Tag Archives: Xan Fielding

Until I have reached Constantinople

Patrick Leigh Fermor working at his home studio on 3 October 2004, then aged 89. Kardamyli. by Sean Deany Copyright 2012

In the catalogue to the exhibition Charmed Lives in Greece: Ghika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor (at the British Museum until July 15), Michael Llewellyn-Smith writes that, in his later years, Patrick Leigh Fermor “had an all-purpose excuse to send to pesterers”. The note read: “It was very kind of you to write. The trouble is that I am having to work to a strict deadline for the completion of my new book. This makes me a poor correspondent until I have finished it and have reached Constantinople – I am not sure when this will be”.

By James Campbell

First Published in The Times Literary Supplement 12 April 2018

The warning to inquisitive readers, colour-supplement journalists, adventurous holidaymakers and others was despatched from Kardamyli in Mani, in the Southern Peloponnese, from the house which Fermor had built himself, with local labour and expertise, in the mid-1960s. It was where he had completed the first two parts of his account of the “great trudge” across ­Central Europe in the 1930s, projected to end, in a long-anticipated third volume, in “Constantinople”. The book itself had become something of a pest, and he failed to complete it before his death in 2011, aged ninety-six. His wife Joan had died there eight years earlier.

I knew nothing of this when I posted a letter to Kardamyli in the autumn of 2003. I was not a Fermor devotee (there were many, though nothing like the numbers that exist today) and had read scarcely anything he had written. It was not my idea to seek him out, but that of my editor at the Guardian Saturday Review, for which I was at the time a contracted writer. The regular task was a literary profile, of a good length – 4,000 words – and of a certain seriousness. Starting from a position of ignorance didn’t bother me. I liked “finding out”, and enjoyed the homework.

Suggestions from Farringdon Road came by telephone, later email, and were always to the point. “How about Patrick Leigh Fermor?” That was it. No address, no telephone number, no deadline. The rest was up to me, but I was free to go where I liked and when I liked. I had fulfilled many commissions in this way, and had discovered something: it works better when you contact the intended subject yourself to make arrangements, rather than going through the publisher’s press office. The people there do necessary work, but with their more valued (and venerable) charges there is a protective instinct, and a need to control the show.

Fermor was definitely a protected species. His ninetieth birthday was approaching. His publisher John Murray was desperate for him to reach Constantinople. The journey, which had taken place in the 1930s, had been given elegant shape in two books written forty and fifty years after the events described: A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986). The final volume, endlessly, pestiferously, inquired about, was said to be inching forwards. Both my editor and I made approaches to the publicity department; both received vague promises of representation. In the end, both were urged to think about volume 3, like everybody else.

I decided to take the direct route. But how to find him? I tried some acquaintances who might know his address. None did. Someone suggested Elizabeth Chatwin, widow of Bruce, Continue reading

Reg Everson and his powdered egg breakfast for General Kreipe on Mount Ida

From time to time I plan to re-publish some of the best blog posts as we have over 700 posts on here and many get lost. This first re-post was inspired by my attendance last night at the presentation by Dr Roderick Bailey – Hazardous Operations: British SOE Agents in Nazi Occupied Greece – which was both informative and entertaining. The story of Reg Everson and powdered egg was first published on 10 June 2012 …

At Paddy’s funeral last year, I stayed afterwards for a drink with a small group at the hotel  which used to be the Dumbleton estate manor house, originally home to Joan’s family. A man from Wales introduced himself as Vince Tustin. I recognised the name as I had been in touch with Vince by email in the preceding weeks on the subject of his father-in-law who was in the SOE.

‘Reg Everson, my father-in-law, spent three years on Crete and much of that time he worked closely with Paddy as a radio operator.’ said Vince.

His wife then joined us and after a while she said ‘I asked my mum and dad why I was called Patricia. It was an unusual name for a girl in Wales at the time. And my dad told me I was named Patricia after his good friend Patrick Leigh Fermor. They had served together in Crete.’

Such was the impression that Paddy made on people. It is a lovely story in itself, and perhaps serves a reminder on this first anniversary of his death, that Paddy affected the lives of  many, in different ways, as a man as well as a writer.

