J.D. Salinger: Imagining An Author

Editor's note: With this post, Albina Colden, a psychologist and visual artist, joins DeepGlamour as a contributor.

Salinger1 It distressed me to learn the news of J.D. Salinger's death. The man was 91 years old, so it should hardly have come as a surprise. But in our collective imagination, J.D. Salinger had long ceased to be a man and had become a mythical figure.

The image of Salinger - living in isolation in the New Hampshire mountains, wearing L.L. Bean, eating exotic health foods, writing maniacally, and stashing manuscripts in his secret vault - had become timeless, and it was all we had. This mythological narrative invited our imaginations to sculpt it in any way we wished and to infuse it with our own hopes and desires - or with our own prejudices.

Salinger2 In the media, it was rather sad to see the news of Salinger's death compete with the release of the Apple i-Pad. But nonetheless it did receive some coverage, and the coverage reflects our conflicted perceptions: notions of Salinger as a noble and sensitive romantic who has influenced generations and could hold the key to mysterious truths about the universe, versus notions of Salinger as a controlling, misogynistic weirdo who has made all those close to him miserable.

The New York Times describes Salinger's work as possibly the greatest of our time, but in the same breath remarks that he is mostly “famous for not wanting to be famous”. Bret Easton Ellis declares on twitter that he is happy about Salinger's death.  CNN reminds us of his “affair with the teenage Joyce Maynard” (though the wording was later changed), who was in fact a 19-year-old adult when she lived with Salinger. And of course, speculations abound as to whether there really are unpublished manuscripts in the vaults that are rumored to be in his home. Perhaps he produced masterpieces but instructed his lawyer to burn them. Or perhaps he scribbled nonesense in his study day after day, or wrote nothing at all. With his estate as protective of his privacy as Salinger himself had been, we may never know the answer.

Salinger3 In 2005 I had just finished graduate school and began my first job, at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. I moved into a house in a nearby town and discovered that I was practically “neighbors” with J.D. Salinger - at least in the rural sense, where the nearest neighbor can be a mile away. I knew where Salinger lived, as many people in that area did. I passed the winding road that led to his house on my commutes to work and back every day. But I never saw Salinger and never attempted to see him - not even to catch a glimpse at one of the local events he was said to always attend. In retrospect, I had wondered at this restraint on my part, especially as he was one of my favorite writers. But now I think I understand: It wasn't so much restraint, as a means of protecting myself against disillusionment. I did not want to see Salinger, because I did not want to know which version of him was real, if any.

Salinger4 In the end, it matters not a bit what kind of a person Salinger was, whether there really are any unpublished books in that vault, or for that matter, whether there is a vault at all. In his existing body of work J.D. Salinger has given us a great gift, and may he rest in peace.

Quotable: Wayne Koestenbaum On “The Jackie O Show”

Life Jackie vs. Jackie Watchers  “We didn’t fabricate her from thin air; she must have collaborated with the media, however unconsciously, to form her image and to preserve it (always the same smile, the same hairdo). Because we didn’t willfully make her up, but accepted her as part of our landscape, we may consider ourselves her beneficiaries and her audience, and we may consider her appearances—captured in photographs, whether authorized or unauthorized—to be a slow, serial, fragmented performance piece, drawn out over more than thirty years, and highly conceptual, its premises never articulated or codified. Jackie was a show—the Jackie O Show—but its plot was buried, its backers were invisible, and its spectacular special effects seemed unpremeditated, thoroughly natural.”

—Wayne Koestenbaum, Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon

A Better Version Of The Amelia Earhart Story

Amelia krak 1 As readers who read my DoubleX piece on Amelia (and Amelia) know, I think the movie deservedly bombed, largely because Amelia Earhart is an intrinsically difficult subject for a biopic. As a glamorous icon, she is not a person but a persona, someone we “know” from the outside, for what she represents rather than who she actually is. Her distance and mystery are a big part of her allure. A movie preserves that appeal inevitably tends to be boring, while a movie that portrayed her as flawed (perhaps not such a great pilot) would lose its audience.

