, in perfect condition, but with the impression of History all yet to be made.”

Well, here I was—in the gallery with no shoes on, prepared to make history, my feet growing colder in more ways than one.

At 9:00, Marcel arrived alone, wearing a little straw hat he had picked up the day before in Las Vegas, where he and Walter had gone on some adventure. And these completely detached eyes, which seemed charmed to be alive but otherwise had no comment on the passing scene, met mine.

In Pasadena, Walter was fairly well known for forgetting where he was supposed to be and being someplace else.

A feeling of gentleness pervaded him, he was like a very old Walter Hopps—a Walter Hopps with a history instead of just a future. Just when I was beginning to relax into his eyes, Julian violated our privacy by saying, “OK, I’m set up. Play chess.”

I took the smock off, letting it fall beside me, but Julian kicked it far across the slippery floor, out of the way in a corner. I sat down quickly at the chess set and wondered if we could just pose or did we actually have to play, but Marcel—whose obsession with chess made him give up not only art but girls—was waiting for me to make the first move.

Et alors,” he said. “You go.”

I, of course, had youth and beauty (and birth control pills) over him, but he had brains on his side—or at least chess brains—and though I tried my best, moving a knight so at least he knew I had some idea what a knight was, he moved his pawn and the next thing I knew, I was checkmated. “Fool’s mate,” they call it when you’re so stupid that the game hasn’t even begun and you’ve lost.

I became interested in playing and tried to stop thinking about holding in my stomach, but every time I thought I was so brilliant, like taking his queen on the fourth move, I’d lose.

Of all the things that have ever gone on between men and women, this was the strangest, in my experience. But it got stranger. For one thing, there were Teamsters in the next room, moving paintings, and they couldn’t help but be amazed.

And suddenly I felt other—even more amazed—eyes on me. When I looked up, there was Walter, shocked. He just stood there like a rabbit caught in the headlights, unable to move or speak.

He saw me look up and he turned right around and went away.

No hello, no nothing.

For a long time afterward, I thought he might have been pretending to be surprised, but he told me later, “I had no idea. I came into the museum as usual, a few minutes before it opened, blind and cold. I could feel weird vibes in the air, it was so quiet. But then I go into the gallery, and there you both were.”

“I thought it was fake surprise,” I insisted.

“No, it was real,” he said, “but I thought it was inevitable.” Finally, just when I had this idea I might actually be winning, Julian said, “OK, Eve, get dressed.” Which seemed more than OK with Marcel. I flew over to my smock, put it on, ran upstairs and got my clothes on, and came back down to play one more game with Marcel clothed—for posterity, Julian said.

Walter was back in the room, composed, and all he said was, “My, this was a surprise.”

A month or so later, I went to Barney’s and found Walter sitting at the counter alone with tacos and a beer, and I said, “So, are you going to forgive me?”

“What for?” he asked, indicating the seat next to his.

“The Toulouse-Lautrec guy,” I reminded him.

“That Duchamp thing,” he said, “made up all your points.”

He proceeded to digress into a story about how this Lautrec guy was the one who had long ago shown him the work of a teenage artist whose last name was Ferus, but how before Walter could meet Ferus, Ferus committed suicide. Perhaps in Walter’s mind, the reason he killed himself was because nobody encouraged him, nothing in LA existed where someone strange and weird could feel safe. And although Walter never said this out loud, I think the reason the gallery was called Ferus was so never again would someone in Los Angeles have to kill himself over art.

In the years I spent listening to Walter—from 1962 to 1966, when he left LA and went to Washington, DC, where he was with the Smithsonian—I lived in a sea of his digressions. And though I never saw what he saw, I at least learned to see through things and into and under and over what was in plain sight. Being with him, looking at anything, was an experience, and though when he left LA I felt he had forsaken us, I now feel grateful we had him for so long, since after the Duchamp show everyone on the East Coast suddenly noticed how brilliant he was and wanted him there, where art was art and people knew a genius when they saw one.

By 1966 his parents—or his mother, anyway—finally agreed to let bygones be bygones about his dropping out of medical school. “They figured if I was at the Smithsonian,” he said, “I had a job.”

