Coco Chanel: Her Life, Her Secrets
Paris Was Yesterday
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 run-of-the-mill glory-cum-squalor in order to follow the much more unusual and complicated life of Simone.
Both born out of wedlock to different mothers, Edith and Simone were introduced by the sire they shared when Edith was fourteen and Simone was twelve. Papa Louis Gassion was a free-lance acrobat whose stage was the street; an amiable and philoprogenitive fellow, he “never was quite sure exactly which kids were his…. He had more than nineteen he knew of, but try and keep the record straight! In his world you don’t tell city hall before you make a baby, or afterward either.” Simone was born in a hospital, but Edith was born on the pavement on a bitter December night when Gassion was home on leave from the front. Because there were no taxis to be had, the delivery was made nearby a police station and Papa was to say with pride, “My daughter was born on a cop’s cape under a lamppost in front of number 72 rue de Belleville.” Without irony, her sister writes, “There was no better way to ‘arrive’ in the world. For putting over realistic songs later in life, Edith was branded the day she was born.”
Her mother, a circus child and a chanteuse of low degree, handed the baby over to her parents when she was two months old, and in this house where it was believed that “alcohol kills ‘the worm,’ ” she was nourished on milk and red wine while she herself gave suck to lice and other vermin that thrive on filthy human flesh. But when the war was over, Papa Gassion came to her rescue and took her to a clean, well-lighted brothel in Normandy where his mother was the cook for her cousin, the Madam, and the Madam’s kindly whores who scoured the little girl and cosseted her and dressed her like a baby doll; and, in the course of their ministrations, found that she was blind. It had escaped the notice of her sozzled grandparents that she had had cataracts from infancy. Whether it was thanks to the local doctor’s treatments with silver nitrate or to the novenas made to St. Theresa of Lisieux by the adoring girls of the bordello out of business hours, the child began to see when she was seven years old. For the rest of her life, she gave the credit to the Little Flower to whom she prayed when the chips were down and whom she thanked when her star was in the ascendancy.
From the time she was able to see until she was fourteen, she worked with her father in the streets, singing and passing the hat, and learning the pleasures and chicaneries of low-life with such aptitude and enthusiasm that by the time she met her younger half sister, she was already a boss and was to continue in that role, alternately benevolent and despotic, the rest of her hard-working, boisterous, spendthrift days. Their father had taught Simone a handful of acrobatic acts, but by the time the sisters met, she was working (she was twelve, remember) in a factory assembling automobile headlights; she earned eighty-four francs a week for a ten-hour day, and when Edith, who had dissolved the partnership with her old man, offered to hire her, she was delighted to leave her machine known as a “crimper.”
The girl children clowned and sang and flirted in the streets and drank in the bistros with their entourage of friendly pimps and genial burglars, con men, fences, legionnaires who acted as their shills and their protectors and, frequently, as their non-paying guests. Tiny (they were both under five feet when they were mature) and dirty (washing made them nervous), they had the stamina of lunatics, needing next to no food and next to no sleep to sustain them in their strenuous breadwinning and their continual “horsing around”—Simone’s cordial phrase.
When Edith was seventeen, she fell deeply in love for the first and only time with a young bricklayer (as she was to fall deeply in love for the first and only time with an amazing number and variety of men for the next thirty years). Louis Dupont (known as P’tit Louis) came to live with the girls and they slept three in one bed until, after a normal lapse of time, baby made four. When Edith’s pregnancy became conspicuous, they retreated from the streets to work at making pearl funeral wreathes—their job was to paint the pearls black with a spray gun. Subsequently they took the baby about with them, buying her new clothes to replace those she had dirtied (they knew no better how to launder than they did how to bathe).
P’tit Louis was too square for Edith and she dropped him as casually as she had picked him up. He took his daughter to live with his mother but the child died of meningitis at the age of two and a half; in the morgue, Edith cut off a lock of her hair with a nail file lent her by an attendant. The mourning of the mother and the aunt was short-lived: it was not that they were heartless, they simply had other things on their generous, goofy minds.
