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02/08/2013 12:50 PM

French Journalist Anne Sinclair

A Life Touched by Art, Magic and Scandal

Prominent French journalist Anne Sinclair was most recently in the headlines because of her husband, Dominique Strauss-Kahn. In a SPIEGEL interview, she discusses the scandal, her "magical" childhood in New York, and hobnobbing with the famous artists her grandfather represented.

Sinclair is the granddaughter of Paul Rosenberg (1881 to 1959), who earned a place in art history as a dealer, collector and discoverer. In 1940, the war forced Rosenberg and his Jewish family to flee Paris to the United States. The Nazis stole hundreds of paintings that Rosenberg was forced to leave behind. Sinclair, born in New York in 1948, was one of France's most popular TV journalists. She has been married to politician and former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn since 1991, but the couple separated last year. The German-language edition of her family history will be published on Feb. 12.


SPIEGEL: Madame Sinclair, in France, you are a television personality that everyone knows. You are also the wife of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was brought down by a sex and legal scandal in New York less than two years ago. Now you are publishing a book in which you retrace the steps of your grandfather, who fled to New York in 1940. Isn't it a bitter irony that a dramatic circle in your family history is now being brought to a close?

Sinclair: I started the book about my grandfather in 2010, before that painful episode in New York descended upon me. I had intended to publish it in the fall of 2011. When I began writing the book, I didn't know how far away it would take me.

SPIEGEL: In May 2011, your husband, then the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and a potential French presidential candidate for the Socialists, was arrested after boarding a plane and charged with raping a hotel maid.

Sinclair: It was a strange and unreal sensation to return to New York under these circumstances. Because of painful circumstances, I saw myself forced, once again, to live in the city where I was born and in which I spent part of my childhood, as a prisoner of America, in a manner of speaking. This is certainly a different story than that of my grandfather.

SPIEGEL: But also a dramatic tale of suffering and a painful ordeal, like that of someone who has been persecuted?

Sinclair: I wasn't prepared for the fact that these sides of my memory, which began in France, would end with a sad, forced stay in the United States. Nor was I ready for the collision of images from the past with the chaos of reality. I suddenly found myself in a completely different environment than the city of my youth. New York was the city that had seemed magical to me as a child -- vacations, Christmas, snow in Central Park, skipping school. And now, at the time of the events you mentioned, it was suddenly synonymous with violence and injustice for me and my loved ones. But I've gotten past that now.

SPIEGEL: For your grandfather, on the other hand, it was a refuge in 1940 and a place that offered protection from injustice.

Sinclair: With my book, I wanted to travel back and forth between the past and the present. Now the trip was moving back and forth from New York to New York. It's not the city's fault. Should I be angry with the country and the city that allowed my grandparents to regain their dignity because I had to endure a horrible three months there when my own dignity was put to the test?

SPIEGEL: Did the confrontation with the past become a form of catharsis? Why did you hesitate for so long to tell your family story?

Sinclair: I just didn't think of it. I knew, of course, that my grandfather was an important discoverer, a talented collector and an art expert, the impresario of such outstanding painters as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque and Fernand Léger. But that wasn't my world. I was interested in politics, journalism and the real world of the present, not that of the paintings, even though I had grown up with it. I didn't want to insert myself into this base family milieu.

SPIEGEL: As someone who inherited a family tradition that can also be a burden, were you trying to liberate yourself from the past?

Sinclair: A great tradition can make the succeeding generations seem very insignificant. I was absolutely determined to lead my own life.

SPIEGEL: You would have had good reason to be proud of your family. Unlike the children of collaborators, you didn't have to pit yourself against the shadows of the past.

Sinclair: Nevertheless, a certain sense of embarrassment held me back. I didn't see my life as that of an heiress. Most of my grandfather's art collection was liquidated or had disappeared. I don't own any hidden treasures. In addition, the word "dealer" bothered me for a long time. It seemed somehow disreputable and triggered dirty associations.

SPIEGEL: The image of a dealer you had in your mind was that of someone who bought the works of poor, unappreciated artists for little money and then sold them at a large profit?

Sinclair: The idea was suspect to me. If my grandfather had sold wheat or sardines in oil, it wouldn't have felt so repugnant to me. But when I was young, the notion of making a fortune with pieces of art, rare and beautiful things, seemed as diabolical to me as a banker speculating today.

SPIEGEL: What prompted you to revisit your roots?

Sinclair: Well, the maturity of age, I suppose. When you've passed 60, you can be overcome by the need to take a look back. After my mother, Micheline, died five years ago, at a certain point, I started looking through her things, including papers, letters and photo albums. They were relics of a lost world. After 1940, she worked as the general secretary of France Forever, an organization that sought to engender sympathy among Americans for the Résistance and Free France. She had kept all the written documents, as well as a photo of General de Gaulle, with a dedication.

SPIEGEL: That moved you?

