The Stolen Portrait
I almost threw the portrait of a young Lenore away. I could tell it was her, but the colors had faded. The paint on the frame had flaked to reveal aged wood beneath. An indistinct signature on the right-hand side prevented me from tossing it into the rubbish bin.
I didn’t figure out the connection between the painter and my great-aunt Lenore until much later.
Lenore used to tell me, “Darling, I have been everything. I have been an opera singer, an actress, a grand entertainer of those who love the arts, and I have been on the stage in eight countries.”
As I dug through her formidable collection of memorabilia, I mused. She now was a “has been.” Not a charitable thought just three weeks after her demise. Her will had gifted me with the dubious honor of caring for her four Persian cats, who upholstered my furniture in fur. In exchange, I’d inherited “the whole part and parcel of my household goods.” Her Moroccan mansion had come from a disastrous marriage in the sixties. Her home was being sold and the proceeds distributed between her two sons who lived far away in Switzerland and Italy and never visited except for the reading of the will.
As the proprietor of a coffee house, I’d hoped for some immediate cash to upgrade my business. After all, I’d been fascinated by my great-aunt since I was a child.
“Send Michelle over to keep me company,” Lenore would say to my mother.
We’d have tea on opaque China and petite fours on a silver platter. Some of her stories were totally age inappropriate. Somehow, I knew not to share these confidences with my mother who would have immediately banned me from Lenore’s house on High Street. As I grew up, I’d dropped by frequently and told her about my dates, heartbreaks, eventually my wedding plans and later my divorce when I was thirty-three.
Considering how busy I was, I should have turned the overwhelming project of sorting through her antiques, furniture, clothing, and miscellany to professionals. However, my curiosity prevented me. Each evening after work, I shamelessly snooped through her closets, drawers and shoe boxes filled with her personal letters, notes, and photographs. She hadn’t exaggerated her conquests, hedonistic pursuits, or her beauty and charm that had catapulted her from a clerk in a millinery shop to Europe’s center stage.
Her letters were in some semblance of order, starting in the early forties. The signatures dashed across the bottom changed constantly or were in tandem, two to three suitors at once. Some were in French or Italian or some other language I couldn’t decipher.
A peeping Thomasina, I became a voyeur watching years of her dressing room trysts with tenors, rendezvous in Paris hotels, and naked romps on the Riviera, or in some Duke’s private swimming pool.
Then abruptly in 1951, the letters stopped. No more newspaper photos of her in glamourous gowns on the arm of some dapper gentleman. Vaguely, I remembered her telling me she had moved to New York during the fifties. “What happened?” I wondered. I knew she had continued her career in the states. She’d appeared in a musical at the Apollo Theater, which was still in operation in the nineties. Had she sworn off men for some reason?
I put the letters back in the box to take home to my apartment. I’d taken some writing classes in college when I got my degree in business administration. What a book these stories would make.
I turned my attention toward her clothing instead, which unfortunately didn’t fit me. Lenore was five-foot-ten and slender, her erect carriage making her neck appear even longer. I am five-foot-four and rounded.
In the back of one closet, I found a treasure and a clue, a flared three-quarter length cashmere coat with a navy silk lining imprinted with gold fleur-de-lis’. The elegant garment transformed me into a chic model. I turned this way and that in front of the full-length mirror, admiring the detail on the back. Posing, I put one hand in the large pocket. My fingers closed around an envelope. Intrigued, I pulled it out.
Inside the sealed envelope was a crumpled note. The message was short. “Jacques, I can’t go on without you.” I recognized Lenore’s handwriting from the cards she’d sent me on holidays. Obviously, she’d never given or sent the note to the mysterious Jacques.
The internet helped me value many of the items and finally after tagging everything, the estate sale brought in enough money for me to redecorate my shop, have a new sign made, and provided a nest egg for my future. Lenore’s house sold three months after being put on the market. The two sons raked in over a million dollars between them to add to their already full coffers.
Right about this time, Elgin Radke moved his bookstore into a vacant building next to my coffee house.
“Welcome to our neighborhood,” I said, balancing coffee and raspberry scones on a tray. There was no escape from that smile, those deep blue eyes. Tall, even a little stooped, with wire frame glasses, he probably wouldn’t qualify as most women’s dream man. But in just one moment, I was caught.
As the months progressed, it became apparent he was just as enthralled with me. We dated every chance we could get away from our respective businesses. He loved books, art, and classical music. New York was his hometown.
“Michelle, let me take you there. We’ll go to a play on Broadway, a concert, art museums, eat in bistros, and try all kinds of foreign cuisine.”
It was at the art museum that I discovered Lenore’s Jacques that she couldn’t live without. Elgin and I slowly wandered the spacious rooms. We choose our favorites and shared comments about what we liked or disliked.
We walked into a new area and my feet anchored to the floor. I gasped. The painting was of my aunt, obviously by the same artist, just from a different angle. This rendering was totally different, the model’s sapphire eyes sparkled, her skin glowed, her high cheekbones touched with pink. The frame looked new, likely it had been replaced.
