A glamorous patron saint connects a writer and her grandmother over the years

Who makes history? Who writes it and who is in it? For Women’s History Month this year, Oprah Daily wants to honor women who have played roles outside the spotlight: grandmothers, resisters and teachers. We also return to characters we thought we knew, including the familiar faces of the Black Madonnas of France. One of the essays in this collection quotes Virginia Woolf, who said, “We look back through our mothers if we are women.” Review with us the remarkable women who have marked our history.

For some forty years, from the mid-1950s until her death in 2002, the Franco-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle produced an enormous and varied body of work – paintings, sculptures, performative works, drawings, prints, books, films and large-scale public and private works. Perhaps his best known is the Tarot Garden, a 14-acre sculpture park in the Italian Tuscan hills. Built over twenty years, starting in 1980, with a dedicated team (including the local postman, who stopped to help and never left), the garden is a communal cathedral, a place of secular worship , populated by monumental ceramics. glass sculptures representing the 22 Major Arcana, made according to a singular vision and force of will. Saint Phalle called it “the great project of my life”.

She needed money to realize such a big project. In 1982, she created a perfume Niki de Saint Phalle, at the invitation of the pioneering aviator and director of cosmetics Jacqueline Cochran, and designed a sumptuous bottle with two intertwined snakes on the cap. (Snakes are a permanent symbol in Saint Phalle’s art.) For the New York launch, Andy Warhol held an extravagant street fair on 32nd Street in Manhattan and invited the whole city. Saint Phalle, who had been a model at the age of 20 (making the covers of The life and vogue), wore a snake dress and turban headdress with a pair of Siamese snakes, designed by Marc Bohan of Dior. The revenue from the sale of the perfume financed a third of the construction of the garden.

I spent several years working on a book on Saint Phalle, a collection of drawings, prints, writings, letters, poems, books and sketches that tell the story of his life. He is intitulated What we know today was only imagined: an (auto)biography of Niki de Saint Phallus.

Fate or coincidence, my mother found a bottle of Saint Phalle perfume among my grandmother’s belongings and sent it to me when the book came out. It had belonged to my paternal grandmother, Eleanor, who died in 2000. My mother had forgotten she had it, but reading about the perfume of Saint Phalle in my new book jolted her memory.

Perfume created by the artist Niki de Saint Phalle to finance his sculpture garden, once owned by the author’s grandmother.

Nicole Rudick

This bottle is a less expensive edition, an eau de toilette. The rounded two-ounce bottle is cobalt blue, with a gold ball cap and two multicolored snakes painted on the front. Less than half of the perfume remains, a chypre floral scent that Saint Phalle described in evocative terms: “The ingredients are a mixture of fantastical flowers… a little sunshine… the fun of snakes… the mystique of the moon and stars , and a touch of love. A bottle of perfume is a dream, a hope.

It makes perfect sense that Eleanor – that’s what my sister and I called her; she wasn’t a “grandmother” at all, she had a bottle of Saint Phalle perfume. She was a museum enthusiast and the first intellectual I knew, long before I knew what an intellectual was. In the early 1950s, when she was in her late thirties, she returned to school, earning a bachelor’s degree at Hunter College, where she took courses in medieval literature. (My father still remembers the first line of the Knight’s Tale, of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, because she recited it so often.) Then came an MA and EdD at Columbia University, after which she taught nursing at Columbia’s Teachers College. She worked mostly with women – there were no nurses in America until the 1980s – and she said there was nothing in the world a woman couldn’t fix.

She smuggled smoked salmon and bagels in her suitcase every time she came to visit.

She and my grandfather divorced after their children left home, and she spent the rest of her life single and embarking on her own adventures, first in Manhattan, then in Dobbs Ferry, New York, and, much later, in Texas, where we lived. (She smuggled smoked salmon and bagels in her suitcase every time she came to visit.) She read extensively, mostly English novelists; subscribed to the new yorker and The New York Times (she did the Sunday crossword in pen); took up Russian folk dancing and ballet, even in his 70s; and was active with the League of Women Voters and children’s organizations. She traveled to London every year, where she met friends and artists and attended dozens of exhibitions and theatrical performances. I still have a few Tate press kits she brought me. Her hair has never turned gray. She was a poor cook. She has held a grudge all her life, including against her only sister. I admire him.

Eleanor was also elegant. She bought boxes and boxes of Italian designer shoes, especially tall leather boots and strappy sandals. She said she wanted to be reincarnated as a centipede so she could wear more shoes at a time than two feet would allow. She didn’t have a lot of money, but what she had she spent well. She owned dozens of Liberty scarves, long tweed and woolen skirts and tartan cashmere sweaters bought at W Bill on London’s Bond Street. Her favorite outfit, and how I remember her, included a Liberty scarf, a pleated skirt, a cashmere sweater, and a pair of Ferragamo boots.

she was not a “grandmother” at all

And perfume. She still smelled good – a cloud of perfume from a place more interesting than Texas. When she went to the department stores, she came back with mini perfume samples, which my sister and I were free to choose from. (Imagine a fifth grader wearing Dior Poison.) When she died, I took some of her sweaters, but the shoes, alas, were too small. I never washed some of the sweaters, which I wear sparingly because they smell of Eleanor’s perfume, whichever one she chose to wear last. A whiff of the scent and thoughts of her instantly bloom in my mind.

After she died, my mother gave me a poster that Eleanor had bought and framed. Created by Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely, a Swiss sculptor, partner and longtime collaborator of Saint Phalle, it served as an invitation to an exhibition in 1983 of works related to their Stravinsky fountain in front of the Center Georges Pompidou, in Paris. Eleanor didn’t travel beyond England, but maybe a friend from London gave it to her. Or maybe she bought it in New York at the same time she bought the perfume.

nicole rudick and her grandma eleanor

The author, Nicole Rudick, and her grandmother Eleanor, visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Nicole Rudick

I think the last time I saw her I was living in New York and she came to visit me. We met at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and had lunch there, an ending as fitting as any. As I got older, I realized that Eleanor and I have a lot in common (a deep love of literature and art, not to mention a knack for permanent grudges), and I often wish that be alive to see what I’ve done and who I’ve become.

I also wonder, not only about our common points, but about our deeper correspondences. What did she feel, for example, when she looked at Saint Phalle’s art? I’m sure we were drawn to it for some of the same reasons – Saint Phalle’s portrayal of womanhood, her joy, her abundant and expressive colors, and her independence – and we are bound by it. We are bound, too, by a need for the unusual and for adventure, a need, one might say, for a mixture of fantastic flowers… a little sunshine… the amusement of snakes… the mystique of the moon and stars, and a surge of love.

Nicole Rudick is the author of What we know today was only imagined: an (auto)biography of Niki de Saint Phalle, which was published by Siglio Press earlier this year. His writings recently appeared in the New York Book Review and Magazine T. She was editor-in-chief of Paris review for nearly a decade.

What we know today was only imagined: an (auto)biography of Niki de Saint Phalle
What we know today was only imagined: an (auto)biography of Niki de Saint Phalle

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