Misia/the Life of Misia Sert by Arthur Gold and Robert Fitzdale. Misia Sert (1872-1950) became, through three cultured, increasingly well heeled husbands, one of the most famous salon hostesses and patrons of her time, instrumental in stimulating cross-pollination. Sert was inspiration for the characters of Princess Yourbeletieff and Madame Verdurin in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Maurice Ravel dedicated Le Cygne (The Swan) in “Histoires naturelles” and La Valse (The Waltz) to her. She was a great friend to/supporter of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.
As discerning as she was generous, Sert was painted and sculpted by dozens of prominent or soon to be prominent artists, many of whom were in love with her. A fabulous look at the temper and creators of Paris during a particularly fertile period.
Gold and Fitzdale also authored The Divine Sarah, probably the most authentic and enjoyable look at indomitable actress/producer/infamous personality Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) Immortalized by Alphonse Mucha posters, Bernhardt was the inspiration for Alexandre Dumas’ La Dame aux Camelias, Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, and the model for Marcel Proust’s Berma in Remembrance of Things Past.
Born to a courtesan, she became the first international superstar, the first to helm her own traveling company. Bernhardt stoked her own eccentric reputation- sleeping in a coffin, making pets of wild animals, prodigious, libertarian sexual appetite and acted well into dotage, even with an amputated leg. The authors cite but also delve beneath “fake” news. A great yarn. Full of photo plates.
Walt Disney-An American Original by Bob Thomas. Thorough AND entertaining. Walt was a small town guy who, following his bliss against all advice, began with the Mickey and Judy, Let’s put on a show in the barn mentality. Finding he had a finger on the positive side of popular pulse instead of the more frequent lowest common denominator, he shepherded Disney towards its current colossal size. This was a man who personified the difference between childish and child-like. Thomas’s book features history, interviews, and anecdote. It’s the balanced portrait of a creator of new worlds who was also a fallible human being.
Genius in Disguise-Harold Ross of The New Yorker by Thomas Kunkel. The iconic New Yorker was founded in 1925 by a former tramp with a 10th grade education and his New York Times reporter wife (Jane Grant.) By the time he was 25, Ross had worked at 7 different newspapers outside of New York City. With the more visually oriented Vanity Fair, this self-invented man created a Manhattan based magazine whichbecame the last word on urban sophistication, beginning with humor and evolving to include the best essays, fiction, journalism, profiles, letters from abroad, goings on around town, and cartoons in the country.
James Thurber described The New Yorker’s attitude as offhand, chatty, informal … Nothing was to be labored or studied, arty, literary, or intellectual. Ross was smart, perceptive, irrepressible, curious, and a founding member of The Algonquin’s famous Round Table aka “The Vicious Circle,” a regular lunch gathering of sharp-witted writers and critics. The book paints its era, literary scions, and Ross himself with precision and flair.
Redeeming Features, the autobiography of Nicholas Haslam. If you’re a reader of Town and Country, Vanity Fair, WWD, The UK’s Tattler, Mirror, Sun, or interior magazines, you might perhaps be familiar with this handsome, Zelig-like man who grew up in and around the famous houses of England meeting and often becoming friends with pretty much anyone worth knowing. The book takes him from Eton to the south of France, Paris, New York, Arizona (to raise Arabian Horses), Los Angeles, and back to London. Haslam was a photographer, worked in the art department at Vogue, himself art directed Show Magazine and became an elite decorator.
He weekended at Tallulah Bankhead’s home while still a schoolboy, was admired by Cecil Beaton, Francis Bacon, and Lucien Freud (to name but a very few), spent evenings with Cole Porter, Diana Cooper, Greta Garbo, Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, and John Richardson…tip of the iceberg. (Don’t read if name dropping offends. Do read if salient stories make up for it.) Stuffed with insight and anecdotes, an aesthete’s eye, and a candidness about his personal life while drawing the line at trashy, the book is a helluva read (architectural details can be skimmed)
Just for fun, there’s Trio- The Intimate Friendship of Carol Matthau, Oona Chaplin, and Gloria Vanderbilt. The three attractive, precocious girls met in private school, came out together as debutantes (Oona was Debutante of the Year) and much pursued, painted the town. Carol was twice married to William Saroyan before Walter Matthau. Oona, daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neil, became Charlie Chaplin’s fourth and last wife. Gloria, who created a jeans brand and evolved into a designer/fine artist, was married to agent and alleged mobster Pat DiCicco, Leopold Stokowski, Sydney Lumet, and Wyatt Cooper. All the ladies were in a rush to sample what life has to offer and secured a large proportion including love, exile, and suicides.
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