Misia: The Life of Misia Sert
For more than fifty years—from 1892, to be precise, until shortly after the end of World War II—it was a safe bet that at any hour of the day or night someone in Paris was talking about Misia Sert. Among those for whom poetry, music, art, and the dance were fundamental to life she acted as a necessary poison. Some of them could not imagine life without her. To others, she was about as welcome as quartz in a risotto. But, either way, she was talked about. Even today there are well-preserved old gentlemen in Paris who can bring out her name with a note of wonder and admiration that was common form all over the town from the moment at which she first played the piano in public, as a girl of twenty, in 1892.
It was not the first time that she had played in great company and made her own particular impact. As a very small girl, she had sat on the knee of Franz Liszt and played Beethoven. (“If only I could play like that!” the old rascal said afterward). When she had piano lessons as a schoolgirl, it was not from some pliant hack, but from Gabriel Fauré, himself a distinguished contributor to the literature of the piano. Nor did her debut in 1892 take place in some novice’s recital room. She appeared with Yvette Guilbert, unmatched before or since as a diseuse; with Mounet-Sully, the foremost tragedian of the day; and the Lugné-Poë, with father of the French avant-garde theater. To be on the same bill as these outsize performers did not intimidate her. She was already used to the best, in all such matters, and found it none too good.
She never let up, either. When she was a young woman her closest friend among poets was Stéphane Mallarmé, who even came up with a rhyme (“t’initia“) for her given name. Among painters, neither Toulouse-Lautrec nor Renoir nor Bonnard nor Vuillard could see enough of her. If there was a composer in her house, it was likely to be Debussy or Ravel. If she went to Norway to call on Henrik Ibsen, she ended up playing four-hand pieces on the piano with Edvard Grieg. Back in France, the author of Ubu Roi could be a troublesome guest, but she made room for him.
Unlike many people who are in the center of things in their first youth, she stayed in touch with the new—or with many of its manifestations—until she was well into middle age. When Stravinsky was working on Le Sacre du printemps, she was one of the handful of people who heard him play part of it on the piano. Picasso asked her to be a witness at his first wedding. Proust put her into A la Recherche du temps perdu. For Diaghilev she was over many years the indispensable confidante, the sister that he had never had, the one friend who could be relied upon. By virtue of that position she was privy to the beginnings of “Parade,” “Les Noces,” “Pulcinella,” “Le Tricorne,” and “Les Biches.” Colette was as near as not in love with her. Jean Cocteau put her into a novel (Thomas l’Imposteur) and a play (Les Monstres sacrés). She had the wit to single out Raymond Radiguet among novelists, Pierre Reverdy and St.-John Perse among poets, and Les Six among the younger composers. When she came to New York in later life, she amazed Eddie Duchin by the ease with which she learned to play Gershwin à l’américaine.
These are not everyday attributes, and there was no one quite like Misia, either in Paris or anywhere else. One could cast around among her contemporaries and say that she was a little like Lady Ottoline Morrell, the châtelaine of Garsington Manor, a little like the American-born Princesse Edmond de Polignac, and a little like Lou Andréas-Salomé, the friend of Nietzsche, Rilke, and Freud. But she was not a gangling English aristocrat, like Lady Ottoline. She was a well-formed little Pole who had been born into an international high Bohemia. Nor did she have a huge personal fortune and an exclusively homosexual orientation, like Winnaretta de Polignac. She lived on other people’s money (and plenty of it, as a rule), and although she aroused strong passions in men and women alike she seems to have been sparing in her response to them. As for Frau Andréas-Salomé, there’s simply no contest: at no time in her life did Misia Sert go in for cerebration. Great men sought her company in the first place because things were more fun when she was around and in the second place because she had an intuitive understanding of what was newest and best in the arts. (Also she could weep for joy: a useful trait, in that context.)
But if people talked about her it was not, as a rule, because Ravel had dedicated “La Valse” to her or because Toulouse-Lautrec had once liked to tickle the soles of her feet with a paint-brush. It was because for much of her life she had been matter for scandal and concern, innuendo and outrage. She led a full, flamboyant, unfurtive existence; and in her seventies, an old woman near-blind and dependent to an ever greater degree on drugs, she dictated an account of her life, Misia par Misia, which was published by Gallimard in 1952 and later translated into English by Moura Budberg. There was matter in that small book for libretti that would have tempted Puccini and Giordano back to life, for movies that would have kept D.W. Griffith in business for a decade, and for a television series that could run until the year 2001.