While I was writing that piece, I thought whether you could write a script about Earhart that preserved her glamour but wasn't emotionally flat. One idea would be to tell a story not about her but about someone who observes and is inspired by her. Another would be to emphasize the challenges and hazards of early aviation, something that Amelia did in its best moments but downplayed in favor of a flattened soap opera.

Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean, a graphic novel aimed at tweens, does both. And while the book, written by Sarah Stewart Taylor and drawn by Ben Towle, doesn't have enough plot to make a movie, it demonstrates that the way to portray Earhart is, in fact, to use a sympathetic protagonist who admires her. The graphic novel makes the wise choice to show us Earhart through the eyes of an admirer, a girl who lives in the seafaring community of Trepassy, Newfoundland, and aspires to be a newspaper reporter. Located on the far eastern edge of North America, Trepassy is the point from which Earhart and other aviation pioneers took off for Europe. It's also a shipwreck-strewn place whose name essentially means "the dead."

From the Publisher's Weekly review:

In June of 1928, tweener Grace, the dubious townspeople and a mob of impatient newsmen wait for Earhart to finally get her plane in the air for a transatlantic flight. Grace yearns to leave the little village and to become a newspaper woman, so she observes the commotion and manages to get the aviator's personal encouragement in an interview before her successful departure. Taylor's lean script leaves much of Grace's feelings understated but easy to imagine. Towle's art is also emotionally restrained, but panels showing the bleak landscape—especially double-page spreads of what Earhart called “this broad ocean”—emphasize the courage of people willing to take ultimate risks. Astronaut Eileen Collins's introduction, which describes the inspiration she drew from Earhart's example, carries the theme to the present.
Grace's point of view preserves Amelia as a glamorous, somewhat mysterious figure who represents a different life. You can get a sense from this spread. (As always, click the images to see a larger version.) Amelia2Amelia

[Images reproduced with permission of Ben Towle.]

The Value Of Dissatisfaction

Dietrich-chanel Chanel demonstrated that same sense of style and practicality in creating pant suits, and suits with skirts. Marlene Dietrich is shown at left wearing a Chanel pants suit designed in 1933. You can find Bill Eppridge’s well-known 1966 photo of some famous women wearing Chanel suits here.

As I read about Chanel I realized that a lot of creative work happens in a variety of fields because someone says to themselves, “I could do better than that.” “Better” might mean anything from better suited to your personal taste (such as improving on a recipe) to more satisfying intellectually (perhaps creating a new scientific theory that better matches recently discovered information).

The people who become best known in particular fields tend to have been trying to do better work in those fields for quite a long time. Chanel started as a hat maker and gradually expanded into other areas, including clothing, costume jewelry, and perfume. It often takes a while to master the basic knowledge of a given field needed to execute that “better” idea.

But to get you going, some personal and particular dissatisfaction with the status quo can be a valuable thing. It can motivate you, and help you focus your thoughts and possibly imagine a different approach. In doing this, it helps if you are comfortable imaging that your ideas might in some way contribute to the future being different from the present, even if you’re not sure exactly how (as Virginia argues eloquently in The Future and Its Enemies). It is easy, for example, to underestimate the difference that Chanel’s new clothing options made. But just consider how much easier it became for women to fit our image of people who can successfully hold management positions once they had their own versions of business suits. To see how much difference clothing imagery can make, compare your impression of the shown image of Dietrich in her 1933 Chanel pants suits with this 1935 feminine-goddess image of Dietrich or this portrait of the Wyndham sisters in their Belle Époque dresses. Playing a variety of roles in life is far easier when you have clothing options that help you to look the part for each one.

[The 1906 dress design was found at Wikipedia Commons.]

Charismatic And Glamorous: A Rare And Powerful Combination

JFK sunglasses Commenting on the chart post below, Charles Oliver asks, “Are glamour and charisma necessarily opposites? Can a person not possess both at the same time?” His suggestion is, of course, correct, as the guy in the photo demonstrates. Glamour and charisma are not mutually exclusive, though the combination is rare, requiring a hard-to-maintain balance between warmth and distance, connecting with audiences without becoming overly intimate.

