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Prison and Fashion – an unlikely link?

Brian Stonehouse The Green Dress c 1955

Brian Stonehouse The Green Dress c 1955

As I start to write segments of my book on Paris in wartime (and beyond) it’s hard to get prisons out of my mind – especially Nazi ones. On Monday I interviewed the surviving daughter of a French resistante, one of the bravest imaginable who even tried to escape from Ravensbruck, possibly the only woman ever to try and escape from this particular hell hole. But she was re-captured and made to pay cruelly. Amazingly, she survived her punishment of torture, solitary confinement and a diet verging on starvation and was liberated by the Swedish Red Cross in 1945. One of the most extraordinary documents which also survived, and which her daughter showed me during our interview, was her mother’s prison ID card, stamped with the dates of her various prison stays mostly in France but culminating in Ravensbruck. The barbarity is so hard to believe that these pieces of tangible evidence are more important than ever.

Before her arrest, this sophisticated Parisienne was noted for wearing elegant Lanvin suits while undertaking highly dangerous missions. And the unlikely link between prison and fashion, which will be threaded through my book, (pun intended), continued the day after this moving interview when I visited the unusual exhibition of works by the SOE secret agent and artist, Brian Stonehouse at the London gallery, Abbott and Holder until December 23rd.

http://www.abbottandholder-thelist.co.uk/brian-stonehouse-vogue/

Stonehouse, who moved to the US after the war where he became a Vogue illustrator, (one of the last before photography took over completely), may not be a household name in the pantheon of British secret agents. However, he played a critical role at one point in post war SOE history as his artistic skills enabled him to help identity four women he had seen hours before they were sent to their deaths at Natzweiler-Strutof camp, where he too was being held in the summer of 1944.  He had noticed the women’s arrival and, after the war, dredged his memory to produce sketches of them in order to try and help with identifying them. Within hours of their arrival, the women were given lethal injections of phenol in an attempt to drug them before their bodies were thrown in the crematorium. But one of the women, although drugged, apparently woke up when her body was flung into the furnace and began to struggle just enough to scratch the face of the German executioner forcing her back in. It is believed that this brave woman who resisted until the last, was Vera Leigh, a milliner before the war and another true Parisienne.

Stonehouse, a remarkable man who survived two and a half years of torture and solitary confinement himself in a variety of camps, is now being celebrated in London for his artistic talent. The Imperial War Museum holds many of the drawings he made on the liberation of Dachau and of the War Crimes Tribunal but these fashion sketches show he was a man of many talents. As for the numerous women whose stories I am unearthing, their bravery was second to none but they still cared about how they look. From the moment war was declared in September 1939 fashion was viewed in France at least as yet another small way in which German dominance could be resisted.

There is a book to accompany the exhibition – Brian Stonehouse: Artist,  Soldier, War Hero, Fashion Illustrator – by Frederic A. Sharf with Michelle Finamore

Museums and Women!

Blog on Museums and WomenAs book titles go, Museums and Women is about as boring as it gets. But in John Updike’s hands, of course it is emotional and sensuous, intellectual and erotic. It is the title of a short story (and subsequent volume) about a small boy first visiting a museum with his mother which morphs into a tale of adultery with a woman working in a museum. It is beautifully written.  It was left on a table for me to read at the club in New York where I am staying this week. I had plenty of other reading material with me but, waking early from jet lag, this fifty- year old volume spoke to me.

One of my favourite cities for visiting Museums is New York and today was no different. I was aware of the newly opened Memorial to 9/11 Museum on the site of the tragedy which announces that it “will display artifacts associated with the events of 9/11, while presenting stories of loss and recovery.”  There is an associated gift shop selling T Shirts and other memorabilia. Not surprisingly,  it is deeply controversial and it wasn’t a difficult decision for me to go instead to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue. There I looked at all the children thronging the Egyptian galleries of the Met and wondered what their memories of childhood visits to admire ancient statuary would be. What could they possibly make of the faces with no noses, the bodies with no arms and magnificent jewellery?

I was there to see the amazing ball gowns designed by legendary 20th century Anglo-American couturier, Charles James. One of his 1950’s creations would cost around $12,000 in today’s money so they were a true “investment piece” as the phrase goes. James was born in England in 1906 to a British army father who never understood his creative son and treated him cruelly and a Chicago socialite mother, almost wealthy enough to be called a dollar princess and whose contacts among American high society were to prove invaluable when her son set out in Paris, first as a milliner.

He returned to England during the war but Post-war established himself in New York.

What’s not to like about a designer who says: “My dresses help women discover figures they didn’t know they had.”

Or this “All my work was inspired by women who were not merely lovely or rich but personalities and who seemed to share some of my own feeling about life in general.”

