By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
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The impressionist painter would have three sons. The oldest, Pierre, was a successful stage actor. Jean became the renowned director of Grand Illusion, considered by many to be one of the greatest films of all time. The youngest, Claude -- "Coco" to his family -- is one whom Jean Renoir's biographer Ronald Bergan referred to as the Zeppo of the family. "He grew up with an immensely famous artist for a father, and was brother to a celebrated actor and world-renowned film director. He himself went into film production, co-directed a film, was an assistant director on La Bête Humaine and owned a number of cinemas. But he remained the unknown Renoir."
Though he was bright and affable, some described Claude as a phony, with poor business sense and willing to authenticate Renoirs without any particular expertise. Family friend Alice Fighiera has put it even more bluntly: "Coco had no talent whatsoever. Coco thought his name would be sufficient to get him on in the world. Coco always wanted what Jean did. When Jean did ceramics, he did. When Jean went into cinema, Coco did the same. He tried everything, and failed everything."
It was to this man that Paul Renoir was born.
Though he never knew his grandfather, he could hardly have escaped the painter's presence. Paul was born in 1925 on Les Collettes, the 100-acre estate of olive trees in the village Cagnes-sur-Mer where the arthritic impressionist would paint through his last painful days. Dinner guests like Albert Camus and Ernest Hemingway came and went as a disinterested Paul played with his pet donkey Billy the Kid, and rolled his grandfather's wheelchair around like a go-cart.
"If he didn't have that name, he'd probably have to work really hard all his life and be more like the rest of us, I guess, and be judged more on just you," says Dean Terry, a distributor of exotic game and mushrooms who started a mail-order business with Paul in the '90s marketing collectable Renoir lithographs. "But he gets access to a lot of people and events that he wouldn't if he didn't have that name."
Paul got his first taste of hardship when he joined the French resistance; he eventually was captured by the Nazis. He escaped by possessing the wisdom to check the door the prisoners passed on the way down to the courtyard for daily exercises. He opened the oft-ignored door and waltzed through the front lobby to freedom. Paul would later refuse the Médaille de la Résistance and the Croix de Guerre because he didn't resist the Nazis for "the glory of it."
With the war over, he soon reverted back to his old ways. He was an actor until the homosexual advances of a director convinced him to switch careers. Then he was co-owner of the Casino-Theatre Antipolis with his father. He owned a jazz club, won sailing trophies and trapshooting awards, and frequently went on European hunting tours. He drove a Bugatti and had lady acquaintances the likes of Brigitte Bardot and Ingrid Bergman.
"This man used to have everything he wants. Ferraris, Bugattis," Marie-Paule says. "How do you feel if you have every day 15 or 20 people for your lunch and dinner, at the best that the area gives you? The best wine, the best this, the best that .You know, they live like that."
A favorite story of Paul's recounts a drive to an impressionist opening in Brussels with the son of Gauguin and grandson of Cézanne. When the customs officer took each of their identifications at the Belgium border, he shook his head and muttered, "Renoir, Cézanne, Gauguin -- that's not possible!" These are the years Paul describes as his happiest. There was a European Renaissance taking place, and he was walking in the forefront with the movement's artists and thinkers.
"Then we are in the '50s and '60s and '70s, and of course Paul had his first family, and then there was me, and that was it," Marie-Paule says.
Yet the decades Marie-Paule attempts to gloss over might very well be the most revealing about the man who would end up in a struggling Houston gallery 50 years later.
When Pierre-Auguste died, the estate was divided among his three sons. Pierre received a house at Essoyes, and Coco got Les Collettes. With no land left to inherit, the bulk of the 1,000 paintings went to Jean, who was loose with his fortune. Jean was known to treat his entire film crew to lunch, and then hand a Renoir painting to the restaurant owner as a tip. The works that weren't traded frivolously went to fund Jean's movies. The few Pierre acquired ended up in the hands of wronged ex-wives. Coco, known as the most spendthrift of the three, used his to buy a sailboat and help his brother Jean's film career.
"You need money, just sell a painting," says Marie-Paule's daughter, Nathalie Schultz, summing up the mind-set.
Marie-Paule agrees. "Money for these people means nothing. Money means nothing. They think it's always going to be there. They keep living the way they do .They don't care."