As I suggested in my earlier post, some charismatic performers develop glamorous public personas. They draw audiences into their roles but maintain an alluring mystery in their off-stage lives. Think of classic divas like Maria Callas.

Glamour depends on the audience, so a charismatic person may also be glamorous to some audiences but not to others. A few years ago I was in London and happened to catch a television special on Billy Graham's landmark 1954 crusade there. Like most successful preachers, Graham possessed considerable charisma. But it had never occurred to me that he might be glamorous. In the Bible Belt, where I grew up, he was simply too familiar. But here were British interview subjects talking about him as this tall, handsome representative of exotic American culture—not just a persuasive Christian evangelist but an evocative, mysterious, exciting contrast to austerity Britain. He was, in midcentury London, not just charismatic but glamorous.

[John F. Kennedy in sunglasses from Library of Congress public domain collection.]

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Glamour Vs. Charisma: Aviators Amelia Earhart And Pancho Barnes

Pancho Barnes Amelia Earhart women pilots 1929 Powder Puff Derby © Pancho Barnes Trust Estate Archive Amelia Earhart was daring, adventurous, modern, and beautiful, among the 20th century’s most enduring icons. Sixty years after her disappearance, high-profile advertising campaigns for Apple and the Gap were still employing her image as a symbol of independence and glamour. A movie about her must have seemed like a sure thing. Yet Amelia is a critical and commercial disaster. What went wrong?

It would be easy to blame the project’s specifics. Director Mira Nair did, after all, manage to turn Thackeray’s lively satire into the ponderous, unwatchable Vanity Fair. A less earnest director or more creative script might have produced a more interesting Amelia, one less reliant on half-hearted soap opera and more focused on the challenges of early aviation. But the real problem may be Amelia Earhart herself.

In the 1920s and ’30s, “the aviatrix was the ultimate glamorous and daring modern woman,” notes Kristen Lubben in Amelia Earhart: Image and Icon, the catalog for a 2007 exhibition of Earhart images at the International Center of Photography. Earhart, of course, was the ultimate glamorous aviatrix. She achieved that status not because she was the best female pilot—many were better—but because she was media-savvy and able to embody the public’s multiple aspirations. She was feminist yet feminine, casual yet elegant, modern yet wholesome. “Hers is the healthy curiosity of the clean mind and the strong body and a challenging rebuke to those of us who have damned the youth of the land,” declared a 1928 essayist who saw her as an antidote to Jazz Age decadence. He concluded, “What a girl!” Such a glamorous figure makes an effective advertising icon but an emotionally flattened protagonist. She loses her individuality.

During her life, Earhart was transformed from a person into a persona—idealized, distant, and glamorous, her mythic allure heightened by the mystery of her disappearance. The more time passes, the more her individuality recedes. “She has become an increasingly abstract symbol—of the thrill and danger of adventure, of the possibilities for women, and of the courage to break with … conventional expectations,” writes Lubben. Eternally young, Earhart remains unblemished from the kind of eccentricity or controversy—or ordinary individual complexity—that could make her a compelling subject for a modern biopic. To preserve her glamour, Amelia must keep her at a distance, without flaws, doubts, or character development. We learn nothing of the struggles of her youth, her political commitments, or her limits as a pilot. She ends the film essentially the same as she began it—as an icon.

Here, another recent film about a pioneering aviatrix presents a sharp contrast. Currently making the film-festival rounds and expected to air on public television in the spring, The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club is a straightforward documentary made on a tenth of Amelia’s production budget. Yet for all its still photos and talking heads, it is far more entertaining. While Amelia struggles against the glamour of its heroine, The Legend of Pancho Barnes is imbued with its protagonist’s charisma. The contrast between the two pilots, and the memories they left behind, illuminates the distinctions between these two often-conflated qualities.

Read the rest and see a Pancho Barnes slide show on DoubleX.