Eventually, after her arduous (but on the whole, joyful) apprenticeship in the underworld slums, Papa Gassion’s little girl got a break: she was taken up by a cabaret owner, Louis Leplée, who rechristened her La môme Piaf (literally “kid sparrow”), and from her success in his middling—but fashionable and on the Champs-Elysées—establishment, she went on to blossom as a star in Europe and America, singing, from the depths of her diaphragm and at the top of her lungs, simple songs of love and heartbreak, fugitive ecstasy and hard knocks. Sentimentality and toughness, handled with skill, is a parlay hard to beat. She was taken up and fondled in the recherché press by Cocteau; she and her kid sister knew “guys like Baudelaire.”
She toured the provinces, she played in films and on the stage; during World War II, she sang for the men in the stalags; she ran through numerous impresarios; she trained, loved, and repudiated numerous co-stars (the most illustrious was Yves Montand); she made a great deal of money and spent it all on clothes and jewelry for her lovers and week-long sprees for anybody who happened along. During rehearsals for a show, she spared herself and her colleagues nothing, keeping them up all night and sometimes night after night, stoking herself and them with red wine, pernod, brandy, coffee, champagne, and, occasionally, a batch of french fries. Now and again she nostalgically went back to traipsing about the scruffy quarters of her girlhood.
The great love of her life was the Algerian boxer Marcel Cerdan, who, when he was in training for his fight in Jersey City with Tony Zale, divided his time among Casablanca at home with his wife and children to whom he was devoted, his camp, and Edith’s Paris apartment. In Paris, she was conscientious about his diet and his hours and his abstention from weakening dissipations; but, following him to America, with the faithful Simone, she secretly took up lodging in a cottage nearby his celibate quarters and he visited her there nightly. This defiance of a cardinal rule in all prize-fighting circles in no way enfeebled Cerdan and he kayoed Zale in the fourth round to become middleweight champion of the world. But later on, when he was preparing to defend his title against La Motta at Madison Square Garden, Piaf dropped her role of mother hen and, because he was mad for her and she was a sorceress, she led him down every primrose Dionysian path she could find, and, after weeks of revels with champagne until sun-up, La Motta won the title from Cerdan without half trying.
A few months later, Piaf went to New York for an engagement at the Versailles where she had been a smashing hit before. Marcel, who was giving exhibition bouts throughout France and was once again conscientiously in training, and Simone were to join Edith when he had finished his tour. They had booked passage on a ship, but the day before they were to sail, the impetuous sparrow telephoned to say that she could not be without her lover one minute longer, and he obediently took a plane; it crashed in the Azores and he was killed. For three years thereafter, Piaf held consultations with a table, imbued, she was convinced, with Cerdan’s spirit. (During this period, she acquired the conviction that in an earlier life she had been Marie Antoinette—“ ‘I’d have thrown cake down to them, too, as much as they wanted.’ “) Along with table-tapping, she took up drugs, and she returned to her pattern (she still grieved for Cerdan, but a girl has to keep busy) of falling deeply in love for the first and only time.
She married twice: in 1952 she married the singer Jacques Pills but she was too far gone on drink and drugs and on the headiness of her own réclame to be domesticated, and four years later, the marriage, never robust, petered out. In 1962, she married Théo Sarapo, a beautiful (” ‘He looks like a big black tomcat’ “) stage-struck Greek hairdresser twenty-odd years her junior.
For years she had been plagued with arthritis for which she was given cortisone and painkillers; her liver and stomach and lungs had been abused nearly to the limit of their endurance. She collapsed, in the middle of performances, she was booed, the press garroted her; but she always landed on her feet—to be sure, a little less firmly each time. “From 1951 to 1963,” writes Simone, “Edith Piaf had undergone four automobile accidents, one attempted suicide, four drug cures, one sleep treatment, two fits of delirium tremens, seven operations, three hepatic comas, one spell of madness, two bouts with bronchial pneumonia and one with pulmonary edema.” Balding, her face bloated with steroids, she was cared for with infinite tenderness and adoration by her child bridegroom until she died less than a year after their wedding in a Greek Orthodox church in the sixteenth arrondissement, “the snobbiest of them all.”
