Beatrice Wood
Journey Through the Past

The Inspirational Bohemian Woman I’ll Never Know, Beatrice Wood

From the first chapter, I was transported backwards by 100 years to find a woman with the spunk and courage to show me how to live today.

I don’t recall where I got the nudge to purchase Beatrice Wood’s autobiography, “I Shock Myself”, but once starting to read the book, I feel unfortunate I will never know her.

Beatrice Wood lived to be 105 years old. In 1912 she left her luxurious life as the daughter of a wealthy family at the age of 19 to live as a bohemian. Beatrice left New York City for Paris to become an artist. That same year, my great grandfather brought his wife and two daughters to America from Sweden to start a new life. The planets must have been screaming for people to make changes that year.

Rebellious and Stubborn

There are few stories about women who step out of the roles dictated to them by tradition and culture. I wonder what she would think about Hillary Clinton’s bid for President of the United States. Beatrice had an open mind and heart that guided her every choice, even making bad decisions that as time went on, were less wrong and more about being teaching her to wake up and be at attention.

To be a woman in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s has always been painted as a lifetime of restriction, modesty, austerity, and dependency. It was a time where America was either at war or developing new technologies that would change the world. It was a time for men, by men. And yet, here is the story of a woman who desperately desired to experience Life and feel it within every cell of her being.

I didn’t realize that the character of Rose DeWitt Bukater in James Cameron’s 1997 film, Titanic, was based on Beatrice Wood and that he knew her. It makes sense now. Rose was daring, mischievous, open to love outside the boundaries of her lifestyle, loved art, laughed and demanded that life bend to her will to survive it. This was Beatrice Wood.

Art, Love and Universe

I easily identify with her constant curiosity about everything that crossed her path and her unwavering compassion for people. She wrote,

“In a way, my life has been an upside-down experience. I never made love to the men I married, and I did not marry the men I loved.”

She married twice to men she didn’t love and the marriages were not consummated. One of those marriages was so that she and the man she owned a house and property with would get financial relief funds from the Red Cross after their house and land was destroyed by flooding. Another husband was a bigamist with a wife and child in Belgium who he kept insisting did not exist. He used Beatrice for her money and ties to people who had more money. Finally, Beatrice’s own mother, a woman of propriety and protocol, went to Belgium to straighten things out.

Beatrice Wood

Wood was a tremendous flirt, even into her older age. The men she loved always loved her in return, but circumstances prevented marriage or any permanent relationship. Her heart was often broken. With dignity and grace rarely seen today, she accepted the wives, girlfriends and mistresses her lovers chose over her and was friendly with most of them. By the end of her book, it is clear she had a bit of a naughty mind, which must have been refreshing and endearing during the times she lived in.

“He laughed and put his arm around me. He had never touched me before. ‘You are a naughty girl,’ he murmured, kissing my neck, my head, my mouth. A naughty girl. Little did he know, I thought. Later, as we in bed, he asked, ‘And how did you happen to bring a toothbrush and comb?’ I nestled against him shyly. ‘Perhaps I am a mind reader.’

“No,” he said thoughtfully, “You are a realist.”

Beatrice Wood loved comparative religion and it became her life’s passion, alongside her work and studies in art, acting and pottery. She joined The Theosophical Society and was devoted to the teachings of Jiddu Krishnamurti, who became a friend. She traveled the world twice hauling, as women did in those days, trunks of belongings and trinkets, artwork and souvenirs from her adventures. At first she traveled to study at the insistence of her domineering mother, for whom she desperately wanted to be as far away from as possible. From within the New York art community, she was re-born into her true self on her own terms, choosing to be an actress and sketch what she called her “scrawls”. She met and loved French artist Marcel Duchamp and writer Henri-Pierre Rochéin in 1916. Her stories of the famous artists she knew, their countless dinners and business attempts in publishing and plays fill her autobiography and keep the reader entertained by her honesty and challenges. At times she went hungry, loaned too much money, was betrayed by people she trusted and always she wanted nothing more than to flirt, be romanced and learn art.

No Such Thing as Age

Finding myself at a cross roads with my career and age, and not finding any examples of women I admire from my time, I find myself enchanted by reading Beatrice Wood’s story. In 1930, while in Holland, she bought 6 luster plates from an antique store. Three years later, at age 40, she enrolled in a ceramics class at a school that offered adult education classes, because she wanted to make a teapot to go with the luster plates. Living in Ojai, California then, she continued her ceramics studies and in 1940 advanced her skills by learning from potters Gertrud and Otto Natzler. She sold figurines to help get her through the Depression. Her first pottery exhibition was also in 1940. She was 50 years old. She would live for another 55 years.

After her first showing, she was invited by dignitaries from countries all over the world to show her pottery and give lectures. She tells the funny story of one talk in which she was nervous and new to giving lectures, so she described how she had learned to make invoices. To her amazement, her talk was well received.

Beatrice traveled well into her older years. She drove cars, fast. They say she even learned to use computers. As I turned page after page of her book, I was struck by how grateful she always was for her life, her friends and how she seemed the most surprised at her own personal successes. She took up photography while in her 60’s and her visits to India inspired her habit of wearing lots of jewelry and sari’s, because she loved how they felt on her body. Had she been younger, she mused, she would have chosen to wear a tiny diamond in her nose. She grew her hair long and wound the gray length of it into a braided bun. Her body was not without pain, as a chronic neck condition and arthritis were to plague her always. She shared this wisdom towards the end of her book.

“Regardless of disagreements, people must learn to respect other points of view. Many of the worst wars in history have been religious ones, a good number based on disagreements over the portrayal of their god — a god, of course who none of the combatants has ever seen. I have lived through two world wars and know only too well the lesson history keeps repeating: violence never ceases by violence. Each war contains the seed of another even more catastrophic engagement. We cannot make peace with our enemy if we approach him with a gun at this throat.”

I am not an artist. The names of her friends, the Avant Garde art movement she helped pioneer and terms like “Mama of Dada” are areas in which I don’t have the education to appreciate the value of and yet that did nothing to deter from my joy at reading her autobiography. The black and white photos and selections from 85 years of written journals and letters add to the charm of her book. She lived through the deaths of her friends and kept her kiln going the whole time. She spent her last days in a house built for her, on land she helped build and nurture and today it is dedicated in her name. She could watch the sun rise and set over a nearby mountain and fuss over the cactus she planted. She valued her caregivers who made sure her makeup was perfect for guests who came to call on her. She read. I imagine that she chose the precise moment in which to leave this world, 6 days after her 105 birthday.

Inspiration comes when and where you may least expect it. I had the book for a year before I finally picked it up off the coffee table to read. From the first chapter, I was transported backwards by 100 years to find a woman with the spunk and courage to show me how to live today.

Originally published in Medium and Illumination May 7, 2015