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Tamara de Lempicka: A Life of Deco and Decadence is about a painter of lush nudes who was a lifelong eccentric and omnivorous sexpot. The author, Laura Claridge, is an expert in romanticism, poststructuralist theory, and psychoanalysis. But Claridge is no Yale egghead. Her academic affiliation while researching the Lempicka book was the U.S. Naval Academy.

“Sure, the Naval Academy is known for its math and science,” Claridge says. “English gets the ironic, slightly disenfranchised students. It’s not a departmental choice for future admirals, but we got very bright, independent thinkers. I loved my students, and I very much enjoyed my colleagues.”

Claridge, who left the academy in 1997, now writes books and splits her time between Washington and New York. In Lempicka, she found a doozy of a subject. Lempicka was born in fin de siecle Moscow to a Jewish father and a Polish mother (facts Claridge painstakingly uncovered, to the chagrin of Lempicka’s family, which had long kept her ancestry hush-hush). Lempicka and her Polish aristocrat husband escaped Russia barely ahead of the Bolsheviks, then settled in Paris.

After gaining renown for her nudes, Lempicka became a mainstay of Jazz Age Paris and Italy. (“She would fall for any beautiful body or face—plump women, pretty gay men. It didn’t matter,” Claridge says.) Then Lempicka fled again, this time a step ahead of the Nazis, and settled in Hollywood and New York during those cities’ respective golden ages. As her fame waned in the ’60s and ’70s, by Claridge’s account, Lempicka devolved into a caricature—a wacky Eurotrash matron.

When Lempicka died in 1980, her oeuvre had been largely forgotten. Indeed, Claridge first heard of her only in 1994, when she stumbled across a newspaper article about one of Lempicka’s paintings selling at Christie’s for $2 million. Curious, she looked up Lempicka in an art reference book—but found nothing. Ditto for a book about women painters. “I was puzzled,” Claridge says. “How could your paintings sell for $2 million and you not be in the reference books?”

The simple explanation is that Lempicka’s works had become red-hot in Hollywood circles during the ’80s: Madonna owns a number of her canvases, and Jack Nicholson owns the cover image of Claridge’s book (La Belle Rafaela, a reclining, Rubenesque nude painted in 1927). But unraveling the details of Lempicka’s life proved difficult. “It was very, very hard to find accurate material,” Claridge says. “Tamara lied about everything.”

Claridge now considers Lempicka “one of the top painters of the 20th century,” largely because of her sense of color, finish, form, and spatial composition. Lempicka’s main albatross was that she painted in an anachronistic style—representational rather than abstract, Renaissance rather than modernist—and thus attracted little respect from critics.

Claridge’s next book will also be a biography of an artist, but it promises to be a much less sexy experience: It’s about Norman Rockwell. —Louis Jacobson