Simone tells her sister’s story with a racy and agreeable abandon and in timeless slang. Up to a point the story is moving, comic, exhilaratingly scandalizing, full of enough turpitude and glitter and grime to run three Sundays in The News of the World. But Piaf’s career is not unique and it is Simone’s role in it that is far more puzzling and arresting than those of any of the stars and supernumeraries. She admits that life with Edith was tiring but she does not really complain:
…she had no set hours for anything, not even sleeping. When she decided she was sleepy, I had to put her to bed, tuck her in and give her her ear plugs and a black mask for her eyes…. And when she woke up, I had to be awake before she was, before I even knew she’d opened her eyes. If she decided she didn’t want to sleep, I had to stay up with her.
While she never scrupled to cheat on her men, Piaf was hysterically jealous of them and made Simone dog their footsteps when they were out of her sight. Now and again Simone cut out to live her own life, but of a marriage which was apparently happy but which ended when her husband was killed in World War II almost the moment he got to the front, she says little. One time, living in Casablanca where she had gone to visit her fiancé (he is not further identified), she met and slept several times with Marcel Cerdan before Edith met him in New York afterward. “I’d returned from Casablanca and was working the gas pump at a suburban garage. One night the boss sent me out to get the paper. On the front page was a picture of Cerdan, Edith Piaf and ‘Miss Cotton,’ an American, getting off a plane.” She did not associate her short-term lover with her sister. All she cared about was that Edith was back, and she at once set about to find her; and when she did, “I wept for joy. I couldn’t live without Edith,” although “I was scared. Our reunions weren’t always pleasant, and it was a long time since I’d seen Edith.”
If she ever revealed her own affair with Cerdan to Edith, she does not report their conversation; probably she did not, for one gathers that she did not share her sister’s joy in screaming matches. During the Cerdan period, it was she who rose early and fixed his fruit juice and then jogged along behind him on his morning workout; and it was she who first ate the food served to him by others to test it for poison.
When she was dying on the Riviera, Piaf telephoned Simone in Paris, summoning her to her bedside. It was not Piaf’s fault that Théo had taken a house remote from railways and bus routes, nor was it her fault that Simone arrived on a cold and windy night and was obliged to stumble on foot a good distance after the taxi could proceed no further; nor was it the sparrow’s fault that Simone and the couple caring for her were not on good terms so that, half-frozen, she was offered no coffee, half-starved, was offered none of the rabbit stew which was giving off delicious odors as it simmered on the back of the stove. After the sisters’ final conversation (Piaf died the following day), she was not invited to sleep in the house but was bidden a cool good-bye at four in the morning. Piaf’s funeral was spectacular; she left her husband, loving, overwhelmed with debts.
Undoubtedly there was a genuine sisterly devotion between the two, but there is something unwholesome in Simone’s immolation to Edith and one wishes that now, when surely she has nothing to lose, she would step out onto the stage from the wings where she faithfully stayed, always at the ready with pills, a needle and thread, a damp washcloth, glad tidings of applause in the peanut gallery. I’d like to know what became of her and how she fares now and where. She sounds like a nice kid.
The little black dress in which Edith Piaf habitually performed did not come from the House of Chanel. Until the arrival on the Paris scene of Gabrielle Chanel, the imperious milliner and seamstress from the Auvergne, black had been worn almost exclusively by women in mourning. She made black, with simple embellishments of white cuffs and collars or with modest fake jewelry, at first a beguiling novelty and then a necessity. “The little black dress” was to become as essential to a proper wardrobe as underclothes. Mlle Chanel got to Paris during la belle époque before World War I, and with quiet diligence she set about to revolutionize fashion. She gave the coup de grâce to the hampering finery of the cocotte, an attire that was already obsolescent because the species was obsolescent now that kings, dethroned, were too poor to dress their favorites in pearl-encrusted fur-belows. Chanel did not begin the vogue of bobbed hair but, by bestowing her imprimatur on it in 1917, she hastened and broadcast it.
