Some weeks ago, I posted a photo of Babe Paley on Instagram and one of my followers, a great Parisian lady named Marie, suggested a novel on that famous style icon in her comment, she gave me the title of a French book about her and the other swans from 5th Avenue, the very book you see on the photo. I was intrigued instantly and replied that I’ll read it asap, but truth be told I forgot all about it very soon, mainly because one is totally overexposed to information these days, but mostly because my list of books to read is already overextended as it is, ironically including the book this book’s based on, Truman Capote’s Answered Prayers, which I started some weeks ago and then forgot all about it, anyway, this very afternoon I was looking for some leftover cigarettes, I keep storing half-emptied packs in a particular s.o.s-drawer for nicotine droughts when there’s no fresh pack left, I keep forgetting about buying those, too, and on that side table a book was lying, a book I don’t recall buying or ever having seen before, but its title was so familiar, looking at it, I found myself in one of those moments when you wonder if you’ve lost your mind, but it then occured to me that not only Marie had told me about that book but also Katja, a friend from real life, as a matter of fact she had given it to me when she last visited, she had just finished it and recommended it highly, I, however, had all forgotten about it. The moral of the story? There is none, just that forgetful people are people, too, and that coincidences happen to work in mysterious ways, C. G. Jung had some theories about it, I must look them up one day, I forgot the details, but first things first, it’s tea and swans for now.
I did the impossible, I finished Proust! I finished! I finished Marcel Proust! I am so proud of myself!
Well, as you might have found out by now, I didn’t finish À la recherche du temps perdu, no, of course not, I’m still trapped in one of those extended Guermantes reflections of his, I only finished Jean Santeuil, one might call it Proust for beginners, it should set them at ease as Proust himself didn’t finish that one either, writing, I mean, not just reading it. So, obviously he was a quitter, too. Ha! But I don’t give up that easily, and from now on, I’ll start wearing this Étrivière Double Tour by Hermès to remind me of my literary shortcomings. If ever I succeed in finishing Proust’s masterpiece, all volumes, all of them, all of these three thousand pages, I shall take it off again. Until then, it’s going to serve as a scarlet letter for everybody to see what a quitter I am — damn, I have to finish Hawthorne, too. Damn!
In 1936, Marlene Dietrich entered a jeweller’s shop in Paris and uttered some unforgettable words to me: “I would like to see some pearls”. Some pearls. Not to necessarily buy any, just to see some, in a tone that left no doubt about having some infinite riches on her hands, while suavely smiling, with that ironic twinkle of hers, not in her eye, but in her lips, unmatched sophistication and wit, the sort of smile that demands an IQ way above average, quite Einsteinesque a brain, just with a much better hair-do, or, in that particular case, a hat by Travis Banton, of course, later in that movie it turns out she’s utterly broke, anyway, I was deeply impressed. Deeply. In 1999, I entered the Hermès shop in Cologne, uttering the words “I would like to see some cufflinks.”, but it just wasn’t the same. I had aimed too high. But now that you know about my connection to Marlene Dietrich, I give you Flammarion’s edition of Pierre Passebon’s collection of some of the best photographs ever taken of her, the collection’s still on display in Paris, until February 25th at Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris. But if you can’t make it to 5-7, rue de Fourcy in the Marais within the next 48 hours, you just enter a bookshop and repeat after me: “I would like to see some photographs of Marlene Dietrich.”
