The Countess Pecci-Blunt’s party that we were going to later that night at the Ritz was being held in conjunction with the opening of the music festival. The countess was also known as the Countess of the Two Cecils of Italy. European-bred and step-fathered, her gay husband Cecil, the former Mr. Blunt, had married Miss Pecci and hyphenated the name. He later was given the title by the Church, and became the Count Pecci-Blunt. He also had a boyfriend, a former waiter, a young Englishman named Cecil Everley.
There was a story about Count Cecil taking young Cecil to a cocktail party hosted by the Singer Sewing Machine heiress, Daisy Fellowes. At the time, word had got around that Fellowes had sold her yacht to free up some money. In an awkward attempt to make conversation with his hostess, Cecil (the former waiter) asked one of the chicest (and most snobbish) women in Europe if she “missed her yacht.” Without skipping a beat, she replied, “I don’t know; do you miss your tray?”
Andrea Hercolani had already left for the Ritz and I was running late.We were staying at the Hotel Meurice where I ran into Salvador Dalí and his wife Gaia, who I hadn’t seen since I left New York. I had originally met Salvador Dalí in Schrafft’s in New York where he had followed me in and sat next to me, telling me that I was one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen. After that, of course, we became great friends.
In Paris, we got into a big discussion in the lobby of the Meurice about my new job modeling at Chanel. He confided to me that Chanel wasn’t talking to him because of his relationship with Schiaparelli. It turned out there was more to it. He had let Schiaparelli use his surrealistic designs in her clothing and it ended up being one of the most successful collections that Schiaparelli ever produced. It was the talk of the fashion world and Chanel was furious.
All I could do was commiserate, not knowing what else to say. I was already late and had to leave. When I got to the hotel, Countess Pecci, stationed in one of the long mirrored hallways, was repeatedly screaming in that way she had, “You’re late! You’re late! The prince is waiting for you!”
The party was crowded with notable social types such as co-founder of the festival, the conductor from La Scala, Tommy Schippers and his boyfriend Alberto Sordi, and the film actors Marcello Mastroianni and Silvana Mangano, who later married Dino De Laurentiis.
After the party a group of us went to Maxim’s where we drank champagne and ate caviar. It was there that I ran into a man who had seen me modeling at Simonetta in Rome. He invited me to join three other girls to go to Rio for a fashion show. Since I had the time and had never been to Brazil, I felt it was a great opportunity and immediately agreed. Andrea thought that I was crazy but the idea of going to Rio and being paid to do so was irresistible. As it turned out I was right to go.
Rio was an incredible city, but totally corrupt. The Hotel Copacabana at lunchtime was filled with former Nazis on the run. They had plenty of money and so were being entertained by some of Rio’s biggest bankers and businessmen.
Upon my return from Rio I found that 8½ was still not in production and that the movie had been postponed for another two weeks. One morning Fellini called and asked if he could pick me up and take me to the Via Veneto to have coffee and talk. He wanted to get to know me better to see how he could give me an even bigger role in the film. I was thrilled that he thought that much of me, but it was beginning to seem like filming would never begin. After having lived in Rome for two years I knew that “tomorrow” could also mean two months, and I was getting nervous. It was almost July 1st and I realized that if I was going to work for Chanel it was time for me to leave. I called Federico’s office and told them that when they were ready they could call me at Chanel and I would try to be there. It was the best that I could do.
My first day at Chanel I entered the Salon and there was Pauline the vendeuse who had sold me my Chanel suit two years before. She greeted me, “You’ve finally made it, and this is where you belong.” Suddenly Lilou Grumbach appeared on the staircase and beckoned me to come upstairs. “Let me introduce you to the models in the cabine,” she said.
The models were all pretty hot looking. However, Mademoiselle Chanel did not see it that way. I soon realized I had to do my best to get along with them or I would never survive the month. Soon after my arrival Chanel was designing and fitting the collections on me, which did not exactly thrill my fellow mannequins. She told me over and over, “I wish you could be the only one to show my clothes” and referred to me as her “American Cowboy.”
Among the other models were: Grania Villna Stewart, Betty Saint, later to become the muse of YSL known as Betty Catroux; Shauna Trabert, who was married to Tony Trabert, the famous tennis player, and to top it off Countess Claude De Leuse who was not only a great beauty but was having an affair with Tony.
Chanel disliked her and never allowed her to model the clothes in the collection because she felt she was bourgeois. Here I was, at the most famous fashion house in Europe surrounded by these beautiful women, thinking, “How will I ever make it through the Collection with all of this intrigue?”