Vince told me that in the 1950’s Reg was interviewed by a local reporter.

I am sure that Reg didn’t want it to sound as if he was alone [on Crete]. He was a quiet mild mannered gentleman, and was in the Royal Signals from 1931 to 1946 and like so many servicemen lied about his age to get in, he was only 15 when he enlisted. For the three years he was on Crete his wife didn’t hear from him. His commanding officer was the only contact she had. People in the village even thought Reg had left her!

It wasn’t until I wrote a piece in the local paper that people understood where he had been because he didn’t speak about it. In the newspaper cutting from the 50s Reg talks about his involvement in the kidnap of General Kreipe and how he cheered up the General by making him some powdered egg for breakfast on Mount Ida.

We have his forged Cretan papers here, also a leaflet that was dropped by the Germans. He was awarded the Military Medal and Africa Star among other medals. He was also presented with a solid silver medal for bravery from the Maharaja of India.

Reg Everson deployed to Crete with Xan Fielding, and Xan refers to this in his account of his time in Crete “Hide and Seek”.

In the newspaper interview Reg describes how he was summoned with his radio to Mount Ida to join the kidnap gang, but he had to wait for his heavy radio batteries to arrive so he made himself useful and he made breakfast for the General on Mount Ida …

“The General was pretty glum, but he perked-up a bit when I made him some breakfast with egg powder. Paddy Leigh Fermor and the others had to go on the run again with General Kreipe before my batteries arrived: so we couldn’t get the news [of the successful kidnap] back.”

Whilst we often hear the stories of the officers in SOE, we should not forget that they were supported by a large team including signallers such as Reg Everson who were especially brave. They risked being located by the Germans who were constantly trying to find the source of their signals to destroy the radios, and capture the highly skilled and valuable operators.

Xan Fielding – the Armenian cousin of Vivien Leigh

Xan and Daphne Fielding with Dirk Bogarde on the set of Ill Met by Moonlight

Xan and Daphne Fielding with Dirk Bogarde on the set of Ill Met by Moonlight

Running the blog I am very fortunate to have all sorts of people get in touch with me about a whole range of interesting subjects. Few however can be so detailed, well researched and fascinating as Liz Chater’s site which is dedicated to research about the Armenian diaspora to India, and related matters. In this latest article on her website, Liz explores the truth behind Vivien Leigh’s Armenian heritage and then goes on to uncover some fascinating facts about Xan Fielding’s family who also have an Armenian background. Liz has also traced the Anglicisation of his surname from the Germanic Feilmann to Fielding. The following is a series of excerpts from the article on Liz’s site which can be visited here and includes many digital copies of original documents.

From Liz Chater’s website Chater Genealogy

I want to touch on the lives of Vivien’s cousins, and one in particular, Alexander Fielding-Wallace aka ‘Xan’ Fielding (above). Whereas Vivien had loving and devoted parents, her cousin Alexander ‘Xan’ never got to know his parents, his early start in life was beset with tragedy. Knowledge of the cousin connection between Vivien and Alexander has diminished with the passing of time, there are very few who mention his Armenian ancestors or those individuals he had in common with Vivien.

‘Xan’ was officially named and baptised Alexander Percival Feilman Wallace, he was born on the 26th November 1918. Seven days later he was baptised at the Sacred Heart Church In Ootacamond, India. In fact Alexander was baptised twice, the second occasion was on the 18 February 1919at the Catholic Church Middleton Street, Calcutta in the name of Fielding-Wallace. I can only speculate about why he was baptised on a second occasion but I cannot help wonder if it was directly connected to the process of becoming a member of the Feilman family and how he eventually ended up using the name of Fielding. This will become clearer a little further on in the blog.

Ten days after his baptism, his mother Mary Wallace (nee Feilmann) died on the 13th December 1918 in Ootacamond from fever.

The weeks and months that followed on from the death of Mary were to shape the life of Alexander forever.

Alexander’s father Major Alexander James Lumsden Wallace had a deep Scottish heritage. Born in Kirkcaldy in 1889 the name Alexander served four consecutive generations as a Christian name. A great deal of the Wallace family history can be found on the internet on various genealogy websites including many connecting records on Scotlandspeople.com.

