When the French fashion houses began to open again in 1946–47 after World War II and the occupation, American magazines thought it worthwhile to send people over to report on them. I was one of those people. I edged into the fashion world almost sideways. I thought I was going to write art features when I was recruited by Vogue. But Mrs. Chase thought otherwise, and her word was law.
I found myself on one of those first transatlantic flights that stopped over for the night at Gander, Newfoundland, to refuel. You rested, fully dressed, in one of a line of cots in a kind of barracks. My immediate neighbors were a group of Dominican monks—Italian, no English. I had studied Italian a long time ago in college but had had no opportunity to practice. I could only remember a few lines of Dante, about returning from hell, not much of a conversational opener. I tried it out, anyhow, and got a gratifying response.
My traveling companion was a small, angelic, and gifted artist who was the magazine’s dessinateur. He went under the name of Eric. My entire professional training was a hissed injunction as I left for the airport: “Keep Eric sober.” Keeping Eric sober turned out to be a major project, but if his gait was sometimes unsteady, his line never wavered.
The Vogue team was lodged at the Crillon, the only hotel that had any heating. It included the star photographer Horst, who had photographed all the famous prewar beauties, including Chanel, and was still at it. Our life in Paris was of an almost embarrassing ease compared with the lot of most Parisians. Bitter cold, shortages of all kinds, a telephone system with a freakish life of its own, electricity unreliable in the extreme. And everywhere recriminations and evening of scores about who had, and who had not, behaved decently during the occupation. Breakfast in bed was served by tailcoated waiters bearing beat-up metal trays, with paper handouts rallying the population to de Gaulle, instead of linen. Had we been up to it, we could have had champagne and foie gras, but no fruit.
I enjoyed my sorties with Eric. They went something like this. He would call for me in the morning at the Crillon, natty in bow tie and bowler hat, slightly unsteady already. Then he thought a pit stop for a dozen oysters and a bottle of white wine advisable before our first appointment. A seraphic vagueness enveloped him throughout the day. After several hours at Schiaparelli’s he would ask in a loud stage whisper, “Where are we?” Confronted with the model, he always started with the eyes. Then mysteriously, the very essence, the spirit of the outfit, would come to life on his page.
That first season in Paris, there were very few professional models to pose for our photographs and illustrations. I rounded up my more personable acquaintances and, when really hard up, would pose myself, face averted. Eric drew me in a Paulette creation, looking as though I were just waiting for the next glass of champagne at Maxim’s. In reality, due to the intense cold, I was in bed, warmly dressed, fur coat on top, covers pulled up to my chin.
The first party for the fashion press was given by Edward Molyneux, an Englishman who had had a successful career in the Paris couture before the war and had just reopened his salon. The room was full of Frenchwomen, incongruously wearing towering plumes of birds of paradise in their hair. Someone had discovered a cache of them, and there were few new clothes available.
The first important couture show that I went to was presented by the house of Lucien Lelong. It will be remembered, if for nothing else, because the clothes were designed by a shy, cherubic unknown young man, Christian Dior. The man Cecil Beaton described as looking like “a bland country curate made out of pink marzipan” was to blow the fashion landscape sky-high two years later with the New Look.
I somehow struck up a cozy relationship with Lelong, who favored me with generous prices and invited me for an amusing lunch at his apartment. He told me about the high life in the 1930s and spoke wistfully about his failed marriage to the beautiful princess Natalie Paley. “If only she had been a little less folle and I had been a little more patient.” He was proud of his elegantly designed bathroom and showed off his latest acquisition: an electric toothbrush. I was suitably impressed; I had never seen one before.
I negotiated with my employers to lend me Horst and Eric after the collections, so that I could record some of the interesting figures in the postwar art world and in the world in general. UNESCO had just been created, and the first director general was a peppery and illustrious British scientist, Sir Julian Huxley. Getting an appointment was not easy; he clearly thought anything as frivolous as Vogue was a complete waste of time. I managed finally, and brought Horst along. Huxley bustled in, his eyebrows angry thickets. Horst put on his lights and was about to start shooting when there was a loud bang. The frail electricity system was not up to the challenge. “Fellow can’t even manage his bulbs,” Huxley roared, and stamped out.
