Kissing the Toad

John Richardson, the brilliant biographer of Picasso, resembles (by his own account) those charming and attractive young men of limited means and boundless ambition—right out of the novels of Stendhal and Balzac—who use any means to make their way in the world. The son of an English soldier, educated at Stowe school and the Slade School of Art, Richardson was invalided out of the army in World War II. After failing as a painter, and with a trust fund of only $500 a year, he toiled away for a time as an industrial designer and journalist.

In 1949, when he was 25 years old, Richardson met Douglas Cooper, "a stout pink man in a loud checked suit." Cooper (1911-84), the homosexual son of an Australian tycoon who had made his fortune in gold and real estate, was obsessed with Picasso, Braque, Leger, and Gris, and had the finest collection of modern art in England. (It would now be worth about half a billion dollars.) A repulsive rotten pear of a man who looked for all the world like Henry Kissinger, Cooper was consumed with self-hatred and seemed to identify with the screeches, self-display, and wanton havoc of the peacocks that decorated the gardens of his lavish French chateau. A witty and clever connoisseur of art and artists, Cooper—who had hoped to see more amputees in postwar Germany—was a nasty piece of work. Both arrogant and sycophantic, he was also petty, malicious, spiteful, overbearing, greedy,...

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