THE BLOG
02/21/2013 07:27 pm ET Updated Apr 23, 2013

In Search of Picasso's Corpse

An except from Picasso's Ghost.

At sunset two days after Picasso's death, Paloma, Maya, her husband, Claude and I squeezed into Maya's old Citroen for our journey. Maya's husband drove. I was told to be quiet and to listen to the radio though my French was inadequate for this task. The family again discussed the estate and its prospective worth as well as strategies of entry into the village of Vauvenargues to avoid the press.

We passed through the town of Paulette which Claude and I had visited. When I studied the countryside painted by Cezanne, Matisse, Braque, Van Gogh and Picasso, I felt as if a museum had come alive. Its voices were in the car. Its paintings, now moving landscapes, surrounded us and were sinister to see at night. Deep purple shadows created by the moon cast eerie light upon these rolling hills that reminded me of sleeping giants. I heard Picasso's children cry and whisper as I studied Cezanne's mountains. Van Gogh had cut off his ear in a mistral in this countryside. He painted this country as well. The great masters all had been here. Picasso's ghost wasn't the only one with us this night.

"There's the Mt. St. Victoire!" I said to Claude,

"I know, Cherie. We're talking about our father. Please. Excuse us if we seem to be excluding you," Claude said abruptly.

Paloma fought tears.

Maya who thought of how to get to the Picasso's paintings, planned the attack.

I thought about my days as an art teacher in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, and how my students would have loved to have been here with us. I remembered the day I took them to Philadelphia's Art Museum and how excited they had been by the post-impressionists, my favorite period of art history. Now it was as though we were driving inside a living painting on the way to a medieval castle for the funeral of the most celebrated artist of our century. I was ashamed of my feelings. Though they cried (all except Maya), I was having an adventure. One I'd never forget. Picasso wasn't my father.

I thought about the probability of my father's death in the near future. The scar tissue from the lobotomy was creating havoc in his brain. There would be a time for tears for my own father. Why weep along with Paloma and Claude? Instead I would try to help them as best I could. Their sorrow had paralyzed their ability to think rationally. Maya was defiant. Paloma wept. Claude was enraged.

We reached Vauvenargues at night. Yet it looked like day. Cameras, television crews, reporters, flood lights, mini-cams were everywhere. The Son et Lumiere of Picasso's death. In the valley between the mountains surrounding us stood the Chateau de Vauvenargues. Like a giant coffin. Beneath the castle over the years a medieval moat had been transformed into a graveyard.

"Make a right up that dirt road," Claude said to Maya's husband who was driving. "Go up the mountain away from the press." Claude bent down. "Watch it! Duck! Here come the cameras!"

Claude, Paloma and Maya crouched in the backseat hiding their faces. Crowds forced Maya's husband to stop. A photographer pushed his face against the window, saw no photo opportunity and turned away.

Maya peeked out of the car. "Keep going," she whispered. "Park behind that big cypress. So we can see the castle."

"Cherie, watch for movement," Claude whispered. "A coffin. A corpse. A body being carried in or out."

We parked in a secluded spot under the foliage of a tall tree. "You can sit up now," I said. "It's safe. The press is below by the castle.

Maya's husband and I were told to be on guard for paparazzi, but the photographers had ignored us because of our battered Citroen. Who would believe that Picasso's heirs, soon to be worth billions, would arrive at his funeral by such humble means? Picasso's ghost, maybe.

The towering cypress and the twisting olive trees brought back those feelings of being in a moonlit museum. I wanted to comfort Paloma's tears. To calm Maya's anger. To soothe Claude's rage. I could do nothing except study the huge wooden castle door as it would open and close and listen to a radio. We kept watching for coffins, for digging, for people carrying things in and out. They wanted to know where Picasso was going to be buried, but nothing happened.

I prayed for their suffering to end. Whether Jacqueline Roque liked it or not, Picasso's spirit was with us.

After an hour of our futile vigil, I made a suggestion. "Let's drive to Aix and buy flowers?"

"Where would we put them?" Claude said.

"On one of those graves down there," I said, pointing to the vast graveyard.

"How would we know which grave is his?" Maya said.

"What's it matter?" I said.

"He likes gladiolas," Paloma said.

"Write a letter," I said.

"What's the p-point," Claude said.

"What do you mean, 'What's the point?' His spirit," I said. "Write to his spirit. Let the world know you were here. And care. Don't let Jacqueline silence you."

"Allons y!" Claude said as Maya's husband turned on the ignition and under the moonlight we sped down the winding dirt road into town. Although it was late, one flower shop remained open.

"Let's not all go in," Claude said.

"I'll buy them," Maya's husband said, parking the car.

"Get peach gladiolas," Paloma said. "A dozen. Peach."

Maya's husband returned with a dozen peach gladiolas. "What do we write on?"

"Look in the trunk," Maya said.

Maya's husband rummaged through the trunk and held up something from a laundry. "How about this? My shirt's wrapped in cardboard."

"Great," Claude said with a smile. It was the first smile of the night.

"What do we write with?" Maya said.

"Paloma pulled a green crayon from her purse. "Will this do?"

"Terrific! Now what do we say?" Claude paused. "How about, 'To our father whom we have loved and will love... forever...?'"

"Au revoir..." Paloma said.

"A bientot..." Maya said.

Claude wrote the letter. Picasso's children signed it in silence. Maya's husband started the car and we drove back to the castle. It was about 10 pm when we pulled off the road and parked by the graveyard that was some 50 feet below.

"Take off your shoes and sox," Claude said. Barefoot, we five descended to the graves. Some were open with mounds of dirt piled by new tombstones.

"One of these must be for your father," I said. "If we run dirt through our fingers, we'll know which grave is the most recent. Soil freshly dug smells damp."

As absurd as it now seems, Picasso's children followed my advice. For over an hour we wandered aimlessly among the many open graves. The moon caste an eerie light overall. The castle remained a shadow looming in the distance. It was cold. Our feet were covered with dirt. I never left Claude's side.

Suddenly he stopped, embraced me, gazed into my eyes and said, "Will you be my wife?"

Though I was unprepared for the question, I knew the answer. "I would be honored to be your wife," I said beneath the starlight.

"I'll be the best husband you'll ever have, my Carolina, and the last."

We kissed and while Claude held me, I never felt so loved, wanted or safe in his arms as this night that Picasso died. Now perhaps Claude could live. No longer tortured by his father's rejection.

Maya and her husband and Paloma, who had been carrying the letter, joined us. "Carole has agreed to be the next Madame Picasso," Claude said and one by one they congratulated me.

Paloma placed the cardboard letter by the closest mound of soil. "I give up," she said. "Will this grave do?"

"It doesn't matter where you put it." I said.

"He'll get the message," Claude said as we knelt by an open grave and said the Lord's Prayer. Claude led us in "Our father..."

As we cried, I felt Picasso smiling upon us. Finally his spirit, now free, could be with his children. After we dried our eyes, we hurried back to the car and drove out of Vauvenargues, past the hoards of photographers still watching the castle.

"Stop the car," I said, shouting. "Tell the press to go down into the graveyard and to look for your message to your father."

Claude rolled down the window as I shouted at the paparazzi just that. A few looked at the battered Citroen in disbelief. They could not image a Picasso relative riding in a jalopy. Then we drove back through the land of Cezanne and onto Marseilles where we slept peacefully at last.

A few weeks later we read Picasso had been buried in a crypt outside the entrance of the Chateau de Vauvenargues. While we had not found his grave, we had found his spirit.

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