I never met his parents, but nobody else did either, they never set foot inside the Ferus, the Pasadena Art Museum, or anyplace else they were likely to run into him. They probably were home wondering where they went wrong, why they’d ever allowed him to go into that program for gifted children, ruing the day he set off on that field trip for the Arensbergs’, the only people in LA with a houseful of Duchamps.

Late in 1990, when the Duchamp-on-the-West-Coast book (West Coast Duchamp) was being prepared, the Shoshana Wayne Gallery used our picture, blown up big on silver paper, to announce its own show of his work in conjunction with a symposium to be held in the Santa Monica Public Library. Unlike the party at the Green Hotel, to this thing I was very invited.

“You can wear clothes,” the girl who was in charge said, “or not, either way.”

I arrived late, elevenish, though it started at nine and the experts onstage were sunk into flagrant detail about the Arensbergs, who had moved to LA in 1927, and the print dealer in San Francisco who bought Nude Descending a Staircase.

Art is filled with criminals.

I saw George Herms sitting alone across the room—he was one of the dark-of-the-night Ferus artists. I sat beside him and he said, “You know, Chico is supposed to come to this.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Fat chance.”

(George was one of the people who called Walter by his secret name, Chico, like a lot of the artists who knew him early on.)

Since Walter had left LA, I’d seen him twice in Washington, but then he’d gone to organize the Menil Collection, in Houston, which is famous for having more money than the mere Smithsonian. He was probably down there, filling Mrs. de Menil’s head with his digressions.

“It says right here on the brochure,” George showed me, “he’s supposed to speak, but I don’t even know if he’s in LA.”

In Pasadena, Walter was fairly well known for forgetting where he was supposed to be and being someplace else. So just because his name was printed on a brochure didn’t mean he’d be there. At 12:30, when we broke for lunch, Walter still hadn’t shown, but he wasn’t actually scheduled to appear until the afternoon, so who could tell?

George and I walked to Fred Segal’s, this fancy clothing store with a café inside. And sitting there, George told me Chico stories, the one I especially loved being about how, when Walter curated this huge California Art show in San Francisco, he wanted to go to the party thrown by the artists who’d been omitted—and George said he’d go with him as his bodyguard if Chico would give George money for his rent in exchange. Since Walter couldn’t possibly go into this room full of people he’d personally excluded without a bodyguard, he agreed. “He promised to give me the money before he left,” George explained, “but suddenly I looked up and he’d gone. Without paying me. The party lasted all night. The next morning, Chico shows up again ”

“No,” I said. “Fearless!”

“Yeah,” he said, “I lifted him up and carried him over to the pool and asked everyone to give me thumbs-up or thumbs-down. I got at least one thumbs-down.”

I hated to think of Walter being thrown into a pool with all his clothes on, especially in San Francisco, where it’s always so cold.

“Well, then he whispered the one thing he knew would get to my heart,” George said.

“What?” I asked.

“He said, ‘I’m holding.’”

“No,” I said. “Drugs?”

“Not drugs,” George said. “Art. He was holding art. Probably stuff he stole from me or some other guy’s studio. If you caught him, he’d always say he was saving things from being stepped on, but I always knew he was stealing!”

“I’d be flattered,” I said, thinking if Walter stole from you, you must be good. Art is filled with criminals. I once heard that to start the Ferus, Walter and a friend got a check for $20,000 from a guy who was really drunk, and they ran to the bank and cashed it before he woke up and realized what an art patron he’d become. But how else was a 24 year-old medical student to open a gallery on fancy La Cienega back when things unseen didn’t yet exist?

George and I left and wandered back to the symposium, deciding that if things didn’t get a lot weirder soon, we’d leave. We sat near the side exits and were sure we’d have to go when suddenly, across the auditorium, I saw a tall man in a hat who looked enough like Walter to be Walter.

“It’s Chico!” I said, poking George sort of hard.

I knew it had to be him because suddenly I felt so much better— that bedside manner of his permeates a room. It’s, like, half desperado, half Lourdes.

Walter spotted George, whom he really loved, and then me with all our history, and he brushed everyone aside as he came over, looking radiant and filled with stories. He embraced George, who was still strong enough to pick him up, and then he looked at me through his reflective glasses and said: “Well.”