[Photo of Pancho Barnes (left), Amelia Earhart, and participants in 1929 Women's Air Derby © and courtesy of Pancho Barnes Trust Estate Archive.]

Virtuosity And Beauty: A Precarious Mix?

In classical music the combination of virtuosity and glamour has most often been associated with attractive opera stars, conductors, or soloists who play instruments such as piano and violin. The attire of such soloists when they perform is often extraordinarily glamorous, as I written before. Their publicity photographs often highlight their physical attractiveness. A more recent trend is to produce videos. Here is an interesting video of Korean violinist Chee-Yun in the process of being photographed for potential publicity shots. (Chee-Yun’s fabulous hair has been featured in a Korean Pantene commercial.)

Another violinist, Vanessa-Mae (of Thai-Chinese heritage, born in Singapore, and raised in London) began to study piano at three and violin at five. She amassed her hours of practice early, and was recording professionally by age thirteen. In her teenage years she began to combine her virtuoso skills as a violinist with her interest in pop music. She took full advantage of her exceptionally beautiful face and figure by using glamorous makeup and provocative costumes, and launched a popular music career that has made her one of the wealthiest young entertainers in Britain.

She is a controversial performer because some of her hit recordings are arrangements of well-known classical works combined with a techno-style dance background. There is an example of this below, in which her live-performance version of Vivaldi includes a dance-beat, an electric violin, a sexy costume, and bodily movements that are anything but “classical.” (In the video she inadvertently demonstrates how to slip gracefully in high-heels. Another example of her mix of classical, techno, and sexy presentation is her version of Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance.” Whether it is fun and exciting or a tawdry bastardization is a matter of debate and taste.)

Hercules_Gallicus Whatever one thinks of how Vanessa-Mae has used her virtuosity as a violinist, there is no question she earned her skills through thousands of hours of arduous practice. In some of her music videos Vanessa-Mae portrays a young woman in peril, or operating in a mobster world, or isolated in cold, remote locations. These videos evoke the long-standing theme that a person can become a prisoner of their extraordinary skills, partly because these skills become ties that bind others to the person that possesses these skills, and vice versa. At left is one of the many Renaissance representations of Hercules Gallicus in which he conquers not by brunt strength, but by eloquence. And as a skilled rhetorician there are chains running from his tongue which bind his audience to him, and vice versa.

The virtuoso performer is also bound to the continued hours of practice that are necessary to maintain those skills. In the 1970s young Czech violinist Václav Hudeček become so famous in his country that he attained rock-star-like status. But in his own words, he didn’t have time to lead a wild lifestyle. “Violin is a very difficult instrument…if you want to play Brahms’ violin concerto, Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, very beautifully, you have to practice, you know. Not all day long, but five, six, seven hours a day.”

When you hear stories of virtuoso performers burning out or losing their edge, you have to imagine not only the thousands of hours spent building their skills, but also the ongoing hours of practice required to continue to perform at a virtuoso level. Fame might give you the opportunity to party in high style (especially if you are strikingly attractive), but to actually do so could soon lead to decreased performance ability. We can all think of cases in which the achievements of an athlete or performer thrust them into the limelight, and then they spent so much time enjoying their new found fame that their skills rapidly declined.

George_Best_1968 An perfect example of this was 1960s British soccer star George Best. Many people consider Best the most brilliant soccer player Britain ever produced, but he is just as well known for having squandered his talent by living a playboy lifestyle. Best’s bio reveals his obsessive pursuit of soccer skills as a child, but it also reads as a cautionary tale for anyone whose virtuoso skills bring sudden fame. His career at the top lasted only six years before his pursuit of “birds” and booze eroded his skills. Best himself understood that fame and his good looks had played a part in undermining his career, providing him with opportunities to party and drink that he was unable to resist. He joked ironically, “If I’d been born ugly, you’d never have heard of Pelé.”

George Best was one of the first celebrity footballers, and women threw themselves at him. As he joked, “I used to go missing quite a lot... Miss Canada, Miss United Kingdom, Miss World.” (He was not exaggerating.) At times he didn’t seem to regret his escapades, “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.” Because he could not discipline himself to stay in shape for soccer, or to stay away from alcohol, he became a difficult, less productive teammate who was soon out of the sport. He died at age 59 of complications after a liver transplant.