Alexander Senior, for whatever reason, be it grief or the realisation that as young widower and an Army Captain he (later became a Major) was not in a position to bring up such a young baby, appears to relinquish all parental responsibility for the young Alexander. Ironically, Alexander Wallace (sr) remarried in London in 1925 to Marjorie Evelyn Hime. He retrained as a barrister in 1927 successfully passing the Hilary examination of students of the Inns of Court held in Middle Temple Hall in December 1926. In March 1927 he passed the Easter exams held in Inner Temple Hall, and passed his final Bar exams in December 1928. He and Marjorie can be found living briefly with her parents Walter and Florence Hime in Hampstead in 1929, by then they had a 5 year old little girl, Margaret Xanne Wallace, she would have been a half sister to Xan. Alexander and Marjorie’s marriage didn’t last and by the middle of the 1930s they had separated and presumably they divorced. He married for a 3rd time in 1944, passing away on the 19th November 1966 in Hampstead. I can find no evidence that young Alexander had any contact with his father, half sister or two stepmothers.

After the death of Alexander’s mother Mary Gertrude in 1918, he was effectively scooped up by her Feilmann/Fielding parents and into their still growing family. Suddenly Alexander’s uncles and aunts (brothers and sisters to his mother Mary Gertrude) became his brothers and sisters. According to Hugo Vickers in his biography of Vivien Leigh “…Xan was raised for eight years in the belief that he was the son of his grandparents…”

It must have been quite a shock to him to find out that the children he thought were brothers and sisters weren’t.

Alexander’s grandparents Percival Maurice David Feilmann and Mary Patricia nee Yackjee were just as keen as Vivien’s parents Ernest Richard Hartley and Gertrude Mary Yackjee to remove themselves from India back to England so they could offer their children and their grandchild the opportunities they would not have access to if they stayed in India.

Perhaps influenced by his grandfather and his uncles (more on them later in the blog), after joining the British Army, ‘Xan’ Fielding went on to become a wartime secret agent, writer and translator as well as serving as a Special Operations Executive in the British Army in Crete, France and the Far East. Lengthy biographical information has been written by author Patrick Leigh Furmor, although Alexander’s Indian Armenian family history has been overlooked. A blog by Tom Sawford on Patrick Leigh Furmor’s findings with references to Xan fielding can be found here

Alexander ‘Xan’ fielding married twice, his second marriage was to reconnect him with his own Armenian heritage because he married the widow of renowned Armenian artist Arshile Gorky, she was Agnes ‘Mougouch’ Magruder, her obituary can be read here.

Although Mougouch was not Armenian, her connection to an Armenian, and Alexander’s own Armenian links to India were perhaps a psychological tie to the ancestors of his grandmother. The connection would not have been lost on Xan, but the subtly of it has long gone for the modern-day enquirer searching out his story, but it is one that the Armenian community of today will enjoy and perhaps be a little surprised at too.
Percy Feilmann’s Anglicising to Fielding

Again, stepping sideways for a moment in this story of Armenian ancestry, and Vivien Leigh and her cousins, I want to turn now to the Feilmann name. Although not directly connected to Vivien Leigh they would have been an enormous support to her mother Gertrude when her own father died. It goes a little way to explaining how, with some astute forward thinking, Xan’s grandfather Percy Feilmann (Vivien’s uncle) and his family went from being German Jews from Hamburg to accepted members of colonial society in India and England as well as the South of France. How exactly did Alexander Percival Feilmann Wallace aka ‘Xan’ end up with the surname Fielding and also having his Armenian heritage set aside, just as his cousin Vivien’s Armenian heritage had been?

We have already seen the evidence of Xan being baptised twice, once in the name of his birth father Wallace, and secondly in a subtle shift to the double-barrelled surname of Fielding-Wallace. The name of Feilmann in Calcutta was synonymous with the animal hide and tannery business.[13] Hugo Vickers in his biography of Vivien Leigh described Percival Feilmann as a “box-wallah” i.e. a travelling salesman or merchant. This is incorrect, in fact Percy was involved with the tanning business, an area his uncle Maurice Feilmann was also involved in. They regularly exported raw hides to Europe, which were then made into shoes, bags, rugs and other items. It was Vivien’s uncle by marriage Ernest Lehmann who had married Vivien’s aunt Agnes (Gertrude’s sister) in 1898 in Darjeeling that was an agent of wooden boxes and chemical remedies.

