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Beauty, Brokenness, And Bill Willis

Still from the documentary 'Bill Willis'

[Note to readers: Today is Orthodox Good Friday, so I won’t be posting. I do want to share something with you, though. I wrote this on my subscription-only Daily Dreher Substack newsletter this week (subscribe here if you like). So many people responded favorably to it, and several readers urged me to share it on this blog, to leaven the doom and gloom of late. So here it is. I wish my Orthodox readers a blessed Paschal weekend. — RD]

The other night at dinner, my host, noting that I am from the American South, mentioned that he had once known a Southerner when he lived in Marrakesh. “Have you ever heard of Bill Willis?” he asked. No, I said, I have not. Bill Willis was a decorator to elites living in Marrakesh, and that meant some of the biggest society names of the 1960s and 1970s. He was a close friend and interior designer for Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, the Gettys, the Agnellis, and others. My host said he visited Bill at home once, and admired a piece of furniture. Bill quipped that he had stolen it from Mick Jagger.

Back home, I looked up Bill Willis, and found this remarkable 30-minute documentary about his life and work in Marrakesh. It is many things, but to my eyes, above all, it is a glimpse into the messy workings of grace.

Bill Willis

Bill Willis (1936-2009) was born in Memphis. There’s a disturbing anecdote early in the film told rather bluntly by an artist who knew him in Marrakesh, in which Bill, as an adolescent boy, wanders away from home, and to the wrong side of the tracks. An older black man picks him up, and forces the boy to perform oral sex on him. Bill relayed that story to the artist later in life, telling her that all he has ever wanted to do in life was … that.

From that traumatic beginning, Bill set out for Europe as a young man, looking for adventure. He decided to become a kept man for wealthy patrons, and eventually made his way to Morocco. There he fell in with a fast, rich crowd. He lived a life of sex, drugs, drink, and general dissolution. In fact, Pierre Bergé testifies in the film that Bill never achieved the full due of his talent because of this complete lack of personal discipline. He wasted away so much of his potential in partying.

And yet, look at some of the breathtaking interior landscapes Bill did manage to create:

You get the idea. I really do hope you will watch the film — there are many more such images of overwhelming sumptuousness. Bill Willis was an aesthete of prodigious talent.

Yet there is fathomless melancholy in his story. Accompanied by Willis’s former housekeeper, and his former professional collaborator, the filmmakers visit his old house, which is falling into ruin. You see that all that beauty ultimately faded, as all beauty must (about half the people interviewed in this film are now dead). Isham, the housekeeper, points out that his former master used to stare out over the cemetery behind the house, and would say that he felt most comfortable among the dead. Isham says Bill was a sad man. Isham weeps.

Bill Willis’s story is as good an example of any as to the necessity to separate the artist from his art. Over on my blog, I lament the cancellation by W.W. Norton of its published biography of the late novelist Philip Roth, after a number of (as yet unproven) accusations of sexual assault against biographer Blake Bailey were lodged. Even if the allegations are true, that tells us nothing at all about the quality of Bailey’s biography of Roth. It is — or rather, it was — well understood that it is an elementary mistake to judge the quality of a work by the moral character of the one who made it. After all, what kind of blind man would reject a Caravaggio because the artist was a murderer, a brawler, a deadbeat, and a sexual rebel (including perhaps a purloiner of boys for sexual pleasure)?

That is one of Caravaggio’s most famous canvases, depicting the moment Jesus of Nazareth called the tax collector Matthew to follow him. Why did Jesus choose a tax collector, an ignoble profession? Well, why did the eternal and all-powerful God choose to incarnate as an itinerant rabbi from the lowlife town of Nazareth? Why did God bless the dissolute Bill Willis with a divine gift of aesthetic prowess, while leaving well-behaved and untroubled men with none? Why Mozart, but not Salieri?

It is a mystery. But that’s how the world really is. You cannot explain this mystery in a satisfying way, but you can recognize it, and enter into it. Artistic genius does not absolve one’s sins, but neither does one’s sins negate artistic genius.

Pierre Bergé describes Bill as a “dilettante,” a word that brings to mind Truman Capote, another flamboyantly gay Southern man who fell in with the European rich, and who was a shallow, self-centered aesthete who was capable of writing the most gossamer sentences. This passage from a 1948 sketch Capote wrote about traveling to Europe is one of my favorite passages from his writing, and since first reading it in my twenties, it has become a creed for me and my European travels:

In London a young artist said to me, “How wonderful it must be for an American traveling in Europe the first time; you can never be a part of it, so none of the pain is yours, you will never have to endure it — yes, for you there is only the beauty.”

