I was told she was the real Rose of the Titanic. When James Cameron was looking for a feisty old woman as a model for the 100 year-old Titanic survivor in his film, he came across Beatrice Wood. The American ceramicist, though she liked to call herself a potter, was already over a hundred but she was still throwing pots in her Southern Californian studio. Cameron modeled the old Rose, played by Gloria Stuart, on her.
“You must try and meet her,” said a friend. ” She’s quite something. I’ve heard she only wears saris.”
That was how I found out about one of the most amazing characters I’d ever encountered in my life.
“Come in the afternoon,” her manager told me. “That’s when she usually receives people.” So I did.
Mama of Dada
I remember her perched on a couch by the window, the mellow afternoon streaming in. The room was filled with her lustrously glazed ceramic bowls. Wood was wearing a vivid bougainvillea coloured desi skirt and lots of clunky silver jewellery, the kind we call “ethnic” these days. She didn’t want to talk about the Titanic. Or even about her ceramics for which she had been named one of America’s Living Treasures.
She wanted to talk about India. This was the mother of all curry queens.
“I just love saris,” she told me. “They are all I have worn for the last 35 years. I would today but I have no balance any more.” She had just turned 104 and had watched two centuries turn. When I asked her what she remembered about the first one, she retorted coquettishly, “What kind of question is that to ask a lady?”
This woman had lived every year of those 104 years. She had fled from an oh-so-propah blue-blooded family in New York’s Upper East side where she had had a debutante ball. She had ended up in Paris and in the middle of a life that was an artist’s dream and a mother’s nightmare (think Rose’s mother in The Titanic).
Wood had seen Monet painting in his garden in Giverny. She was an extra in a play with Sarah Bernhardt. She tie-dyed costumes for Isadora Duncan and learned folk dances from Anna Pavlova’s choreographer. The relationship between her, the French diplomat Henri Pierre Roche and the Dadaist artist Marcel Duchamp was apparently the basis of Truffaut’s film Jules et Jim. That affair earned her the moniker The Mama of Dada.
“I am not the Mama of Dada,” she chuckled. “I was on the sidelines, in love with two of the men. All these people are dead, and here I am getting the publicity.”
Mother of all curry queens
Beatrice Wood, or Beato as everyone called her, loved the publicity. At 104, she was still a bundle of flirtation. “Make sure my hearing aid cannot be seen,” she said as she posed happily for pictures. Her great joys in life, she said, were chocolates, a daily massage, and young men. What kind of young men, I asked her. “Oh at my age, any kind,” she chortled uproariously. Her manager Ram Pravesh Singh smiled indulgently. I didn’t know if they had a relationship. I didn’t dare ask. At 75 or so, he would have been quite the boytoy. With Beato anything was possible.
Her love affair with India really started when she was in her sixties. But before that while browsing in a bookstore she came across a book by Annie Besant, a leading light of the Theosophical Society (and who later became the first woman president of the Indian National Congress). She then met Besant and was very impressed.
“I’m the oldest living Theosophist in the world,” she said with a sigh. “Disgusting.”
The Theosophical Society led her to two other people who really introduced her to India – Rukmini Devi Arundale and Jiddu Krishnamurti. Krishnamurti was shocked at all the silver tribal jewellery she wore. She told him if she were younger she’d get her nose pierced. Dr. Radhakrishnan told her she looked like a gypsy. Ethnic jewellery was not yet fashionable. Ram Singh said an Indian official told her “Oh my God, what are you wearing? These are worn by low castes.” She told him “It’s a shame that you do not know the beauty of your own art.”
At that time India was rapidly industrializing. It had discovered plastics and synthetic dyes. She went into villages to photograph the vanishing traditions of folk art. “I don’t know whether India really appreciated the greatness of its folk art,” she said sadly.
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