The Designer and the Duchess

Late afternoon lounging along the Hudson River. 5:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Monday, September 17, 2012.  A beautiful Sunday in New York. Sunny and warm with temperatures in the low 70s and nighttimes in the low 60s. What I think of as L.A. weather around this time of year.

I had a quiet (no activity) weekend which is what I wished for.  On Saturday I went down to my compulsive book shopper store Archivia and came home with “Edith Wharton at Home; Life at The Mount” by Richard Guy Wilson with Foreword by Pauline Metcalf and photographs by John Arthur (Monacelli Press).

Edith Wharton in The Mount library, 1905.
I grew up in that neck of the woods, about thirty miles from Wharton’s estate – which I never knew about as a kid. The Berkshires had long before lost its thrall for the New York rich of the Gilded Age. But Edith Wharton’s “Ethan Frome” which I first read in college freshman English, still resonates when I think of that part of the world and its seasons.

I bought the book because the house has always taken my fancy. Able majesty in the New England hills and woods. So when I got home, I started with the introduction which was written Ms. Metcalf -- once a subject one of NYSD HOUSE. The intro drew me right into the story of Wharton and her history of houses.

Houses have always fascinated me since childhood, not least by the stories of the people who lived in them, but also by the fashion of the interiors and what they say about the dwellers and their dramas.

This book, which I actually bought for the photographs, does that: it tells you about the Mrs. Wharton and the lives around her – like her husband who seemed to have failed her although it probably motivated her as a writer. I wonder, as I read about her, if I would have liked that personality, from that age and that certainty of style and decorum, especially interior design and decorating. A house always speaks for its master; and keeps the vibe, no matter what it is.

Reading on, I’m still not sure how I would have felt about her, although her house was built for comfort and contemplation. Its creator/owner was plucky and a worker. She was prone to practical luxury to soothe her heartache and uncertainties.  The Mount must have assured that for her. Although, despite its power on the senses, it could never fill the woman’s sense of void; in 1911 she moved to Paris where she spent the greater part of her time for the rest of her life.

Click to order or buy immediately at Archivia on 72nd and Lexington.
The house, now more than a century old, has been through the predictable rigors of changing times and lives, and has been restored, and opened to the public. Its bones are intact and brilliantly sturdy, a triumph of taste, artfulness, and intelligence of an Age punctuated by extreme transitions in the world. Wharton lived there for only about ten years. Looking at, and reading this book about the lady, her friend Codman -- who helped her (sometimes) with the house -- and her alas-poor-Teddy, I could imagine that she must have missed the house and those moments she had in and around it, for the rest of her life. This book prepares you for autumn.

On Friday night I had dinner at Sette Mezzo with an old friend. We started out talking about her experience of Fashion Week. She’d had enough; and talked about the “step and repeat” that goes on before the shows. “Step and Repeat” is the name given for those people pictures taken in front of a scrim that promotes some business. They’re as boring to look at as a police line-up and they don’t flatter or draw special interest. But they plug. It’s the name recognition/ branding process annoying the senses. It might behoove a few of our advert and communications gurus to work more on their “allure” factor and deep six the “In Your Face” and give themselves (and us) a break.

However, my friend at dinner was talking about the (society) “girls” and their contrived “images” versus their “realities.” This is where the gossip in New York begins to get off the ground (although rarely ascend).  I was hoping she was gonna fill my ears with a labyrinthine tale about one of our better known local couples, and who’s been doing what with whom or to whom. Remember this is New York and life can be a full-blown who-dun-it segment before you cut to commercial.

It started out with a very pretty young divorcee with two little ones in private schools here (45 grand a year) while she sleeps on the (cold) floor of their studio apartment. You feel sorry for her? Couldn’t you? Ahh, but she’s out there pitching for another rich guy who will return her to a top-of-the-line mattress. So to speak. Denouement? There is none. She’s just out there.

From Oscar de la Renta's S/S 2013 collection.
The biggest drama to come out of Fashion Week was not about these “girls,” however, but an in-print “shouting” match between Cathy Horyn of the New York Times and Oscar de la Renta whom Ms. Horyn referred to as a “hotdog” in her summation of his latest collection. If that reference makes no sense, read the story on Ellin’s Fashion Diary on today’s NYSD. She reports it.

