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Saturday, May 3, 2014

James LeGros Remembers Beauford - Part 1

Several days ago, I had the great pleasure of spending the afternoon with one of Beauford's dearest friends, James K. (Jim) LeGros. Jim is a painter who came to Paris in the 1950s and studied at the Académie Julian under the G. I. Bill. Over coffee, cornbread, and fig preserves, he, his granddaughter Maud, and I talked about life in Paris after the Second World War, what it means to be an artist, and of course, Beauford.

Portrait Beauford Delaney
(1972) Pastel on Paper
© James K. LeGros

Jim was introduced to Beauford by their mutual friend, Larry Calcagno. Beauford lived in a room on the top floor of the Hôtel des Ecoles in Montparnasse at the time. Jim remembers Beauford as wearing a long robe with decorated sleeves and having his hair slicked back, which gave him an exotic appearance. Though there was a great difference in their ages, Jim and his wife Bunny (now deceased) would become two of Beauford's greatest friends.

Jim and Bunny moved into a large home in the Paris suburb of Vélizy in 1959. It is bordered on two sides by woods and a huge pond called the "Etang d'Ecrivisses." Because of these idyllic surroundings, Beauford began to refer to Jim and Bunny as "the dear friends in the country."

The LeGros house
© Discover Paris!

In Beauford's time, Vélizy was much less developed than it is now. The road between the pond and the rear of the house had not yet been paved and the pond had not been "gentrified."

Woods and pond behind the LeGros house
© Discover Paris!

Beauford visited so frequently that the LeGros designated a room on the first floor just for him. Jim painted the portrait shown above as Beauford sat on the living room couch - the same couch that I sat upon when I conducted my interview with Jim!

Jim acknowledged Beauford's beatific image as portrayed in David Leeming's biography Amazing Grace: A Life of Beauford Delaney. He affirmed that Beauford was quite gentle and never spoke ill of others. He said that the French described him as "doux," which translates into "soft" or "sweet" in English.

But he would not go so far as to call Beauford a "saint." He was well aware of Beauford's frailties, particularly regarding his consumption of alcohol. He talked a bit about Beauford's night life, saying that Beauford would often "just be getting started" with his socializing at 1 AM or 2 AM and that he frequented several private clubs that one could not enter without "knowing the right people." He said that Beauford had incredible stamina, not only with regard to walking (Beauford's walking feats were legendary and Jim could not keep up with him), but also with regard to drinking. Beauford's alcohol consumption seriously undermined his health and caused him to be hospitalized on more than one occasion.

Jim said that Beauford had a profound effect on people. He spoke of his first solo art exhibit that took place in 1963 at La Case d'Arts, a gallery located at 3 / 3 bis, rue des Beaux Arts in the 6th arrondissment (now Galerie Loft La Case d'Arts). Beauford attended the opening. Jim laughingly said that even though it was his show, Beauford was the center of attention there!

Beauford and James LeGros (center)
Image courtesy of James K. LeGros

Jim described Beauford's hands, saying that Beauford had long, "spatula-like" fingers. He said that Beauford would often touch people gently with his forefinger and middle finger to emphasize a point. He said that when Beauford touched you, "You were touched!"

Though Jim and Beauford were active artists, they rarely spoke to each other about their work. When Beauford did remark about Jim's art, it was to comment that Jim could increase the amount of light in his workspace if he would cover the surfaces with sheets and newspaper.

Jim said that Beauford's conversation was primarily philosophical - he preferred to discuss his observations on life and on human behavior. Jim recalled a conversation that he had with Beauford when he accompanied Beauford to a dentist's office in rue Saint-Denis. The two men observed a woman who was feeding pigeons nearby. Beauford remarked "If only we knew what these pigeons know..." referring to the fact that the birds knew how to be fed without having to struggle or come up with their own resources. Jim observed that Beauford's existence somewhat mirrored that of the pigeons - he was frequently "taken care of" by others, whether that meant being invited for a meal or receiving a gift of cash, clothing, or art supplies.

Jim was one of seven persons selected by the City of Paris to participate in a tutelle - an official guardianship formed to look after Beauford's affairs when he was committed to Sainte-Anne's Hospital. In fact, Jim was named as Beauford's subrogé-tuteur, or surrogate guardian. His role was to defend Beauford's interests in the event that the guardians of his person (Bernard Hassell) and his belongings (James Baldwin) ever acted in a way that was counter to Beauford's best interests.

In Part 2 of this article, look for additional information about the tutelle.

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