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I Shock Myself: The Autobiography of Beatrice Wood

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Feb 23, 2012
Category: Memoir

TRAVEL TIP: If you’re ever in Ojai, California, the Beatrice Wood museum is a pleasant 15 minutes.
“From early childhood, I wanted to know what the world was like, willing to pay any price to understand humanity,” Beatrice Wood wrote. “I paid the price.”

Yes. She did. But she got what she was looking for. She won the Grand Prize.

Beatrice Wood (1893-1998) would be a National Treasure in Japan for her ceramics; in our country, she’s a footnote in the history of art. But her work isn’t why those who knew her cherished her and those who have read her book see her as a kind of life coach. Consider: She was born rich, resisted her controlling mother, lived on the edge, knew everyone, had terrific love affairs, re-invented herself several times and died, happy, at 105.

Her autobiography begins in France, in 1914, as she kisses her beautiful boyfriend goodbye. Her body tingles. Although she is a virgin, that electricity makes her think she’s pregnant.

What does she know about life? Nothing.

“I lost my virtue reading ‘Madame Bovary’ by a spirit lamp,” she tells us. “In the dark, secret dreams of my youth, I envisioned resting my head on a man’s shoulder and leading an immoral existence, whatever that might be.”

She tells her mother she wants to live in a garret and paint. Her mother threatens suicide. And that’s their relationship, all of it.

In New York, she becomes an actress, but doesn’t acquire an actress’s street smarts: “I was so naive about social customs that when a Wall Street tycoon, whom my mother hoped I would marry, took me to the Plaza Hotel for dinner, I volunteered to pay part of the check.” Meets Isadora Duncan: “She was rather flabby.” Meets Henri-Pierre Roché and finds a new mission: “He released me from prudish views about sex and made it a loving a creative experience.” She is faithful to Roché but swoons over new friends, Edgar Varese and Marcel Duchamp. (“Marcel later commented that unattractive women made love better than beautiful ones.") Discovers Roché has slept with another woman and, in her immaturity, ends the affair. (They remained lifelong friends.) And replaces him with … Marcel Duchamp.

A friend of Warren Harding propositions her: Would she like to be the White House mistress?  She chooses to remain a poor bohemian. Tries vaudeville. Finds what she thinks is love with Paul, “a child-moron” who plunges her into debt and drags her down; it takes her years to leave him.

Paul is replaced an English theater director who doesn’t look like a loser but is. She’s now 30, and if you’re getting a little irritated by her, you’re not alone. (“He seemed to suffer attacks of asthma whenever he wanted to avoid something.”) But you press on, because she’s endlessly fascinating, honest and tart. [To buy the picture-and-text paperback from Amazon, click here.]

Then she meets Krishnamurti. He is beautiful, tender and evolved. Will she explore great mysteries with him or be “someone else’s shadow” for the rest of her life? “I surrendered myself to an ecstasy of renunciation,” she writes. Her aura became peaceful. “I was not the same person. Only memory without feeling was left of the past.”

Dirt-poor — in her hand-me-down dresses, her ultimate fantasy in those days was for a bar of “expensive scented soap” — she moves to California. She’s smarter now: “Though still a fool about love, by this time I knew that becoming ‘one with another’ is a momentary illusion.” This does not keep her from an entanglement with a man “who thought Cezanne was a brand of coffee.”

She buys six plates, wants a teapot to go with them and decides to make one. Instead, she makes two plates, “which, for some inexplicable reason, someone bought.” And, suddenly, she’s a potter. At last she learns about reality — that is, she discovers you don’t get paid if you don’t submit an invoice.

She arrives in Ojai in 1948, with just enough money to keep her alive for three weeks. No matter: Ojai is, she knows, “the pot of gold at the end of a long, obstacle-strewn rainbow.” She teaches. (“Everyone has innate talent, if released.”) And begins to make a name for herself. As a curator would write: “She was never interested in perfection of the form but the glory of the luster surface….She started her artistic career on the highest possible level with the giants of 20th century modernism and ultimately found her particular voice in lusterware pottery — luminescent, shimmering surfaces that she invented herself through experimentation.”

From there, it’s all happiness. And great observations:

My life is full of mistakes. They’re like pebbles that make a good road.

Oh, beautiful fornication, when one is in love.

I never made love to the men I married, and I did not marry the men I loved.

I owe my longevity to chocolate and young men.

As an artist, she’s a 6.5. As a life, a perfect 10.