As I looked into the Feilmann name and in particular the background of Alexander’s grandfather Percival Feilmann/Fielding I made some fascinating, if a little disturbing discoveries. Firstly, his full name was Percival Maurice David Feilmann[14] born in Hamburg on the 27th September 1864[15] according to the naturalisation document of “doubtful origin”, meaning that although his father John Bernhard Feilmann was born and brought up in Germany, Percy strongly maintained that his father had been naturalised as a British Subject, purely on hearsay no proof was ever remitted to this effect. Other independent records suggest that the Feilmann’s had a Jewish German family history. As remarkable as ‘Xan’ was during his lifetime, so indeed was his grandfather. Percy underwent the most unusual step of acquiring naturalisation as a British subject THREE TIMES during his lifetime each with a distinct ruthless calculation to erase anything German from his background. According to official records, the first application was made in India in 1905. Unfortunately there are no copies available of the 1905 certificate, but there are for the other two.

The next in 1916 and lastly in 1919 he was again granted naturalisation as a British subject.

Percy’s Special Naturalization Certificate was granted in India by the Governor General and he swore Allegiance to His Majesty King George 5th on the 6th November 1919 when his application was finalised. His naturalization application stated his parents were John aka Julius Bernhard Feilmann and Caroline Farlow, both British subjects. Although Julius is likely to have also been born in Germany he must have also applied for Naturalisation, although I haven’t been able to locate it yet (and having read Percy’s file, I am in some doubt as to whether Julius really was ever a naturalised British citizen). John and Caroline had married in Calcutta in 1855[16] and had at least 8 children, 6 of whom were born in Calcutta, Percy and his sister Alicia were the only 2 who were not.

Feilmann’s Anglicising to Fielding

… In the 1919 application Percy Feilman in a clear contradiction to his signed and sworn affidavit of 1916 attempted to change his father’s nationality. He had effectively disowned and sold his late father down the river for 30 Rupees – which is what it cost to have the naturalisation certificate endorsed in India.

Xan Fielding would have learnt at the knee of a master manipulator the techniques he would use in later life on how to successfully play one side off against the other during the course of his career. His grandfather had successfully displayed such qualities and had no hesitation in lying and denying his own heritage. Percy cleverly manipulated the Indian Government authorities into granting him three naturalisation certificates just because he didn’t want his father listed as German. The erasure of his origins was the most important fact Percy needed to achieve. It makes one wonder exactly how he managed to pull off such an unusual act of administrative penmanship and who exactly he was on particularly friendly terms with to achieve such a collection of certificates. They were so readily agreed to in India but were looked upon with suspicion at the Home Office in London.

Read the full article with documents here.

The Stronghold and Hide and Seek – selling fast!

Xan Fielding in Crete

Xan Fielding (front centre) in Crete

Xan Fielding’s books about his time in SOE and wartime Crete have been republished by Paul Dry Books and are now available from Amazon and are selling fast.

Hide and Seek: The Story of a War-Time Agent
is available for order now at £9.95 on Amazon – through the link above.

The Stronghold: The Four Seasons in the White Mountains of Crete
is also available for order now at £9.95 on Amazon – through the link above.

These books are very difficult to get hold of and The Stronghold in particular is quite rare and sells for between £200-£500 on eBay.

Paul Dry Books link is here.

Don’t forget that you can also pre-order the third volume of Paddy’s trilogy,The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos

Magouche Fielding – Arshile and Agnes Gorky: Master and Muse

Arshile Gorky and Magouche or Mougouch

Arshile Gorky and Magouche or Mougouch

I have received word of the death of Xan Fielding’s wife, Agnes “Magouche” Fielding. She had apparently been ill for some time and I am informed that she died on 2 June 2013. We know little about Magouche who was married to Paddy’s very dear friend Xan until his death in Paris in 1991. This article tells us much more and is by her step daughter, the art historian and writer, Hayden Herrera.

First published in Vogue and reformatted for Vogue.com December 2009.