We don’t have any of those things, but close on thirty years after the publication of her memoirs we have a full-length biography by Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale which mates the story as Misia herself told it with a great deal of careful and original research. Put like that, the book may sound like a foundation-funded mastodon, destined in short order for the shredder or remainderhood. But in fact Misia—like so much that Misia herself admired—is as light in hand as it is telling in its overall effect. Unlike most Anglo-American books on the world of the arts in Paris, it is written from the inside.
Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale are too young to have known the founder-members of Misia’s circle, and they never met Misia herself. But they know her Paris and her kind of Parisian as few English-speaking people ever get to know them. Where other researchers would have come back with a tale of doors that didn’t open, mouths that were shut in a straight thin line, and telephone calls that were never answered, Gold and Fizdale were made welcome everywhere. Old friends produced new friends. First visits lasted all day. Second visits turned into long weekends. People in their nineties were remarkably forthcoming. Heirs in their twenties, no less so. Boxes long shut were thrown open, memorabilia were made over with barely a word spoken, the cassette recorder ran hot from continuous use. It was as if a universal benevolence suddenly reigned in a tight and difficult little world where everyone has known everyone else forever.
Something in this may have been owed to the sheer unlikeliness of the project. Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale had been known to many of the key people in their adventure since the late 1940s and early 1950s. But they were known as duo-pianists, not as writers. “Gold and Fizdale,” in conversation, meant the duo who for thirty years had brought a new standard of finesse and translucency to a repertory too often made wearisome by a relentless clonking and clanking. That they would bring comparable qualities to biography was by no means predestined, but at least they were known throughout Paris as people of superior human perception who could be trusted with those problems of tone, emphasis, and relative importance which so often go awry when foreign observers treat a French subject. “Why not let them try?” was an opinion widely held, if never so bluntly expressed.
And it has been proved right. There is not a dull page in Misia. When faced with private concerns that are melodramatic almost from beginning to end, the authors tread quickly and surely. When disentangling the interplay of personalities as treacherous as they were magnetic, Gold and Fizdale drew upon long years of experience with comparable figures of our own day. When great works of art are in question, as they often are in Misia, they never say a word that would make us wish them back at their piano-stools. This is a very good book, with almost nothing of the beginner about it. (It is also, by the way, illustrated for maximum seduction.)
The basic données of the life of Misia Sert will bear repeating. Born in St. Petersburg in 1872, she was the daughter of Cyprien Godebski, a monumental sculptor who had every possible practical success in his time and is now mercifully forgotten, though still visible here and there. Her maternal grandfather was Adrien-François Servais, a Belgian cellist who likewise was known and admired throughout Europe. Misia herself was given the earliest possible notice that loved ones were not to be depended upon: her mother died while giving birth to her. As for her father, he soon impressed himself upon her as at best a genial absentee. Misia grew up convinced that only in art—above all, in music—was an enduring consolation to be found. At the age of eight, so our authors tell us, she threw her most treasured possession from the balcony of her boarding school to an organ-grinder in the street. It was the beginning, they say, of a lifetime of patronage; and we believe them, just as we believe Misia herself when she says that, for her, “first love” was not the revelation of this partner or that but the evening when she heard Claude Debussy play through Pelléas, singing all the parts himself, in the apartment of Pierre Loüys.
When she was twenty-one, Misia married Thadée Natanson, cofounder of the Revue Blanche. It would be difficult to contest the proposition that the Revue Blanche was as brilliant and inventive a review of literature and the arts as ever was put together in Europe. By virtue of her marriage, Misia made the acquaintance of a group of contributors which included Mallarmé, Verlaine, Debussy, Proust, Toulouse-Lautrec, Vuillard, and Bonnard. She left nobody indifferent. She had, our authors tell us, “a radiance that everyone who met her found irresistible. Under her well-marked eyebrows, her large, expressive dark eyes missed no opportunity for appraisal, irony, or wit. Strong and well-fleshed, with a small supple waist and magnificent legs tapering down to pretty feet, she moved as lightly, as precisely, as a not quite domesticated cat.”
Thadée Natanson—no mouser he—was in his marriage as he is in Vuillard’s portraits of him: a benign and pillowy presence, great fun to laugh with, but lacking élan thrust, competitive sense. When Misia in 1900 met a man who was exactly Thadée’s opposite she was as if mesmerized and allowed the intruder to ruin her husband, ruin her marriage, and bear her away as a captive. The man in question was Alfred Edwards, publisher of Le Matin and a master of all the combinazioni of capitalism. Edwards was a tycoon out of George Grosz: a man brutal to his inferiors, loathsome in his appetites, implacable in his business dealings, physically violent when crossed. He gave Misia no peace till he had got her, and from then onward he was for some time almost insanely generous to her in all material ways. She was not deeply taken with him—in later life she would say that she made up the next day’s menus in her head while he was making love to her—but he gave her a way of life that was larger, wilder, and more ostentatious than could ever have been mooted within the offices of the Revue Blanche. Where once the angelic discretion of Stéphane Mallarmé had set the style of the house, everything that had to do with Alfred Edwards had also to do with big spending, personal domination, headlines on the front page, and the gratification of every whim, no matter how repulsive.
