Featured photograph by Hans Feurer.
This is the second in a series of posts I’ll be making this month about the singer Grace Jones and her romantic and creative partnership with the artist Jean-Paul Goude. You can find the first post here. Check back on Thursday for the next installment, and feel free to let me know what you think of the series in a comment.
PART TWO: The Beginning
Years earlier, Grace Jones was performing at Les Mouches, a Greenwich Village disco club doomed to die with the genre, wearing a prom dress and opera gloves. Any implication of modesty was forcefully refuted by her bare chest. “I need a man to make my dreams come true,” she sang. Her wish was unlikely to be fulfilled by any of the members of her audience, given the venue, but Jean-Paul Goude, then the art director of Esquire, did happen to catch the performance. “There was nothing pretty about it, nothing obvious, it was dramatically exhibitionistic, and there was a tangle of signals in terms of who was what and who was entertaining who,” Jones recalls. “He was instantly captivated.”
“She was exactly what I had been looking for all these years,” Goude explains in Jungle Fever. “Not just a pretty model, but a fresh image, a demi-goddess, black, shiny, her face something more than just pretty.” Goude’s writing implies that he had never seen Jones before that night at Les Mouches, but Jones maintains that he had noticed her at an earlier show, and that his interest in her was more than aesthetic. “Jean-Paul became more than intrigued with me and how I looked and what I might be like in bed,” after the show that Goude’s book doesn’t mention, Jones writes. According to Jones, Goude began pestering her then-boyfriend, Glenn O’Brien, a writer and editor of Interview, for clues as to how to draw the attention of his new crush. “He was creating a fantasy about me even before we met.”
Despite the discrepancy on the circumstances of their meeting, Goude and Jones agree that the ensuing relationship quickly developed into a mutual obsession, fueled as much by drugs and the Dionysian atmosphere of the era as by complementary sexual and artistic interests. At first, because they were both romantically involved with other people—Goude was dating the model Toukie Smith—they explored their intellectual chemistry through all-night conversations about life and art, and limited their sexual experimentation to safari trips into then-wild Times Square to peruse peep shows and porn theaters, with Grace dressed in drag in Jean-Paul’s clothes. When such pretense was no longer necessary, Goude and Jones took their fun-seeking further downtown, to disco clubs where their role in the action shifted from voyeuristic to participatory. “Soon I found myself living to the very fast rhythms of Grace Jones, the self-proclaimed ‘Party Nigger,’” Goude writes. “We would go out dancing all night every night. I was completely neglecting my work. But, I loved it all – the fornicating, the drinking and smoking, and out of it an intense, hysterical romance developed between Grace and me.”
Grace Beverly Jones was born in Spanish Town, Jamaica in the late 1940s or early ‘50s—she’s coy about her age, but makes clear that the end of World War II predates her birth. She was the third child and the first girl born to Marjorie (née Williams) and Robert Winston Jones. Marjorie had grown up under the religious repression of her uncle, a self-appointed Pentecostal bishop who strove to cast himself and his family as exemplars of the young faith. The Joneses had chosen a secular path to social prominence, establishing and leading the island’s national library system, but Robert defied his father by joining the church to get closer to the bishop’s cloistered niece, and eventually by becoming a pastor himself. After Grace, Marjorie and Robert had another three kids, then went to the United States to scout out an appropriate nest for their growing family. In the meantime, Grace and all but one of her siblings were placed in the care of Marjorie’s mother and her second husband, whom the children called Aunt Ceta and Mas P, short for Master Peart. (Aunt Ceta’s first husband, Grace’s grandfather, was a jazz pianist who accompanied Nat King Cole.) Mas P lived up to his initimidating title. In a bid to impress Bishop Walters, he demanded perfection from the Jones children, and enforced his standards through regular beatings. “It was a profoundly disciplined, militant upbringing,” Jones recalls in the memoir, “and so in my own way, I am very militant and disciplined. Even if that sometimes means being militantly naughty, and disciplined in the arts of subversion.” Elsewhere, Jones identifies this authoritarian father figure as one source of inspiration for the imposing persona she conjures in A One Man Show.
Once Robert and Marjorie had established a branch of the church and a home for themselves in Salina, a suburb of the town of Syracuse in upstate New York, they began sending for their children. When Grace joined them, in the early 1960s, she hastened to take advantage of the new freedoms occasioned by her escape from Mas P into American society, whose burgeoning rebelliousness echoed her own. She started wearing makeup, drinking, and going to gay clubs with one of her brothers. In mostly-white Syracuse, where she attended Onondaga Community College, dark skin alone would have been enough to mark her as different, but her Jamaican roots rendered her inscrutable even to the African-American students. She shocked her peers by attending an assembly wearing an afro, but the style soon spread to other members of the student body.
Jones studied to become a Spanish teacher until she developed a crush on a young, long-haired theater professor, who convinced her to sing and act in a summer stock tour he was arranging in Philadelphia. Enthralled by the stage and the freedom of living away from home, Jones never returned to Syracuse. She hopped from Philly to New York, where she eventually joined Wilhemina Cooper’s modelling agency. Experimenting with her look, Jones once shaved off all of her hair, including her eyebrows. Cooper was enraged, but Jones relished her newly provacative appearance: “I savored the response to what I did to myself, by breaking certain laws about how I was meant to behave and look, as a model, a girl, a daughter, an American, a West Indian, a human being.” At Cooper’s urging, Jones soon decamped for Paris, in search of a market in which her unusual appearance would be seen as an asset rather than a flaw. But when she met with Johnny Casablancas, the head of Elite Model Management, which had a model exchange agreement with Cooper’s agency, to find out why no appointments had been made for her after three days in the city, he told her that “selling a black model in Paris is like trying to sell them an old car nobody wants to buy.” Jones defected to a new agency, Euro Planning, which arranged for her to be photographed by Helmut Newton and Hans Feurer, drawn by Antonio Lopez, and sent down the runway by Issey Miyake. It was through another Euro Planning model that Jones met a talent scout for a small record company who convinced her to take singing lessons and start recording.