Wild about Misia

Clive James

At the beginning of her life, Misia Sert met Liszt, whom she remembered for his warts, long hair and transvestite travelling companion. She lived almost long enough to meet two more piano-players, the co-authors of this book. In between, she knew just about everybody who counted in artistic Paris. The painters painted her and the composers aired their masterpieces at her piano, which she herself could play very well. But what gave her long life its fascination, and gives this book its strength, is that she was no mere dabbler. Her taste was original, penetrating and in most cases definitive. Without directly creating anything, she was some kind of artist herself – rather like Diaghilev, of whom she was the soul-mate and valued adviser. For most of her life she was too rich to be a true bohemian, and too passionate about art to be a true representative of high society. Instead, she was, for her time, the incarnation of that special energy released when talent and privilege meet. This book has several faults but at least one great merit: Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale have seen that Misia’s personality, even if it can never quite be captured, remains highly interesting for the light it casts on how talent can cohabit with gracious living and yet still keep its distance. Misia features a good deal of novelettish speculation about the way people long dead ‘must have’ thought and felt, but on the whole it is a refreshingly humane book about how creative work actually gets done. It would be praiseworthy at any time, but is particularly so now when too many abstract treatises are being foisted on us by coldly able young academics who behave as if the arts, like their salaries, came out of a machine.

Misia’s mother died giving birth to her – an inconvenience which her father, the fashionable Polish sculptor Cyprien Godebski, characteristically dealt with by pushing off. Growing up well-connected but abandoned, Misia gave of herself freely but remained hard to get at. In Paris she took piano lessons from Fauré (who regarded her as a prodigy) and lived by her wits. When she met Thadée Natanson she set a pattern by marrying him. From then on she took husbands rather than lovers, and expressed herself by running a ménage in which the piano was something more than a prop but less than an instrument of devotion. Perhaps she was just too beautiful.

Thadée started the Revue Blanche, Verlaine, Mallarmé and the painters duly gathered. Those who couldn’t paint the inspiratrice wrote poems for her. The painters had the privilege of immortalising her miraculous looks, which included a legendary pair of legs and a bosom that kept strong men awake at night thinking. The book reproduces the best of these portraits in good colour, thereby turning itself into something of a work of art. Vuillard, Bonnard, Lautrec and Renoir all painted her often, and later on there were plenty of drawings by such as Marie Laurencin and the omnipresent Cocteau. In addition, there are scores of photographs, the whole iconography adding up to a seductive visual record of her busily leisured life. I should mention at this point that the new picture book on Chanel[*] contains several interesting pictures of Misia which are not in Gold and Fizdale. There is a good photograph of la belle Mme Edwards montant en voiture, a superb one of Misia Natanson en manteau à triple pèlerine, and an extra Vuillard: But then there always seems to be an extra Vuillard: like Bonnard and Renoir, he never tired of painting her. Add all the pictures in both books together and you get a hint of what her beauty must have been like. She used to cut the paintings to size if they didn’t fit the parts of the wall she wanted to put them on, but the painters loved her no less and probably all the more. At the time, we should remember, it must have been the painters’ efforts which seemed capricious and Misia’s volcanic personality which seemed the eternal fact. And indeed she lives on, but through them.

Being published in the Revue Blanche was like getting into a party: you had to know Misia. But this condition was only mildly pernicious, because you had to be gifted before Misia wanted to know you. They all showed up. Gide didn’t like Misia much but came anyway. Valéry liked her a lot. She adored Mallarmé, who reigned as the incorruptible grand old man. Fauré brought his bright young pupil Ravel. Debussy was there. So was Colette, sporting a waist nearly as enticing as Misia’s, which was saying a great deal. At a party thrown by Misia’s brother-in-law to celebrate the completion of nine large panels by Vuillard, Lautrec was the barman. Three hundred people were present, of whom a large proportion were already famous and all promptly became drunk, since Lautrec’s cocktails consisted of several layers of different-coloured liqueurs. A room was set aside for casualties and ended up jammed with the bodies of Jarry, Vuillard. Bonnard etc. It would be very easy to make a bad movie of all this. Misia was in the thick of it, stirring the magic, helping make life itself a work of art – something artists are usually too busy to do.

The century had not yet turned and high society still confined itself to the minutiae of dynastic self-perpetuation. In playing hostess to the artists, Misia was being more bohemian than grand. But she was a grand enough bohemian. She could give the artists a deep draught of luxury. She would probably have aroused the same sense of stylish comfort even if she had had nothing to offer except bread and cheese. But with Thadée’s money she was able to offer country houses too. At the first of these, near Fontainebleau, Misia played Schubert to Mallarmé and every New Year’s Day he gave her a fan with a poem on it. She instinctively respected his essential seriousness – an early instance of her knack for recognising creative intensity even at its most original.

