A Conversation with Mark Braude, author of KIKI MANY RAY

What drew you to wanting to write about Kiki de Montparnasse?

Man Ray’s Le Violon d’Ingres is a picture that has held a space somewhere in my mind for as long as I can remember. It’s an icon. Even if you don’t recognize the title, if I start describing a black and white photograph of a woman’s naked back marked with the f-holes of a violin, you’re likely able to picture it right away. And yet as familiar as the image was to me, and as intriguing as I’d always found it, I’d never given much thought to the woman in the photo. I knew her name was Kiki de Montparnasse and that she’d been a famous model in Paris in the 20s and had lived with Man Ray – and that was about it.

As I started teaching art history, I would show Le Violon d’Ingres to talk about Surrealism, and I would give Kiki a quick mention. And then one day I realized how strange it was to teach from this image while knowing almost nothing about the person at its center – especially since Kiki’s energy seems so vital to the picture’s allure, even while her face is barely glimpsed in profile.

After doing some digging, I discovered that Kiki wrote a short memoir nearly a century ago and I tracked down one of the original copies. Five pages in I knew I would write a book about her. Not only was she so much more than Man Ray’s muse, she’s really the uncredited co-creator of some of his most iconic works – including Le Violon d’Ingres.

So who was Kiki?

When Kiki and Man Ray created their iconic Surrealist images in 1920s Paris, she was by far the more innovative and influential figure. Everyone from Modigliani to Chaim Soutine to Tsuguharu Foujita competed to capture Kiki’s unconventional style and anarchic energy in their portraits of her. But Kiki was herself an electrifying artist. As a cabaret performer she dazzled Parisian crowds with her outsized stage presence and bawdy songs. She sold out the debut show of her paintings, starred in several films, and recorded albums. And the publication of her memoir in 1930 with an introduction by Ernest Hemingway, made front-page news in France and was subsequently banned (for obscenity) in the US.

She had an unlikely trajectory: born Alice Prin, poor, illegitimate and uneducated in a village in Burgundy in 1901, she went on to become the ultimate insider in cosmopolitan Montparnasse by creating the character of Kiki de Montparnasse, a bolder, edgier, and more confident version of herself, which she presented onstage, on screen, and in her confessional writing. She also knew so many of the now legendary people now associated with that era: Djuna Barnes, Peggy Guggenheim, Jean Cocteau, Marcel Duchamp, Constantin Brancusi, Andre Breton, Janet Flanner, Kay Boyle, Hemingway all considered her a friend, and each one has spoken or written about how they were inspired by Kiki’s personality and by her creativity in some way.

What was Paris in the early 1920s like for Kiki?

It’s eerie how many similarities there are between life in Paris a hundred years ago and life today. Kiki and her friends were, like so many other people, reeling from the huge sense of loss caused by war and by a global pandemic, the Spanish Flu. They were anxious about rampant inflation, polarized politics, and the rise of authoritarianism. That sense of anxiety and questioning led them to want to throw themselves at life with maximum energy, to try to have as much fun as possible, while also leading a few among them to want to create truly revolutionary art, and music, and writing.

It’s easy now when talking about that era to lose sight of the fact that at the time it was just a small bunch of highly talented misfits who’d come to the city from all over, and who, alongside a few local Parisians, connected with each other at a few cafes and nightclubs and at house parties. Kiki and her friends weren’t thinking about getting rich or famous. They just wanted to earn enough to keep going while they tried to express themselves.

In the last years of the war, Kiki had been living just above the poverty level. Her last real job was as a baker’s assistant, which she lost after the baker’s wife called her a “little tart” because she’d darkened her eyebrows with some burnt matchstick, which led Kiki to punch the baker’s wife. But she saw the path to another more exciting life through the backroom of the Rotonde café in the heart of Montparnasse, where artists went to meet models and vice versa. Kiki eventually wore down the gatekeepers to that backroom with her charm. By posing regularly for the neighborhood’s painters she started to earn enough to support herself. And it gave her a way to be around artists and to learn from them, with an eye to becoming an artist herself.

Man Ray left America for Paris in 1921 when he was 30. Why did he go? What was he looking for in Paris, and what did he leave behind?

Emmanuel Radnitzky was born in Philadelphia in 1890 to Russian-Jewish immigrants who worked in the garment trade. They pressured their first-born American son to pursue a stable profession. But he aspired to become a great painter. He changed his name to Man Ray and moved to an artist’s colony in Ridgefield, New Jersey, where he happened to meet Marcel Duchamp, who became a major influence. Just before WWI Man Ray married Adon Lacroix, a Belgian poet, who introduced him to all sorts of writing and art from Europe, especially from France. By 1921 his marriage was over and Man Ray traveled to Paris on what was meant to be a three-month tour, just to see the museums and visit a few artists there. He ended up staying in Paris for close to fifty years (excluding the years during WWII, when he returned to New York).

He saw Paris as the place where he could escape his American identity and try to reinvent himself, living cheaply with no connections or responsibilities. His career had been slowly taking off in Manhattan, where he’d sold a few Cubist-inspired paintings and was making objects and sculptures inspired by Duchamp’s influence. But he only blossomed as an artist once he settled in Paris, where, thanks to meeting Kiki and asking her to pose for him, he found the medium at which he excelled: photography.

How did Kiki inspire Man Ray? What was their relationship like?