Books. Love them. They are the only thing capable of transporting you anwhere you want to go, or rather not, where they take you is your own responsability, they took me from cover to cover, the journey was always the true destination, I was unstoppable, I left Berlin in a hurry for Zurich when Hitler stole pink rabbit, I never returned, I can’t forget the living wallpaper design in Zurich either, it’s stuck in my mind forever, I still feel the fever, too, and the icy rejection of Paris’ avenue Foch residents, I lost my trust in relatives that day, haven’t changed my mind since, that dislike of kinfolk was cemented when I went to Brideshead, I often returned happily, nonetheless, to Charles Ryder’s Brideshead, that is, to Sebastian Flyte’s not so much, many years later, I injected morphine, through my trousers, in a taxi in Zurich, just in time before complete break down, the relief was ever so painful, in rehab, I spent time in the GDR, in Dresden’s Weißer Hirsch, a residential area whose villas overlook the town, the tower, we called it, political resentments ex cathedra, always followed by the Staatssicherheit, some pale blue ink in a lady’s hand brought me back to early 1900’s Vienna, waltzing while turning to the left as well as to the right, ever so elegantly, my experiences are vast, I’m proud to say, I know what snow and war feels like, never lost a limb, though, but hell, I know what that feels like, too, or a broken heart, my Russian soul found itself described, so well, and, for once, understood, what a comfort, over the years, I became a close friend of Coco Chanel’s friends, and foes, and an even more intimate one of Thomas Mann, I know all about his wet dreams and sudden fears, which I happily forget about when being stuck again in an endless stream of my truth’s consciousness.
Are we allowed to read this book? Or are we to dismiss it, as it’s obviously full of alternative facts, at least as far as The New York Times and The Avedon Foundation are concerned, one being the quite macabre story of Avedon’s son preparing a meal with his father’s ashes, he had mistaken it for oregano, so Norma Stevens, the author and part of Avedon’s entourage tells us. I can relate, I also store oregano in an urn, but my ability to believe it is of secondary importance, as the son has denied it, false, all false, he says. Francis Bacon once refined a stew with a bottle of Château Pétrus instead of, well, the juice we call red wine, also funny, less macabre though, and so nobody ever felt like denying it, although it seems to be out of the stuff anecdotes are made of, exaggerate, set proportions aside, drop some names, some familiar unachievabilities, your father’s ashes, however, mistaken for the most profane of all Italian spices, that speaks volumes, that’s what I would have denied, that my father, that iconic stylish guy, smelled like oregano and not like, say, lavender, or, at the very least, tarragon. Anyway, I’m reading this biography despite all the warnings, I’m reading it for alternative reasons, you see, I met Veruschka this summer in Berlin, we bumped into each other when I was leaving a favourite book shop of mine, Bücherbogen on Savignyplatz, I was mesmerized, humbled, breathless, unable to speak and apologize for my clumsiness, I was only able to stumble on and take a shot with my iPhone, a shot that made me join the fine club of photographers who have worked with Veruschka, I’m just reading the book to see what my colleague Dick thought about her. True story.
While you wait for your bee brooch from the Croisière collection to be wrapped up, you wonder why you resisted that glass of champagne you were offered and had water instead. Water? Who has water? What were you thinking? They might have served you a glass of Dom Pérignon here, you’re at Chanel’s, for heaven’s sake. In order to let go and regain your peace of mind, you let your eyes take a turn and then you start wondering again: who would buy that fluffy coat for 10,840.00 Deutsche Mark? I know, it’s 2017 and so it’s only €5,420.00, but they cannot fool me. You see, I still haven’t accepted the euro as a currency. In Deutsche Mark, everything sounds like so much more money, everything is literally twice as expensive, whereas the euro-halving provides the illusion of saving money, bargains on a daily basis, the price tags are playing a dirty trick on us, I fall for it all the time, to be quite exact, I’ve fallen for it since January, 2002. Obviously, my mind doesn’t adapt easily, you might respond, in an alarming way even, very alarming, but truth be told, otherwise I would never have bought that bee brooch.
I wonder if there is a reason or a deeper sense to all this missing light in winter, to the cold outside, to all these horrid crowds running you over on their search for Christmas presents or the nearest Starbucks. There’s only one I can come up with: We are to stay at home and read Balzac. And when we have cover-to-covered his Human Comedy, we are to continue and praise Hemingway’s short sentenced short stories, Waugh’s love for grotesque sceneries (best followed by Muriel Spark’s love for grotesque characters), Thomas Bernhard’s hilarious bitterness, Louis Begley’s distant observations, Stefan Zweig’s lost worlds and Rilke’s elegiacomania, Philip Roth’s cold-hearted dissections of anyone he ever came up with, Jane Austen’s ironic approach to mankind itself, W. Somerset Maugham’s lust for human frailties, Colette’s view on women and their lovers, Gabriele d’Annunzio’s view on decadence, every now and then we are to enjoy a poem by Emily Dickinson, like a sorbet between fish and meat, and, most importantly, we are to read the directions for Diptyque candles. Unless you care for soot, that is.