The painter Arshile Gorky’s relationship with his wife, “Mougouch,” was passionate, turbulent—and misunderstood.

I grew up surrounded by the paintings of Arshile Gorky, one of the greatest American artists of the twentieth century and the subject of a current retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The paintings belonged to my stepmother, Agnes (nicknamed Mougouch), and they gave me hints not only about Gorky but about who Mougouch was and had been in the past. Full of searing colors, peculiarly animate shapes, and energy-driven lines, they moved me in ways I did not understand. Since then, I have looked and looked at Gorky’s work. I even wrote a biography of Gorky in order to try to figure out why he painted the way he did. Still, his work remains a mystery. That was the way he wanted it.

The specter of Gorky came into my life in the summer of 1948, when my father, a painter named John C. Phillips, met Agnes Gorky at a party in New York City. The host took my father aside and said, “Be nice to Mougouch. Her husband, Arshile Gorky, just died.” My father was happy to comply, for Mougouch was a beautiful and vibrant 27-year-old with long brown hair, a sensuous mouth, and large eyes that held a hint of mischief. Her responsiveness and her blend of boldness and femininity made her a magnet to men.

In the months that followed their meeting, my father and Mougouch fell in love. In December, together with her two young daughters, Maro and Natasha, they sailed for Naples and finally settled in France. My older sister and I learned about our father’s new family from photographs he sent us at our boarding school. During summers on Cape Cod we came to know our stepmother and our new sisters, who called our father “Daddy.” Compared with our previous stepmother, Mougouch was astonishing in her affection and her sense of fun. She called us “darling,” and I was entranced by her swift, graceful walk and her melodious voice.

When to my delight my father returned with his family to the United States and bought a house on Beacon Hill in Boston, my mother, who lived in Mexico, sent me to live with them. Mougouch was so motherly that when my baby sisters Antonia and Susannah were christened at Boston’s Trinity Church, I decided to be christened with them so that she could be my godmother. Our house in Boston was full of Gorky’s art books and, even better, his art. His presence was alive there, for Gorky remained a powerful figure in Mougouch’s world. Ten-year-old Maro, who herself became a painter, talked about her father incessantly, holding on to the image of his genius. She insisted that with his Armenian background, he was a much more compelling figure than my proper Bostonian father. We would try to decode Gorky’s imagery. Some works had almost cartoon-like lines that nearly coalesced into recognizable creatures. In one, we definitely discovered Bugs Bunny.

Mougouch was born Agnes Magruder in 1921, the eldest daughter of a naval officer and a mother who was descended from the renowned neoclassical sculptor Harriet Hosmer. Agnes’s childhood was full of travel—school in Washington, D.C., then the Hague, Virginia, and finally Boston, where she was sent to live with her dying grandmother and where she fell in love with painting. “My mission,” she explains, “was to cheer up my grandfather and his gloomy house overlooking the Charles River.” Her mother thought college unnecessary, so Agnes finished school in Switzerland. When her father was posted to Shanghai in 1940, she was so rebellious—she spent the night with a young diplomat and broadcast her fascination with Chinese Communism—that her parents packed her off to college, after all, in Iowa City. From there, she took a bus to Manhattan and enrolled at the Art Students League, only to quit for a typing job at a magazine called China Today. What she remembers about this period was her extreme loneliness. Every day on the way to work she said hello to the man behind the newsstand just to have a human exchange.

In February 1941, Willem de Kooning and his future wife, Elaine Fried, told Agnes that she ought to meet de Kooning’s great friend Arshile Gorky. Elaine described Gorky as a “terrible show-off who sings and dances and makes everyone dance in a circle waving a handkerchief.” A few days later Gorky stopped by de Kooning’s studio and said he wished he had a strong American girlfriend like Elaine. Elaine persuaded him to come with them to a party where they would introduce him to a nice blonde American girl. At the party, Agnes remembers, she sat on a bench between de Kooning and “a man with a mustache who was very quiet and rather pokey.” She was still waiting for the exotic stranger to appear when most of the guests had departed. On her way out, the man with the mustache stopped her and said in his accented English, ” ‘Miss Maguiger?’ And I said, ‘Oh, Gorky!’ ” He had expected a blonde, and she had expected an extrovert. They went to a coffee shop, and Gorky asked her so many questions that she finally emptied her handbag onto the table to give him a picture of her identity.