Kiki can be considered Man Ray’s muse in a traditional sense: through her he wanted to make great art, creating various representations of Kiki but always as way to try to express his own vision. What was more exciting for me to think about were the unexpected ways Kiki inspired Man Ray through her own art-making. He was clearly jealous of Kiki’s talent, especially resentful of the attention she got through her cabaret shows, but he was also in awe of her natural ability. And while he talked constantly about the need for complete freedom in his life and in his work, he saw that in truth Kiki was the free one because she was so unconcerned with conventional success. She liked to say “all I need is an onion, a bit of bread, and a bottle of wine.”

Kiki adored Man Ray, and encouraged him, and genuinely loved his photos and films at a time when few people did. Looking back on their time together, years later, she was proud to think that she’d inspired what she considered his best work. And they did have a lot of fun together. There was obviously a strong physical spark and they nursed one another through very low times, including Man Ray’s suicidal depression and Kiki’s bout in prison (for disturbing the peace and assaulting an officer). But theirs was also a messy, destructive, and sometimes violent relationship. They seem to have brought out the best and the worst in one another.

Why is this book called KIKI MAN RAY? 

Kiki and Man Ray lived together for most of the 1920s and their professional and private lives were closely entwined. Although she and Man Ray never married, Kiki for a time considered the two of them as being so intimately linked that it was as if they were fused into a single being. For some of Kiki’s film performances she asked to be credited as ‘Kiki Man Ray,’ and when friends like Tristan Tzara and the art dealer Henri-Pierre Roché wrote to her they would call her Kiki Ray or Kiki Man Ray.

The book’s title can also be read as KIKI / MAN RAY. And that fits, too, because one of my main arguments is that the lines marking where Kiki’s performances ended and Man Ray’s portraits began are more porous than they might at first appear, and that he inspired her creative pursuits just as much as she did his. My hope is that if, after finishing the book, people take another look at some of the iconic Man Ray photographs of Kiki they’ll start to think of them more as the collaborations of two accomplished artists and not just as Man Ray’s portraits of a potentially interchangeable nude female model.

Why hasn’t there been a full-scale biography of Kiki until now?

I think Kiki has been largely forgotten in part because of the usual misogyny that has relegated centuries of female artists to secondary status. But Kiki got an especially raw deal in being denied lasting recognition because she didn’t make a lot of the kind of art you could sell or collect or put in a museum. She sang, she danced, she posed, she performed. All of that is fleeting. She might also have been a bigger cultural figure if her memoir hadn’t been banned in America. Bennet Cerf, the co-founder of Random House, wanted to publish it, despite the legal problems he anticipated, but the project fell through. A French newspaper item reported on Kiki hearing that all the copies of her memoir had been seized by American officials, because of the supposed obscenity of its contents. She just shrugged her shoulders and said, “I’m not losing any weight over it.” She didn’t try to press the matter any further. It seems that being a beloved figure in her neighborhood was fame enough for her.

You’ve written about Monaco, Napoleon, and now Kiki. What has drawn you to such disparate subjects? 

I like the challenge of approaching a well-known person, place, or event from an unexpected angle. I enjoy tightening my focus to try to reveal a story of outsized importance. My first book, Making Monte Carlo, proposed that tiny Monaco, the world’s second-smallest country, changed everything from how people gamble, to how they think about tourism, to how they pay (or avoid paying) taxes, since it was both the world’s first casino-resort and the first modern tax haven. My second book, The Invisible Emperor, looked at Napoleon exclusively through his 10-month exile on Elba, a place roughly the size of Staten Island, showing how the ruler who’d once controlled the destinies of roughly 80 million lives completely reinvented himself through his experience of governing an island of about twelve thousand people. KIKI MAN RAY goes even tighter, focusing on a single neighborhood, detailing an intimate connection shared by two people, who along with their friends, living and working across a few blocks of Montparnasse did as much as anyone in the 20th century to change how people saw, talked, wrote, and thought about modern art, and about their world.

Can you name some books or other works that helped to inspire or inform your writing KIKI MAN RAY?

Jean Cocteau was an indispensable guide to Paris in the 1920s and 30s through his biographical writing. Janet Flanner also helped me to better understand that time and place through her ‘Letters from Paris,’ which started appearing in the New Yorker in 1925 under the pseudonym ‘Genet.’ Both Cocteau and Flanner seemed to have something hilarious and trenchant to say about every person, thing, or idea that crossed their respective paths. I knew little about the American novelist Kay Boyle before starting this project; her writing about this time was a delight to discover. And then there are the usual suspects. While I hope that KIKI MAN RAY offers an unconventional take on this subject, I can trace my earliest fascination with post-WWI Paris, and the era more broadly, to some well-worn sources: Hemingway (especially A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises, and A Moveable Feast) and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, which is so good at capturing all the restlessness and pain of that beautiful, sad era.

Two books that unexpectedly influenced KIKI MAN RAY, if more in vibes than in anything tangible: Patti Smith’s Just Kids and Sally Rooney’s Normal People. Looking at photography from the time helped to evoke a sense of place: Not just Man Ray. There were, among others, Berenice Abbott’s portraits; Eugene Atget’s attempts to document the old Paris that was slowly being destroyed by “progress;” and Brassai’s thrilling shots of the seedy, nocturnal Paris. And I listened to Sydney Bechet, George Gershwin, and especially Ethel Waters singing “Dinah” on repeat.