On my first day Lilou extended an invitation from Mademoiselle for me to have lunch with her. Unbeknownst to me, this was unheard of but, of course, I didn’t yet realize that and took the invitation as a matter of course.
I asked Lilou if everyone was invited. “I’m not even invited,” she said. Lilou was married to Phillipe Grumbach who would go on to become the editor of the French newspaper l’Express. Her brothers were the actors Christian and Serge Marquand who were great friends with the director Roger Vadim, who was then married to Jane Fonda. This was an extremely tight knit group; in fact it was THE group in Paris at that time.
Chanel lived at the Ritz Hotel. Every day at noon she would leave through the swinging back doors of The Ritz and cross over the Rue Cambon to the Salon. One of the vendeuses would always be on the lookout and would say, “She’s coming!” and everyone would jump to attention. That’s when our day would begin. She would enter the Maison Chanel and climb the stairs speaking in her guttural French to the sales girls on her way to her private salon on the third floor.
She did everything possible to distract people from noticing that she was slowing down. The minute she got in, she would call the cabine and request that I come upstairs to the atelier where we would work on the collection. This quickly became our routine. We would start selecting fabrics and putting them together with the trimmings and then she would begin eliminating those she didn’t like. A perennial standby was Suzette, who assembled the original costume jewelry for Chanel’s approval. It was a very closed operation and open only to a select group, one such person being her great friend Helene Lazareff who was the Editor-in-Chief of Elle Magazine. She was one of the few people Chanel respected.
Chanel normally didn’t sketch, but one day she brought in a sketch about the size of four postage stamps to show me. She had had an idea in the middle of the night and felt that she had to get it down on paper. That was the extent of her sketching.
I spent long days with her up in her fourth-floor sanctuary. Chanel would drape the fabric over me and we would get a look going. She would then start cutting. Then she would give it to the pattern makers and the next day they would bring us the sample for approval. We would do this over and over again until the samples were perfected and the finishing touches applied.
By 1:30 PM we would break for lunch and sometimes we would go to her apartment below where she had the best chef in Paris (though he was never good enough for her.) The most fascinating guests visited on a regular basis. Her best friends were Gerard Mille, the great decorator who owed his career to Chanel, and his brother Herve Mille ,who was the press-lord of the leading magazines including Paris Match and Marie Claire. They were both often there as well as other guests including some writers and many French and American movie stars including: Frederick Brisson, Rosalind Russell’s husband; Alan Jay Lerner, the producer of “Coco” who was writing the Broadway musical “Coco”; Romy Schneider, Jane Fonda, and Alain Delon.
Chanel had thought that Audrey Hepburn had been chosen to play her in “Coco” rather than Katharine Hepburn, which is the real reason Chanel didn’t show up for the opening of the play in New York. Her absence created a mini-scandal and she made it known that she felt Katharine Hepburn was too masculine to play her and lacked the sex appeal she felt she possessed. For that reason, she didn’t want to see her on the stage.
At 3:30 PM, after lunch and Chanel’s nap we would go back to work and resume where we had left off. We would work until 7:00 PM. Many nights I would accompany Mademoiselle back to the Ritz across the street and she would invite me to have dinner with her. She’d talk a blue streak, which I’d follow as best I could, but my French left a lot to be desired. She did speak English but preferred French, and she’d wave away my insecurities about the little French I’d picked up so far. “Just speak it quickly, then it doesn’t matter,” she’d tell me blithely.
She’d often tell me stories of her childhood, of getting started in the business, of whom she liked and disliked. The list read like an International Who’s Who. Chanel was not awed by fancy titles and rich customers; in fact she disdained most of them. She felt that they too often just put on airs and made trouble.
One day Princess Paola of Belgium came to see a private showing of the whole collection. We all streamed out, one after another, modeling the latest designs, but in the end the Princess bought nothing. Chanel was furious and came down the stairs screaming, “Give me the little French woman with the argent dans le sac!” (“money in her bag.”)
That night over dinner, Chanel was still seething. She remembered all too well the times when the titled looked down on her as a “petite bourgeoise,” and worried that, in a sense, they were still doing it. As we spent more and more time together, I began to realize how attached she had become to me. I was in my 20s and she was in her late 70s but age seemed irrelevant, and as time went on our relationship became much more intense.
Regardless of her tirades and her ups and downs, I realized that I loved Chanel very much.
Part III coming tomorrow
Click here for Part I of My Love Affair with Chanel