With a long track record of good books behind her, Gloria Goldreich found herself invited to lunch with a couple of publishing executives. They wanted her to do a book about the great artist Marc Chagall. That’s not what they got from Goldreich.
“I love his art, but I found myself not loving the artist,” the author told an audience in North Caldwell on July 15. “I didn’t want to spend four years of my life studying him.” But while she found the artist himself a repelling personality, she was intrigued by his daughter Ida.
The result is The Bridal Chair, which came out last year. The novel portrays not only the peculiarly central role Ida played in her father’s personal life and career, but also what Goldreich described as “the force and courage of her own dynamic personality.”
The writer, a diminutive 82-year-old, was addressing about 350 people gathered at an event of the Green Brook Country Club Book Club. As it happened, she pointed out, the terrible truck massacre that had occurred just a week before took place in Nice, home of the Chagall Museum, where she did much of her research, and on the boulevard where she often walked.
With all the recent horrors around the world, Goldreich said, “It’s a relief to come here, to be in this room with all the color and light. It’s proof that life continues, and we won’t submit to that kind of hatred that takes the lives of innocent human beings.”
Goldreich, a Brandeis University graduate and a historian who lives in upstate New York, is a fierce supporter of Israel and human rights, and many of her previous books, fiction and nonfiction, reflect that. In her talk, an interview with artist Audrey Bartner, and later answering questions from attendees, Goldreich talked of her work and beliefs, and how this latest project took shape.
It is her first “biofiction,” a story based on historic facts and a real timeline, filled in with imagined details and some imagined characters.
At the core of Ida’s story, Goldreich said, was “the vortex of heart-stopping events that impacted her parents’ world, and of course her own.” Those included the escalating anti-Semitism that impelled the family to flee from Vitebsk, Belarus, in 1922 to Germany, “not a particularly good choice,” as Goldreich said. They fled again, to Paris, as the Nazis gained power, and Ida spent her formative years in “the City of Lights,” in the company of great artists like Matisse and Soutine.
The bridal chair of the title refers to a painting Marc Chagall did as a wedding gift for his daughter. The uncharacteristically bleak atmosphere in the painting reflected the circumstances of that simha. Goldreich described the eccentric protectiveness that drove the artist and his wife to home-school Ida and keep her from having contact with peers in her own age group. “She was an adored, pampered hostage,” according to Goldreich.
At 18, she prevailed on them to let her attend a summer camp in the Alps, where she met a young man, Michel Gordey, and became pregnant by him. Her horrified father prevailed on her to have an abortion. Though the family was completely unobservant religiously (Ida may have converted to Catholicism later in her life), Marc and his wife, Bella, were wary of tarnishing their social status, and insisted that Ida marry Gordey.
Though they remained friends, the marriage was not very happy and ended after a few years. Ida went on to remarry and have three children with art curator Franz Meyer, while — after her mother’s death — conducting business for her father, and hiring his housekeepers, two of whom Chagall married. It was only with his third marriage that Ida’s relationship with her father became more distant and her life more her own.
Goldreich ends her narrative a few years before Ida’s death in 1994 at the age of 78, just 10 years after her father’s passing. The author said, “I have a penchant for happy endings,” and Ida’s was not. She had become an alcoholic. But the life lived in the shadow of her famous father has finally been brought into the light.