Sinclair: And it also aroused a guilty conscience. As a child, I was always on my father's side, emotionally speaking. He was a true hero of the Résistance. I owe him my name. His real name was Robert Schwartz. But because the German occupiers knew the last names of the French officers and soldiers who fought with de Gaulle in exile, he had to change his name to protect his family members still living in France. He wanted to keep the same initials, so he opened the New York telephone book at the letter S and found the name Sinclair.

SPIEGEL: Which also sounds good in France and doesn't sound Jewish at all. Was he so proud of his work in the Résistance that he kept this assumed name after the war?

Sinclair: Yes, but after the experiences he had had, and given the impact of the Holocaust, he probably wanted to spare his descendants the dangers that a Jewish name had brought to his family. I was a little upset with him because I've always perceived the name change as a rejection of sorts. The original version of my birth certificate reads: Anne-Elise Schwartz, née Sinclair.

SPIEGEL: Then you embarked on a search for this grandfather, who had been the most important art dealer in Paris and Europe between the two world wars.

Sinclair: Marie Laurencin, the muse of the poet Apollinaire, was the first painter with whom he signed an exclusive contract in 1913. Picasso was added in 1918, Braque in 1923, Léger in 1926 and Matisse in 1936. The Galerie Rosenberg at Rue La Boétie 21, which my grandfather had opened in 1910, was the go-to place for all those interested in the development and work of the innovators. The contemporary painters were displayed on the ground floor and the older painters above. Visitors who had no use for Braque or Léger were asked upstairs, where Degas, Renoir and Monet were exhibited.

SPIEGEL: Why was he so sure of his aesthetic and artistic instinct?

Sinclair: My mother and grandparents told me that he hadn't sold a single Picasso until 1925. The first Picasso exhibition at the Galerie Rosenberg took place in 1919, and consisted of 167 drawings. People laughed. They pointed at the scribbled drawings and scoffed at them. Some critics also reacted with incomprehension, even with hostility, raving against what they called painting from the madhouse. "Degenerate art" wasn't just a German term.

SPIEGEL: Your grandfather avoided works of so-called "degenerate art," which the Nazis offered for sale on the world market, especially in Switzerland. As president of the French art dealers' association, he even tried to organize a boycott against this sell-off.

Sinclair: Without success, because this business with the Nazis was very lucrative. Of course, my grandfather's receptiveness to modern art had its limits. For instance, he didn't like the surrealists at all. Salvador Dalí once approached him in a restaurant and asked if Galerie Rosenberg would represent him. My grandfather spurned him, saying that there was no room for clowns in his gallery. He wouldn't have liked the modern Americans after the war, or Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, not to mention Andy Warhol. At the time, popular taste lagged behind the avant-garde. The opposite is true today. People jump on anything that looks like avant-garde art, out of fear that they'll be too late to the game.

'Dear Pic, Dear Rosi'

SPIEGEL: Throughout his life, Picasso was always Paul Rosenberg's idol.

Sinclair: Yes, dear Pic, as my grandfather called Picasso, and dear Rosi, the nickname Picasso gave my grandfather. The painter and the gallery owner "made" each other, as art historian Pierre Nahon has written. In the fall of 1919, Paul convinced him to move into the building next to the gallery, at No. 23. From then on, Picasso and his wife occupied two floors of the building.

SPIEGEL: The almost physical proximity of an inseparable couple -- Paul and Pic?

Sinclair: They met in Biarritz in the summer of 1918. Picasso needed money at the time and was searching for a new dealer. Paul immediately fell for the painter's genius. He apparently saw himself as Picasso's spiritual brother. Picasso used to show him the canvas he happened to be working on through the kitchen window across the courtyard. When that happened, either Picasso went over to the gallery or my grandfather went to see Picasso. From 1918 until his death, Paul wrote 214 letters to Picasso.

SPIEGEL: Did Picasso respond?

Sinclair: Picasso rarely wrote. The few letters that he must have written were lost during the war. Paul usually wrote when he was traveling or vacationing in Deauville. Sometimes he would send a short message from neighbor to neighbor, adding: "Please respond through the window." Sometimes he complained when Picasso didn't deliver as ordered. "You went away without giving me my harlequin," he wrote. "You're horrible!"

SPIEGEL: One likes to imagine the relationship between artist and dealer as filled with tension.

Sinclair: Surprisingly little of that can be detected. In my grandfather's case, fascination was the dominant emotion. He had understood that a great artist needs material security to be able to concentrate. Old invoices show that he paid Picasso 50,000 francs for a large painting in the early years, and 12,000 for a watercolor. These amounts are practically unchanged when converted into euros today. Then, in October 1923, Picasso doubled his prices, and my grandfather had to accept it, for better or worse. He later said that he would have liked to kiss Picasso on one cheek and bite him on the other.

SPIEGEL: A strange symbiosis. The two men were completely contrasting characters.

Sinclair: Paul would sometimes order 100 pictures at a time from Picasso, like the owner of a fashion house buying his new collection. And yet he welcomed every change in style. He knew perfectly well that he was dealing with one of the greatest contemporary artists, someone who upended all the rules and constantly pushed the boundaries. I believe that this admiration also had something to do with his complexes. Paul wasn't a creative type, but he would have liked to be one.

