Gray is a difficult colour to master. It is enigmatic, aloof. It can be warm, with tints of peach and pink, or cold, with tints of sapphire and indigo. But no one could ever doubt that American artist Romaine Brooks was a master of gray. From her mysterious, icy portraits of members of the belle époque and the jazz age, to her preference for colorless fashions and décor, to the melancholy of her own day to day existence, Brooks was almost the personification of the colour gray itself. It would take great skill to write a biography of such a woman. Therefore I was ecstatic to discover that Diana Souhami had taken on the task of writing a book on the entwined lives of Romaine Brooks and her long-time companion, Paris saloneuse Natalie Clifford Barney. Both American, both wealthy, both artistic, Barney and Brooks still made an odd pair. Barney was the ever-social butterfly, flitting from flower to flower, beautiful and flamboyant. Brooks was her exact opposite, a withdrawn, flighty creature from a background of insanity, who preferred to live in the shadows, alone. This sounds like perfect material for the talents of Souhami, who has already tackled the lives of such challenging individuals as Radclyffe Hall, Gertrude Stein and Greta Garbo. Souhami also wrote the award-winning "Selkirk's Island", untangling the threads of the life of Alexander Selkirk, the inspiration for Defoe's classic, "Robinson Crusoe". Yes, Brooks and Barney seemed in good hands.
I cannot express, then, the disappointment that this anticipated book brought. Distressingly short not only for a biography of two distinct souls, but also an examination of the times in which they lived, the book is riddled with factual errors and blunders. Souhami begins her race by stumbling. In her Foreword she states plainly, one would say almost flippantly, of her use of the Internet as a main source of research-and it shows. The author appears to think that everything you find on the Web is factual, not realizing that the information to be found there is only as accurate as the knowledge of those posting it. This is a fatal error. Souhami seems almost dismissive of her own research, telling us about how much she enjoyed reading the pop-up advertisements she encountered while on the Net for such things as sexy chat, and even giving us a footnote detailing a pill that can help men lengthen the size of their endowment. Souhami further mars the book with the constant insertion of bits and pieces of her own past that, although well written, are disturbingly incongruous and intrusive and give the impression that she would much rather be talking about herself.
Next, Souhami falters in her facts, tripping too many times to enumerate, but here are a few major potholes: Lady Mary "Minnie" Anglesey is said on page 40 to be "about to divorce her transvestite husband." Souhami then footnotes that Mary was married to Henry Cyril Paget, the 4th Marquess of Anglesey. This is a gross mistake. Mary Anglesey was indeed married to the 4th Marquess of Anglesey, but she was married to Henry Paget, not Henry Cyril Paget, the 5th Marquess of Anglesey, who was not only infamous for his flashy dressing-up and obsession for jewelry, but was also Mary's own son (and, for the record, Henry Cyril Paget's wife's name was Lilian). Next we are told that the Italian poet Gabriele D'Annunzio's nickname for Brooks was "Cinerana". This is incorrect; his nickname for her was "Cinerina", meaning, "little gray one". Also, the Baroness Madeleine Deslandes was known as "Elsie", not "Ilsie". On page 141 we are told that Brooks described in a letter the "house" on Capri of the eccentric Marchesa Casati as "simply beautiful", but the author fails to point out that Casati's "house" was, in fact, the famous Villa San Michele, rented from Dr. Axel Munthe.
Beguiling anecdotes also slip through the fingers of an author so proud of her diligent international research. No mention is made of the mystery revolving around Brooks' painting "The White Bird" and how some historians believe it is a portrait of Barney's lover, the renowned grand horizontal, Liane de Pougy. Nor are we told that the face of the cat in Brooks' portrait of Baroness Catherine D'Erlanger was deliberately painted to resemble that of her husband's. Nor do we hear of the intriguing story that, after becoming a virtual hermit in Nice, living in a room devoid of everything but a bed and table, and having given away all of her paintings, drawings and writings, beneath Romaine Brooks' death bed was found the only canvas she kept, her portrait of Luisa Casati. Also, there is no mention of the small book, written by Elizabeth de Gramont, another of Barney's paramours, on Brooks' work that was published in 1952. Nor that the normally pathologically reclusive Brooks granted a long interview with French writer Michel Desbrueres that appeared in the Parisian periodical "Bizarre" in 1968, just two years before her death. Souhami also claims that Brooks painted a portrait of artist Elizabeth Eyre de Lanux, but, oddly, there is no reference to this painting in any prior biography of Brooks or in any catalogue of her oeuvre. Has Souhami discovered a hitherto unknown painting? We are given no clue. Perhaps another fifteen minutes of research on the Internet would have cleared up all of this-or better yet some good old-fashioned investigatory legwork and elbow grease that Souhami's research sorely lacks.
Next is the matter of Souhami's innumerable and annoying footnotes. She footnotes everyone and sundry with what she must have felt were charming and witty caricatures-Noel Coward is summed up as being "friendly with the lesbian haut monde", composer Prince Edmond de Polignac's only reference says "he died after eight years of marriage" and Luisa Casati is dubbed "the patron saint of exhibitionists". Such sketches are neither charming nor witty, and consistently get in the way of reading the text. As a reader, I also do not need to know such minutiae as how many seats there are in the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris, that Gluck's "Orfeo ed Euridice" was first performed in 1762, or the lyrics to "Auld Lang Syne". It is most interesting to note that even though the author strives to introduce us to every person in the book that some celebrated individuals such as Madame Eugenia Errazuris, a bright grand dame of the beau monde, are left floundering and unannotated, while poet Anna de Noailles, writer Paul Morand, and interior designer, Elsie de Wolfe, each a distinguished sitter for Brooks, are not mentioned at all (nor is the fact that Brooks' portrait of de Wolfe was often sarcastically called "The White Goat", because of the small ceramic goat that sits beside the designer and mimics her simpering expression perfectly). And worst of all, these intrusive footnotes shine a glaring light on the fact that Souhami never footnotes any of her relevant and/or fascinating facts. How do we know that Liane de Pougy's asparagus soup congealed and her risotto went cold while she, at lunch, waited for writer Max Jacob to arrive, or that after being pelted by preserved cherries by boys at the Long Beach Hotel in New York, a young Natalie Barney ran into the arms of Oscar Wilde for comfort. Where does this information come from? Such charming tidbits require references for future researchers.
And here is where Souhami's book fails the most-as a research tool and reference book for the future. Subsequent authors and students cannot use a book rife with easily correctable errors without perpetuating those same mistakes ad infinitum. As a highly respected writer, shame on you, Ms. Souhami. You should have known better.