Stalin’s Englishman

stalins-englishmanStalin’s Englishman, by Andrew Lownie, St. Martin’s Press, $29.99

Andrew Lownie’s biography of one of the Cambridge spy circle has recently caught an answering echo at Cambridge.  Three men prominent in intelligence circles, one of them Sir Richard Dearlove, ex-head of MI5 and master of Pembroke College, have resigned as conveners of the Cambridge Intelligence Seminar.

The trouble specifically was over a digital publishing service which was providing funding for the seminar called Veruscript, founded by one Gleb Cheglakov and his wife Nazik Ibraimova.  Some of those who resigned fear that Veruscript may be a front for Russian intelligence services.  One recent attendee at the regular Friday meetings was Mike Flynn, the Trump nominee for US national security adviser.  What an unseemly to do for Corpus Christi College. Continue reading

Plus ça change…

This Renaissance sign required you to measure your catch from the Tiber river:

Your catch should not be larger than this or it belonged to the Pope.

Your catch should not be larger than this or it belonged to the civic authorities.

These days, if you catch something smaller than these:

You measure your catch and if it is smaller than these it goes back into Long Island Sound.

You measure your catch and if it is smaller than these it goes back into Long Island Sound.

One way or another, size always matters and there’s always a catch.

The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters

the-sixThe Mitford sisters have become an industry.  There are over twenty nine titles concerning them and that does not count their own books- three of them were writers. Only one of them was truly a success, the instigator of the Mitford mythology: Nancy Mitford.

Laura Thompson is contributing her second book to this already crowded section of the biography shelf. The Six, The Lives of the Mitford Sisters is not a straightforward biography.  She has already written about Nancy, Life in a Cold Climate and this is her second attempt at mapping the complicated lives of these siblings only this time by psychological surveillance. Continue reading

A Thoroughly Modern Marriage

Portrait of a Marriage

Nigel Nicolson

Atheneum, 233 pages

Vita Sackville-West

Since gay marriage has become a legal reality in the United States so recently, it pays to remember that in the last century tolerance for sexual variety was generally low.  Homosexuality was considered a perversion and a few unlucky people born with the proclivity sought out “cures”.  There were however some surprisingly tolerant oases in this desert of  negative public opinion.

One such was the long running marriage between Harold Nicolson, the British diplomat and his wife Vita Sackville-West the novelist and garden writer.  They married for love in 1913, or so it appeared at the time.  What Harold Nicolson did not know was that his wife was in love with another woman, and only came around to marriage reluctantly. Continue reading

Cristóbal Balenciaga Eizaguirre (1895 – 1972): Master of All Couturiers

The Master of Us All, Balenciaga His Workrooms, His World
by Mary Blume,
Farrar, Straus, Giroux 2013

Cristobal Balenciaga

The news of Oscar de la Renta’s death this past Monday (Oct.20th 2014) snapped one of the last remaining threads stretched between Balenciaga’s era and our own. As a young man, Mr. de la Renta had worked briefly at Balenciaga and the imprint of the great Spanish designer is on his work. You see it in de la Renta’s architectural designs and his love of deep ruffles. Continue reading

Philippe Duc d’Orleans (1640 – 1701); Didn’t Ask, Didn’t Tell

Philippe Duc d’Orleans had the dubious distinction of being Louis XIV’s younger brother. It was not a position to be envied. Having the Grand Monarque as a sibling must have been trying sometimes in the extreme, but Monsieur, as Philippe was always called, had a way of getting out of the tedium of his proximity to power: he was gay.

In fact Monsieur was so very far out of the closet, in a place and at a time, when the “Italian vices” were punishable in all sorts of barbaric ways, that it staggers the mind now both that Monsieur could pursue his way of life relatively unobstructed, or that it was so often recorded by memoirists. We know that his brother Louis detested homosexuality, and yet he seems to have tolerated it in his brother, of whom, we understand, he was very fond. Continue reading

Francois Coty, 1874-1934: Taking Care of Business

Francois Coty is known for the cosmetics giant he created, and less happily for his politics, which in the France of the 1930s leaned considerably to the Right.  But his real legacy may not be his political bent, nor yet his fabulous success in the world of cosmetics, but his innovations in the field of business.

For political historians Coty is the man who bought newspapers in France during the waning of the Third Republic, including the right wing L’Ami du Peuple, and who also flirted with Mussolini and his Fascist regime.  The Manichean politics of the 30s have cast a long shadow over the rest of his life, and perhaps that is a shame, because the Ligurian Corsican from Ajaccio, was a great businessman.  He became a multi-millionaire in a matter of two years after creating his first real perfume: La Rose Jacqueminot, and never looked back.  Continue reading

Diana Vreeland, 1903-1989: The Scarlet Empress of Fashion

Empress of Fashion A Life of Diana Vreeland
Amanda Mackenzie Stuart
Harper 536 pages

All the stories that circulate about editrices of Vogue make a colorful mosaic of anecdotes.  There are the tales of Anna Wintour’s dislike of elevators, and her consequent habit of being conveyed  upstairs in makeshift palanquins by young lackeys, there are the ones of Jessica Daves, Vreeland’s predecessor in the top spot, who is reported to have said, “NO!” to a skirt three or four inches above the knee, very ill advisedly in 1962.  But neither of these ladies, however idiosyncratic, was ever a patch on Vreeland, who was a walking agglomeration of eccentricities.   Continue reading

Claire McCardell 1905-1958: Rich Designs, Poor Fabrics

Among the qualities most strongly associated with American clothes now are functionality and sleekness, and yet they were not always synonymous with US designs.  There was a time when American fashion was essentially just a version of whatever it was that Paris had proposed that particular season, in a variety of colors.  American designers were less designers, than fashion copyists.

This all changed with World War II and the occupation of Paris by the Nazis. Claire McCardell was just one designer who had suddenly gotten a chance to promote designs that were not particularly…French.  She rose to the challenge of providing clothes in wartime, the materials she used, chiefly cottons and knits, were inexpensive and easy to get.  When closures had to change due to shortages, McCardell used steel hooks or piping sewn into long “spaghetti straps” to tie around waists and customize dresses.  She created her own wide belts, in elastic materials that held in the waist without corseting it, and her clothing paired well with functional footwear, ballet slippers (un-rationed footwear during the war) and slave sandals.  She created elasticized snoods for skiing, dresses made of triangles sewn together, wrap sashes in knit fabrics that would not slide down, evening gowns of washable cotton piquet.  Who was this practical woman? Continue reading

Henrietta d’Orleans, 1644-1670; Gather Ye Rosebuds

She is better known to history as the sister of Charles II of England and the sister in law of Louis the XIV of France.  It was the latter association which made the luck of Henrietta’s life.  She was the last child of Charles I  and his French Queen Henrietta Maria. She had gone with her mother into exile in France after her father’s capture and execution, and endured a cold and miserable childhood flitting about the backstairs of the French court, noticed by the young Louis only for her extreme lankiness.

After the Restoration of her brother Charles’s crown, Henriette went from being a skinny girl of no consequence, to being one of the most eligible young women in France.  She made a very grand marriage indeed (1661) to Phillippe d’Orleans, younger brother of Louis XIVContinue reading