“You will do foolish things, but do them with enthusiasm.” –New York World-Telegram and Sun (1961)
Colette. Image from NYPL Digital Image Collection
I completely agree with Colette- if we’re going to do something foolish, relish the opportunity. Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was born on January 28, 1873 in the Burgundy area of France. Her life was an adventure of writing more than fifty novels, marrying three men, having numerous love affairs with men and women, enjoying the company of her cats, working as a chorusgirl, and enjoying life. She was the first woman to be given a state funeral in France. I became a fan of hers recently when I read Chéri and its sequel, The End of Chéri. The dialog is colorful and down-to-earth, and explores social conventions by turning them upside down. A woman of a certain takes a lover half her age. The story has the male character, Chéri, in the role we usually think of a female character with feminine needs and desires. She examines gender roles with humor and irony and her writing is wonderful.
To celebrate Colette’s birthday, I started The Tender Shoot, one of her novels, and a biography, Secrets of the Flesh, by Judith Thurman. For a short biography, see the European Graduate School’s entry.
I just finished reading Kiki’s Memoirs, a fun and sometimes poignant autobiography by Kiki de Montparnasse, born Alice Prin. She writes about her life with the artists of the 1920s Paris including May Ray, Calder, Kisling, and Foujita. She was an audacious, fun-loving woman, an artist’s muse, a showgirl, an actress, and an artist. Her memoir touches on her horrible childhood but focuses on the bohemian life in Montparnasse beginning in the 1920s. She writes about her love affairs, the famous cafes in Paris, the Surrealists, her trip to New York, the trials of the artists trying to eat and keep a roof over their heads, and many other adventures. Her writing style is a bit childlike – perhaps since she was taken out of school at a young age to work she never had the chance to develop a more mature voice. But what I really like is exuberant writing style – she really enjoyed her adventures and relished her life. Alas, Kiki died when she was 51 but I like to think she fit a lot of life in her 51 years.
Kiki, by André Kertész, 1927. Donation André Kertész, Ministère de la culture (Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine), diffusion RMN
Her memoirs were banned in the U.S. when they were first published because of her descriptions of her sexual exploits. (I found them very tame, actually.) Billy Kluver and Julie Martin published a new edition in 1997 with lots of photographs by Man Ray and other artists of the time, as well as Kiki’s own art. If you enjoy reading about Paris in the 1920s or about strong, audacious women, I recommend this book. The New York Times reviewed it here.
Last year Jose-Louis Bocquet and Catel Muller published a graphic novel about Kiki titled Kiki’s Montparnasse. I think it’s a nice companion to Ms. Prin’s autobiography; it has more details about her life after the heydays of Montparnasse.
“I’ve been drunk for about a week now, and I thought it might sober me up to sit in a library.” – from Ch. 3
Francis Cugat’s final jacket painting. Gouache on paper. Princeton University Library.
I hadn’t read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book in many, many years but my friend Fred, who knows how much I enjoy the 1920s, loaned me his copy. I’d read it in high school but liked it much more this go ’round. As a novel about finding one’s moral compass amid the excess and materialism of the post WWI era, I found the story relevant even today. It evoked a melancholy feeling of misplaced priorities and unhappy excess underlying a certain segment of society; I’m not sure how far away our own society is from such excess. And the obsession and misplaced longing for someone is depressing but a part of human nature.
What’s great about the book is the evocative language – I read some passages a number of times just because I like the writing so much. For example –
“There was a ripe mystery about it, a hint of bedrooms upstairs more beautiful and cool than other bedrooms, of gay and radiant activities taking place through its corridors and of romances that were not musty and laid away already in lavender but fresh and breathing and redolent of this year’s shining motor cars and of dances whose flowers were scarcely withered. It excited him too that many men had already loved Daisy–it increased her value in his eyes. He felt their presence all about the house, pervading the air with the shades and echoes of still vibrant emotions.” (Chapter 8)
F. Scott Fitzgerald. Photo courtesy Hofstra University.
The new Gatsby movie by Baz Luhrmann looks moderately entertaining though I’m not a fan of Leonard DiCaprio. I might watch it to see the modern interpretation of the fashions from the early 1920s. Or maybe I’ll check out the one with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow.
I’ve admired French women’s sense of style since I worked with a French woman years ago. We became friends, and she introduced me to stinky cheese, foriegn films, pâté, and her French style. She always looked pulled together yet not contrived. This was Houston in the 80s, time of big blond hair, lots of bright makeup, and shoulder pads that put Joan Crawford to shame. She was much more low key than that yet never sloppy or schlumpy. She wore nice heels to work, or perhaps espadrilles on a very hot day, a cotton pencil skirt, and a white tee-shirt. She skipped hosiery, lipstick and hairspray but still always looked great.
Parisian Chic: A Style Guide is Ines de la Fressange’s book about her Parisian, yet low key, approach to life. She shares tips about dressing, entertaining, beauty, decorating, and shopping. Her illustrations are charming, and the photos spread throughout the book make it more interesting than just a narrative.
Where this books shines is the recommendations for where to shop, sleep, eat, and wander around in Paris. Ms. De la Fressange writes about her favorite spots, and includes websites and other useful information about each. I’ll be in Paris later this summer, and I’ve already tabbed lots of pages with places I want to check out.
I snorted out loud when I read some of her fashion advice – she writes that one should never wear white socks with sandals. I agree completely but the Pacific Northwest has its own special sense of style so it no longer hurts my eyes as much. She also notes that for women of a certain age, “glittery eye shadow – will only make your wrinkles sparkle.” So very true!
White shirts are one of her must-haves. I like her earrings and eyeglasses in this photo.
“Virtuous people are simply those who have not been tempted sufficiently, because they live in a vegetative state, or because their purposes are so concentrated in one direction that they have not had the leisure to glance around them.” – Isadora Duncan
Image from Kennedy Center ArtsEdge
Isadora Duncan was an American dancer who was born May 27, 1878 and died September 14, 1927. She is considered the creator of modern dance, often dancing barefoot and with much less formality than the traditional ballet. She was fond of dressing in light flowy costumes and often used a scarf as a prop; sadly, her death at age 50 was caused by her scarf getting caught in the wheel of a convertible she was in. Her remains are in the columbarian at Cimetière du Père Lachaise in Paris.
Ms. Duncan, an atheist, lived life on her owns terms, and didn’t follow the rules of her time. I admire her for that, and for her free spirited dancing. For more on her life, see a piece by Samuel Dickson prepared for a radio show in 1949. Sabrina Jones has written a graphic novel biography about Duncan which I found enjoyable if not very deep.
My new favorite site for historic photographs is Paris En Images, an astounding treasure trove of material from the city of Paris’ archives. I am smitten with Paris and am plotting ways to live there for a couple of years once my sweetie and I retire. In the meantime, I live vicariously by reading about Americans who’ve lived there. A friend of mine loaned me David McCullough’s The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, which I haven’t started yet but which looks more intriguing than the other books on my shelf at the moment.
The photos below struck my fancy; I think they represent a good cross section of cafe life in early 20th century Paris. And now, off to start my book. Au revoir!