About halfway through The Hare with Amber Eyes—Edmund de Waal’s best-selling history of his Jewish banking family, and of the art they collected and lost to the Nazis—we encounter his grandmother Elisabeth, a studious Viennese girl who has just turned seventeen and who, for the first time, is to have a dress made after a pattern of her own choosing. It is December 1916, soon after the death of the Emperor Franz Joseph. Watching expectantly are Elisabeth’s glamorous, dressy mother, her pretty younger sister, and her brother Iggie, who, at the age of ten, is obsessed with clothes and loves to watch his mother dress. Iggie later turns out to be gay and, in the 1930s, absconds to New York to become a fashion designer rather than take over the family business. After World War II he settles in Japan. It is he who tells Edmund the story:
In the dressing-room on the dressing-table is a book of swatches of fabric and Elisabeth comes up with an idea for a dress that has a spider’s-web pattern over the bodice.
Iggie is absolutely appalled. Seventy years later in Tokyo he recounts how there was complete silence when she described what she wanted: “She simply had no taste at all.”
It must have been strange being Elisabeth de Waal (née Ephrussi). Her family, Odessa grain merchants who established an international banking business in the mid-nineteenth century, seem to have been a highly visual bunch, according to Edmund, who is himself a prominent ceramicist. The Palais Ephrussi, on the Ringstrasse, was full of gilding, Old Masters, and objets d’art, including the collection of netsuke—miniature Japanese sculptures—around which The Hare with Amber Eyes is structured. The Paris cousin who had given the netsuke to Elisabeth’s parents, Charles Ephrussi, was a famous art historian and collector, an important client of most of the Impressionists, and a friend of Marcel Proust, who based the character of Charles Swann partly on him.
Everything in Elisabeth’s nature ran counter to these opulent tastes. Her grandson recalls that “she didn’t have much feel for the world of objects” and he reproduces a photograph of her as “a plain, fierce, focused, intellectual eighteen-year-old.” In a milieu where rich young women were barely educated past a level that would suffice to make them marriageable, Elisabeth’s precocious intelligence and seriousness set her apart. She excelled in school, and even demanded rabbinical training as a child. Her intellectual ambitions caused friction at home: her mother didn’t like her educated way of speaking and objected when a private tutor was hired; a cousin, the expressionist painter Marie-Louise von Motesiczky, was irritated by Elisabeth’s endless academic accolades.*
But Elisabeth’s father, Baron Viktor Ephrussi—who was happiest in his library and had wanted to be an academic rather than a banker—was proud of his daughter’s brains. She went on to study philosophy, law,…
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