GQ magazine named George Best one of the 50 most stylish men of the last 50 years, but there is no question that the temptations of a playboy lifestyle destroyed his talent. If his virtuosity had been some evidence of virtue, then he lost that virtue when he neglected to continue to hone his skills. As the biography posted at the International Footballer Hall of Fame notes “George Best had squandered one of the rarest and most precious football talents ever seen in favour of a self-indulgent merry-go-round of birds and booze.” After describing some of the amazing goals that he scored in his few years at his prime, the bio ends, “the only tragedy George Best has to confront is that he will never know how good he could have been.”

[Photo of Maria Sharapova by Chris Gampat used under the Flickr Creative Commons License.]

The Glamour Of Glass

“I have very expensive wallpaper.” So said Philip Johnson, architect of the modernist masterpiece Glass House, which he designed as his own residence in 1947 and inhabited until his death in 2005. Beyond its expense, Johnson’s glass walls create a glamorous atmosphere unique for a small suburban residence. Undoubtedly his lifestyle did much to enhance this feeling. The house was a setting for frequent salons and parties, hosting many luminaries of modern art and design. Johnson was so devoted to entertaining he had a hob in his kitchenette island removed so he could add an extra ice maker. glasshouse2 Crystal_Palace

But the glamour of the house isn’t just about what happened inside; it emanates from the structure itself. Similarly, countless other glass buildings, from the Crystal Palace to the Burj Dubai (which contains a breathtaking 20 acres of glass) transcend the idea of buildings, becoming surreal settings of fascination and desire. Something about glass captures our imagination and creates glamour like no other architectural material.

Burjdubai Glass’s glamour arises from its physical properties: fragility, luminosity, and transparency. Rigid but delicate, glass is notoriously difficult to work with. It first appeared in architecture in ancient Rome around 100 AD, adorning only the most important buildings and expensive private homes. It remained a luxury through the middle ages, typically found in palaces and churches. Though glass is now ubiquitous, its use at large scale still feels lavish, and it wasn’t until the middle of the last century that technology allowed for the construction of multi-story glass facades such as those on Bunshaft’s Lever House and Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building, and the many other glass skyscrapers that comprise the Manhattan skyline.

Glass’s precarious nature, combined with its scintillating reflective surfaces, give it a jewel-like quality at any scale. Cinderella’s slipper was glass, embodying hope, fantasy, and royalty in one fragile token. The glass structures of the world are like Cinderella’s slipper writ large, containers of dreams that always feel a little bit impossible. I.M. Pei’s pyramid at the Louvre, and the cube above the Fifth Avenue Apple Store that references it, have this gem-like presence. The same can’t be said for structures made with transparent plastics like acrylic or polycarbonate; poor cousins, too optically inert to stir our emotions.

Louvrepyramid

Like all truly glamorous things, glass eludes us. It moves in a perpetual dance between two kinds of ephemerality. Lit from outside, it is luminous and reflective, taking on the character of what surrounds it. Johnson’s Glass House feels alive, an ever-shifting pattern of trees shimmering across its surfaces. Glass skyscrapers literally become pieces of sky, translucent blue by day and inky black at night. In this state, glass is like a mirror, restless and mysterious.

But light a glass structure from within, and it vanishes in another way, revealing its contents to the world. This glass is deceptively sheer. It yields to what’s behind it, inviting us to peer inside. It’s this invitation — to admiration and to voyeurism — that makes glass so special.

Seagrambuilding

Inscribed in any glamorous object is the gaze which makes it so. Pull back from the object. Zoom out, and there is always someone watching and wanting, infusing it with the desire that is glamour’s driving force. Without a viewer through which fantasy can be filtered, there may be elegance or sophistication, but there can be no glamour.

