Friday, October 21, 2016

Proust’s Muse

Hitching a ride. 3:30 PM. Photo: JH.
Friday, October 21, 2016. The weatherman says that rain is coming our way, although at the time of this writing, late evening Thursday, it feels like Mother Nature hasn’t decided yet. It was like that yesterday in New York: overcast and a bit cooler, but not much; and comfortable.

In the early afternoon, I made the metro-trek from my door on East End and 83rd to Seventh Avenue and 27th. Midday, no matter the method of transportation, the time of arrival is up for grabs for one reason or another (depending on who you ask). Howbeit and albeit; I beat it.
Yesterday, after leaving the Museum at FIT, I walked over to the flower market on West 28th where some bright red cyclamen caught my eye. At ten bucks per, I brought home four to add to the terrace.
It wasn’t so bad. I took a cab. We came down the FDR to the 34th Street exit, taking a right at 39th, and a left on Second to a right on 27th Street. I tell you this because these are the little details that please a New Yorker immensely, and don’t always occur much.

I had a very smart driver (a native of India). He knew about the traffic of the hour and the area. I often suggest the route I want to take because I take it so often I know the quickest (to please me). But yesterday I didn’t know, and I asked the driver what he thought. He thought the route he took for me was the wisest. And fastest. He was right.

27th and Seventh Avenue, on the west side of two blocks, north and south is occupied by FIT and the Museum at FIT. Personally, the most important thing about the institution for my way of thinking is that it attracts serious, ambitious, willing-to-work hard, creative young men and women who almost all go on to prosperous interesting careers. Would that all college educations could offer that. Then again, FIT is a prep college. Its students attend to prepare for the life/profession they want to make.

I was there yesterday for a lecture at 2 p.m. by Caroline Weber, who is a friend of mine. The Museum is currently exhibiting “Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe” featuring extraordinary fashions from the legendary wardrobe of Elisabeth de Caraman-Chimay, the Countess Greffulhe, who was “celebrated for her aristocratic and artistic elegance.” The program described the countess as a fashion icon comparable to Daphne Guinness today.

Élisabeth Greffulhe lived through the end of the Second Empire of Napoleon III, two French republics, the Belle Époque, the the Roaring Twenties, the Depression, and the First and Second World Wars. She was said to be the most beautiful woman in Paris, in both body and spirit.
Elisabeth de Caraman-Chimay, the Countess Greffulhe.
Marcel Proust and friends, 1904, by which time he had long met and known the countess, although in many ways just from the outside looking in.
Caroline’s lecture was just one of a day-long academic symposium at the Museum, titled “Proust’s Muse.” I was particularly interested because Caroline, whose “Queen of Fashion; What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution” was an insightful history with an angle that interests me: Fashion presages. For Marie-Antoinette, tragic figure of that history, all of her good news became bad, even horrifying news. Her wardrobes, one of her few real freedoms before her great fall, tracked the French Revolution to the point where it is often blamed on her. Her fashion, however, was The Message seen only in retrospect. That is, incidentally, my opinion, not Caroline’s, although I know she would agree somewhat.
The Countess Greffuhle and her husband Henri, Count Greffuhle.
Caroline is in the process of completing a new book — “Swann Song; In Search of Marcel Proust’s Duchess.” That includes several individuals who were fashioned into characters in Proust’s masterpiece, “À la recherche du temps perdu” (or “Remembrance of Things Past”). The duchess in Caroline’s history is Elisabeth Greffuhle, the inspiration for Proust’s Duchess de Guermantes

The Countess Greffuhle in her famous "lily" gown by Worth.
Her dress in the early 20th century.
Caroline told us in her twenty-minute talk that the countess was born in 1860 (although by middle age, she shaved eight years). When she was 18, she was married off to the Henri, Count Greffuhle who was said to be the richest man in France. He was also 12 years older and one of those guys who was arrogant with his wife, nasty and entitled, as only the wealthy can be. From the beginning, he spent a lot of his time, even on his honeymoon, in the company of his mistress and other sexual partners. Henri couldn’t get enough and poor Elisabeth couldn’t get anything. From Henri. Already you get the drama. It’s  classic and not infrequently it’s also a fashion story.

The young countess turned to vanity to survive. In another later generation she would have left Henri, with a nice settlement in hand, and gone out into the world to make a life for herself with her talents. As it was, her talent was fashion, and from the 1880s through the First World War, the Countess was held in a regard, at least fashion-wise, without peer.

Marcel Proust was fascinated by the countess. She was a source for his imagination and incite into his times. Eleven years younger, and from a world outside the realm of the countess who was the reigning queen of Parisian society, by the time Proust was a young man, his relationship with her was a key to the world in which she reigned at the center. It is known now as La Belle Epoque.

La Belle Epoque was an era in Western European History covering four decades between two wars, from the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, to the outbreak of World War I in1914. It was thought of – in retrospect anyway – as a Golden Age – not unlike its American counterpart, the Gilded Age, and the British Edwardian Age.

Riding back uptown after Caroline’s tempting and all-too-brief lecture about the Countess, who was obsessed with her beauty and the beauty of her gowns, it occurred to me that such a character could never fascinate in quite the same way anymore. Even that is reflected in the fashion of a “comparable” situation woman today. Today it’s the Kardashians. I’m serious. They are huge fashion arbiters today, and just as it was with the Queen of France, with the Countess Greffulhe, with Babe Paley, they reflect a woman’s life in this the age of ours, of us.
Countess Greffuhle's shoe in her favorite color.
I was also thinking of Babe Paley who was an authentic fashion icon of the mid-20th century in this country. She was celebrated and held in awe for her talent to dress. She was an artist with her costume and widely praised and admired for it. She also had an ill-fated (for her) marriage that brought her great sadness. Her “fashion” was her greatest achievement. Had she been born just one generation later, she would, like her daughters today, have had her own independent life, pursuing her artistry for her own ends.
The Countess, at 92, in the last year of her life at a fashion collection of Christian Dior.

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