Hostess with the Mostest

Misia: The Life of Misia Sert

by Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale
Knopf, 337 pp., $16.95

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…

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