Her taste was inherent; her practical intelligence was agile and fertile. She renewed simplicity, cleanliness, perfume, and the hat: “The hat to her was the ultimate privilege of the privileged woman, the mark of distinction, the patent of membership in the cast of the true happy few—she used the English phrase—the rare possessor of wealth and eminence: her aristocracy. For them, the very well provided for, she believed, the hat would always be mandatory.” Did this perhaps account for the old habit of fashion magazine editors and their staffs of wearing hats to their offices? The Chanel suit, like the cardigan and the chesterfield, is an established article of apparel; Chanel No. 5 is a household term; summering in the South of France instead of in the north, a trend she began, will probably continue as long as there are summers and are sands and are human beings.
Coco Chanel’s biographer, Marcel Haedrich, met her for the first time in 1958 when she was seventy-five, “a prodigy beatified,” and if he did not succeed in abstracting the whole, or even part, of the truth from her, he assembled enough of the fictions she had contrived about herself to make his book highly entertaining. She was elusive in interviews, partly because it was her nature to be elusive and partly because she was forgetful with age. Together with M. Haedrich, the reader wonders why she felt the need to invent herself and what she might have been if she had not deliberately obscured herself in myth. ” ‘Legend…is the consecration of fame,’ ” she said and “to embroider her own she became Penelope. Each night she undid what she had made that day, and each day she started over, unwearyingly.” Troubled—indeed, imperiled—by somnambulism, she was once advised to see a psychiatrist, but she laughed the suggestion to scorn, saying that she had never told the truth to anyone, not even to a priest—how could she tell the truth to a footling minion of Freud?
She came from a family of itinerant wine-speculators who roved from village to town and from market to fair. “‘They bought wine on the spot…. If they bought it for two francs and sold it for three, it was a big day. And if they paid three and sold for one, it was the end of the world.”’ Her mother died when she was six and she was taken in (this was her tale) by two good but cool-hearted aunts who lived in a beautiful house with gleaming floors and chests full of linens. Her father had gone to America to seek his fortune. In fact, on the death of her mother, she and her two sisters were taken to their paternal grandparents in Vichy, and her two brothers, whom she never saw again, were put into an orphanage. One night, her father went out to buy cigarettes and disappeared as completely as Judge Crater. He may, indeed, have gone to America to sample Virginia tobacco but he may instead have gone to Istanbul if he fancied Oriental smokes.
Coco (she had been christened Gabrielle but her father, dreading the nickname “Gaby,” called her Coco from the start and she insisted on this form of address) was sent as a charity pupil to a convent school in Moulins. So galling was her position (she was not an orphan! Was not her father amassing a fortune in America?) that she probably vowed while she was learning fractions and subjunctives to make money, to be independent, and to be the giver rather than the recipient of alms. At Moulins, a beautiful and very old city, there was a cavalry garrison and one of its officers was the rich and nobby Etienne Balsan whom she met when she was twenty and who, for all practical purposes, launched her on her career.
Balsan’s principal interest was in horses and he was a record-breaking gentleman jockey while he was still at the garrison. When he had finished his training and completed his tour of duty in Algeria, he bought the château of Royallieu near Compiègne and near his stables and training tracks at La Croix-St.-Ouen, and to it he took the rustic beauty to play second fiddle to his official mistress, a magnificently bejeweled and beflounced Parisian cocotte, Emilienne d’Alençon. It was an odd but evidently harmonious household; Coco accepted her ambiguous situation without rancor and, anyhow, practiced a clever one-upmanship by spending her time at the stables where she had Etienne to herself as well as the jockeys and trainers and other enthusiastic equestrians who were smart, rich, cynical, Anglophiliac, and who found her beauty exotic and the acerbity of her wit delightful.
Balsan’s winter training grounds were at Pau, and here she met and fell in love with an Englishman, Boy Capel, who, to her vast admiration, had made his own money. Balsan relinquished her regretfully but chivalrously and they remained friends—in fact, he and she and Capel were frequently seen together at chic parties and race meetings. She had lived with Balsan for four years and during that time had learned useful arts and artifices and fillips that would serve her well in the haut monde of Paris to which Boy Capel introduced her.
