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Picasso's mistress survives, with a smile

Now 79, Genevieve Laporte to auction off his sketches
/ Source: The Associated Press

Most of Pablo Picasso’s loves had tortured lives and tragic ends: Marie-Therese Walter hanged herself; Jacqueline Roque shot herself in the temple; Dora Maar became a recluse, dying poor and alone.

So it’s a surprise to meet sunny 79-year-old Genevieve Laporte, with her laugh lines, throaty chuckle, floral-print dress and white orthopedic shoes comfy for walking the dog. She survived Picasso and then some, becoming an award-winning poet and documentary filmmaker.

When Laporte was 24, she began a two-year secret affair with the 70-year-old master. She was a beautiful, tousle-haired former Resistance fighter, and Picasso sketched her over and over — naked in bed, in a fantasy wedding gown, in a prim sailor sweater.

On June 27, Laporte will sell 20 of Picasso’s sketches in Paris. Worth an estimated $1.8 million to $2.4 million, they show a soft side of the womanizing genius. The sale, by the Artcurial auction house, will take place at the Hotel Dassault.

“I want to get the message out about who Pablo was,” Laporte told The Associated Press in an interview. “He was a tender man, respectful, intelligent, timid — not at all the abominable snowman we’re used to hearing about.”

Then again, Laporte said, maybe she simply got out in time, before the affair turned sour. After she left, she said that artist Jean Cocteau told her she had just saved her skin.

'Perfectly naive'Laporte met Picasso when she was 17 and interviewed him for the school newspaper. “Monsieur Picasso, young people don’t understand your painting,” she told him. An unusual friendship was born. The two drank hot chocolate, and Picasso recommended books. It was innocent — at least on her side.

“I was certainly perfectly naive,” Laporte said. “He told me (later), ’You can’t imagine how much I wanted to touch your hair, but I didn’t dare.’ ... He could have been my grandfather! Ooh la la, if he had touched my hair, I would have taken off running.”

Seven years later, after she had traveled the United States and begun working, Laporte saw Picasso again at his apartment.

She blames her seduction on a late-afternoon storm.

“I said I was going to go home. And at that moment, I swear, it was like in a fairy tale,” she said. “The room grew dark, and through the skylight I saw a sky like I’ve never seen before, except in Congo during tropical storms.

“He told me, ‘Wait a little while, there’s going to be a storm,”’ Laporte said. “And bada boom: lightning, thunder, hail.”

And then?

“I have no memory of what happened next,” she said demurely.

Distressing requestThe two had their on-and-off affair when Picasso was with painter Francoise Gilot. The mother of two of his children, Gilot was another rare woman with the guts to dump Picasso instead of suffering. Picasso took a break from Gilot in the summer of 1951 to vacation in Saint Tropez with Laporte, poet Paul Eluard and his wife, Dominique. Laporte remembers it as a golden time.

Many sketches from the vacation bear the inscription “For Genevieve.” One Cubist-style drawing shows Picasso’s face hidden in Laporte’s tangled hair. When the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg showed the sketches, it called them his “Genevieve period,” or “Tender period.”

Picasso asked Laporte to move in with him two years later. But the request was distressing: Gilot had just left him, and Picasso wanted Laporte to live in their house on the French Riviera. Instead, she married a fellow former Resistance fighter in 1959 and had a son. She made 18 documentary films in Africa, and won a prize in 1999 from the prestigious Academie Francaise for a volume of poetry.

Over the decades, Laporte kept Picasso’s sketches in a safe because she was worried about thieves. Now seemed like a good time to part with them.

“I’m at the end of my road,” she said.

Picasso biographer John Richardson said he was familiar with the drawings.

“They’ll make a nice little collection,” he said by telephone. He added that perhaps their gentleness can help disprove the myth of Picasso as a cruel misogynist.

“Whatever you say about Picasso, the reverse is almost always true,” he said. “Picasso felt very tenderly toward her. ... She was very much a part of Picasso’s life at a certain moment, but she lost out to other ladies.”