In art circles, hashish, cocaine and opium were as common as wine. And as time went on, people who knew Modigliani commented on his increasing and excessive use of such substances, often basing their observation on changes in his appearance (by the time he reached his 30s he was losing his teeth) and on episodes of aggressive public hostility.
It is exactly on the subject of Modigliani’s reputed self-destructiveness that the revisionist crux of Secrest’s book lies. She is at pains to dispel the idea that a descent, sometimes depicted as willful, into alcoholism and drug addiction was the primary cause of his decline and death at such an early age. Rather, she says, he consciously used intoxicants as a cover to hide a “great secret,” that being the recurrence of his tuberculosis. In remission since childhood, it now returned full-blown, accompanied by symptoms like spasmodic coughing, stretches of lassitude and bouts of erratic behavior.
Secrest suggests that Modigliani, terrified of the social ostracism that would result if he were known to have the highly contagious disease, deliberately fostered a reputation as an alcoholic and addict to prevent detection. This cover allowed him to freely drink the wine that soothed his coughing, use the drugs that gave him energy to work — his output of paintings surged in his last years — and pass off as drunk and disorderly any irritable or violent outbursts.
It has long been accepted among art historians that tubercular meningitis was the immediate cause of Modigliani’s death, and Secrest doesn’t claim to bring fresh information to this medical history. What she clearly hopes to do, though, is replace the popular myth of the crash-and-burn genius who created art despite himself with the image of an artist who perceived his fate and took calculated steps to prolong and protect his life.