This is not the first time that Ms. Horyn’s copy has drawn ire from Mr. de la Renta. A few collections ago he took issue with her words about his work. It is understandably very annoying personally for the designer -- who is Latin, and a man of pride and commitment, as well as possibly very annoying for Ms. Horyn who, like the designer, was also practicing her art, which is that of a critic.

Perhaps Mr. de la Renta should have/could have ignored her remark which does have the feel of a “put down.” But then: well, why should he? He’s been at it for a half century. He’s been to Reno, He’s been to Beverly Hills, as the song goes, and he is indeed still here. And fine and dandy also. That is no mean feat in this business, or any business (not even Chanel had that long a non-stop run). And not only is Oscar still here, he is still creating clothes that women look beautiful, even stunning in. His business is better than ever, too.  Isn’t that, at the end of the day, what-it’s-all-about-Alfie? And so shouldn’t the man defend himself? And his clients?

So it’s a lovely little drama in New York’s pantheon of fashion, a fine distraction from so many of the heavier ones that we are surrounded with these days. And in one way or another, good for everyone.

In the meantime, Mr. de la Renta’s current collection has been judged by Ellin Saltzman as well as some of his best clients whom I know, as one of his very best. 

Today on NYSD on Schulenberg’s page, we’re running some fashion copy excerpted  from the August 31, 1929 New Yorker. Bob Schulenberg has provided some sketches to illustrate this vintage copy written just seven weeks before the 1929 Stock Market Crash. Back in those halcyon days, it had only been fifteen years since hemlines moved above the ankle (and even sometimes the knee) for the FIRST TIME in the history of Western Civilization. The feminist movement was taking shape and so were the dresses ...

Also today we are running one of those excellent obituaries from the Telegraph of London ... this one of Nicole the Duchess of Bedford, who died ten days ago in Monaco at the age of 92.

The duchess cut a memorable figure in the world in the 1960s after she married John Russell, the 13th Duke of Bedford and assisted him in re-inventing his family pile, Woburn Abbey -- as well as the state of the stately homes of England. The ancient property, inherited by the duke and subjected to crushing death duties, was transformed into a highly successful revenue source.

The Duchess, who was born and bred in France was not only a beauty, but a remarkable woman who lived many lives before she met the duke just by chance. Good times, and bum times, (she’d) seen them all, and my dear ...

Nicole, Duchess of Bedford

Nicole, Duchess of Bedford, who has died in Monte Carlo aged 92, was the third wife of Ian, 13th Duke of Bedford. From 1959, when the press first seized on the story of their romance, until their sudden departure to France in 1974, the Bedfords were seldom out of the news, flamboyantly leading the stately home business as they promoted Woburn Abbey all over the world.

When Nicole married the Duke in 1960, he was already a well-known figure. His career was slight — he had dabbled in journalism and briefly served with the Coldstream Guards — and he had his allowance cut off by his father when he married a Mrs Clare Hollway in 1939. She died of an overdose in 1945, and he then married Mrs Lydia Lyle, with whom he moved to South Africa, returning to Britain only when his father shot himself in 1953. When he took on Woburn he was faced with £4.5 million in death duties, a problem he solved by opening the house to the public in 1955.
Nicole, Duchess of Bedford.
The Duke became — alongside the Marquess of Bath and Lord Montagu of Beaulieu — one of the great innovators among stately home owners. He promoted Woburn tirelessly, built a funfair, gave lectures, appeared on television and even allowed a nudist film to be shot on the estate. His aim was to turn the estate round and hand it on in good order to his son, Robin, Marquess of Tavistock. Having done so, in 1974 he and Nicole left England, eventually settling in Monte Carlo, amid relics of the jet set.

The Duchess proved the perfect associate in his mission: organised, energetic and possessed of considerable flair. She achieved a measure of fame on her own account when she published her memoirs, “Nicole Nobody” (1974), which featured a story about her being held captive in a Manchester hotel room for three days by a stranger “with a gentle-giant smile” who had proved himself “a superb lover”, bestowing on her “an awakening that every woman should experience”. Whether or not this was strictly true, the book was a success, selling more than a million copies.

Nicole Marie Charlotte Pierrette Jeanne Schneider was born in Paris on June 29 1920, the daughter of Paul Schneider, a First World War French flying ace, and his wife Marguerite Durand, whose father owned Les Fonderies de Creil, a cast-iron factory which made French coinage. On her mother’s side Nicole descended from a noble French family, the Crouzet de Rayssac des Roches. She was brought up at Chantilly-Creil, near Paris, attending a convent school in Neuilly.