I’d put Lenore’s painting away in the back recess of my closet thinking it wasn’t salable. I had no idea why I’d kept it.
“What is it, Michelle?” Elgin asked, as I stared closely at the signature in the corner of the canvas.
My hands clasped together to stop them from shaking. “It’s my portrait, I mean it’s another painting by Jacques, Jacques DuBois, Great-Aunt Lenore’s Jacques.”
He blinked several times. “What? Your portrait? What do you mean?”
A bench nearby called to me. The story took time to tell.
“It’s like putting together pieces of a puzzle,” he said.
“Yes, but there are some big pieces still missing. I can hardly wait to get on my laptop and find out who this guy was. Still, the internet won’t tell me why she became so enamored with him.”
There was a picture of Jacques on an art website, a masculine face with distinct facial planes. There was Mrs. DuBois, who Jacques beautifully portrayed as having a heart shaped face, large dark eyes, and hair. Not that I thought his marital status would have slowed down Lenore.
He had painted her in 1952 around the time when Lenore had breezed into the Big Apple. Had he attended one of Lenore’s famous soirees? Had she bought the painting or was it a gift? According to the internet, the more colorful painting was worth over seven thousand dollars. If mine was an original, who knew what it might bring?
When I got home, I carefully retrieved the picture from its hiding place. My first impression, I don’t like this picture, had changed. I suddenly felt somehow connected to the painting. I studied details, the same dress, the upswept hair captured in a jeweled comb. The background with old fashioned flowered wallpaper and an antique clock on a mantel. No matter how much it was worth, I did not want to sell it.
When Elgin and I married, my mother, Anna, flew in from Florida for the wedding. She came for several days ahead of time to help with preparations. She peered through her bifocals at the portrait on my wall.
“Where’d you get this old picture of Lenore?”
“It was part of the inheritance.” I knew she’d never approved of my aunt. Yet maybe she knew something. “Do you know anything about the man who painted it?
My mother shook her head. “No, she never confided in me. The person you should ask is Mamie Driscoll, her partner in crime.”
“She’s still alive?”
“Yep, only the good die young,” she sniffed. “She’s in Beaverton in a ritzy assisted living, The Executive Luxe.”
After getting my wedding dress fitted, I drove Mom home for a nap. Beaverton is just a short distance from Portland, Oregon where I live. I’d called her to see if I could visit.
Mamie’s face was not a commercial for face lifts. She wore enough makeup for three women and had a throaty voice, probably the results of her pack of cigarettes and whisky by her armchair.
“So, you want to know about Jacques. Yes, the French painter, fell head over heels with him. She stopped seeing anybody else. Ridiculous. She could have anybody. Pursued him, traveled to all these countries where he was painting.”
She coughed, a distasteful rasp. “Of course, he was married. A good man who loved his wife and wouldn’t be seduced by her. For years, I told her to stop, but she wouldn’t.”
“Do you think she loved him? I get the impression from her letters that her long string of lovers were mere dalliances.”
“Love, obsession, maybe both. Maybe his being unavailable made him more attractive. Who knows? She sure as hell didn’t love that pompous husband of hers.” She poured a healthy swig of whisky into her glass. “Want a shot?”
I shook my head.
“You have her letters?”
I leaned forward. “Yes, letters, photographs, posters of her performances and one of Jacques’ paintings.”
A laugh rumbled from her throat. “The one she stole?”
I stared at her. “It’s stolen?”
She sloshed a small amount into another glass and handed it to me. “Maybe you’d better take that drink after all.” She raised hers. “To Lenore.”
After we came home from our honeymoon, I visited Mamie several times and brought the letters. She knew a lot of the men and could read French. She filled me in on parties, premiers, and explicit details.
“She met Jacques at an art exhibit in New York. She talked about ‘his genius, his vision,’ blah, blah, on and on. Like usual, she turned the charm on high and this time got a pink slip.” Mamie took a long drag on her cigarette and blew the smoke upward toward her flaming red hair. “She became desperate, practically throwing herself at him. Embarrassing, making a total fool of herself.”
"Then she became a thief. Snuck into his studio, grabbed the first painting she saw, and ran to her car. It wasn’t even finished. He would put one layer of paint on first and then add bright colors on top.”
Now I understood why my painting was not like the one I’d seen in the museum.
“Nobody knew who’d taken it,” Mamie continued. “She showed me though. I have a part of him now,’” she said.
“Wow, what a book this would make,” she said, after her first scotch of the morning.
“I’ve thought of writing it. I’d not be able to use real names, or I’d be sued up the wazoo.”
“I’ll drink to that,” she said.
That year I began writing under a pseudonym. I had plenty of material. By the next year, my book, “I Have Been Everything” was released. Reviewers raved. One called it, “Provocative, an erotic page turner.” Another proclaimed it the “The Sexiest Read of the Year.” Elgin features it in the window of his book shop and is constantly ordering more copies.
The second portrait has been donated anonymously to the New York Museum where I first saw his other work. When Elgin and I visit New York, I sit on the bench and lovingly gaze at my favorite painting