The Tomb of Rockmore
They met the next weekend at a jazz bar called the Bourbon House. He showed her an art book filled with images of famous paintings, and he impressed her by naming the artists who’d created them without having to refer to the captions. He gave her the nickname Saki and pronounced it the same way one says sake, the Japanese drink. After cocktails he escorted her down the street to Preservation Hall and pointed to the dark, moody portraits hanging on the walls. “I did those,” he said.
His studio was their next stop. “It was messy,” she says. “The bathroom wasn’t the cleanest. But I didn’t say anything. We talked and we made love. I’m sorry but it’s true. I saw him years later when I was thirty-five years old and visiting the Quarter, and he brought me to a bar and told the bartender that I was Saki who used to pose for him. He told me I was fifteen when it started, but I thought I was sixteen. It seemed important to him that I was only fifteen.”
The affair lasted all through her high school years. Every weekend she would lie to her parents about where she was going, then take a bus into the city and transfer to the streetcar that brought her down Canal Street to the Quarter.
One day her father was walking on Royal Street and spotted a large nude portrait hanging in the window of Larry Borenstein’s gallery. It was Saki, then a junior at a private girls’ school in neighboring Jefferson Parish. The man threatened to kill Rockmore unless the painting was removed and the artist stopped seeing his daughter.
“Daddy, how did you know it was me?” Saki asked him.
“I know my daughter,” he said.
He also vowed to have Rockmore charged with statutory rape, but Saki mollified her father by promising never to see the artist again. She waited until things settled down at home, and then she found herself on the Kenner express once again, heading toward the city and another date with “the most important thing that ever happened to me in my life,” as she still remembers Rockmore.
It finally ended when Saki enrolled at LSU and moved to Baton Rouge. “I don’t think Noel ever thought he did wrong,” says the sixty-one-year-old Saki today. “Noel was the kind of person who could never admit that he had a fault. He wrote in his letters how much he loved me, but I didn’t really know I was that special to him because he had paintings of other women all over his studio.”