by Simone Berteaut
Harper & Row, 488 pp., $10.00
Coco Chanel: Her Life, Her Secrets
by Marcel Haedrich, translated by Charles Lam Markmann
Little, Brown, 277 pp., $8.95
Paris Was Yesterday
by Janet Flanner
Viking, 232 pp., $8.50
At a press conference when she first came to America in 1947, Edith Piaf was asked whom she most wanted to meet and she replied, “Einstein. And I’m counting on you to get me his phone number.” Her agent was understandably delighted with this piquant sally from his illustrious, unwashed, and untutored gamine. But according to her half sister who writes her vastly too detailed biography, Piaf was not entirely spoofing:
There was a Bible, a copy of Plato, and a book on relativity alongside a framed picture of St. Theresa of Lisieux on Edith’s night table. She mixed them all up a little in her head at first, but she gradually got it straight. Edith had a very open mind and adored learning things.
On Coco Chanel’s last visit to New York in 1957, she expressed the wish to meet Billy Graham of whom she said,
He’s a very intelligent person: he lives in his time and he helps people to understand it. He tells them: “Look at me, I’m smiling, I have good teeth, I’ve had them worked on to give me a beautiful smile because you can’t teach people anything if you’re homely.”
The aspiration of the idolized nightingale of the Paris gutters to meet Einstein, while it was gushier, was more stylish. The dictatorial couturière, famous for her hauteur, in her desire for a rendezvous with Mr. Graham showed a striking vulgarity of taste in Homo sapiens and a highfalutin want of mother wit (teachers, historically, have not been primarily noted for their good looks, pedagogy has not been allied with dentistry), with a clear-eyed mercantile shrewdness: if the meeting had come off, Mlle Chanel might have added a dentifrice to her line of cosmetics, a preaching suit to her costumes, and a chic Bible tote to her accessories.
Why neither Parisienne realized her dream of meeting these heroes is not clear: from all we have heard of Einstein, it seems likely that with his lamblike generosity he might very well have received Mlle Piaf and even accompanied her on the fiddle as she sang “La Vie en Rose“; and from what we know of Billy Graham, it’s a dead cert that he would have been delighted to grant an audience to Mlle Chanel and to have been photographed with her for the front page of Women’s Wear Daily.
If Simone Berteaut’s life of her half sister were only a chronicle of love affairs, struggles, successes, debacles, orgies, good deeds (some of them brave, some quixotic), car crashes, and gross insults to the internal organs brought on by the prodigious assimilation of dope and booze, it would not be much more interesting than any other such chronicles which make up a good part of the literature of show biz. But there is a subplot in this melodrama, the star of which is the author, which makes the book so curious that the reader endures much …