Inside the Cage
By author Stephanie Theobald
As an aspiring journalist living in Paris in the early 1990s, I interviewed the doyenne of French society columnists, Paris Match's Agathe Godard. Talking of 'high society', she warned me, 'You can look into the cage. You can observe the creatures playing, admire their exotic plumage, but you must never, never enter the cage.'
I was impressed by Godard's words (she is one of those fantastically scary Parisiennes) although I assumed I'd never have occasion to get anywhere near the cage. But then, in 2004, I found myself in the unlikely position of being made Society Editor of British Harper's Bazaar. Having grown up above a chip shop in Cornwall, I now found myself posing as Jennifer (as in, 'Jennifer's Diary') and living like a well-connected heiress.
It was amusing to start with. I sat on Al Pacino's knee at the Venice Film Festival, I hung out with Vivienne Westwood in a 6-star resort in the Maldives and, one memorable night, ended up in the boudoir of a Mayfair mansion smoking a joint in front of a genuine Picasso. That was when Godard's words came floating back to me. The art world is now the 'highest' of all high society spheres and over the next three years I saw a lot of it. Once I was invited to Gianni Versace's mansion and I remember the feeling of thrill and horror in my belly as I walked up the steps where, seven years before, Versace had been shot dead. On returning to England, I had an affair with someone whose father, a failed writer, had committed suicide by drinking weed killer in his gothic country mansion.
It was at this time, with notions of art, high society and grisly deaths churning in my head, that I started to think about the Medusa myth. How, when Perseus hacked off the Gorgon's head, the blood that fell to the ground went on to create the fountain of the Muses. Which suggested that under the skin of every great painting, behind every celestial-sounding piece of music, the blood of the monster was stinking away.
From reading newspapers, you'd think that being an artist today was a walk in the park – one big glamorous party filled with Hirsts and Emins and the bazillions you can make from an un-made bed. In reality, art is a treacherous terrain and the art world an infernal machine that spits most artists out, cripples and deforms them. How, after all, do you get to this sacred monster's blood without poisoning yourself in the process? And what of the sweet-talking hustlers – often old Etonians – known as 'art dealers'? What goes on behind that implacable mask of charisma? What do they become when all the lights are out and they find themselves all alone?