But it’s not just that I warmed to the man. The inaugural exhibition of the newly renovated Costume Institute Charles James: Beyond Fashion is spectacular technically and visually. http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2014/charles-james-beyond-fashion/images

By using robotic electronic cameras, most of the ball gowns on display are individually deconstructed on an adjacent screen which explains and explores James’s design process, focusing on his use of sculptural, scientific, and mathematical approaches to construct his revolutionary and magnificent ball gowns.

The exhibition is not just entertainment for women. James himself saw himself as a creative artist on a par with many famous writers and musicians of the day. He is also an inventor. He needed women for his art but, as the Met curators rightly recognise, this story is not just about fashion, it goes way beyond fashion.

Charles James : Beyond fashion is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until August 8th 2014

What I really mean when I say I am going to Paris for a few days…

Why does nobody believe me when I say I am going to Paris to work? No, not shopping, I pronounce confidently, it’s a research trip.

‘Ha, ha! Have a nice holiday,’ they say as they wave me off. If I told people I was going to Berlin or Edinburgh, or even Geneva, they wouldn’t make the same automatic assumption.

Is it because of the latest shenanigans with President Hollande and his motorcycle helmet that people assume Paris is code for doing something else? Or is it historic, this attitude to Paris? Certainly a German soldier posted to Paris in 1941 rejoiced. Of course it was better than the eastern front. It had food, women, perfume and brothels.

A tiny part of me, of course, doesn’t mind the teasing. It’s why I am writing the book I am about women in Paris in the 40’s, both during the war and after it. I knew instinctively when I proposed the idea that what de Gaulle managed to do after the war for the whole of France was writ large in Paris. He ensured that the idea of Paris, the notion of a city, depended upon its reputation as a hub of beauty, gastronomy and fashion – and he succeeded magnificently. Paris is exciting. It is a breathtakingly beautiful city whose buildings, if not its honour, remained virtually intact after the war. The brothels may have been closed down (more or less…at any rate they were made illegal in 1946) but, seventy years after the liberation, Paris is still the city of romance par excellence. Parisian women look stunningly fashionable, just as they tried to do throughout the War.

Well, mostly they do.  The everyday reality is different for anyone who travels beyond the centre to the suburbs. Try telling anyone who spends days in the subterranean enclosure that is the Bibliotheque Nationale or the National Archives, which are located miles outside the centre in a desolate part of the city,  that you are going for a romantic holiday. The train from the airport to the centre – for those who do not use Eurostar – comes past a number of dreary suburbs including the hellish Drancy. How could anyone live in a town whose name is a byword for the evil perpetrated on French soil?  The metro is often crowded full of thousands of jostling, unfashionable, ordinary women going about their daily business as well as beggars and thieves just as in every European city. Tragically people throw themselves under trains here just as they do in London. I have noticed however that French seem not to treat the metro as a convenient place to have a smelly curry in the way do in London.

Fabulous shops in Paris, boutiques

So what about the shopping?  Well, there are some fabulous shops in Paris, boutiques which are not part of any chain selling wildly original objects displayed eye catchingly. There is a sweet smelling artisan chocolatier or patisserie on every street corner and an ‘artisan’ bag or belt maker on several others. Haute cuisine and haute couture are put within the tempting reach of every miserable passer-by. Right next door to my hotel is a fabulous designer hat shop but so far the prices have kept me just a window shopper. I just look longingly at the beautiful designer shops and popup shops and the unusual –objects- which-I-really- don’t-need-shops. I even found myself stopping outside a designer spectacle shop today and feeling deeply covetous. So far, other than the occasional gift, I have kept away.

ColetteBut yesterday my resolve cracked as my research took me to a new part of town – the Comedie Francaise archives are located not only right in the centre of town but in the Palais Royale, nestling among the historic arcades full of designer boutiques. The writer Colette lived here and ever watchful had a good view of several unsavoury comings and goings during the War. My hands were dangerously cold, I decided. I had to have some gloves, some Parisian gloves I convinced myself. And as my cosseted fingers recovered their feeling I recognised that these fabulously expensive gloves are just softer, sleeker, longer more supple than any gloves I have ever bought in London. No I am not acquiring a Parisian shopping habit. They are only gloves after all.

