Ménage à Weird--Louis, Murrieta and Me

Let's call her Murrieta.

She had strong intellect and impetuous energy. Some would add eccentric habits. Very eccentric. Others would say she needed medication because she didn't sleep much and ate sugar by the box. She started a fire in the oven by toasting some one late night.

What I would say is that she once stayed with me and my family when we lived in Orange County. I was out of work, and she told me everything I wanted to hear, how an Indian reservation would finance every unproduced script I ever wrote. It was crazy time for me, a time when Ronald Reagan said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall,” and sure enough, it went tumbling down with chaos all around.
Murrieta had done a Ph.D. thesis on the marketing ethics of art galleries and museums, to her mind very low, and was in the business of collecting and selling to them nonetheless. When I knew her, she was interested in tracking down paintings by Louis Daguerre. The Frenchman was better known for having invented the first photographic process to gain widespread use, but apparently there were ten oils that predated his photographic experiments. They would have great historical value, of course, and monetary too if only they could be removed from newly liberated Czechoslovakia. To test the market, Murrieta wanted to offer one of the paintings for sale to a respected museum in the United States.

Let's call it The Getty.

But the photography curator knew her, and she wanted someone else to make the phone call. She thought that I would do quite well. I had never set eyes on the painting and had only a Trivia Pursuit knowledge of the father of photography, but that didn’t seem to bother Murrieta at all. Maybe she thought that I would sound more like a rube who could be easily taken.

“Yes, sir, what we have here is a signed Daguerre. A study in light, as you can imagine.”

“A church,” whispered Murrieta, who hovered over my shoulder.

“A church.”

“With a figure,” she prompted.

“A church and a priest.”

“No, no."

“Or a monk.”

Murrieta rasped, “A woman!”

“He’s got robes. Maybe a woman. Definitely female.”

“In the foreground,” she said.

“She’s in foreground of a church.” I got reckless and added some movie magic. “An exterior shot.”


“Actually, sir, I only look out of one eye. I don’t see so hot. But I can see now this is an interior. A very nice interior.”

And so it went for about three insane minutes, after which Murrieta abruptly departed for Prague. For months I did not hear from her; then I got a note from a hospital ward in the States asking if I still had the drawing she had stashed under my couch because she needed to sell it pronto.

I had no idea what was under the couch except corn chips, dust bunnies and maybe a discarded beer bottle. You try to shove the vacuum cleaner under as far as it will go, but things do get left behind. What was left behind was a sheet of blue paper with a charcoal sketch. It turned out to be by a Renaissance master and was worth ten grand.

Up until then I had the romantic belief that art experts handled their wares with kid gloves.

Wrong, Bongo!

A friend of mine once introduced me to Phillip Mould. Besides being an advisor on art for the British Parliament, Mr. Mould is author of
Sleepers, a very readable chronicle of his adventures in search for lost old masters. In Sleepers Phillip Mould talks about using spit and the old thumb to get an idea whether a dusty painting belongs in the attic or is worth something.

The last I saw Murrieta, I was with three pals helping her move her things from The Athenaeum, a residence for visiting professors at Cal Tech. Each one of us had been told exactly what he wanted to hear. We weren’t sure why she was directing us out the back way, but it turned out she hadn’t paid the rent.

The last I heard Murrieta’s voice was a phone call in which she wanted me to go to Panama and report on the impending secret invasion. She said that she could get my dispatches published in
The Wall Street Journal. Besides being a coward, I didn’t believe she could know any government secrets, so I said no, and that’s how the world missed my first hand reporting of President Bush the Elder’s sending in the troops to arrest Noriega.

I’ve heard of Murrieta since—from a table full of investment bankers I met at a dinner party, from a Russian émigré who was a famous artist’s rather spectacularly built nude and from a French film producer. Eighteen years ago she was either married to a preacher and distributing bibles in Mexico or hitching a ride with an Italian truck driver.

Peace to you, Murrieta, wherever you are.