Our next project, to photograph Gertrude Stein and her poodle, Basket, in Pierre Balmain’s salon, was clear sailing. The photograph shows a massive Gertrude Stein, an obviously unmovable monument. She is looking up at the opposite of her mirror image: a willowy model in evening finery, beruffed and beplumed. Off in the distance are two very small figures: they are Eric and myself. We are often cut off when this image is reproduced, so I make my claim to be seen here.
Stein-Toklas ménage spent the occupation years in the country, and the young, little-known Pierre Balmain was a near neighbor. They exchanged visits and vegetables. Incidentally, how two elderly Jewish ladies remained very visibly unharmed in occupied France is somewhat cloudy.
When Pierre opened his salon at the liberation, Balmain made them clothes. Alice, who never lost her practical sense, said, “For heaven’s sake, Gertrude, don’t let anyone know Pierre dresses us. We look like gypsies.”
In later years, I would, on invitation, drop in for tea with Alice. There was no nonsense about a biscuit or two; there would always be a delicious selection of just-baked cakes. Alice would sit in her rocking chair, so little that her feet in their hand-knitted socks and sandals hardly reached the floor. There she rocked like a little old owl—hooded eyes, just the trace of a mustache. Whenever she had come to some little festivity at my place, or I had done some small favor, a thank-you letter would arrive promptly, written in such a minute script that a magnifying glass was the best weapon.
A highlight of that first Paris fashion foray was to go to a Balenciaga collection. The master couturier had an almost mythical aura. No one got to see him. He never went out. He hated the press. He would slip out the back door to avoid customers. He was so austere, he didn’t even wear a wristwatch.
Balenciaga’s salon at 10, avenue George V was run with the discipline of a convent by the intimidating Mademoiselle Renée. It was not large. There were five white canapés for the important people; lesser souls had to make do with little gold chairs with red cushions. No music for the presentations. Silence. No flood lights.
The mannequins held up a card with a number as they stomped by. Balenciaga’s models were often really plain. One was distractingly walleyed, I remember. The master had instructed them to never smile, never make eye contact, just to look haughtily over the heads of clients.
But the clothes were fabulous!
The other reclusive designer, a total original both professionally and in her private life, was a woman known as Madame Grès. What she did she did extremely well; and she did it alone. Her way of working was peculiar to herself. With a single piece of material, which could measure eighteen to twenty feet across, she created directly on an individual living body. Coaxing the fabric with her fingers, she pleated, molded, manipulated. For more than forty years she created seductive dresses inspired by Greek architecture and sculpture, but ringing subtle changes every time.
I remember my first impression on walking up the flight of stairs to her salon at 1, rue de la Paix. It had none of the generic bustle of a couture house. It was more like the antechamber of an aristocratic nunnery. Cream-colored walls, light-wood furniture, no vitrines of glittering accessories. Voices were never raised.
Mademoiselle, as she was always known in the salon, was a slight, dark-eyed figure, every strand of hair hidden in a tightly wrapped turban, no makeup. She wore monochromatic jersey dresses and matching cardigans. She must have known that I could not afford couture, but whenever I went to the salon, several outfits had been set aside for me. Were they models or samples? I never knew.
Her personal life was inviolate; even her death was kept a mystery. When the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum put on a Madame Grès retrospective in 1994, her daughter let it be known that Grès was following the event with keen interest. Only after the exhibition closed was it revealed, in the Paris newspaper Le Monde, that Madame Grès had died the year before.
Rosamond Bernier cofounded the influential art magazine L’OEIL, which featured the works of the masters of the School of Paris. A renowned lecturer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she was named for life to the International Best-Dressed List.
Excerpted from Some of My Lives: A Scrapbook Memoir by Rosamond Bernier, to be published in October by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2011 by Rosamond Bernier.