The following evening he took her to an Armenian restaurant. Soon they saw each other daily, and he gave her the name Mougouch, which he said meant “little mighty one.” When Gorky identified the welts on her stomach as bedbug bites, he moved her to a new apartment, whose skylight he scrubbed so thoroughly that the putty collapsed and rain poured in. The upshot was that she moved into his studio on Union Square.

That summer Gorky was to have an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art. He and Mougouch drove across the country with Gorky’s good friend the sculptor Isamu Noguchi. When he and Noguchi argued about clouds, in which Gorky was absolutely certain he saw peasant women, Mougouch sided with Noguchi, and Gorky was furious. Crossing a bridge over the Mississippi, he became so angry that he ordered Noguchi to stop the car. He was going to walk back to New York. “I went after him,” Mougouch recalls. “He almost threw me into the Mississippi River!”

Upon their arrival in Los Angeles, Gorky was in a pique because the hotel was too expensive. Exhausted, Mougouch went to bed. Noguchi came in to say good night, and Gorky, in a fit of jealousy, burst into the room and dumped a bagful of lawn clippings on top of her. Mougouch insists that “there was not a murmur of electricity between me and Isamu,” but the critic Katharine Kuh suspected “a flirtation on Noguchi’s part.” In fact, both Mougouch and Noguchi were extremely seductive. Mougouch was brought up to be amusing and articulate and to make whomever she talked to happy. Gorky, reared in the Armenian province of Van in Ottoman Turkey, was highly puritanical. He did not understand that for Mougouch, flirtation was simply part of good manners. To this day, as a great-grandmother, she is an irrepressible flirt with men, women, children, and animals.

In September Mougouch and Gorky were married in Virginia City, Nevada, scandalizing her patrician family. She was 20. Gorky, who lied about his age, was probably about 41. They bought a curtain ring at Woolworth’s, found a justice of the peace, and said their vows. After drinking champagne in a bar, they camped in the Sierra Nevada in a double sleeping bag. During these early years, Mougouch and Gorky struggled to make ends meet. She worked for United China Relief, and Gorky made a few sales and did some teaching. He had not had a New York show in years, and his reputation was at a low ebb. Mougouch tells me that even Noguchi had warned her not to marry Gorky, because he was “stuck in a rut” and kept scraping and repainting the same canvas.

With the captivating Mougouch at his side, Gorky’s circle of friends expanded. Over the years, Léger, Mondrian, and Miró all had occasion to visit. The couple met Surrealists Roberto Matta, Yves Tanguy, and André Masson, who had come to the United States to escape the war. At a dinner specially organized for them to meet the Surrealist poet André Breton, Mougouch served as translator, and the friendship took off. She remembers dancing down the street with Gorky because Breton had promised to visit the studio. Later, she was apprehensive: “What does one give a poet for dinner?” The menu—artichokes, pilaf, and Brie cheese—was a success, and Breton was full of admiration for Gorky’s paintings.

The breakthrough in Gorky’s work came in the summer of 1943, when Mougouch’s mother invited him, Mougouch, and their infant daughter, Maro, to stay at her farm in Virginia. Being in the country surrounded by family was a catalyst for Gorky. “Gorky came back one day with this rather complicated drawing and said, ‘Will anybody understand this? Do you think I’m mad?’ ” Mougouch told him his drawing was marvelous and to go back into the fields to make more. “This summer was the real release of Gorky,” Mougouch wrote to an aunt. He had created a world of his own, a world so immersed in nature that he could look in and out at the same time.

Mougouch had a deep understanding of Gorky’s work and was also a brilliant facilitator of his career, charming potential dealers and cooking delicious meals for museum curators. But during their second Virginia summer, her letters to her best friend, Jeanne Reynal, expressed a feeling of aimlessness. For a woman of Mougouch’s intelligence and energy, cooking, cleaning, and looking after her baby was not enough. She wished she could be a writer, and her letters indicate that she might have excelled in that field. She set up her typewriter in a cabin, wishing “to lay an egg myself and when I get up and look, nothing there…humiliating.” In another letter, she rationalized: “…o well hell there is time and there are more important fishes to fry, how to live and propagate gorkys, paintings and infants though I know it would be better if I did more I don’t so there.” Jeanne told Mougouch to look at Maro and at the transformation in Gorky’s work. “You have had a part in this. These things are not to be sniffed at.” (Mougouch did produce another Gorky—Natasha, born in 1945.)

