The last years of Georgia O’Keeffe

BBC Radio 4’s I Was Georgia O’Keeffe’s Five Year Companion was a short but vivid look at life with the 90-something American artist.

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As someone with a nosy fascination for the lives of artists and writers, I couldn’t resist this short but vivid look at life with the great American painter Georgia O’Keeffe in her twilight years (28 September, 4pm). Margaret Wood was O’Keeffe’s “companion” for five years in the 1970s, beginning when Wood was 24 and O’Keeffe was 90. Moving into O’Keeffe’s home in Abiquiu in New Mexico, Wood prepared the artist’s meals, read to her, helped her entertain guests (such as an admiring Joni Mitchell, in gold eyeshadow) and went on walks with her and her two Chow Chows, Inca and Jingo. Wood remembers O’Keeffe as poised, but “picky and particular”. Clearly, she could be difficult, calling Wood “little girl” or “Mary” – the name of her predecessor. “I was very on edge for about nine months,” Wood explains to unobtrusive interviewer Andrew McGibbon, “until we became friends.”

The landscape of New Mexico is beautifully evoked: from the striped cliffs of Ghost Ranch to “the dry, soft red earth” underfoot on the pair’s evening walks. O’Keeffe’s love of food seems to go hand in hand with her love of nature: Wood describes their daily trips to the garden, picking fresh vegetables for her simple diet: corn soup, tomato quiche, spinach and bean salad, fruit, and cold Mexican beers. O’Keeffe liked to be read to from Prevention magazine: a health publication from which the two would follow recipes for lotion or sauerkraut. Wood describes O’Keeffe’s “amazing vision for her life”. “Her art, her clothing, her image, her food [and] her homes were exactly the way she wanted.” From her “perfectly pressed” white nightgown to her rustic dinner mats, O’Keeffe’s everyday existence was curated.

Amid these details, a touching portrait of their relationship slowly forms. O’Keeffe might complain to Wood that she was having a “creaky day”, or give her some practical advice (“Margaret, the law makes marriage a very long thing. Can’t you just be tied to him in your heart?”). Wood remembers an “unusual but kind comment” made one night after she had propped O’Keeffe’s feet up and draped a blanket over her. “When you’re my age,” O’Keeffe said, “I hope you have someone to do this for you.” 

I Was Georgia O’Keeffe’s Five Year Companion 
BBC Radio 4

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 02 October 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the Union

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