For seven decades, the internationally renowned sculptor, bestselling historical novelist, and celebrated poet, Barbara Chase-Riboud, has lived the kind of life that could only be portrayed in a movie. Now, the story of her amazing life and art is recounted in her new book, I Always Knew: A Memoir, told through hundreds of letters she wrote to, and were saved by, her mother, Vivian Mae, from 1957 to 1991. The book is out now from Princeton University Press.
Born in Philadelphia, the 83 year-old polymath studied fine art at Temple University in the 1950s, and later at the American Academy in Rome, where she created and exhibited her first sculptural works. In 1960, she graduated from Yale—she is credited with being the first known African American woman to receive an MFA degree from the university—moved to London, and later Paris, where she lives to this day.
Her two best-known works of fiction, the 1979 novel Sally Hemings, and the 1989 Echo of Lions, were both controversial bestsellers. Sally Hemings is credited with being the first fictional account of the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his enslaved concubine Sally Hemings, a laison disbelieved until it was later confirmed by DNA testing. Similiarly Echo of Lions is a riveting account of the heroic captive Africans who commandeered the slave ship Amistad, a story later made into a motion picture by Steven Spielberg. Chase-Riboud sued his production company for $10 million for copyright infringement, a case that was eventually settled out of court.
Chase-Riboud’s abstract sculptures have been shown in the world’s most prestigious museums, including the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. She has been awarded the Legion d'Honneur and was knighted by the French government. Chase-Riboud talked with PW about the peaks and valleys of her life, her art, the places and spaces she has visited, and the mother’s love that sustained her.
Publishers Weekly: What books inspired your memoir?
Barbara Chase-Riboud: Persian Letters, by Montesquieu, The Letters of Gustave Flaubert to his Mother 1830-1857 by Gustave Flaubert, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Dear Theo by Vincent Van Gogh and Letters to her daughter, by Madame de Sevigne.
Your life in the 1950s and 1960s included studies at Temple and Yale; a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome, as well as a bit part in the film Ben-Hur, and you were a cover story on Ebony magazine. Did you have the sense at that time that your life was glamorous?
How was I supposed to know it was glamorous? Or that I was the first? I had no measuring stick—only my nose to follow. I thought the things that happened to me, happened to everybody. Nobody told me I was the first, this or that, and if I was the first, how was I supposed to know it? I was called exceptional, but how was I supposed to know what “exceptional” was exactly?
In 1958 you visited Egypt, and in the book you write. “after Egypt, Greek sculpture resembled a wedding cake,” and the statue of Delphi, “was the top of the world for the Greeks—the summit of architecture of the Western World! But I found it to be nothing compared with the temples of Karnak.” What was it about Egypt that inspired those statements?
The Art! The towering, eternal, magnificent Art!
During your time abroad, you met many notable Black Americans and Africans including Ralph Ellison, Stokley Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, Miriam Makeba, and Nina Simone. How did living outside of the United States shape your Black Identity?
First of all, do you think meeting all these highly exceptional people, we were going to sit around talking to each other about Black identity? Do you sit around talking to exceptional white people about white identity? There is only one identity, humanistic identity—so that’s what we talked about—humanistic, human identity.
Women were also important in your life. Tell us about the importance of your relationships with Toni Morrison and with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who you vacationed with on the Greek island, Skorpios.
Toni Morrison was primordial as was Jacqueline. Morrison edited my first book of poetry, From Memphis & Peking in 1974, when she was still at Random House. We spent a summer in the Loire Valley—her two boys and my two boys. Then, when I found the Sally Hemings story and decided I wanted to write an epic poem, she fought to get advances [for me], failed, and after my going on and on and on about this enslaved woman who had aroused my fascination, she told me, “Write it yourself.” I wasn’t at all sure I could do this. I was, as I told her—a poet—a sprinter, not a long-distance runner like a novelist. She threw up her hands. I sulked.
Then, in the summer of 1974 …, I sat on the beach with [Jacqueline] and told her the story of Hemings and Jefferson and my troubles with Random house, [and my] misgivings about being equal to the task of writing a long historical novel about one of the most iconic American heroes. She listened to this incredible, tragic, monumental story all weekend and finally on the last day on the beach she turned to me and said, “You have got to write this story.”
By the time I had laid the 200 or so pages of the manuscript on my agent, Lynn Nesbit’s desk, [Aristotle] Onassis was dead. Jacqueline had taken a job at Viking as an acquiring editor as a balm for her second widowhood, and Morrison had left Random House to begin her own luminous writing career as an independent writer. Jacqueline bought the manuscript and the rest is history.
You lived abroad at the height of the Cold War. How did your groundbreaking trip to China impact you?
They really had to shut me up about China. It transformed me like Egypt had done 10 years earlier. A whole world of Orientalism and politics opened its doors. China at the time was closed to Americans. So inadvertently in 1965, by accepting the invitation of the Ministry of Culture to accompany my then husband, a Magnum photographer, I became the first American woman to visit China after their revolution. And by chance, I had the opportunity to travel into the Interior where even European journalists were forbidden to travel. It was a world like Mars for me. I returned [to China] in 2014 to an incredibly transformed world, but I will never forget that transforming journey into the past.
You made the trip to China with your first husband, photographer Marc Riboud, and had your two sons, David and Alexei. What were the challenges and advantages of raising biracial, international children?
The challenges and advantages of raising biracial international children are both fearsome and consoling, which goes around courage, compensation and adventure but in the end, invention and protection. I remember the first challenge was language itself. David was three and still not speaking … What had we done wrong? A psychiatrist solved the problem: David had a Spanish nurse, a Basque housekeeper, an American mother and a French father. He was having too many languages. The psychologist demanded that everybody speak French. In less than four weeks David was babbling in French, Spanish and correcting my French. He was speaking three languages perfectly. He was just waiting for everybody to make up their minds who was who in which language.
What did you learn about your mother when you became a mother?
I learned what a great mother I had, and how hard it was to be one. But writing I Always Knew was the revelation of a lifetime of love—that I had been privileged beyond measure to have had a mother like mine who was divine.
Toward the end of her life, your mother became a visual artist. Do you think that the life she inspired you to have, in turn inspired her?
A wonderful question. I hadn’t thought of it in those terms, but yes, we inspired each other, not only as mother and daughter, but kindred souls and sisterhood partners. Her paintings were amazing. She was my mother after all. She could be anything she put her mind to—and so could I.