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A Place of Her Own : Culture: Francoise Gilot, Picasso's former lover and Jonas Salk's wife, wants to be known not as the companion of great men, but as their equal.

March 06, 1991|IRENE LACHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Picasso wasn't the first.

Years before Francoise Gilot had even met Picasso, there was someone else. Sure, her name would be linked to the crusty Spaniard's long after her tempestuous years as his mistress. But Picasso did have a predecessor and Gilot remembers spotting him from the rarefied height of her grandmother's staircase in Paris.

"It was the first of January, and my grandmother had a kind of salon, and that day there were some friends of my grandmother who came. All of a sudden, someone arrived. He was called Emile Mairet. He was a post-Impressionist painter. He was dressed all in black. I remember because it was so stunning, a black hat with a large brim. He was wearing a rather high collar and a lavaliere, the kind of tie that only the artists would wear. And he had a huge black cape. He was dressed almost like Whistler.

"He was in his 60s probably, but he was the most handsome man. He was bringing a huge bouquet-- c'etait de la mode de la violettes de Palmes --the violets from Palma which are the pale violets, and he really cut a fantastic figure.

"When everybody left, I said to my grandmother, 'Who was that man?' And she said, 'Ah, you noticed, but he is an artist.' And when my grandmother said that, she meant everything--' Ah, mais oui, c'etait un artist! ' And I answered right away, ' Ah, moi aussi ' (Me too)."

She was 5 years old.

If Francoise Gilot considers herself a handmaiden of fate, as biographers say, then destiny showed her its own hand particularly early on. And if Gilot has found a degree of double-edged fame because of her relationships--first with Picasso, and now as the wife of Dr. Jonas Salk--her first consort was always art.

She enjoyed entree to some of the finest minds of the 20th Century, and as a witness to it all, her remarkable memory has served her well. The woman who remembers the precise shade of violets a man was carrying nearly 65 years ago has also reconstructed numerous conversations between two of the titans of modern art in her latest book of memoirs, "Matisse and Picasso: A Friendship in Art" (Doubleday). The book is a collage of recollections and analysis of their art and friendly rivalry, particularly in the years when their lives intersected with hers--from 1946 to 1954.

"I don't write diaries and things like that," says the sometime-La Jolla resident, "but I have a fantastic memory. I call that like a magic carpet. I can really concentrate and travel back in the past I don't know how many years from now and evoke that space if I wanted."

While the public's fascination with Gilot stems largely from her intimate relationships with two great men--a source of great annoyance for her--she would prefer to be thought of not as their significant other, but as their equal. In fact, when Gilot, 69, was once asked how she had attracted them, she replied: "I think I am just as interesting as they." She recently told Mirabella magazine: "Lions mate with lions. They don't mate with mice."

Indeed, Gilot proudly considers herself no mere mouse spouse--but a disciple and scribe on the order of the Greek philosophers.

She says her writing " 'Matisse and Picasso' is a little like Plato after Socrates. Socrates only taught in words. He didn't write. And after that you had Plato and Aristotle to write about what he had said.

"I write about them because they didn't write about them."

A touch of irony helped spark Gilot's writing career. While she and Picasso were together--they met in 1943--Picasso would beg her to write articles about him for the French press. At the time, Gilot demurred, figuring that if she couldn't speak the whole truth as she saw it, she wouldn't speak at all.

But Picasso, who adored the limelight, eventually got his wish--much to his dismay. In 1964--a decade after she walked out--her book "Life With Picasso" was published. The sometimes scathing memoir sent a stake into the heart of his deified reputation. In a bid to stop publication, Picasso sued twice, both times unsuccessfully.

And it was obvious to see why he tried: Gilot's Picasso was brilliant, yes, but as destructive as he was creative. He was a man whose bursts of violent temper, cruelty and capriciousness burnt a swath of misery among the people close to him. In one telling anecdote, Picasso "branded" Gilot by holding a cigarette to her cheek for committing the crime of enjoying a seaside furlough without him. And those were the good old days.

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