Thanks to the dramatic change in Gorky’s painting, the dealer Julien Levy took him on and gave him a show in 1945. Then came the first of a series of disasters that made Gorky’s last years a calvary. On January 16, 1946, his studio at their house in Connecticut burned down, and many of his paintings were lost. Early in March, disaster struck again. Gorky underwent a colostomy for rectal cancer. He became, Mougouch recalls, “totally paranoid …a tree cut down.” No matter how hard she tried to convince him that his “rearranged body” did not disgust her, he himself, a fiercely fastidious man, was revolted. He sometimes burst out in violence. The miseries that plagued Gorky seemed to rekindle the horrors of his childhood—his experience of the Armenian genocide in 1915 and, four years later, the trauma of his mother dying of starvation in his arms. Mougouch wrote to Jeanne, “Gorky has to do some drawing or he & I will die.”

Soon, “working like a mad man—a happy one,” as Mougouch wrote, Gorky was drawing as though it were a race against mortality. But his total focus on work was distancing. “More and more our marriage was just about my engagement with Gorky’s painting,” she recalls. “But I loved him.” She wrote him letters of encouragement when she took her daughters away for the summer: “Everything that comes from your beautiful hand seems touched with magic that sings in my chest.” Gorky wrote back, “…when you return I want my harvest too [sic] be very big and good…. You are with me my darling without you I could not go on working.”

When Mougouch returned, she was thrilled with Gorky’s “harvest.” Gorky, however, was depleted and unable to work. He talked of suicide. Ever the optimist, Mougouch tried to lift his spirits. At a party for her twenty-seventh birthday, in June 1948, she remembers “whirling around with a lunatic pleasure,” dancing by herself in the vegetable garden. But Gorky’s depression was invasive. “He was wrapped in silence all those last months.” In mid-June she had had enough. She left the house and spent two days with Matta, who, over the years, had made many attempts to seduce her. “I felt a new strength. I felt that somebody had loved me and I could go on forever.”

Gorky found out about the affair but for a while said nothing. Another disaster swiftly followed. Gorky’s neck was broken in a car accident. His right arm was temporarily paralyzed, and he thought he would never be able to paint again. Mougouch did what she could to alleviate his misery, but, she recalls, after the accident “everything just collapsed.” One night in a rage, Gorky broke furniture and tore up drawings Matta had given them. Mougouch tried to soothe him, but he pushed her away, and she fell down the stairs. Later that night, she told him that she loved him and would not leave him. The next day, Gorky’s doctor told her that Gorky was dangerous. He insisted that she take her daughters to her mother’s in Virginia. On the morning of July 21, Gorky called Mougouch and said he was going to commit suicide in order to “free her and free himself.” She said she would come back to him, but it was too late. Having left ropes dangling from various trees and rafters, Gorky hanged himself in a shed. He left a note written in chalk on the box he’d stood on and kicked away: “Goodbye my loveds.”

After Gorky’s death, Mougouch stayed in the city with Jeanne. Matta’s love, she says, “held me up.” In August she went to Maine, and Matta joined her. On their way back, they stopped at my father’s house on Cape Cod. My father was out, but when he returned he discovered Mougouch—with whom he had flirted at the party they’d met at just the month before—dancing with Matta. In the following months, he and Matta vied for Mougouch’s love. Mougouch went to Marcel Duchamp for advice, and he told her that the responsibility of a wife and two children would be too much for Matta. He said, “I think you should go somewhere with the children and paint or write.” Mougouch wept as she saw Matta off on his flight to Chile to see his family.