The Pram in the Hall – Enid Bagnold Writer and Mother

gaudier-brzeskaA talk I gave recently at the October Gallery – The annual Persephone Lecture

I have never thought it a particular advantage to know the person you are writing about. You will have known them at a particular time or in a particular role. Above all, for a child to write about a parent seems to me a recipe for disaster – unless you state from the outset this is a very one sided memoir. Children are often the least useful witnesses a biographer can find. Yet, try as we might to be objective, I think biographers too should plead guilty to subjectivity, to seeing their subject through a particular prism. Perhaps they lived in the same village, studied at the same college but in particular I believe that what we really cannot shed is the age we are at time of writing. However much I think I can imagine a particular emotion, or I am sure that I know what a particular experience must have felt like, I want to take this opportunity – openly and unequivocally – to admit my failure. Only now, having hit 60 myself and living through an age-obsessed time when the secret of eternal youth is promised from many quarters, do I really understand what Enid Bagnold – not exactly a vain woman but one who cared about her looks – meant when she wrote that one of the few counterbalancing factors for the pain of growing old was that, thanks to fading eyesight, she couldn’t really see all those wrinkles and grey hairs that worried her so much in anticipation – (although true to her novelist’s calling, exaggerating to make her point – she is not being wholly truthful even here as of course magnifying mirrors were around in the 1980’s.) But I can now at least understand why she wanted to have a face lift (and how radical was that in the 1970’s) and I admire her honesty and truthfulness about discussing this far more today than I could possibly have 30 years ago.

And here she is as Gaudier Brzeska saw her on the eve of WW One

So, I am immensely grateful to Persephone for giving me this second chance to look at Bagnold thirty years on. And of course to Faber Finds for republishing my biography. I’m relieved to say I haven’t found a different person or a different story. But the focus, if I were writing the book today, might be slightly sharper here or hazier there. The emphasis on different aspects of her life might be weightier here and pruned there. Actually I don’t think it would be a better book (I would say that wouldn’t I?) But I now understand in a wholly empathetic way why, in her 60’s and 70’s, she was still burning with ambition to write a successful play. I remember, with shame, a feeling in my 20’s that when I reached 60 I’d be happy to stay at home quietly knitting whereas in fact my desire to travel, to meet people, to achieve and to experience life is not only unabated it is in some ways greater as I am acutely aware of the limited time left and…and I can see why it risks appearing frankly unbecoming in someone of my years just as it did for Enid.

No, I think, or at least hope, that writing the biography of EB in my late 20’s gave me a youthful enthusiasm which suited my subject and gave me a perspective on her young days and early married life I might not have had now. I was rooting for her when the boyfriend didn’t work out (after all it wasn#39;t so far away for me that I could still remember those rejections, sharp longings and early fumblings) but most of all I deeply identified…and I say this fully aware of strictures by that great biographer Richard Holmes that self-identity with one’s subject is the first crime of a biographer…with her passionate desire to have babies and having had them to have more of them and then to be the best mother there had ever been. I understood the passionate and oh so unexpected flood of love when her first golden-haired child arrived – love neither she, nor I, knew we possessed. And then she found it a second time for her equally beautiful son – just as I was to do. My pigeon pair as I learned. The Squire, her truly great novel not just about motherhood but about what she believed it meant to be a woman, springs from that deep well of unconditional love. Enid wanted to go on and on, bringing up such treasures.

The Clifford Sisters for Femail Writer Enid Bagnold picturedSo let’s go back a bit. Who was Enid Bagnold? In her own sparkling and idiosyncratic autobiography (entitled I am tempted to say with no artifice but of course there was artifice aplenty) ‘Enid Bagnold’s autobiography’, published in 1969, she writes that she was driven to explore family history because of her fascination that “sperm had been shot across two centuries to arrive at me”. Such an earthy – and original – simile was typical of her writing (she once described her own prose as ‘beautiful vomit’) but what she is also revealing is an intense fascination with herself. Not unusual for ‘a born writer!’ as she called herself. When I came to research her biography I found all her notebooks and scrapbooks were embellished with directions/ guidance for a putative biographer – me! Pictures of the Franco-Romanian princes, Antoine and Emmanuel Bibesco, for example, princes who had been close friends of Proust, were annotated with helpful comments like ‘this is the brother who committed suicide’ or ‘here we are visiting a church together’!

But Antoine Bibesco, the man she always adored, was never going to marry the plump and rather jolly Miss Enid Bagnold, daughter of Colonel Arthur Bagnold, a man who was as much engineer as soldier, and the former Miss Ethel Alger. They were, as her parents regularly reminded her, gentlefolk, and had been for generations. Enid was constantly testing her parents either by her requests to paint nude models when she studied with Sickert (turned down) or her request to visit the old roué journalist Frank Harris, her editor as well as lover, when he was in Brixton prison – agreed to “because people of breeding do not abandon a friend in need,” her father told her. Read More

Confused in Berlin

Train Station memorial

Berlin Gleis 17

A weekend in cold and wet Berlin has left me confused.

Can you (should you) make art out of suffering and if so what is appropriate where and who should pay?