She was not unknown there—she had often gone up with his predecessor from Compiègne, but he had cut less ice than the Englishman. They were seen together and talked about, and as the gossip accelerated, so did her business at the hat shop she opened in the avenue Gabriel. “Coco’s hats…were the first sign of what was to become the Chanel style—the masculine transposed to the feminine without the slightest ambiguity. Men’s fedoras with creased crowns, half the brim turned up and half turned down, had a simplicity that obviously was a slap in the face to the constructions of feathers and flowers that were then the rage.”
She had got there at the right time and had met the right people; soon she opened a branch in Deauville. It was in Deauville one day at a polo match that she laid the cornerstone for the House of Chanel. She was cold and she put on a man’s sweater which she picked up at random from a chair, tying it at the waist with a handkerchief. Nobody paid any heed to her, but she was pleased with her impromptu costume and presently others would recognize its comfort and its understated elegance. She began to make dresses of jersey, a fabric theretofore only for men and one not used in France although it was widely used in England. “She transformed everything she touched—her jackets, her blouses, the ties on the blouses, the cufflinks at the wrists, everything she borrowed from men became ultrafeminine through her magic.” Her clothes caught on; she prospered; she was independent; she had come a long way from the orphanage in Moulins.
She vested independence with a kind of purity and she vested money with holiness: she respected it and she used it, by her lights, well. She liked to pay for her friends’ pleasures: “this…was one of her ways of subjugating. The word may seem strong. She liked, however, to have people dependent on her—a frequent eccentricity among strong characters.” (Edith Piaf paid, too, but hers was the impulse of a patsy, not the calculation of a Lady Bountiful.)
Boy Capel married (why she did not marry him herself remains unclear) and she dressed his wife and was godmother to one of his children; her urbane forbearance did not mitigate her grief when he was killed in a car crash in 1919. Ten years later, at Monte Carlo, when she was forty-five, she met the Duke of Westminster, the richest man in England—he was rich because of coal and a great deal of real estate in that part of London whose name he bore. She kept the company of this exalted man and was his exalted friend for three years, hunting boars and foxes, fishing for salmon in Scotland; she was the grande dame of his country estates and his London house, his yacht, and his several pieds-à-terre.
Westminster wanted to marry her, but the divorce from his wife took three years and Coco, with eccentric logic, said, “No one could make me marry a man with whom I’d lived for three years.” She wanted, hypothetically, to bear him a son but she did not, and on the subject of childbed she is reminiscent of Queen Victoria who, while she endured the indignity of it nine times, wrote of it with revulsion and outrage to her daughter, Victoria, Queen of Prussia. Mlle Chanel, talking with her interlocutor, recalled the accouchement of a cat she had once witnessed: “‘It seemed she’d finished but no, there were still more [kittens] mewing inside her to get out.’ Her voice vibrated with disgust. ‘And dogs swallow all that! Even a colt; it’s horrid, it’s messy.”’ She probably did not marry this stunning prize because there were three Duchesses of Westminster but only one Coco Chanel and her vanity was hardier than her heart. Nevertheless, he was the star in her crown.
After she broke with her duke, she became a friend of Pierre Reverdy, a poet destined, thought “great” according to her and to her biographer, to be unappreciated. He was a Roman Catholic, converted through the influence of Maritain, and he lived in a monastery and lived like a monk. (She keenly disliked Cocteau largely because he cast Reverdy in the shade.) The nature of their association does not emerge from these pages; it was perhaps too nebulous to be defined. She was, herself, fashionably, a Theosophist, caught up with Annie Besant’s mumbo-jumbo; sometimes she listened to Catholic services over the radio but she did not go to church because, as she one time told an abbé, Mass bored her.
Much bored Mlle Chanel. World War II bored her, and during the occupation her lover was Baron von D., an elegant man who was half English, one of the group under Ribbentrop who had been sent on “‘parallel’ diplomatic missions” to Paris and to London to lay the groundwork for him before the war. Her position was murky; there were unsavory rumors about her, murmurs of collaboration, but they were probably unfounded; in all likelihood, she simply remained impervious to the war and adapted herself to its inconveniences—using the Metro instead of taxis, buying on the black market—as a matter of course.