When she was only 18 her father decided that she should marry Henri Milinaire, a 31-year-old painter whose father owned a steelworks and other businesses. In love with another man, Nicole became, in her own words, “the desolate bride of a man I did not love and never even came to know after marriage”. Nevertheless, she dutifully produced two sons and two daughters.

The man she loved, Michel Bompard, engaged her in Resistance activities during the Second World War: she conveyed messages and sometimes machine-gun parts past the German occupiers, occasionally using her children’s pram. She claimed to have been arrested on three occasions. She was miserable when Bompard died in a prison camp in 1945.

Short of money and increasingly independent of her husband, post-war she travelled across Europe to sell graphic designs for a Milinaire-owned company. She was good at the job, and found time for numerous extramarital adventures. She had a fortunate escape in 1947 when, at the last minute, she decided not to board an aircraft that crashed near Copenhagen, killing the Crown Prince of Sweden and the operatic soprano Grace Moore.

John Ian Robert Russell, 13th Duke of Bedford.
In the 1950s, having embarked on a liaison with the American producer Sheldon Reynolds, she left the world of retail and became a television producer, working on his celebrated Sherlock Holmes series which starred Ronald Howard and Howard Marion-Crawford. Between 1951 and 1954 she assisted in the production of the film Foreign Intrigue, starring Robert Mitchum.

While she was involved with the 1957 CBS series Dick and the Duchess, starring Patrick O’Neal and Richard Wattis, it was decided that they should produce a real-life Duke as a publicity stunt. They came up with the Duke of Bedford, who was presented to Nicole as a man who was anxious to promote his ancestral home and himself: “He does anything for publicity and loves being photographed,” she was told. The diffident Duke arrived, and was soon telling her of the collapse of his second marriage; not long afterwards he proposed. When Nicole accepted, the notorious Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, cabled the Duke: “Why marry her when you can have me?”

The Duke and Nicole married at Woburn Abbey in a blaze of publicity on September 2 1960. Although British high society was always a little wary of the Duchess, finding her brash and even vulgar, and disdaining her habit of signing her letters “Nicole de Bedford”, she took to her role at Woburn with gusto, exhibiting considerable taste.

She later wrote: “It was obvious that the most important thing was to bring some organisation to Woburn... The head of the cleaning department quit on the spot as she said she had been trained by the Flying Duchess [the aviatrix and ornithologist married to the 11th Duke] and would not change any of her habits (which mostly included going downstairs once every hour for a cup of tea, to gossip about the weather and, I guess, the Abbey’s inhabitants).
A triptych of the the Duchess.
She summoned experts from France to catalogue the furniture and china. With the Duke, she designed new viewing rooms in the basement for their unique Sèvres collection, which they discovered hidden away in storage. They converted the unused stables into antique shops, renovated the sculpture gallery and created a restaurant.

“I also covered the silk curtains with tulle netting,” she disclosed, “after I found some woman, walking through the Abbey’s public rooms, who was cutting pieces out of the silk curtains with a pair of scissors for souvenirs.”
Woburn Abbey.
The Duke and Duchess traveled the world to promote Woburn in lectures about the house, the park and their spectacular art collection. In 1970 they opened a safari park, with African wildlife.

The house became alive with guests: ambassadors, film stars, and business magnates such as Nubar Gulbenkian. The Duchess was always aware that Woburn, with its 120 rooms, 97 telephones and 565 windows, was her husband’s first love and she took it on “just like having another child to raise”.

In 1971, following a conversation between the Duke and his heir, it was decided that they would leave Woburn in 1974, handing over the estate to his son to protect it against death duties. The Duke was given a lump sum which, though generous at that time, did not last. They continued to travel, finding it hard to settle: in their first three years of self-imposed tax exile, they lived in France, Italy, Switzerland, Portugal and Monaco.
Queen Victoria's Bedroom at Woburn Abbey. There are numerous state rooms at Woburn which were kept mainly for visiting royalty.
In later years there were occasional photographs of the Bedfords at some Monte Carlo gala, published in magazines such as Hola! and Point de Vue. The Duke died in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in October 2002.

At the end of her life the Duchess lived in a small flat in Monte Carlo, and she died at the Princess Grace Hospital in the principality.

She is survived by her two sons and one daughter; another daughter predeceased her in 1998.

Nicole, Duchess of Bedford, born June 29 1920, died September 6 2012
 

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