“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’ve 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 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 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. Vice President of India, Dr. S. 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.
Beato’s own art came to India in the 1960s after freedom fighter Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay who ran the All India Handicrafts Board came across her work. At her invitation the U.S. Department sent her to exhibit her work. In her memoir, she remembered walking into a show in Bombay to find all the pottery jammed against each other “like a rummage sale” on top of a bright blue tablecloth. She just stopped worrying about it and embraced India with open arms, sometimes a little too freely. She asked Nehru’s sister Krishna Hutheesingh what her brother did. Biju Patnaik sent his men to take her off the train in Puri so he could meet her. But the caste-conscious Deputy Speaker of the Bihar Assembly was petrified she would just march into his kitchen.
Move Over Jack and Rose
But her deepest Indian connection was a love affair that rivaled the Titanic’s. Beato fell in love with a top Indian scientist but knew his conservative parents would never approve of the match. But she still went back to India twice to snatch moments with him. An astrologer told her she had been an Indian woman who had left her husband in a past life to become a sanyasin and had been cursed to never have luck with men.
“I never married the men I loved, I never loved the men I married,” she said. She never revealed the name of that scientist. “I would have married him. And he would lived unhappily the rest of his life,” she said with a grin. “But I think it was very hard for him because I was not only from a different culture but from a different wild culture. Southern Californians are very free living.”
She had a telegram from her love after she left India for the last time in 1972. She could still quote it. “Have not written. Could not know the sadness. My love goes with you.”
She never went back to India and spent the rest of her life in California, reliving India through her saris. How many saris do you own I asked her. About 20 she said. “Close to a hundred,” protested Ram Singh.
“I didn’t sleep with that many men,” she retorted without hesitation.
Freedom—A Great Deal
At 104, Beatrice Wood could not really get into her work studio any more. She couldn’t go to the premiere of Titanic so James Cameron and Gloria Stuart brought the video to her. She refused to watch it. She said it was too late in life to be sad.
“I left home, a luxurious home, with $15, to be free,” she told me. “And I went through a few years understanding the word poverty. But I was free. And freedom means a great deal to me.”
I asked her what she wanted to take with her to her next life, the way the Egyptian pharaohs took their favourite possessions.
“A nice young violent man with black hair,” she said with a wicked smile. “And I would like to be in a beautiful sari.”
I named my cat after her. She told me she was honored. She died a year later. I still have an autographed copy of the July 1997 India Currents magazine which published the profile I wrote after meeting her.
Sometimes I look at it and can hardly believe I actually met her once. I held her wizened hand in my palms, listened to her chuckle, and watched the sunlight play on her silvery hair.
I don’t need James Cameron to make my Titanic three-dimensional. Beato already did that for me.
Sandip Roy is the Culture Editor for Firstpost.com. He is on leave as editor with New America Media and host of its radio show New America Now, on KALW 91.7 FM. This article was first published in First Post.