She closed down the House of Chanel in 1939 and did not reopen it until 1954 when she was seventy-one. Her first showing was a dud and in fashion circles she was scornfully called “the old woman” and was looked on as a bother and a bore. But America took her up and after her third show—in the first year of her reopening—she made a triumphant comeback.
In her last years, she seldom went out. Lonely, she often had her butler take off his gloves and dine with her in her apartment at the Ritz. She was buried in Switzerland where she had kept her beautiful millions. “In the Lausanne cemetery she occupies the area of four graves. Always a desert around her, to protect her against regret and remorse.” Regret for not marrying? Remorse for allowing ambition and avarice to preclude happiness?
She sounds a most unlikable and disconcerting woman, megalomaniac, dictatorial, viper-tongued. She despised women who were not dressed by her, Jacqueline Kennedy among them; Mme de Gaulle got the Chanel axe and so, therefore, did her husband; Mme Pompidou, however, by being a client, passed muster, and so Chanel gave the new prime minister her sanction. She did not see the musical Coco, principally because the costumes had been designed by Cecil Beaton. She looked upon herself as a patriot—even more, as an international force for good: the un-Chanelized were incorrigibly uncivilized, hence dangerous. It must be taken on faith that she had wit but she seems to have had very little humor. But her accomplishment, proceeding from her innate taste and energy, was tremendous and was an enduring act of mercy: thanks to her, women of slender means can dress with the supreme confidence and elegance of Duchesses of Westminster in their little black dresses or their little suits, their costume jewelry and their rakish hats, and, on special occasions, a few drops of Chanel No. 5.
It is a refreshment to turn the eye away from the febrile raptures and doldrums of Edith Piaf and the severity and joyless narcissism of Coco Chanel and to rest it on Janet Flanner’s civilized appraisal of many lives lived in France, most of them by French and most of them by Parisians. Paris Was Yesterday, excerpts from her New Yorker letters from Paris written between 1925 and 1939, reads a little like a compendium of obituaries of the most captivating people and of the most interesting restaurants, shops, landmarks, salons, and fads ever heard of. But for each demise, there is a nativity or a renascence. While we pretty well know by heart the history of the descent on the Left Bank of Paris of the gifted young Americans in the Twenties, the phenomenon retains its enchantment and excitement after half a century—if, that is, it is recorded with the judgment and finesse of Miss Flanner.
In her introduction, speaking of Ulysses when it was published by Sylvia Beach at her Shakespeare and Company press in 1922, she says.
In its unique qualities…it burst over us, young in Paris, like an explosion in print whose words and phrases fell upon us like a gift of tongues, like a less than holy Pentecostal experience. Over the years, Ulysses, though read only in its early fractions, had established itself as part of our literary life to come…. Thus long before our eyes had ever seen Sylvia Beach’s entire printed text in Paris and before our hands had ever lifted the full weight of its 730 pages, Joyce’s Ulysses had become part of the library of our minds….
Does anyone read Ulysses now, read it entire, word by word, with the impetus we did fifty years ago? I wonder. And I disbelieve.
So do I, alas. Miss Flanner was one of the small band of émigrés who had taken up quarters in small hotels near the Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés, “itself perfectly equipped with a large corner café called Les Deux Magots…. Though unacquainted with each other, as compatriots we soon discovered our chance similarity. We were a literary lot.”
Surrealism, born of Dada, was flourishing at the time; predicated on the principle that art should not please but, on the contrary, should flabbergast and dismay, its adherents were dedicated to Trotsky and to Freud and were so demonstratively anti-Catholic that they made a studious practice of “insulting priests and spitting on nuns in the Saint-Germain streets”; in its “sadistic physical practices street brawling was considered essential.” How times have not changed! A number of these happy hooligans were habitués of the Deux Magots, one of the most fanciful of whom, the Princesse Violette Murat, “eventually went down to Toulon, where she lived at the dockside in an abandoned submarine and took to smoking opium intemperately….”