She and my father were married at the Closerie des Lilas in Paris in 1949. For Mougouch this was a marriage of equals—she was not in my father’s thrall. She kept the myth of Gorky alive and shepherded his legacy, finding dealers to handle his work and encouraging museums to show and buy it. Though the shadow of Gorky’s suicide hung over her life, she was the perfect artist’s widow, just as she had tried to be an ideal artist’s wife. Since then, her life has been rich in friendships with artists, writers, and filmmakers. She is admired as a dazzling hostess, witty, elegant, and subtle. Restless always, she left my father after ten years and eventually married the writer Xan Fielding, with whom she seemed content. While he was dying of cancer, they lived in Paris on the Rue de Rivoli. I remember with various sisters following Mougouch down the Paris street and trying to imitate her proud, sensuous, and graceful stride. I did not love her any less after she was no longer my stepmother. Over the years, I have learned from her how to cook, decorate a house, dress, talk, walk, and look at paintings.

Today, Gorky is seen as a bridge between the School of Paris and Abstract Expressionism, a movement that took off just at the moment when he died. As her best friend put it all those years ago, Mougouch played a part in this artistic transformation. When the Gorky retrospective opened in Philadelphia in October, Mougouch could not be there, but the coming together of so many magnificent Gorky paintings and drawings is testimony to her triumph as well.

Find out more about Arshile Gorky on his Wikipedia page.

Related article:

Xan Fielding obituary

Xan Fielding Crete books to be republished

Xan Fielding in Crete

Xan Fielding (front centre) in Crete

I have just discovered that Xan Fielding’s books about his time in SOE and wartime Crete are to be republished by Paul Dry Books and will be available, if Amazon is to be believed, in June 2013.

Hide and Seek: The Story of a War-Time Agent
is available for pre-order now at £9.95 on Amazon – pre-order through the link above.

The Stronghold: The Four Seasons in the White Mountains of Crete
is also available for pre-order now at £9.95 on Amazon – pre-order through the link above.

These books are very difficult to get hold of and The Stronghold in particular is quite rare and sells for between £200-£500 on eBay.

Paul Dry Books link is here.

Don’t forget that you can also pre-order the third volume of Paddy’s trilogy,The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos

Remote places and landscapes in Greece – Walks in the footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor: Part 4

The fourth of Christian Peter’s walks.

4.   Sfakián Monopatia – The old connection between Asi Gonia and Anopoli  – Sfakiá/Crete

How often did Paddy, Xan Fielding and George Psychoundakis walk the old Monopati from Asi Goni via Askifou to the Sfakian mountain villages of Anopoli and Agios Ioannis? Did that connection play a major role during the Cretan resistance?

The mountain region of Sfakiá is the heartland of what Xan Fielding called The stronghold.  Here, in the Highlands of the White Mountains, Crete until today remained as pure and unspoiled as it always was. The walk starts in the birthplace of the Cretan Runner, George Psychoundakis, then reaches the hamlet of Goni in the Askifou-Plateau and continues via to Kali Lakki to Anopoli. Next to Anopoli, on the ridge of the Aradena Gorge, lies the ruined village of Aradena, where in 1947 a vendetta broke out and made its inhabitants leave. Aradena is as well the imaginary village, where Ioanna Karystiani’s novel Suit in the earth (Greek title: Koustoumi sto choma) might take place. Karystiani’s family is originally from Askifou. Following the bridge over the gorge, the walker continues to Agios Ioannis, Crete`s highest mountain village. A little bit underneath of Agios Ioannis you can find a place called Sellouda, which for me is the most impressive place in entire Crete. With the Levka Ori in your back you stand thousand meters high above the sea spotting Africa on the horizon. Although the cliffs seem impossible to pass through you can easily follow a stone paved Kalderimi through steepest terrain which leads you almost thousand meters difference in altitude down to the church of Agios Pavlos on the beach. From there you can continue your two days trek to Agia Roumeli.

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Books about the region:

Xan Fielding (1954): Hide and Seek. Secker and Warburg.

Xan Fielding (1955): The Stronghold: An account of the four seasons in the White Mountains of Crete. Secker and Warburg.

Ioanna Karystiani (2000): Suit in the earth (German title: Schattenhochzeit)

Loraine Wilson (2002): Crete. The White mountains. A walking and Trekking guide. Cicerone

Peter Trudgill (2008): In Sfakiá. Passing time in the Wilds of Crete. Lycabettus Press.