SPIEGEL: The familiar proximity went so far that Picasso, in 1918, painted a portrait of Madame Rosenberg and her daughters, that is, of your grandmother and her mother, which the Musée Picasso in Paris now owns.

Sinclair: I gave it to the museum after my mother's death as a way of paying off the inheritance tax. You can do that in France. I could have sold it in the United States for a lot of money, but I feel that it belongs here, in Paris.

SPIEGEL: Do you have an enduring personal memory of Picasso?

Sinclair: I remember his penetrating gaze, most of all. When we visited him at his house in Mougins, I was impressed by the chaos, the paint spots on the parquet floor, the confusion -- all the things that were forbidden in our house. He used one of his paintings as a headboard for his bed. He had placed it against the wall with the canvas toward the front, and he leaned the pillows against the stretcher frame. When he sold the painting, he would simply use another one. And then there is the funny anecdote that concerns how I spoiled my chances of having Picasso paint my own portrait.

SPIEGEL: Do tell.

Sinclair: I was 14, and Picasso suggested to my mother that he paint me. "I see," he said, "that she has eyes everywhere!" I was so startled that I ran away crying, determined not to sit for that face thief. I was afraid that I would be painted "with a skewed visage," like Picasso's lover Dora Maar, whose portraits I didn't like at all. One can't say that I had inherited my grandfather's instinct for art.

SPIEGEL: Do you know why Picasso stayed in Paris during the war? After all, as an opponent of Franco, a Spanish Republican and the painter of anti-war picture "Guernica," he was in some danger.

Sinclair: They kept a close eye on him, but the Germans didn't dare do anything. Picasso hadn't compromised himself in any way, unlike Cocteau or Derain, for example. On one occasion, German men in uniform allegedly came to his studio and asked him about "Guernica." "Did you do it?" they asked. To which he responded: "No, it was you!" That's simply too good to be true. The painters who had stayed in Paris were certainly no heroes of the Résistance, but they weren't collaborators, either. Braque, at any rate, refused to design an emblem for the Vichy regime of Marshal Pétain.

SPIEGEL: The war imposed a four-year silence between your grandfather and Picasso.

Sinclair: It was difficult to re-establish their close relationship after that. After 1945, Paul only saw Picasso once a year, on the Côte d'Azur in the summer. When the war ended, Picasso resumed his relationship with Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, the other major art dealer of the interwar period, which had been interrupted in 1914. Kahnweiler then looked after Picasso until his death in 1973.

SPIEGEL: What do you have left from your grandfather's collection?

Sinclair: He had already shipped a number of paintings to London and New York before 1940, which he used as the foundation for his new gallery in Manhattan. When the family fled Europe, about 400 pictures were left behind in France and were then stolen. Of those, 60 have yet to be recovered to this day, but my grandfather was able to get back hold of the rest one after another. Contrary to all possible rumors, I have only four paintings left from my mother's estate.

SPIEGEL: Which ones are they?

Sinclair: I won't tell you that. It's private.

SPIEGEL: That would suggest that they're important works. Perhaps a cross-section of the famous Rosenberg quartet: a Picasso, a Matisse, a Braque and a Léger?

Sinclair: Give up. No one will tell you. The splendor of the collection is gone; it has diminished over time. However, one thing is true: My mother and my father, and my aunt and my uncle, were able to live very well as a result.

SPIEGEL: You also have a sizeable fortune from your grandfather's estate.

Sinclair: I have already said that I've always felt a reluctance to be defined as an heiress. My grandfather was able to live in affluence. But I believe that he remained an eternal malcontent, someone who was always pessimistic and at the mercy of existential doubts. He suffered from a guilt complex, the remorse of a person who had avoided the horrible dramas of the war in Europe. The members of that generation remained disabled from the war for the rest of their lives.

SPIEGEL: Do you have any of that tragic inner turmoil?

Sinclair: My Jewish identity is very important to me, even though I'm not particularly religious, just as my grandfather wasn't.

SPIEGEL: When you stood at the side of Dominique Strauss-Kahn in New York two years ago, the whole world was looking at you. Did being put on display like that trigger resentment in you, an unwillingness to accept your fate?

Sinclair: I felt captive, with my husband under house arrest and 350 journalists -- the pack of hounds at the hunt -- outside.

SPIEGEL: The case against your husband was ultimately dropped.

Sinclair: The American justice system is brutal, but when it has made a mistake, it openly admits it was wrong. The French proceed more cautiously, but the trials are never-ending. I've put it all behind me today and have dealt with the experience at all levels, both personally and collectively. Period. Over.

SPIEGEL: As a journalist, you might want to write about it one day.

Sinclair: I could. But the way I just said it to you, it's merely a pirouette. I could do it, but I won't do it.

SPIEGEL: Madame Sinclair, thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Romain Leick and translated by Christopher Sultan.

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