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 →
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 →
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 →
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 XIV. Continue reading →
Moliere did it, by all accounts so did Shakespeare, and when you consider that the actor’s greatest tool is observation, and their greatest use of it, characterization, you wonder why writers, who also have to create characters, don’t cross this line more often than they do. But writers are introverted people – aren’t they? They are alienated, self absorbed, at odds with the cosmos they inhabit, unconcerned by such quotidian niceties as the physical world around them – aren’t they?
Maybe not. Charles Dickens certainly was not. If anyone was ever forced into this world like a needle into an epidermis, then surely it was Dickens. He was the most tirelessly observant person anyone could remember ever meeting. Without looking at anything in particular, Dickens wrote of himself as a young man, he had missed nothing. How many of us can say the same? Continue reading →
Wallis Warfield Simpson is a figure of fascination to generations of women and young girls. Her story is so romantic-on its face- that most of us cannot resist yet another biography. However, there is another view of Wallis that inverts the whole fairy tale and turns it into a tale of grotesques, hobbling along a doomed path tethered together for a lifetime, something designed to torment the damned in one of Dante’s lower circles of hell. Biographers see the same picture, some one way up, and some topsy turvy, and in Ms. Sebba’s case it is the upside down version that fills her book with intimations of deformities, neurosis, and disease. Continue reading →
There are fatal encounters in this life some of which do not turn out well for either of those appointed by time and fate to meet. Catherine Hogarth and Charles Dickens probably met at the home of her father George Hogarth in 1835. They quickly became engaged.
Charles was on the rebound from a failed courtship of a determinedly flirtatious girl named Maria Beadnell who had, after the manner of flirts, ended up marrying a young man with greater expectations than his own. He was at a loose end and he was invited home to one of his editors’ houses, and the rest was history.
Catherine at about nineteen or so was an early Victorian pin up with brown hair, big blue eyes, a pink face and a curvaceous figure that was going to run to fat in later life. She was captivated almost at once by Dickens’ energy and his humor, his bright waistcoats, may have helped as well. He, on the other hand, liked Catherine’s “calm”. Continue reading →
Her name was Ellen. She was an actress born to an actress mother and had two older sisters who were also actresses. The Ternan family had been treading the boards long before Ellen came along and the talent in the family belonged to her mother rather than to her actor/manager father who died early and tragically. Ellen Lawless Ternan struggled along after that death with her mother and sisters trying to eke out a living on the London stage.
For many years it must have seemed like a thankless struggle and an unprofitable one to the little family, but then, when Ellen was eighteen, a privately produced melodrama went into Wilkie Collins production which required professional actresses. It was called The Frozen Deep and it featured among its principal players, the writer Charles Dickens. Continue reading →
They don’t make biographers like this anymore. Usually these days the ability to write clear English is much less and the tendency to promulgate unsupported speculation is much greater, than in the last decades of the twentieth century. That was when Massie published the bestseller which made his name, Nicholas and Alexandra.
The same qualities that propelled Massie to the top then are evident in his prose now. He may not be a great writer of lyrical sentences. Consider his description of the day that Catherine usurped the crown of Russia from her husband Peter III: “That afternoon at Peterhof was warm and sunny, and the lesser members of Peter’s entourage remained on the terraces near the cool spray of the fountains or wandered through the gardens under the cloudless summer sky.” Continue reading →
Anne Boleyn has to date had far too many biographies written about her. She is such a fascinating character, the woman for whom Henry the VIII broke faith with Rome to form an entirely new English church, and threw his family, and his kingdom into turmoil, and moreover lost Sir Thomas More’s head. (Someone else had to lose Sir Thomas More’s head; he never lost it himself.)
Anne Boleyn has been endlessly misjudged in my estimation. People marvel at her success with her off-beat looks, and her eleven fingers, and her elegance, and think that those things, together with the solely contemporarily detectable quality of sexiness, explain her hold on King Henry – but I don’t think so. Continue reading →