Glass, with its tantalizing non-presence, creates the illusion that inside and outside are one. But not so fast. As anyone who has accidentally walked into a freshly-washed glass door will tell you, it’s a formidable barrier. This impenetrability is also part of its glamour. Glamour is an expression of a paradox: a fantasy so close you can feel yourself inside it, but so distant you must admire from afar. Glass facilitates this illusion better than any other material. Think of shop windows, museum exhibits, and jewelry display cases. Glass says look but don’t touch. It beckons to you to lose yourself in fantasy at the same time as it precludes you from making it a reality.

Standardhotel Playing directly with this paradox, the Standard Hotel has captured the essence of glass’s glamour in its 18-story New York tower. The hotel touts the spectacular views of the Hudson River from the picture windows in each room, but the real story is guests’ exhibitionist behavior, encouraged (and sometimes engaged in) by staff and management. Ostensibly about looking out, the allure is really about looking in. The glamour is in feeling admired and coveted inside the glass box — exposed, yet protected.

Johnson supposedly prized his house for its outward views. A nature-lover, he lit the house with the intention of making the natural surroundings visible rather than calling attention to the architecture, and he slept facing out towards his favorite view. But the house is also undeniably about looking in. Johnson considered the threshold to be outside the house, at the first point when you get a full view of it just past the stone wall that runs alongside the driveway. In the foyer of a typical home, you acclimate to the new environment whilst inside it; in Johnson’s schema, you are welcomed first by standing outside looking in. You must appreciate before you enter.

Glasshouse1

Glass is not a comfortable material, and Johnson was well aware of this. He never aspired to comfort in his home, but to an aesthetic purity. The Glass House existed not to coddle his senses, but to stimulate them. He has said:

...Comfort is not a function of beauty... purpose is not necessary to make a building beautiful...sooner or later we will fit our buildings so that they can be used...where form comes from I don't know, but it has nothing at all to do with the functional or sociological aspects of our architecture.

Glamour, like glass, is beautiful but rigid. It doesn’t bend to our convenience; rather, it offers a fantasy, and if we desire it, we conform ourselves to its standards. In this way, glass it like countless other tools of glamour — corsets, stilettos, sportscars — enforcing an uncomfortable, even painful transformation. It is not easy to be glamorous, just as it is not easy to live in a glass house. But it is beautiful. And for some, it’s well worth it.

[Images: Glass House images, © Ingrid Fetell. Crystal Palace, Wikimedia Commons. All others via Flickr, used under Creative Commons license: Burj Dubai by Paolo Rosa, Seagram building by gmpicket, Louvre Pyramid by carlos_seo, and Standard Hotel by laurenatclemson.]

The Gospel According To Coco Chanel: On Fearlessness (Part III)

Cococover

In yesterday's installment from The Gospel According to Coco Chanel: Life Lessons from the World’s Most Elegant Woman, Mademoiselle Chanel turned jersey, formerly the stuff of men’s underwear, into the basis for modern fashion. With no margin of error, she invented sportswear. In our final excerpt, author Karen Karbo considers the value of being a bit of a bitch.

Perhaps it’s not that unusual to exhibit courage in the course of finding our métier. In becoming an attorney, a professor, a web designer, a hair stylist, there are challenges that must be met, doors through which you must step to get to the next level. There are crossroads, required leaps of faith, and moments when you need a new idea (jersey!), and thin air is the place you’re forced to look for it.

But Chanel was fearless on another front. For the length of her long life, she said what she thought. In case this doesn’t strike you as such a huge achievement, consider the cottage industry of best-selling books about the apparent inability of women to speak up, to negotiate, to press on with their ideas when they feel they’re not being heard. “The Daily Asker” is a popular blog, wherein the blogger has set herself the goal of asking for something every day. Yes, women can cry and women can rage, but even now, we still struggle with just saying what’ son her minds.

Chanel was not just a straight talker, she was a back talker, a woman who embraced her own churlishness. One of the cares she lost when she decided to be someone and not something was that of talking around her real thoughts and feelings, so as not to offend. Really, she couldn’t give a damn. Bring it on.

