TAMARA DE Lempicka worked with precision. "My paintings are finished from this little corner to this little corner," she wrote. "Everything is finished." She is best remembered for the portraits she did in Paris in the 1920s, of assertive female nudes with limbs entwined and faces fused. They startle because of the contrast between clarity of form and ambiguity of relationship.
Legend has it that she herself was a helluva girl. No previous biography has appeared. The reason for this is a lack of letters, journals and diaries, by or about her. Laura Claridge is undeterred. For source material she has used Lempicka's prosy autobiographical pieces, five books of press clippings about her shows, anecdotes from her daughter Kizette Foxhall, what must have been hours on the phone with embalmed White Russian emigres who perhaps brushed shoulders with "one of the century's most dramatic and imposing personalities", and "Tamara's ghost" - who encouraged the enterprise with "a sudden guttural chuckle" in the author's ear.
God knows what the ghost was laughing about. It ought to have insisted on a better book than this. Claridge's structure is from birth to death. Between these vague events (was it 1895 or 1898, and did Lempicka's nurse murder her, or not?) all is speculation, hearsay, gush and irritation.
No "ordinary woman", we are told, "could stare at a man's trousered crotch with Tamara's icy elegance, a gaze that the seductress would follow with a long drag on her ebony cigarette holder." How on earth did Laura Claridge know? I turned to the footnote (101 of chapter 3). "Told to the author by the very gracious Alexander Chodkieweitz in a lengthy, delicate and sometimes awkward phone conversation."
Chodkieweitz also remembered that Lempicka's "favourite sexual activity was to be caressed over her very colourful, very excitable nipples and genitals by a beautiful young woman, while she performed similar activities on the most handsome sailor in the group. After such nocturnal stimulations, she returned home full of confidence and insight - and cocaine - and in a frenzy painted until six or seven am. After several hours of sleep and a quick breakfast with Kizette, she resumed her daily routine of art classes and cafe socialising before preparing to begin her night life anew."
Then there is testimony from "the cynical George Schoenbrunn", who told the author that Lempicka smelled and left derisory tips in four-star restaurants. And Countess Maria Suzpuchiana who, from the Hotel Capri in October 1997, revealed that Lempicka went to seedy Paris night-clubs 70 years previously "fondling quite openly a beautiful working-class boy one night and a girl the next". Such anecdotes lead Claridge to assert that "no one could fetishize sex or orchestrate desire as well as [Lempicka]".
This is one way of writing biography. I searched the tosh for what might be true about Lempicka, beyond the strength and presence of her work, insufficiently represented here with only 16 plates. She was born in Moscow of Polish and Russian/Jewish parents. Her family name was Gorski. When she was 15 she met Tadeusz Lempiki. "When Tamara …