French journalist Brigitte Benkemoun knew she struck gold when a search for a Hermes datebook led her to new discoveries about ‘Weeping Woman’ Dora Maar//BY Gaby Levin; HAARETZ
“You could say that a miracle happened to me,” says French journalist Brigitte Benkemoun, about the gift that fell into her hands from heaven. When she lost the Hermès address book, with calendar pages, that she particularly liked, she contacted the international fashion house to order a new one. To her disappointment she was told that Hermès no longer manufactures that outdated model. Benkemoun didn’t give up, searched on eBay and ordered what turned out to be a partially used address book in the distinctive leather binding, which arrived by mail. The calendar pages had been removed, but unexpectedly, in an inner pocket in the binding, she discovered about 10 pages of addresses and phone numbers.
To Benkemoun’s amazement, she found names including the French poet Louis Aragon; Andre Breton, Aragon’s colleague and author of “The Surrealist Manifesto”), and the French photographers Brassaï and Henri Cartier-Bresson.
As if by the stroke of a magic wand, more names, in alphabetical order, surfaced as the journalist read on: painters Georges Braque, Balthus, Marc Chagall and Leonor Fini; writers and poets Jean Cocteau, Paul Éluard, Nathalie Sarraute and Georges Bataille; sculptor Alberto Giacometti; psychiatrist Jacques Lacan; society women such as Marie-Laure de Noailles and Lise Deharme; and many other celebrities – central figures on the cultural and artistic landscape of the second half of the 20th century.
When she recovered from the shock, Benkemoun embarked on extensive quest to discover the original owner of the elegant address book, whose pages had yellowed over the years. Who was the person who knew and perhaps was even friendly with these great artists and intellectuals, whose works are on display at leading museums and/or are studied around the globe?
“My detective work lasted for about three intensive years,” she tells Haaretz in a telephone conversation. Benkemoun was for years a journalist at the radio station Europe 1 and also in TV.
“I started by looking for the person who sold the address book on eBay, and when the seller was found – the owner of an antiques shop – it turns out that he didn’t remember how he ended up with it. I continued to check at public auctions of estates, but in that field people are very discreet about the identity of those who hand over the materials.
“The handwriting, in brown ink, was neat and pretty, in rounded letters, and seemed feminine to me. After making possible lists I started with a process of elimination: Among all the artists and prominent figures, one name was missing: Picasso. And after finding in the address book the name of an architect from the village of Menerbes in Provence, I remembered something: In that town Picasso purchased a house for his lover of nine years, photographer Dora Maar. Her name didn’t appear in the address book either, and it really isn’t likely that she would write down the phone number of her lover and the man whose breakup with her was a terrible tragedy for her.
“I shouted ‘We did it!’ like a soccer announcer: It’s Dora Maar! And then I decided to try to reconstruct her profile based on the names appearing in the notebook. That’s how I wrote my book ‘I am Dora Maar’s Notebook.’”
Plastic artist Sophie Calle also found a phone book in 1983, contacted the numbers appearing in it and created a work from it.
Benkemoun: “True, but she called anonymous numbers. In my case it was a kind of history book of 20th-century art.”
Does your book have any connection to the Dora Maar retrospective that opened in early June in the Pompidou Center?
“No, it’s a coincidence. My book was scheduled to be published in March, but when I found out that they were preparing the exhibition in the Pompidou Center I postponed the publication to May. This is a unique exhibition that displays the works she did before Picasso and mainly after him, when she did a lot of painting. Her own works were not sufficiently appreciated during his lifetime and became successful only after his death.”
What was your work method?
“I read biographies, letters, I burrowed in archives and mainly I met, based on the phone numbers, with the descendants of those personalities, most of whom passed away a long time ago. Only a few remained who knew Maar personally, but the image of her coalesced in an unconventional manner.”
In effect, then, the story of Dora Maar (1907-97), as portrayed by Benkemoun, is based only in part on direct testimony from the people in the address book, but their names in the pages she found led her to many biographical passages included in her book.