When I think of Lucia, I think of her versatility, wide range of interests, and multiple talents. She was an airy spirit, a butterfly with grand passions. The divergences were, many of them, ensconced in practical thinking. Which may strike those who knew her as antithetical to the way she lived. Her apartment was an accumulation. But amidst the overflow of books, precious tiny objects, paintings, and spartan and indulgent old furniture, and confused tastes of informal effect, she did keep up a certain formality. Lucia served a “lovely tea” (she didn’t go for alcohol) and was an excellent, exacting cook. The dinners or teatime rituals I was invited to were memorable, and of a high refine-ment. The old-fashioned teapot, plain buttered toast and honey, and real napkins were fitting accompaniment to conversation. Honestly intriguing, hot items, esthetic battlefields--and nothing was ever spurious or gossipy. Or materialistic.
Lucia had none of the sly New York manner of showing off. Her interests were authentic: art, literature, the ballet, peace marches, women’s rights. Her heroes and influences flowed through the contexts; names that had biographical validity and of a close affiliation with her life. Rilke, Lou Andreas-Salome, Nijinsky, Paula Modersohn Becker, Frans Masereel (Lucia’s style in woodcuts, I think, often reflected Masereel’s simple and volatile formation, and were politically exu-berant), Karsavina (Lucia introduced me to the Karsavina autobiography), Balanchine, Stravinsky, these were celebrities she responded to as equals. The duo-pianists, Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale, were evident-ly old friends. I once heard her talking to Gold at the State Theater. It seemed to me that the warm, fraternal interest between them gave a mooring to her own “cultural” vision. Gold-and-Fizdale were “way out,” erudite, skeptical men.
I know now that Lucia Vernarelli was a first-rate painter. But she was too occupied with it, self-demanding, overly anxious- to live on any artistic even keel. She hadn’t the patience or confidence to utilize what she had. The illustrations she did for books, and ballet designs (I remember she worked with Jerome Robbins for one of his stagings) were of best quality. And a big event for her. But she didn’t have the “pushiness” to compete in a business world. A strong accomplishment was when she created the antiwar murals for the militant church on West Fourth Street.
Lucia’s so-called differences weren’t cranky. I never measured up to her politically active career (though shared most of her beliefs) but I never encountered the Vernarelli wrath. She could be angry, sometimes scary. But kept her justice-demandings (this is very personal stuff) on the scale of, as it were, positive weldings of the larger forces. That is, she could oppose government and the law with free abandon. She was proud of having gone to jail, on one of the Washington marches.
If this all sounds virtuous and right-minded, it was. Lucia was determined, and unafraid of putting herself at risk. Again, to those who knew her, this may sound too obvious. But that she operated consistently within her own set of rules, is not as easy or obvious as the facts tally up to. And she was flamboyant. Some of her ebulliences and “curse words” like “piss off”--(I think she used them as banners) could shake up a party.
When I first met her in about 1956, I remember being astonished at her good looks. The slanty, green-blue-eyes, high cheekbones, and the mass of burnished, gold-brown hair, this composition of features was very akin to ancient portraits one had seen of the perfect, Italian classical beauty. I don’t think she was unaware of the natural endowment, but she was so sprightly, individualistic, and of a sporty (swash-buckling) type, she never tried to take dominance among us.
She was so very much alive. And Lucia didn’t welcome death, there was no submissive acceptance either. One can’t blame such energies for not being docile. Her father named her Lucia for the Donizetti heroine. She was like her paintings, or a collage. A diffusion of colors, but central to the purpose.
May 1998