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Classic Recordings
Robert Altman Week

Wednesday
Jul012009

« In Which Woody Recalls His Roaring Twenties »

A Twenties Memory

by WOODY ALLEN

I first came to Chicago in the twenties, and that was to see a fight. Ernest Hemingway was with me and we both stayed at Jack Dempsey's training camp. Hemingway had just finished two short stories about prize fighting, and while Gertrude Stein and I both thought they were decent, we agreed they still needed much work. I kidded Hemingway about his forthcoming novel and we laughed a lot and had fun and then we put on some boxing gloves and he broke my nose.

That winter, Alice Toklas, Picasso, and myself took a villa in the south of France. I was then working on what I felt was a major American novel but the print was too small and I couldn't get through it. In the afternoons, Gertrude Stein and I used to go antique hunting in the local shops, and I remember once asking her if she thought I should become a writer. In the typically cryptic way we were all so enchanted with, she said, "No." I took that to mean yes and sailed for Italy the next day.


Italy reminded me a great deal of Chicago, particularly Venice, because both cities have canals and the streets abound with statues and cathedrals by the greatest sculptors of the Renaissance. That month we went to Picasso's studio in Aries, which was then called Rouen or Zurich, until the French renamed it in 1589 under Louis the Vague. (Louis was a sixteenth-century bastard king who was just mean to everybody.)

Picasso was then beginning on what was later to be known as his "blue period," but Gertrude Stein and I had coffee with him, and so he began it ten minutes later. It lasted four years, so the ten minutes did not really mean much.

Picasso was a short man who had a funny way of walking by putting one foot in front of the other until he would take what he called "steps." We laughed at his delightful notions, but toward the late 1930s, with fascism on the rise, there was very little to laugh about.

Both Gertrude Stein and I examined Picasso's newest works very carefully, and Gertrude Stein was of the opinion that "art, all art, is merely an expression of something." Picasso disagreed and said, "Leave me alone. I was eating." My own feelings were that Picasso was right. He had been eating.

Picasso's studio was so unlike Matisse's, in that, while Picasso's was sloppy, Matisse kept everything in perfect order. Oddly enough, just the reverse was true. In September of that year, Matisse was commissioned to paint an allegory, but with his wife's illness, it remained unpainted and was finally wallpapered instead. I recall these events so perfectly because it was just before the winter that we all lived in that cheap flat in the north of Switzerland where it will occasionally rain and then just as suddenly stop.

Juan Gris, the Spanish cubist, had convinced Alice Toklas to pose for a still life and, with his typical abstract conception of objects, began to break her face and body down to its basic geometrical forms until the police came and pulled him off. Gris was provincially Spanish, and Gertrude Stein used to say that only a true Spaniard could behave as he did; that is, he would speak Spanish and sometimes return to his family in Spain. It was really quite marvellous to see.

I remember one afternoon we were sitting at a gay bar in the south of France with our feet comfortably up on stools in the north of France, when Gertrude Stein said, "I'm nauseous." Picasso thought this to be very funny and Matisse and I took it as a cue to leave for Africa. Seven weeks later, in Kenya, we came upon Hemingway. Bronzed and bearded now, he was already beginning to develop that familiar flat prose style about the eyes and mouth. Here, in the unexplored dark continent, Hemingway had braved chapped lips a thousand times. "What's doing, Ernest?" I asked him. He waxed eloquent on death and adventure as only he could, and when I awoke he had pitched camp and sat around a great fire fixing us all fine derma appetizers. I kidded him about his new beard and we laughed and sipped cognac and then we put on some boxing gloves and he broke my nose. That year I went to Paris a second time to talk with a thin, nervous European composer with aquiline profile and remarkably quick eyes who would someday be Igor Stravinsky and then, later, his best friend. I stayed at the home of Man and Sting Ray and Salvador Dali joined us for dinner several tunes and Dali decided to have a one-man show which he did and it was a huge success, as one man showed up and it was a gay and fine French winter.

I remember one night Scott Fitzgerald and his wife returned home from their New Year's Eve party. It was April. They had consumed nothing but champagne for the past three months, and one previous week, in full evening dress, had driven their limousine off a ninety- foot cliff into the ocean on a dare. There was something real about the Fitzgeralds; their values were basic. They were such modest people, and when Grant Wood later convinced them to pose for his "American Gothic" I remember how flattered they were. All through their sittings, Zelda told me, Scott kept dropping the pitchfork.

I became increasingly friendly with Scott in the next few years, and most of our friends believed that he based the protagonist of his latest novel on me and that I had based my life on his previous novel and I finally wound up getting sued by a fictional character. Scott was having a big discipline problem and, while we all adored Zelda, we agreed that she had an adverse effect on his work, reducing his output from one novel a year to an occasional seafood recipe and a series of commas.

Finally, in 1929, we all went to Spain together, where Hemingway introduced me to Manolete who was sensitive almost to the point of being effeminate. He wore tight toreador pants or sometimes pedal pushers. Manolete was a great, great artist. Had he not become a bullfighter, his grace was such that he could have been a world- famous accountant. We had great fun in Spain that year and we travelled and wrote and Hemingway took me tuna fishing and I caught four cans and we laughed and Alice Toklas asked me if I was in love with Gertrude Stein because I had dedicated a book of poems to her even though they were T. S. Eliot's and I said, yes, I loved her, but it could never work because she was far too intelligent for me and Alice Toklas agreed and then we put on some boxing gloves and Gertrude Stein broke my nose.

Woody Allen is the focus of this entire week. This excerpt is from his book The Insanity Defense. You can snap up a copy of the book here.


"The Handing Down" - Magnolia Electric Co. (mp3)

"Hope Dies Last" - Magnolia Electric Co. (mp3)

"The Rock of Ages" - Magnolia Electric Co. (mp3)

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