Last night, I was watching Jean Gabin going through another man’s wardrobe, he was playing Maigret of course, so the indiscretion was work related, it was done in fine style, with the utmost calm, actually, everything Jean Gabin does is so wonderfully calm, so composed and tranquil, as if his entire being was a neverending stream of contemplation, and while he was inspecting the clothes of one of his suspects, Jean Desailly’s, as of course I was watching Maigret tend un piège from 1958, he uncovered the label of one of the suits, some fine tailoring by – no, not by Prada or Brioni or Zegna, but by Bernheim & Fils – a tailor whose shop was on rue de la Boétie. This scene struck me, but why? The wardrobe belonged to some Parisian interior architect, these were the 1950s, our times’ fashion victims weren’t even born yet, of course this man had his suits tailor made. Suddenly, I felt very poor, poor in style, my suits are all mass produced bullshit, however prestigious the labels, and while I continued watching Maigret meddling in this guy’s life, I felt like putting on my white Charvet shirt, the only thing in my wardrobe that might have a chance to find a fellow counterpart in that fine French murderer’s wardrobe.
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.”
Stalin, like any other dictator, had a thing for grandeur, and it spread, every satellite state wanted to contribute to his glory, and so, in the 1950s, Berlin, the capital of the GDR, had its Stalin-Allee constructed, a magnificent architectural endeavour, let’s no longer praise God or anybody in power by His grace, let’s praise Stalin, our real saviour, and let’s do it in style, midcentury neo-classicism with a touch of gingerbread, somehow reminiscent of Karl-Friedrich Schinkel, a reflection of proletarian power, adorned post-revolutionary self-importance rather than self-confidence, miles of praise of somebody who soon would be politically incorrect, even in Russia, but let’s not worry about that, there’s still Karl Marx to be proud of, philosopher, economist and saint to the communists, a saint who stated religion was the opium of the people, let’s honour him and have the boulevard renamed. Today, long after the Berlin wall has come down, long after communism has failed entirely, it’s still called Karl-Marx-Allee, the magnificent bookshop on it bears his name as well, it made it even into a favourite movie of mine, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s “The Life of Others”, which won an Oscar for best foreign language film in 2007, but I seem to digress, anyway, Stalin’s persona non grata for all eternity, but Karl Marx is still among us, as he has never killed anyone, let alone millions, and so the communist era still hasn’t lost its splendour, at least not on Berlin’s Karl-Marx-Allee.
Paris is known for its lovers. There were plenty over the centuries as you can probably guess, dozens and hundreds, more or less famous ones, some even made it on the screen, Ninotchka and Count Léon d’Algout, for example. My favourite couple, however, is a real life one that made it into the movies nonetheless: Simone Signoret and Yves Montand, these glorious French actors. They made fabulous films, they drank and smoked, she won an Oscar, he betrayed her with Marilyn Monroe, and most importantly, they had an apartment on 15, Place Dauphine, on the loveliest square in all of Paris, it’s kind of secluded, but you always sense where you are: right in the middle of Paris. Each time I’m there, I pay them a visit, come rain or shine, I stroll by the Seine or cross the Tuileries, depends on where I come from, Rive Gauche or Rive Droite, I cross the Pont Neuf, my favourite bridge in the world, as the square lies on an island in the Seine, the Île de la Cité, just like Notre Dame, and there I am, happy as a child, lingering for quite some time, it’s a perfect spot for a coffee, too. The old chestnut trees were replaced some years ago, at first it looked a bit sad, these little ones couldn’t measure up to the old ones who might still have seen Simone and Yves leaving the house for cigarettes or an invitation to dinner some place fancy, but they’ve grown a bit, and the last time I visited Place Dauphine, I started looking forward to growing old with them.
Imagine a fiftysomething gardener, a slow minded and illiterate gardener, retarded even, who has worked all his life in a wealthy family’s Washington town house’s garden, cared for it with the greatest attention possible, and kept it blossoming and blooming for decades. Imagine that gardener now being laid off, his employer dead, the attorneys have put him on the streets. What do you expect him to look like? Broke. Miserable. Shabby. You’re sadly mistaken.
That gardener may stray through Washington without any destination, completely lost, but he’s wearing a double-breasted coat and a three-piece suit from a distinguished New York tailor, handmade from the finest cloth, supreme distinction, the kind of cashmere that glistens in the sun, with silky suppleness, I only encountered that refinement once in Paris, in the eighth arrondissement, near Parc Monceau, on a gentleman leaving one of those stately buildings that only take in swish attorneys or an old kingdom’s ambassador, but I digress, as I was saying, our gardener’s outfit is particularly exquisite, from head to toe, his silk tie shows a pattern that practically screams old money, and he’s carrying a shiny crocodile suitcase that makes those by Louis Vuitton look like a very sad approach to luxury, and while he’s loitering without any intent, his destiny is settled. 125 minutes later he’s going to be the next president of the United States. In 1979, this ending must have come as a surprise to the audience, but as sarcastic as it was, its social criticism is from a bygone age, it’s out of date, or worse, it makes us realize how times have changed. In those days, some style still made the man. Today, you don’t need even that.
Peter Sellers and Shirley MacLaine in Hal Ashby’s masterpiece “Being There” from 1979.