Why do I find tourist maps offering tours of Jewish Berlin, tours of Nazi Berlin, tours of ‘fun time’ Berlin offensive … Are we doing the murdered Jews any favours by offering tours of a destroyed civilisation?

Should there ever be a time when tourists will come to Germany and not think about the holocaust that tried to wipe out the once flourishing Jewish presence there?

Well, actually, I don’t have any answers to these questions but they have all been refusing to lie low these last few days. When I looked vacantly at someone today as she asked how my trip had been I explained: I was still feeling rather churned up after my visit.

Oh Berlin is one of my favourite places, she riposted. The Berliners did so much to try and stop the Nazis you know…the big synagogue survived because a brave Berliner prevented the mob …

Stop, I said. I did not want anyone else telling me what to think. But perhaps she was right.

Were there in fact dozens of good Germans rendered powerless by fear and the need to survive who were merely forced into inaction by a tiny minority?  Some 55,000 Berlin Jews died in concentration camps, but approximately 80,000 escaped.  A visit to the small brush workshop run by Otto Weidt for blind Jewish workers moved me most of all partly because it seemed hardly to have changed. Surviving letters, yellow stars and photographs were in simple display cases the tables for the machines with which he made the brushes needed by the German army were in the places they had always been and the wooden floorboards in the secret room still so creaky that my heart lurched. I came as near as I possibly could in the prosperous 21st century to  imagining what it must have been like to hide in a tiny airless room entirely dependent on the kindness of strangers for a mouthful of food, news, clothes everything. A network verging on a hundred brave people was apparently, sometimes necessary to save one life bearing in mind all the bribes and blackmail and lying involved.

This room in a graffiti-rich, little renovated courtyard in former East Germany was an extraordinary survival with no artifice about it. But was it really: “One of many places in Berlin where non-Jews risked their lives to save their Jewish neighbours,” as one guide book stated?

Germany has for years been the most contrite of nations, admitting its guilt in numerous ways and welcoming Jews back.  Berlin today is a vibrant and growing community with thousands of Jews mostly from Russia and Israel now choosing once again to settle in Germany.

You can’t walk around this city without stumbling on a brass plate in any of the cobbled streets Stolpersteine indicating who once lived there and where they were murdered (yes, murdered no soft talking references to dying here) It is a private initiative paid for by anyone who cares, not the government – local or national. But this too has its opponents …should you be trampling on these souls, as some critics complain or since they have already been killed, what more can you do to harm them? Several of the monuments are on steps and one of the most moving for me was a cartouche of names visible on the upward tread of stairs in a once Jewish quarter indicating names and places of abode.  It is termed an installation, a term which I liked less and less…this can never be art. But alongside the steps and at the top are mirrors acting as an extra reminder. You cannot exit this particular U Bahn station without noticing something.

But by the time I came to Daniel Liebeskind’s Jewish museum I was starting to feel uncomfortable. It is magnificent and clever but it is very definitely art and, what’s more, art subtly manipulating your responses. Why are the objects displayed in a cabinet with a circular glass surround?  The shape of the building is interesting as it traces a path leading to the Stair of Continuity, then up to and through the exhibition spaces of the museum, emphasizing the continuum of history. The second leads out of the building and into the Garden of Exile and Emigration, remembering those who were forced to leave Berlin. The third leads to a dead end — the Holocaust Void.

The Holocaust Void is cold and empty and unpleasant. But I left it of my free will after five minutes.

I think Berlin and those who have planned some of the memorials have on the whole done an impossible job with tact, sensitivity and feeling. I was moved by the small signs of a phone a pet or a loaf of bread placed on posts in the former Jewish quarter to remind inhabitants of the daily torments suffered by their erstwhile neighbours prior to deportation  (After the Nuremberg Laws they were allowed none of these) And surely few can fault the way German history is taught, even to the very young, actively fostering greater understanding in schools, a point movingly made in the TV interview with Judith (When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit) Kerr this week to mark her 90th birthday. Her father was a leading theatre critic and Nazi opponent and her family escaped Berlin swiftly in 1933. Although her parents never fully recovered from the pain of exile she and her brother were resilient, looking on it as something of an adventure. Her book is now a set text in German schools as the film showed. It also filmed her walking along Gleis (platform) 17 of the Grunewald station. Here the memorials are devastatingly plain and simple, the message unadorned. The numbers and dates of Jewish deportees have been carved at the edge of the train tracks where unknowing Jews stood before deportations to Auschwitz, Minsk, Theresienstadt or Sachsenhausen. Fittingly this memorial has been paid for by the train company which profited from the human traffic.

Kerr stood there in 2013 pondering what fate would have unquestioningly befallen her family had they not moved out as fast as they did. All of us who have enjoyed her books owe her brave parents a huge debt.