Book: A Peep Inside
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All Rights Reserved
This is a book that offers a body of previously undisclosed information about the death of the artist Vincent van Gogh in the French village of Auvers-sur-Oise in 1890. It is also a chronicle of how this strange and perplexing demise, long considered a suicide, has come to be widely regarded as the most intriguing of all historical murder mysteries: a celebrity whodunit without parallel. And it is the story of the amazing circumstances in which one specific piece of evidence -- a letter that would seem to be the mystery’s shocking solution -- came to light in the mid-1950s and was ruthlessly suppressed.
My own involvement with this mystery began when I stumbled upon aspects of it after being hired to write a screenplay for a Dutch Van Gogh biopic that was to have tied in with the centenary of his death in 1990. It continued through the next few years when, unable to get it out of my system, I wrangled an assignment by my newspaper, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, to investigate it. Still later, and over the next twenty years, it grew into an ongoing fixation that climaxed in a series of interviews between 1993 and 2004 with several aging veterans of the French Secret Services who, without knowing the entirety of it, each held a different piece of the mystery’s apparent solution. These interviews were granted under the condition of a publication embargo until the year 2020, and are being revealed here for the first time.
The story that emerges from these interviews is, to say the least, jolting. It is not just an alternate history of the death of a great artist but the story of a labyrinth of crime and cover-up that was engendered to hide it. It is a tale of artistic appreciation and mid-twentieth century cultural politics gone mad, spiced with elements of forgery and stolen documents, deathbed confessions and perjured testimony, assassinations and serial murder. It is also a story that is totally seditious to the Van Gogh myth as it has come down to us over the past hundred years. To even say its bottom-line in one sentence is to invite outraged hostility from an artistic establishment that has so much invested in the preservation of that myth.
In the Age of the Internet, any story that aspires to be this history-rocking comes with its own built-in handicap. Inundated with misinformation and conspiracy theories, and made even more leery by a popular culture of novels, television series and movies that love to indulge in the fantasy of historical what-if, the tendency is to dismiss it as just one more. And I’m not immune to this distrust our era so obviously feels for history and the prejudice with which it has been written. I admit to being uneasy with several aspects of this story, particularly its outcome, and I can never be completely sure to what extent my own experience and needs have influenced my perception of it.
With this handicap in mind, my approach has been to try something a little different and hopefully more fun than what might be expected. The book tells its story in three layers. Part One is an objective journalistic account of the mystery phenomenon and its possible solution from a web of new evidence. Part Two is a personal memoir and detective story of how this account was gathered over a period of almost thirty years, with all the subjectiveness, internal struggle, intuitive flashes and doubting of witnesses and self that is missing from the first layer. Part Three is an edited Q&A transcript of the pertinent portions of the three interviews that make up the primary source of the account, backing up the first two layers but also containing a good deal of information that is omitted from them and thereby leaving itself open to perhaps a different interpretation. The idea is that this three-stage exposure will allow the reader to first get the contours of the case being made, then judge how that case has been influenced by the sensibility making the case, then view the more-or-less raw data so he can make up his own mind about the Mystery of Auvers.
Because the book’s primary source material is included as Part Three and most of the other sources are identified in their context, I have written it without the intrusion of footnotes. For a rundown on the various works that have influenced me and why, go to vangogdeath.com and click on “Investigating Auvers: The Essential Books.” This is a website I created in 2015 as a resource guide and sounding board for Van Gogh mystery enthusiasts that has since been reworked to be part of the total Auvers mystery experience into which this book fits. Here you will find a dozen other features that provide still more layers of perspective on the story, viewing the mystery as a source of artistic inspiration (“Auvers as Culture: A Critical Roundup”), as a Rubik’s Cube of continuing possibilities (“Who Killed Van Gogh?: The Suspects”), as a tourist attraction (“The Road to Auvers: A Mystery Lover’s Guide to the Van Gogh Trail”), as a riddle of geography (“Mapping Auvers: An Atlas of the Crime Scene”) and more.
The long wait in which my own contribution was in quarantine has given me time to come up with still another layer on which to view the Mystery of Auvers: as the premise for an epic detective novel. Showcasing this new information and set during the mystery’s most dramatic moment in 1955 Paris, I call his longer work Exile in the Light and, to my mind, it has turned out to be the most holistically truthful rendering of this entire multi-layer Auvers presentation: the one place where it all comes together. E.M. Forster said it right: “Fiction is truer than history, because it goes beyond the evidence, and each of us knows from our own experience that there is something beyond the evidence.”
If all these layers to the mystery seem overwhelming, it doesn’t have to be. This one book (or even the first part of it) could well tell you everything you will ever want to know about its mystery. But, after that, if you feel the obsessive pull of the magic of Vincent and the shadows of Auvers that has captured so many people in this story, if you want to dive deeper into the labyrinth, its many levels are there waiting.
The Brothers and the Wheatfield
In an eye-catching corner coverline of the October 31, 2011 issue of Time Magazine, the question was asked, “Who Killed Vincent van Gogh?”
The magazine was referencing its feature-review of Van Gogh: The Life, a splashy, 953-page, seemingly definitive biography of the artist by two Pulitzer Prize-winning authors charging that the artist had not killed himself, as history and his legend told us, and as he himself admitted more than once before he finally succumbed to his gunshot wound in the bucolic French village of Auvers-sur-Oise on July 29, 1890. Instead, the authors deduced, his death was the result of an altercation with a gang of teenage hooligans.
