The Marcel Duchamp I married

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Duchamp loved playing chess with Man Ray – but didn't much care for his own wife, Lydie Sarazin-Levassor. Her memoirs, published for the first time in Britain, portray a desperate liaison

When I met Marcel Duchamp for the first time, I had just turned twenty-four. Was I an intellectual and an artist? No, but I was good at sport. There were two things that pleaded in my favour: I had had an unhappy love affair when I was an adolescent, and I was leading an idle existence with no idea what to do with myself.

So when I learnt that a long-time friend, Germaine Everling, thought I should meet a friend of Picabia's, a painter like himself and likewise said to be "avant-garde", I did not exactly back away. I was intrigued by his personal history. How curious, a forty-year-old man wanting to get married but unable to find a suitable wife on his own. And how strange to be a painter and temporarily give up painting in order to play chess.

Germaine had not made a secret of the fact that Marcel Duchamp was seeking to settle down, have a home life and put an end to the life of pleasure he had been leading up to now. She also gave me strong hints to the effect that he had a temporary cash-flow problem. Up to the death of his parents he had received enough parental aid to ensure a meagre existence, but in a move that showed both generosity and lack of foresight, he had used the totality of his inheritance to buy the Brancusi sculptures that John Quinn had collected and which stood to be sold off at disastrously low prices now that Quinn had died. As a result, all that Duchamp possessed was stones, and stones do not bring in the daily bread! I found all that rather appealing.

The formal introduction took place in an ordinary restaurant, whose name I have forgotten. I was not particularly impressed by Marcel on that particular day. I thought he was handsome, friendly, elegant, but nothing special.

Forty-eight hours later, I received a letter by express delivery inviting me to dine at one of the celebrated Prunier restaurants on the corner of the Avenue Victor Hugo and the Rue de Traktir. I must admit that this was the first time ever I was going to dine alone with a young man who was not a member of the family; whatever the outcome, it was a momentous event for me. And it was a marvellous evening. Marcel used all his charm and I left the restaurant head over heels in love with him. I had been seduced by what he had said about his work, his experiments, his friends. Another thing that excited me was the impression I had that he was very happy to be with me.

****

Marcel had not beaten about the bush when raising the issue of the two flats: the first, his studio, was necessary to him for working and thinking; the other would be my responsibility, mine to look after and live in. I did not find the idea shocking. Men always have their office outside the home, and why should he not sometimes stay there overnight to finish a job, talk with friends or just take a night's rest?

Given the housing crisis, it was decided that the young couple would set up home in the studio on the Rue Larrey until conditions improved. While I was rushing back and forth to the [wedding dress] fitting-room, Marcel was busy flat-hunting.

On those days, after dinner in a brasserie in the Latin Quarter, we would go to Montparnasse to see Man Ray, an avant-garde photographer who was completely unknown to the French. I knew that ever since Man Ray had arrived from New York, Marcel had gone to great pains to help him. I had been profoundly moved, and saw evidence of a kind-heartedness that could not have been easily extrapolated from the apparent coldness of my future husband.

I did not particularly like Man Ray and thought that he clung like a leech, but I was very touched to see with what affection and deference he treated Marcel. So, almost every evening, after dinner, they began their inevitable game of chess, which could be counted on to last over two hours. I fretted the time away by chain-smoking, waiting impatiently for the moment when we could return to Rue Larrey and be alone again.

I did not yet know that playing chess was just as indispensable to Marcel as his daily meals. Nor did I know that he absolutely needed to keep his hand moving intelligently, and moving daily, that artist's hand weaned from paintbrushes.

****

The big day finally arrived. It is said that the whole of Montparnasse turned up. To see Picabia be a witness at a church wedding, and Marcel Duchamp's on top of that, must have been quite an attraction. They must have been hoping that Marcel would do something eccentric, but on this occasion his only eccentricity was to take part in a traditional wedding ceremony, and be married in exactly the same way as the bourgeoisie. As we emerged, there was Man Ray, present and correct, filming everyone streaming out, with Kiki acting as his assistant.

Done! It was over, the page had been turned. A new life was about to begin and to inaugurate it we were to dine that very evening with Germaine and Francis at Brancusi's. Picabia had painted a little watercolour for us entitled A Marriage of Intellectuals which we were delighted with. I asked Marcel if there were any symbols to be discovered in it, and what they might mean, but he replied that you should not try to understand a work of art; you had, instead, to feel it. "An artist expresses himself with his heart," he explained, "so it is with your heart that you must take in their works. That's the only thing that matters."

