Brigitte Benkemoun, a high-achieving French journalist, gets her story off to an intriguing start. She explains that after her husband lost his small Hermès diary, she managed to find a replacement on eBay, listed under “small vintage leather goods”. The diary arrived, almost a twin to the original, with the “same smooth leather, but redder, softer with a well-used sheen”. And there was another difference. In the address section, Benkemoun found telephone numbers, written in brown ink, for Breton, Brassaï, Braque, Balthus, Cocteau, Éluard… “the greatest postwar artists listed in alphabetical order”.
Benkemoun describes herself as an “obsessive” sleuth and discovers that the 1951 diary belonged to Dora Maar, photographer, artist and Picasso’s mistress and model (subject of Weeping Woman). She decides to tell Maar’s story through her notable addressees and even includes, charmingly, Maar’s plumber (he installed a bathtub for Picasso).
She describes a meeting with Picasso in which Maar repeatedly dropped a knife between her fingers until her blood flowed
It is a brilliant idea but – if the word can be used in this context – marred. The problem is that the subject arrived by chance, a biographer’s blind date (who knew eBay could deliver book ideas?). Benkemoun had no pre-existing interest in Maar and is disturbed to discover that she swung to the right in old age and kept Mein Kampf on her bookshelf. She considers abandoning her subject. What she does not do is to consider in any depth Maar’s precarious mental health.
She describes a first meeting with Picasso in which Maar, wearing black gloves embroidered with small flowers, repeatedly dropped a knife between her fingers until her blood flowed: “Picasso was overwhelmed, enthralled. A psychiatrist might have been wary of this form of self-mutilation.” Benkemoun should have been warier, too – and more curious. Nor is she much interested in Maar’s photography. Her book is glitteringly anecdotal. It scores as artistic pickpocketing – unauthorised rummaging. But she misses altogether the melancholy fact that what her husband now possesses is the address book of a recluse, the contacts of a woman who lost touch with the world.
• Finding Dora Maar: An Artist, An Address Book, A Life by Brigitte Benkemoun (translated by Jody Gladding) is published by Getty (£18.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15