Not understanding what he meant, I resented this; but later, after some months in France and Italy, I saw that he was right: I was not a part of Europe, I never would be. Safe, I could leave when I wanted to, and for me there was only the honeyed, hallowed air of beauty. But it was not so wonderful as the young man had imagined: it was desperate to feel that one could never be a part of moments so moving, that always one would be isolated from this landscape and these people; and then gradually I realized I did not have to be a part of it: rather, it could be a part of me. The sudden garden, opera night, wild children snatching flowers and running up a darkening street, a wreath for the dead and nuns in noon light, music from the piazza, a Paris pianola and fireworks on La Grande Nuit, the heart-shaking surprise of mountain visions and water views (lakes like green wine in the chalice of volcanoes, the Mediterranean flickering at the bottoms of cliffs), forsaken far-off towers falling in twilight and candles igniting the jeweled corpse of St. Zeno of Verona — all a part of me, elements for the making of my own perspective.

Lakes like green wine in the chalice of volcanoes. That very line rose in my mind as I peered out the window of an airplane flying over the Swiss Alps, beholding the beauty of mountain lakes below. Not a line from the Bible. Not a line from Shakespeare. A line from a gay Alabama dilettante who wasted his talent in high-society living, booze, pills, and gossip. Such is life.

How did the divine light shine through the disorder and brokenness of Bill Willis’s imagination, and in its projection reveal extraordinary beauty and harmony? It is easier for us — well, for Americans, at least — to consider a story like Oskar Schindler’s, and to understand the grace that allowed a sleazy German profiteer to deceive the Nazis and save the lives of hundreds of Jews. That was a moral act. We are much less comfortable trying to reconcile aesthetic achievement with personal vice. I think this says something about our very American distrust of beauty, thinking of it as merely a matter of pleasure.

When you see Bill Willis’s interiors, yes, there is undoubtedly sumptuary pleasure in the lines, the patterns, the lighting, the textures, and so forth. But there is more. I wrote about this in a December 30 newsletter. Excerpt:

Thinking about Chartres, about Dante, and about Penrose tilings, brings to mind a quality of beauty identified by Elaine Scarry, in her wonderful little book On Beauty And Being Just. She writes that all beautiful things share an “impulse toward begetting.

It is impossible to conceive of a beautiful thing that does not have this attribute. The homely word “replication” has been used here because it reminds us that the benign impulse toward creation results not just in famous paintings but in everyday acts of staring; it also reminds us that the generative object continues, in some sense, to be present in the newly begotten object. It may be startling to speak of the Divine Comedy or the Mona Lisa as “a replication” since they are so unprecedented, but the word recalls the fact that something, or someone, gave rise to their creation and remains silently present in the newborn object.

For Dante, the generative impulse behind the Divine Comedy was his love of Beatrice and her beauty — but, as she tells him when they are reunited at the peak of the mountain of Purgatory, he erred grievously when he made an idol of her, instead of seeing her iconographically: as a medium through which the glory of God shone, and a sign pointing him to the divine origin of all beauty and love.

Sir Roger Penrose found that the design beauty of what would come to be known as Penrose tiling produced fruits in mathematical computation. For me, the beauty of Chartres generated religious conversion, and new life. Later, the beauty of the Divine Comedy served as map and a guide leading me out of a period of great despair. The beauty of my wife led me to marriage (23 years ago tomorrow), and has produced three children. And on and on.

What is so wonderful — literally, wonder-full — about the Divine Comedy is how Dante reveals that life is a pilgrimage towards greater revelation of light, of beauty, of harmonious order, and of love. All of these are the same thing in God. As Dante progresses through Paradiso, his ability to see depends on his growing in holiness. He is too weak spiritually to behold the full glory of God, shining through the heavenly beings; the divine light shining through their forms would annihilate him. Gradually, though, as his intellect, his nous, become illumined, he is able to perceive more truth, behold greater love, become more united to God, and filled with the Light.

What was God doing in the soul of Bill Willis, who had the ability to perceive and to replicate beauty? To rest one’s eyes in a Willis interior landscape, in a spirit of contemplation, is to sense the goodness of life, to feel the consolation of harmony, and to perceive within oneself a capacity for life. To some of us, that is a mercy as meaningful as a morsel of bread given by a missionary to a hungry beggar.

I hope the soul of Bill Willis is at rest in Paradise, with Caravaggio, with Billie Holiday, and with all other artists who fared poorly in bearing the moral burdens that come with the ambiguous blessing of enormous aesthetic perceptiveness, and artistic talent. Kierkegaard said that an artist is like someone who is tormented alive in the public square, with the public marveling at the beauty of his screams and cries. Maybe that’s how it was for Bill Willis. Maybe that’s why his extreme aesthetic gifts and his inability to resist sex, drugs, and drink, came from the same place.

I’m not saying that God excuses the sins of men and women like Bill Willis because of their artistic talent. I am saying, though, that contemplating the works of a Bill Willis in light of the life he led gives one a certain perspective on “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” Had Willis created ugliness, we would have thought: of course. But he didn’t; he created beauty that testified to the glory and goodness of life … and in several ways, the poor man longed for death. Like I said, a mystery. Once more, watch Bill Willis and make up your own mind.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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