It is to Misia’s credit that, so far from being corrupted by Edwards’s milieu, she remained faithful to her old interests. It was Ravel who got to travel in her houseboat, Diaghilev who benefited by her energetic and sometimes successful attempts to help him in practical ways, and her French composer-friends who gradually found their way into the programs of the Ballets Russes. We believe Jean Cocteau when he says of Misia, in his Thomas l’Imposteur, that “from one imprudence to the next she wove a magic spell. Mediocre people avoided her, and only people of quality stayed close to her. Seven or eight men and two or three warm-hearted women became her intimates. They were exactly the group that an intriguing and socially ambitious woman would have wanted as friends, but could never have had….”
It was with Alfred Edwards as it had been with Thadée Natanson and as it was later to be with Misia’s third husband, the Spanish muralist José-Maria Sert: the marriage blew up, as if from the force of some long-planted and inescapable explosive. Melodrama without stint was the characteristic of these explosions, which in their violence, their interminable length, and their sheer physical oddity deserve a lasting place in the annals of matrimony. There never seemed to be any particular reason, on Misia’s side, for her to get married—when she announced her marriage to Sert, Proust wrote to congratulate her on having achieved “the majestic beauty of something wonderfully unnecessary”—but she does seem somewhat to have thrived on the three-cornered entanglements which sooner or later resulted. As to this, Gold and Fizdale keep their heads even when they have only Misia’s say-so to go upon and the events described are really rather extravagant. (On the last occasion on which Sert made love to Misia, she found out at a late stage in the encounter that her successor had crawled into the room on all fours and had been a noiseless witness to the scene from its beginnings.)
In this, as in other matters, Gold and Fizdale behave throughout like human beings to whom nothing human can be entirely alien. They set out the evidence in full, but they never pass judgment. José-Maria Sert was, for instance, a man who did not believe in arguing with winners. (His idea of an agreeable morning in Paris in June 1940 was to go and watch the German troops parading down the Champs-Elysées.) But Gold and Fizdale do not forget that this same Sert put himself out to save Colette’s husband, Maurice Goudeket, from being sent to almost certain death in Germany not long afterward. Sert, Misia, and Misia’s friend Coco Chanel made the kind of threesome that Misia delighted in. Sert adored her for much of the time. Like Edwards, he was generous to the point of madness with the money that never seemed to run short. Neither of them was at all bourgeois: Misia picked her teeth with a pair of nail-scissors when her friends came to see her in bed in the Hotel Meurice, and when Sert was balked of a good meal on a motoring trip he bought a suckling pig and roasted it by the side of the road.
When Sert married someone else, Misia found herself a place at the wedding breakfast. When Sert died, and Misia was locked into her thirty-years’ relationship with the sinister and discredited Chanel, an unhappy old age lay before her. There were incidents hideous to live through and hardly less so to read about, as when she was arrested on a drugs charge and spent the night in jail surrounded by derelicts, drunken whores, and fellow addicts. But even from that period Gold and Fizdale have managed to find the telling details that speak for her tenacity, her sense of drama, and her never-quite-extinguished feeling for life.
Certain things in their book could be questioned. It can be argued that Misia can legitimately be presented from certain angles as an unscrupulous brute, a meddling know-all run to fat, and a prototypical fag hag who couldn’t bear not to make mischief and take up the time of people infinitely more valuable to us than herself. On this subject, our authors are indulgence personified. Less importantly, one could say that letters dashed off in French by people of highly charged personality are not easy to render into English and come across, if at all, with a marked loss of immediacy. Jean Cocteau had his tiresome side, but something less than justice is done here to his achievement, as distinct from his personality. As for le tout Paris, it has to be said that Gold and Fizdale are sometimes too ready to take them at their own valuation, rather than to recognize them as what many of them are: killers.
But what matters more is that, like Misia herself, they came to Paris as captivated foreigners. They know, as she knew, what it feels like to have lived in a city where creativity came with the morning’s first cup of coffee. But they can stand apart from her life, as she could not, and they convince us that hers was an archetypal career. As we tighten our seat-belts and follow that career in all its vertiginous ups and downs it is likely to seem to us that only Proust could have transmuted this story into great art, but that on the level of straightforward biography Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale have done memorably well.