Portrait of Jacques Rigaut by Man Ray
Portrait of Jacques Rigaut by Man Ray
In an earlier post, I presented the synopsis of my novel in progress, Housebreaking the Muse. As noted, the novel is haunted by the figure of Jacques Rigaut, the French Dadaist, gigolo, addict, and suicide. Though I’d long had an interest in the Dadas, I didn’t hear the name “Jacques Rigaut” until I stumbled upon it in the following passage on page 233 of the 1990 Penguin Books edition of Paul Auster’s novel, Moon Palace:

I can’t remember all the pieces I worked on, but at least several of them come back to me when I strain hard enough: a meditation on money, for example, and another one on clothes; an essay on orphans and a somewhat longer piece on suicide, which was largely a discussion of Jacques Rigaut, a minor French Dadaist who declared at the age of nineteen that he was giving himself ten more years to live, and then, when he turned twenty-nine, held good to his word and shot himself on the appointed day.

In the margin, I wrote, “If true, a story?” I soon began researching Rigaut and, over time, began to piece together the biographical details of his life. Part of my research involved attempting a translation of the posthumous collection of his works, Écrits, published by Gallimard in 1970. I also wrote the story, “Jacques Rigaut’s Happiest Birthday – A Dada Bedtime Story” which has served as a seed for the novel.

The following two translations present Rigaut’s impressions of New York City, where he first arrived in late 1923. Rigaut traveled to New York in pursuit of a relationship he had begun in Paris with a wealthy, divorced millionairess, Gladys Barber (whom he married in 1926–the marriage, unsurprisingly, was unhappy and short-lived). The first translation is “New York,” a brief sketch that appears in the “Posthumous Publications” section of Écrits. The second is a letter Rigaut wrote to the renowned French portraitist and scholar Jacques-Émile Blanche, for whom Rigaut had served briefly as secretary. Despite Rigaut’s deficiencies as a secretary, the older Blanche took a liking to him and welcomed him into his family. Blanche retained a fatherly concern for Rigaut, with whom he remained in contact until Rigaut’s suicide in 1929.

New York
Jacques Rigaut

New York, tall town without mystery, decipherable in so far as her streets are well arranged to create drafts. The radiance of my shoes steals my attention from the height of the apartment houses: it’s your fault: you the best shoe-shines in the word. It’s they who keep me from counting the number of stories. How, while walking, could I pull my eyes away from feet so brilliant?

You buy laminated post cards where you see houses gilded like beautiful armoires, oddly spoiled by the gothic ornament Armerican architects have been learning from Paris. It’s the rear facades you must see, when the little iron staircases, parallel like the lines in a child’s notebook, offer a bore’s profile. It must be hard enough to descend them–but to go up! You also buy other postcards in the back of Broadway’s boutiques, where a young pianist a little too made up invites, while playing them, his clients to buy the latest “Blues,” where some very proper young ladies sit: proper young ladies who nevertheless know precisely how to bare their crossed thighs between the stockings they remove and the skirt that necessarily shows them off.

You run into, like you see in the movies, these severe toughs with, stapled to the left side of their chest, a beautiful bronze star they reveal while passing their hand through the armhole of a vest. You’re a little afraid, and then you learn it’s only the delivery boys. […]

* * *

If you’re asked, sooner or later you take a fire truck. No need to worry: the city was made for them. For a handkerchief, they rush down the length of the city, passing on the left, passing on the right, and if the other cars don’t line up in a hurry, they go up on the sidewalk. I prefer to die unmasked. America is beautiful to the shoulders and arms, but a brassiere adds itself to its nudity like fur or like a talon.

People of New York, what good so much money? so much leisure? Where are your vices? Your simple faces defend you from them? You’d suck yourselves through the keyholes so as not to have impure thoughts! Your disorders are not slight, nor your excesses, nor your alcohol. When will they succeed in separating you from your infantile dignity? There is no space on your united visage for one little obsession, one anxiety, one second-hand pleasure […]

Snow takes on the complexion of each precinct. If the snow softly yawned, it would not be to admit an elevator.

In short, it’s easy since I have succeeded in replacing my French stammer with an English lisp. Nobody can make heads or tails of it.

Letter to Jacques-Émile Blanche

December 7, 1923 

61 Washington Square
Washington Square 

My Dear Monsieur Blanche, 

You would like New York. From morning until evening, it’s a spectacle. Everything is more. The stores are the more beautiful, the women are more beautiful, it is easier to cross the streets, the rich are richer, the poor are most miserable, and Jews, more Jews, and so on. My friends here do me the greatest services, they do not just help me feel less isolated, but help me a lot in practical ways. My business is going to take a long time to develop, yet I am not discouraged.

You would like the houses here. Some are ridiculous, not one ugly. Stunning interiors, despite shoddy, wonderful furniture. The prices would amuse you, but perhaps not for long.

Each telephone communication 5 cents = 1 fr. 

Cleaned and pressed shirt 40 cents = 8 fr. 

Shoeshine (plus tip) 20 cents = 4 fr. 

Bus fare (1 single class) 10 cents = 2 fr. 

You feel alive. 

Exhibition Rosenberg: Picasso, Marie Laurencin. Large and very attentive hospitality. When you see Walter (Bowry?), thank him again for me. I have already seen his friends, who were charming to me. I do not yet regret having left. I jump into something new every minute. Drop me a line sometime to let me know how you’re doing. Give Madame Blanche my very respectful affection. 

Jacques R.

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