When David Niven and my father, Jeff Corey, were working together on the movie “Paper Tiger,” Niven told my father a story that quickly became part of my father’s repertoire. He loved to tell it at dinner parties and honestly, I never tired of hearing it.
Niven, the elegant English actor, owned a house in the South of France in Saint Jean Cap Ferrat. Henri Matisse, the great impressionist painter was often a guest at the nearby Villa Natach, the home of art publisher Alec Tériade. Niven and Matisse hit it off and the two men spent hours talking and enjoying long lunches together at Niven’s elegant table.
One day, William F. Buckley Jr., the conservative author and commentator, came to stay with Niven. Buckley, fairly arrogant in almost all his endeavors, fancied himself an artist and had come to paint the beautiful land and seascapes that surrounded the tiny village. Early in the morning he would load up his paints and canvases and return each night with a series of hastily painted compositions.
On one of these evenings, Matisse was just finishing up an extended visit with Niven when Buckley arrived on the scene. He instantly recognized the great master and without missing a beat, started talking about his own skills as a painter. According to Niven, Buckley fancied himself a “day painter” and went on and on about his talents, never stopping once to acknowledge Matisse’s accomplishments or gifts.
Talking non-stop about himself, Buckley dug into his satchel and asked Matisse, “Would you like to see one of my paintings?” Before the great artist could object, Buckley shoved a small canvas into his hands.
Matisse grew silent and stared at the painting for a very, very long time without saying a word. He studied the canvas diligently, making sure not to miss a stroke. At long last, Matisse looked up from Buckley’s painting and in a sad and sorrowful voice uttered the words, “Poor paint.”
To this day, I can still hear my father’s voice saying the words, “Poor paint” with all the colorful tragedy it deserved.