On the instructions of her editor Harold Ross, who had hired her to write Letters from Paris regularly for The New Yorker, Miss Flanner was to report “what the French thought was going on in France, not what I thought was going on.” In consequence, while she remained a part of the American colony, she was obliged to read the eight daily newspapers and the theatrical paper and to follow up stories, political, social, Social, cultural, macabre, that arrested the attention of the indigenous citizenry as well as that of the expatriates and the tourists.
At that time, there had opened up a new American entertainment, so completely novel that she wrote of it timidly, but in her retrospective introduction she says of the theretofore unknown star, Josephine Baker, of the Revue Nègre:
Two specific elements had been established and were unforgettable—her magnificent black body, a new model that to the French proved for the first time that black was beautiful, and the acute response of the white masculine public in the capital of hedonism of all Europe…. Most of us in Paris who had seen the opening night went back for the next two or three nights as well; they were never twice alike. Somewhere along the development, either then or it might have been a year or so later, as Josephine’s career ripened, she appeared with her famous festoon of bananas worn like a savage skirt around her hips.
Covarrubias had done the sets, “pink drops with cornucopias of hams and watermelons.” How times have changed! She continued in her extravagances, in one show being “rescued from a typhoon by a gorilla,” but by 1930, “on that lovely animal visage lies now a sad look, not of captivity, but of dawning intelligence.” And rumor had it that “she wants to sing refined ballads; one is surprised that she doesn’t want to play Othello.”
We are reminded that Juliette Drouet, in the twenty years she lived with Victor Hugo, wrote him fifteen thousand letters although she daily breakfasted and lunched and dined with him in exile on the Isle of Jersey. The sale of the letters at auction in 1926 brought on the observation in Les Nouvelles Littéraires and quoted by Miss Flanner that “this pitiable Juliette, regarded by her envious generation as the swooning, daring mistress of the sublime bohemian, turns out to be only a self-sacrificing supplementary wife….” In 1926, Claude Monet died, stupidly unappreciated; his coffin “was placed on a village handcart and two peasants in Sunday clothes pushed him to his grave in Giverny. Clemenceau followed on foot.”
In 1927 le boy Lindbergh landed at Le Bourget and knocked Paris off its rocker, inspiring L’Intransigeant to exclaim, “He has a heart of steel in the body of a bird. He is a carrier pigeon.” In that same year, Isadora Duncan, “a nomad de luxe,” was strangled by her shawl caught in the wheel of an automobile. Mourned in 1928 was the passing of Le Lapin Agile, a tree-shaded Montmartre tavern which had been patronized by the revolutionary impressionist painters and the symbolist poets; and that same year marked the demise of the old Flea Market where it had been possible to find “the choicest rubbish—the better cracked-ivory miniatures, the daintiest slightly broken Venetian glass pitchers, the smartest almost new single riding boots (usually lefts).”
The next year, Harry Lehr, court jester to the 400 who had summered in Newport, died unnoticed in Paris. “Years ago he had given a dinner in Manhattan in honor of a monkey. This had given him no social standing in France.” But the death of La Goulue, aged and impoverished, “afforded her a press she had not enjoyed since her palmiest days” in the Nineties when she had been a celebrated and pampered demi-mondaine, can-can dancer of the Moulin Rouge, and model for Toulouse-Lautrec. Her decline and fall were fast: she was a lion-tamer for a while in a street fair, then a dancer in a wagon show. “Then she became a laundress. Then she became nothing.” She died in a clinic, taken there by ragpickers, her last words being “I do not want to go to hell,” spoken, says Miss Flanner, “as if [she] were declining a last and eternal invitation.”
Because Janet Flanner’s observations and conclusions are never fuzzy, and the events she elects to record are always interesting (whether they be murders or scandals in high places, fiascos and smash hits in the world of painting and writing and the theater) or important (the effect in France of the Wall Street crash, the deepening seriousness of news from Nazi Germany), it is hard to review her book without quoting her very nearly in toto. The prose of her succinct dispatches is too felicitous and too inevitable to paraphrase. She does not eulogize Paris; she merely states its handsome case. I can only promise delight and edification to her reader, Francophile or no, nineteen years old or seventy-two.