This weekend marks the anniversary of the death of a personal hero of mine, poet Guillaume Apollinaris de Kostrowitzky, better known as Apollinaire, who died during the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918. His greatest contribution to the 20th century, other than coining the term ‘surrealism’ and helping to publicize and define the cubist movement, was probably his poetry, influencing many of the avant-garde, dada and surrealist writers in post-Great War France, such as André Breton and Tristan Tzara.
Some of the best anecdotes about Apollinaire concern his occasionally dubious character. He was known for reviewing non-existent books and writing erotic / pornographic fantasies under pseudonyms. Re-inventing facts was a penchant of his, often ending in uncomfortable predicaments. In 1911, for example, he was detained for six days on suspicion of stealing the Mona Lisa. When things looked a bit bleak, he pointed the finger at his trusted friend Pablo Picasso, implicating him in one of the biggest crimes of the era. Both were eventually exonerated, but the Mona Lisa wasn’t recovered until 1913, and after some eight forgeries had been sold! Nevertheless, the more adventurous Parisians were counted in Apollinaire’s circle of friends and colleagues. They were the who’s who of Paris, artists like Picasso, Henri Rousseau, Marie Laurencin (his long time lover), Marc Chagall and Marcel Duchamp, writers Gertrude Stein, Alfred Jarry, Max Jacob, and composer Erik Satie.
After the start of the First World War, Apollinaire joined the French military, requesting front-line infantry duty. On March 17, 1916, while entrenched on the front near Champagne close to the Belgian frontier, he suffered a shell wound to the temple. The neurological consequences of such an injury are uncertain. But what is certain, according to people who knew him before and after, his personality and behavior altered dramatically. He became irritable, anxious and depressed, ending significant relationships, including breaking the engagement to his fiancé. Perhaps in part because of his war wounds, exposure to mustard gas, or any of the multiple surgeries he underwent, Apollinaire would become one of an estimated 100 million people worldwide who died from the great influenza pandemic, passing on November 9th in his apartment in Paris at 202 Boulevard Saint-Germain. Every couple of years or so I travel to Paris and I always make a point to stop by his gravesite in Père Lachaise, open a bottle of wine, snack on some bread and cheese, relax and give people directions to Chopin’s and Jim Morrison’s graves.