He handed me his hat and then bounded onto the stage and right away the symposium became a lot weirder and people were vastly relieved. Someone else didn’t show, so George went onstage, too, and doubly intensified the proceedings. It’s one thing to have someone talk about what George and Walter must have felt, it’s another to have them personally there in public view.

Of course, New York was still New York, but right then, in downtown LA, the Museum of Contemporary Art was staging a huge Ed Ruscha retrospective, and Everyone was in town that day and the next for the parties. Plus there was a big Art Expo thing of international renown in some place they usually use for car shows.

After the symposium Julian Wasser showed up looking younger than he did when he took the pictures. He’s now such an adept paparazzo he hired a helicopter to crash Madonna’s wedding. We all walked over to the Shoshana Wayne Gallery, where Julian had a display of his pictures, the ones he’d taken at the party, the public opening, and that day I played chess with Duchamp and surprised Walter. Looking at the pictures of Walter in those days, so pale, almost unearthly, I said, “If I’d known you were so young, I wouldn’t have been so mad at you.”

“For what?” he wondered.

“For not inviting me to the party. Everyone went but me.”

“Why didn’t you?” he asked.

But then I never would have gone to the public opening and Julian never would have asked me to take that picture, which was now hanging in the back gallery blown up (though not 20 feet wide like a painting some artist made of it). To me, I still didn’t look like a nude, although I suppose history will have to decide.

“Let’s go back,” Walter said, putting his hat on my head, “I have to meet Corcoran.”

We finally arrived at the gallery, where James Corcoran was waiting for Walter so they could leave and go watch the sunset at his house. I was invited and followed in my car. His house was filled with art but all you could look at was this large picture window with a view of the ocean. And as the light faded from the sky, Walter told me digressions of spellbinding magnitude. It felt like the Arabian Nights, his life still being as elsewhere as could be, and yet there in the room, in person. He had become much better-looking since leaving LA (usually the opposite is true)—instead of casting a cool glow of shadowless ultraviolet light, he now cast a warm, almost rosy, luster. But then he no longer had to worry that people didn’t get it. Even here in LA.

Walter’s kiss goodbye was filled with history. He even asked, “Do you still have that silver bullet I gave you?”

“Of course,” I said.

(I have it still. It’s in a little red morocco-leather box and I hold it now in my hand for memories as I write this. The cotton inside is yellow with age.)

“Good,” he said.

At least now he, too, has a past.

On San Vicente, as I drove home after saying goodbye to Walter, I ran into Ed Ruscha—or rather found myself driving parallel to him. At a light, we both opened our windows, and I said, “I can’t believe it, I just spent the whole afternoon with Chico.”

“I can’t believe it,” he said, “I just saw him for breakfast this morning. He’s so great.”

“He’s going to your show tonight,” I said.

“If he shows up,” he said, knowing Walter well.

The light changed and we waved goodbye.

A couple of days later Walter called from Houston and told me that at Ed’s show there was a line of people two blocks long waiting for Ed to sign his catalogue. “He was alone at a table,” Walter told me, “and he asked me to sit down with him as he signed all those posters. He really has come a long way.”

“Yeah,” I said, “but not so long that he wouldn’t rather have you sitting next to him.”

Of course, by now even I have forgiven Walter for leaving LA, and we are happy to give him any chance we can, and though most of those Ruscha fans probably had no idea the man sitting beside him was really the One as far as art in LA is concerned, we who were there realize that Ed couldn’t have happened without the strange days of long ago.

But then in LA, we have no sense of history, which is why I am always writing my memories. As Duchamp himself said, “It is the spectators who make the picture.”

_______________________________

I Used to be charming

From I Used to Be Charming by Eve Babitz. Used with permission of the publisher, New York Review of Books. Copyright © 2019 by Eve Babitz.

Eve Babitz
Eve Babitz
Eve Babitz is the author of several books of fiction, including Sex and Rage: Advice to Young Ladies Eager for a Good Time, L.A. Woman, and Black Swans: Stories. Her nonfiction works include Fiorucci, the Book and Two by Two: Tango, Two-Step, and the L.A. Night. She has written for publications including Ms. and Esquire and in the late 1960s designed album covers for the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and Linda Ronstadt.





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