Coco Chanel was cool, Jean Patou not so much, he looked like a dandy, some kind of Parisian Fred Astaire, smartly dressed but without any insolence, ever so uptight, to me, he lacked a great deal of casualness, actually Patou himself lacked the very casualness his dresses had, for some reason, the women he dressed looked way smarter than he. And they looked gorgeous. Emmanuelle Polle wrote a terrific book to show us all what made Jean Patou eternally famous: the elegant gowns, the sportswear, imagine, sportswear with an haute couture approach, Nike only dresses women on the brink of exhaustion, ever so prone to dehydration, if any of the women in Patou’s sportswear ever were dehydrated it was just from champagne, believe you me, or the juice called parfum, he offered plenty of stylish perfumes, Joy was the costliest fragrance of its time, well, you had to attack Chanel and Guerlain somehow, his world was leisure and luxury, and with this book, published by Flammarion, we are allowed a glimpse into this world, let’s take those stairs, they are every bit as stylish as Chanel’s famous staircase.
Over the years, I bought a great many books on Coco Chanel. Not only because I’m into fashion, her achievements in fashion are more than just outstanding, she was the designer of the century, there was no competition to question that, Balenciaga surely was an artist, carefully designed perfection-to-wear, he was born to give Mona von Bismarck her raison d’être, and Dior gave the world the New Look, a look so very old now, so very démodé, visited today by millions in a museum in Paris, next to the Mona Lisa, a woman whose mysterious smile has turned into a grimace when it had become that liveless cliché it is today, a smile so rarely if ever smiled back at, merely admired, like moth balled haute couture on mannequins, but Chanel’s iconic inventions live on, they are out, on the streets, they breathe and move, they were born free, copied, reinterpreted, updated, backdated, timeless, but all of that, all these hats, buttons, pearls, fake and real, all these two-tone shoes, suits and little black dresses, all that comfy beige tweed and that refined soft lace, these numbers 5, 19 and 22, olfactory revolutions, all of it bears the same genes. Style galore. We owe it to the little black-haired girl from humble beginnings whose genius outlived it all: the Belle Époque, the wars, the Roaring Twenties, the rise and fall of countries, people and fashions, she met and loved Dukes and Grand Dukes, Englishmen and Russians, she encountered Picasso, Stravinsky, Cocteau, Reverdy, Diaghilev, basically le tout Paris of the last century. Two books by Isabelle Fiemeyer, published by Flammarion in English and French, introduce us to some of the traces such a life left behind, we are allowed a glimpse, however long, of private belongings, on letters and jewels, on golden artifacts and worn clothes – these intimate details are treasures not to be missed.
After the war, when fashion was given the New Look by Christian Dior, the world was given Robert Doisneau as a society and fashion photographer when Michel de Brunhoff, the editor in chief of Vogue Paris, had the brilliant idea to hire him. I had not known about this collaboration and would never have seen the splendid photographs that illustrate post war Parisian high society life, I would only have known of his famous shot of the kissing couple in front of Paris’ Hôtel de Ville, I had the poster in my kitchen for crying out loud, if Flammarion hadn’t published this wonderful book. It shows it all: aristocratic weddings, parties, receptions, men in tails, women in ball gowns, the rich and famous, elegant home stories, restaurants filled with celebrities, Hélène Rochas, Jacques Fath, Jean Cocteau, Orson Welles and Elsa Maxwell, all in black and white and not once do you miss a single colour. Robert Doisneau captures it all in shades of grey. Don’t you dare buy it and let it gather dust on your coffee table, open it, let your eyes travel and take the most wonderful journey back in time.