Stendhal (author of The Red and the Black and also ahead of his time) famously observed that the way to offend a Parisian was to call her kind. On this front there is no chance of offending Mademoiselle Chanel. She could be ruthless in her honesty and often downright mean. Unlike most American women she was never tempted to channel her inner, crowd-pleasing Labrador retriever. While she was a masterful flirt, she never felt the need to be kittenish in order to compensate for her wealth and fame.

Once, during the end of the 1920s when Chanel was the queen of Paris chic, after she’d created the famous black dress and after the massive L’Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, where rival Paul Poiret had torpedoed what was left of his brilliant and erratic career by showing opulent, floor-length gowns in silver, lamé, velvet taffeta, and chiffon, totally missing the “modern” aspect of the exposition, Chanel ran into him on the sidewalk. Poor Poiret had not just fallen out of favor, his finances were also in ruins. In addition to the expensive, out-of-style gowns he’d just shown at the Expo, he’d insisted on exhibiting them on a trio of electrically lit river barges, which cost the moon. Before this, in an effort to shore up his reputation and combat Chanel’s stubborn devotion to plainness, he even created dresses lit from the inside with tiny bulbs. At the risk of sounding Seusssian: He was down, she was up. He was over, she was on top. When she met him that day on the sidewalk, it would have been nothing for her to have been gracious.

Seeing Chanel in her little black suit with white schoolgirl collar and cuffs, Poiret said sarcastically, “What are you in mourning for, Mademoiselle?”

She said, “For you, dear Monsieur.”

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Chanel’s wit was not gentle but combative; she was Dorothy Parker with a pair of shears. She sneered at the husbands of her clients and said, “Those grand dukes were all the same. They were tall and handsome and splendid, but behind it all—nothing; just vodka and the void.” 

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Chanel’s wit was not gentle but combative; she was Dorothy Parker with a pair of shears. Aside form her basic French disinclination to be agreeable, and her Cinderella complex, she bore the indignity of being a mere dressmaker. Even as she was becoming a success, when her hats were being worn exclusively by major actresses and she expanded her business to include both Biarritz and Paris (by 1917 she had five workrooms; in one workroom sixty seamstresses worked on clothes for Spain alone), she was routinely snubbed by the aristocratic women who were paying astronomical amounts for her clothes. They would spend hours having a fitting at her shop, then the next day pretend she was invisible when they ran into her at the races. This wasn’t unusual. Couturiers were considered tradespeople, no better than cabinetmakers and knife sharpeners. Charles Worth, the so-called father of haute couture, would cross the street when he saw a client, so as not to put her in the position of having to ignore him.

Then came Chanel with her neat, fresh clothes and her disinclination to take crap from anyone. She was charming, but she refused to censor herself. She sneered at the husbands of her clients and said, “Those grand dukes were all the same. They were tall and handsome and splendid, but behind it all—nothing; just vodka and the void.” Of the increasingly zaftig Colette she said, ”Colette preferred two grilled sausages to love.” She called Picasso “that Spaniard, with his hat.”

The result of all this mouthing off was not what you might expect. Rather than driving people away, Chanel’s devotion to thinking for herself, aloud, drew them to her, made her intriguing. She simply did not have the time, the energy, nor the inclination to care what anyone thought of her. Life was serious. She was serious. She defined luxury as liberty, and stopping to censor herself, to make herself pleasing to others, would be depriving her of luxury. Until she was a very old and very cantankerous old lady, Chanel was beloved. Axel Madsen closes his superb biography of Chanel with a kind, malice-free remark by the sausage-loving Colette, “It is in the secret of her work that we must find this thoughtful conqueror.”

Am I suggesting then that we err on the side of being a big ol’ bitch (or in this case a tiny, chic bitch)? Yes I am.

(Read previous excerpts here and here.)

Reprinted with permission from The Gospel According to Coco Chanel: Life Lessons from the World’s Most Elegant Woman, published by Skirt!, an imprint of The Globe Pequot Press, copyright © 2009 by Karen Karbo.

--Buy Karen Karbo's book here--