****

One fine day, Marcel arrived at our evening rendezvous at the Deux Magots and said triumphantly: "Tomorrow, we're visiting a new flat, no furniture money, with bath, hot water and central heating." It was a unique opportunity, and we had spent so much time looking that we simply had to snap it up. Marcel signed that very day.

He must have been looking forward to having his place to himself again. For more than four months he had put me up and put up with me; I had been in tow, a dead weight that would not go away. From now on, I had my own home, and it would be his too whenever he wished. I was far from thinking that it was the last night I would be spending in the Rue Larrey, and when I left, there was no tear in my eye as I quit our love nest and the scene of the first four months of my existence as a young wife.

[That evening] I met him for dinner. I found him cold, distant and indifferent. Then all of a sudden he said: "I promised to have a game of chess with Man Ray. So goodnight then."

I had a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. "I'll see you tomorrow then," I said.

"No," he replied. "You know, this going to restaurants all the time is over; you've got a kitchen, and in any case I'm not free tomorrow. I'll come round and taste what you've cooked up on the evening of the day after next."

So that was it; living together was already a thing of the past. He fixed his appointments without me; he accepted invitations on his own. I was excluded.

When Marcel came round two days later he was all smiles, relaxed and a different man. The solitude of his newfound freedom had had its effect. My Marcel was back. What did a few hours' solitude matter if at the end of them his presence came to light up my life, be these visits ever so infrequent?

"A home, a family, these depend on paternity, and they entail responsibilities, routine, boredom and, inevitably, lies," he said. "What I mean to say is that the marriage bonds are a fiction and that chaining individuals to each other is a mistake, a Christian, medieval error made to bind men, who are strong, to the duty of protecting the weak – women – in a society in which they could not materially guarantee their existence alone. Times have changed. Everyone must shift for themselves. For an individual to evolve, he must be free, free of all responsibilities." I knew all that; he had told me a thousand times.

"Sentimental love," he said, "does not exist. I'll tell you what's good: friendship and affection. As for the physiological function that you have to be two for, well, it isn't important at all, no more than dinner for two. Talking of which, now that you've got your own place, you're free; if you have a fling or two, or even an affair, I won't be offended in the least. Please, don't feel obliged to be faithful just because you're married, nothing could be more ridiculous."

"Don't worry," I said. "You're the one I love, and I could never offer myself unless in a love relation. I am not a female on heat."

"Pity. A little experience would do you some good."

Thereupon, as it was getting late, he said something about the last metro and left, instead of staying in the bedroom which I had got ready for him. I did not attach much importance to the words he had said, nor to the idea of having separate sex lives, as I had failed to grasp at the time – he had manoeuvred very adroitly – that these were the preliminaries to our splitting up. He had opened the door of the cage; now the bird was free to fly away.

But that would have required a greater freedom in my affections than I was capable of. I felt pangs in my flesh at having been abandoned so abruptly. Convinced as I was that he was still in a depressive state, I put his reserve down to a temporary lack of virility and did not worry overmuch about this fall in his capabilities. Never for a minute did I imagine that he could have been tired of me.

Every time we saw friends now, it was painful. I had to show that I was strong, boast about it, swear that living apart was the best formula for avoiding conflict, jealousy and all the fuss and bother that troubles married life. I especially dreaded the fateful: "See! We told you so! You were a mere toy in his hands, my poor child. Your father sold you," and all that had been dinned into my ears willy-nilly before the wedding. Although I saw Marcel only on rare occasions, it was nobody's business. So, thoroughly determined, I faced up to the world and managed, by force of argument, to fool myself.

Who was who in Paris

Marcel Duchamp met Lydie Sarazin-Levassor at the end of March 1927. On 7 June, they were married. The painter and writer Francis Picabia acted as a witness and the ceremony was filmed by Man Ray. On 25 January 1928, the couple divorced.

Extracted from A Marriage in Check: The Heart of the Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelor, Even, by Lydie Fischer Sarazin-Levassor, trans Paul Edwards (Les presses du reel, Dijon). Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia runs at Tate Modern, 21 February to 26 May ( www.tate.org.uk)

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