Volume 22, Number 32 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | December 18 - 24, 2009
Remembering Jeanne-Claude, Christo’s force: Extinguished flame
By JERRY TALLMER
Don’t call her Mrs. Christo. If you please.
It is, it was, Jeanne-Claude and Christo or Christo and Jeanne-Claude, joined at the hip. Not biologically, but — even stronger — welded together in love and art. Maybe one should say: Wrapped together.
Now, after 51 years as a pair, she is gone, snatched away on November 18, 2009, by — like Franklin D. Roosevelt — a ruptured brain aneurysm.
I have some photos of her before me, reminders that I once wrote of her as “a flame-haired lady.” Flame-haired, yes, but it depends on what you mean by lady. Though by birth an aristocrat, Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon (Christo) was somewhat too forceful for the conventional idea of “lady.”
Her father was a World War II French general who, she once matter-of-factly but proudly told me, was the first French soldier into Paris at the Liberation. He also served in North Africa — Jeanne-Claude was born in Casablanca, of all places, June 13, 1935 — and held certain views inimical to his daughter. There were things she couldn’t even say to him.
Born in Gabrovo, Bulgaria, that very same day, June 13, 1935, was Christo Vladimirov Javacheff. After studying art in Sofia, Bulgaria, and Vienna, Austria, he found his way to a freezing, starving garret in Paris, where for want of better things to do, he would wrap his paint cans in fabric. He did get one commission, in November of 1958: to do a portrait of General de Guillebon’s daughter. The skinny, volatile, idealistic young artist showed up chez Guillebon, took one look — she returned it — and six years later, after the birth of son Cyril and some fantastic stacking of oil barrels as walls in public places in several countries, Jeanne-Claude and Christo arrived in New York, found a small old building just north of Canal Street, and moved into it for happily ever after.
Several of those very early wrapped paint cans stand on pedestals in Jeanne-Claude and Christo’s sparsely furnished white-on-white living room, where you’re as likely as not to sit on a pillow on the floor.
None of any of this did I know when I first went to review a 1978 Maysles brothers documentary film called “Running Fence.” The fence, 24½ miles of white nylon, ran over hill and dale of Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, until it dead-ended at the Pacific Ocean. It involved the labors of scores, maybe hundreds, of people, and would be taken down after exactly two weeks. That was the whole idea.
Very much on the scene was this crazy skinny artist named Christo, but running him and everybody else was this otherwise unidentified (or maybe I missed it) strongwilled carrot-topped young woman who evidently was the power behind the throne.
I only got to know Jeanne-Claude and Christo along around the time he — they — wrapped the Reichstag, in Berlin, a 1995 accomplishment that was some 20 years in the planning and beseeching the authorities to allow it. Same as the golden Gates of Central Park, the 2005 realization of an inspiration that went back to 1979.
Jeanne-Claude was positive, was bossy, was demanding, was meticulous, but she was fun. She was also quite beautiful and romantic, although you wouldn’t have thought so when she was balling you out for getting something, no matter how trivial, wrong in your story.
Before she would grant an interview — of her and Christo, of course — she’d extort the promise that you would let her see your story prepublication. I never do this, but I did do it more than once for Jeanne-Claude.
The next day, on the telephone, story in hand, she would say, crisply: “There are 13 [or 24, or 33] errors of fact,” and then point them out, one by one.
Oh Christo, my friend, who’s going to ride herd on you and me now?