In fairness to the biography, the revelation of this blockbuster claim was not the book’s primary purpose: it appears only in an appendix to the immense volume (“A Note on the Fatal Shooting”). But, as many rival Van Gogh scholars would immediately point out, it was an incredibly flimsy assertion. Its source was a 1957 interview with an eighty-two-year-old Parisian named René Secrétan who had stepped forward around the time of the French release of the Van Gogh biopic Lust for Life saying how, as a sixteen-year-old boy spending the summer in Auvers, he and his friends had bullied and tormented the artist, and likely helped drive him to his suicide.
The authors of Van Gogh: The Life, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, construed from this that Secrétan, who claimed to have had a small pistol, actually shot Van Gogh, and they characterized his admission of teenage cruelty as a de facto “deathbed confession” of murder. The scenario they constructed for the deed was even more of a leap of faith and based on nothing but their own imaginations. Also, they failed to mention that no Van Gogh scholars in the half-century after the interview except them gave Secrétan any credibility whatsoever, largely because he made other claims about Van Gogh in the interview that were clearly ridiculous and made him look like a crackpot.
Still, the book’s allegation of murder resonated in the Van Gogh world. In truth, the suicide did not make a whole lot of sense, for numerous reasons. Though the authors did not seem aware of it, these incongruities in the traditional Auvers death scenario had bothered others down through the years, so there was a precedent for this more recent heresy: It built on a suspicion that was already there, under the surface. Several scholars picked up on these long-buried doubts and in the squabbling reviews that followed, almost as many critics supported the book’s controversial contention as scorned it, particularly if they were of the younger generation.
It also resounded in the media, particularly after the prestigious CBS news program 60 Minutes did a segment on the question and had to conclude that yes, in many ways, the suicide didn’t seem to add up. Over the next three years, the idea of a Van Gogh murder had gained such ground and so many more art experts had joined the prosecution team that Vanity Fair would be able to call the puzzle of what really happened in Auvers-sur-Oise on that long-ago summer day “Art’s Greatest Mystery.” In 2017, the mystery would be central to the Oscar-nominated animated film, Loving Vincent, which showed the teenagers doing in its hero; and only a year later still another Oscar-nominated Van Gogh biopic, At Eternity’s Gate, played with the mystery and, with a slightly different scenario, depicted Vincent being shot by thoughtless juvenile delinquents instead of himself. (Though this one ended with a strange title card wondering why, if he were killed by the teenagers, he would protect them on his deathbed.)
There were books as well, Killing Vincent by Dr. I. Kaufman Arenberg and The Murder of Vincent van Gogh by South African true-crime writer Nick van der Leek. Neither gave much credence to the teenagers theory but they agreed that Van Gogh couldn’t have killed himself and suggest a host of other possibilities. Arenberg, the most determined of the Van Gogh murder-proponents, has established a “Killing Vincent Project” which has extensively researched the forensics of the shooting, proposed several avenues of official investigation and even come up with a noninvasive way Van Gogh’s remains in the Auvers cemetery might be examined without an exhumation. “Exactly what happened in Auvers may always remain a mystery,” he says, “but we won’t rest until the Van Gogh establishment concedes that it was definitely not a suicide.”
So far, that establishment -- which is to say the Netherlands, which owns the bulk of his paintings, and the Van Gogh family, which runs Amsterdam’s influential and conservative Van Gogh Foundation and its popular museum that showcases the paintings -- has evidenced no such intention. It has steadfastly refused to dignify the issue with a formal comment or denial.
We might ask at this point: Does it really matter if Van Gogh killed himself or was murdered? And the short answer is yes, it matters very much.
Because Vincent van Gogh is not just another great artist: He is the phenomenon of all great-artist phenomena. By every measure, the most popular, most beloved, most written about, analyzed and commercially reproduced, the most merchandized artist who ever lived. He owns a personal legend that has gripped the imagination of the world like no other cultural figure perhaps ever. This legend has made the very word “Vincent” a brand name as recognizable as Nike or Starbucks. It has created a James Bond of a film franchise that has averaged a biopic, documentary or TV movie a year since Lust for Life started it all nearly seven decades ago. It has made Holland’s ownership of his work its greatest national resource, its largest tourist attraction and a mainstay of its economy.
And his self-martyrdom is integral to that legend. It’s the climax and emotional centerpiece of the thousands of movies, plays, operas, symphonies, pop songs, novels, biographies and medical treatises that celebrate his life. Sartre called it “a fundamental existential act of the modern era.” Picasso claimed Van Gogh “made himself” when he pulled that trigger. Its terrible grandeur makes his story gut-wrenchingly irresistible and lends a mystique to the paintings they might not otherwise possess. The idea that Vincent was killed, accidentally or on purpose, by some sniveling teenage lout trivializes his magnificent quest. It could even, in the long run, decrease the value of his work and blunt the century-long juggernaut of fascination that has made his sad, haunting face as iconic in our time as the Mona Lisa.
“The stakes are high,” an official of the Van Gogh Museum admitted recently, off the record. “It is a threat, in a way. But, at the same time, there’s no substance to it. While the argument against a suicide might seem compelling to some people, the case against the teenage gang in particular is extremely thin and the cases that have been made against others in Auvers are also based on no evidence whatsoever. It’s all conjecture, speculation and theorizing over inconsistencies that have been known and pondered by Van Gogh authorities for generations. It’s hard for us to get too excited by a challenge that can’t even produce a credible trigger-man for its crime or anything original in the way of evidence or testimony. Barring that, we feel sure all this furor of the last decade is bound to eventually just go away.”