Another, larger country house, at Villeneuve, inspired Vuillard, who was in love with her, to some of his finest panels. It also helped eat up Thadée’s money. Misia didn’t care about material things as long as she had plenty of them. When she caught the eye of the vulgar press baron Alfred Edwards there seemed little chance that such a brute of a man could gain so sensitive a woman. But Thadée required bailing out and Misia was the price. There is also the possibility that she needed to be violated – the psychology of the book goes a bit hazy at this point.

Edwards was a coprophile, among his other charms, but he was also loaded. He knew how to appeal to the idleness that lay beneath Misia’s energy. Bonnard’s ‘Mista aux Roses’ portrayed her in her new luxury as Edward’s mistress. There were no more of the chintzes that had so appealed to Vuillard. Instead there were butlers, chandeliers and an endless supply of Louis XVI furniture. Misia played for Caruso while he sang Neapolitan songs, and told him to pipe down when she grew sick of them her new equivalent lot cutting up paintings. She had moved up a notch, or down, depending on how you view it. Some of her new acquaintances were less worthwhile than her old friends. On the other hand, she wielded her new power usefully. When Ravel failed for the third time to get the Prix de Rome, Misia used her husband’s clout to make the director of the Conservatoire resign. Fauré took over. Ravel’s Le Cygne is dedicated to Misia and she always called him mon petit Ravel. She was even more moved by Debussy. In 1902 Pierre Louÿs invited friends to hear Debussy play Pelléas et Mélisande at an upright piano. As so often happened, Misia was the only woman present. She was there by right, since the composers respected her not just as a Muse but as the ideally-equipped listener. Later on she was kind to Debussy’s ruthlessly abandoned wife, slipping her some money on the quiet but not afraid of Debussy’s certain fury should he find out – an episode that speaks highly for her character. (In this respect, Misia is a valuable corrective to Frederick Brown’s entertaining but unwarrantably malicious book on Cocteau, An Impersonation of Angels, where Misia is portrayed as a troublemaker who paid for admiration. It should now be clear that in her best years she sowed more harmony than discord and that she was loved for herself until the bitter end.)

Of her friends from the old days, many stuck around and at least one grew even closer. Renoir was without snobbery. Gold and Fizdale should have made more of his loyalty to Misia, since he was a deeply moral man whose approval of her must count as the single most convincing tribute to her character. In this regard, the book lacks proportion: it makes comprehensive lists of resonant names but lacks an economical sense of how to deploy facts in order to make points. A profoundly serious artist who had known real poverty and wasted no time on show, Renoir saw the importance of Misia’s gift for bringing life alive. The authors know this well-enough but lack the strategic sense to exploit it.

Renoir longed to paint Misia with the famous breasts naked, but she would never bare them to him, probably because Edwards was lurking heavily in the adjacent room, ready to exact jealous vengeance even though the artist by that time was an all but total cripple. At one point during her marriage to Edwards, Misia rewarded Renoir for a portrait by giving him a blank cheque. He filled it in with the going rate. Apparently he wrote love letters to her, but in her last days, on the advice of her literary agent, she destroyed them. Her agent had assessed them as ‘too silly’.

Misia lost Edwards to the gorgeous young actress Geneviève Lantelme, who had started off as a whore at the age, say the authors, of 14. (In other books estimates go as low as 12.) The break-up look a long time and Misia was able to go on enjoying a large income, but in the early stages she headed for the Normandy coast in order to get away from it all. She arrived to find that she was sharing the ozone with Edwards, Geneviéve and her ex-husband Thadée. Proust was there too, and that night wrote to tell Reynaldo Hahn all about it. As Hahn had once said about the Normandy coast, it is so close to Paris and so far from the sea. When you read scenes like this it is no longer a question of whether the bad movie will be made, but of who will be in it.

Edwards was eventually replaced by José-Maria Sert, otherwise known as the Tiepolo of the Ritz. A colourful, muscular painter of colourful, muscular murals – Forain credited him with the invention of the collapsible fresco – Sert was a tirelessly fiery Spaniard with enough cash to keep Misia in the style to which she obviously had no real intention of becoming unaccustomed, Misia later said that Sert was the only man ever completely to arouse her sexually. Some men called her cold, but perhaps that was because they had missed out. Her sexuality remains something of a mystery, like anybody else’s. Meanwhile Diaghilev had come to town. In the following years her drawing-room on the Rue de Rivoli became home away home for the Russians. Readers of Karsavina’s book Theatre Street might not recall where it was that Proust drove her home from that night. It was Misia’s.

Misia and Diaghilev were a royal couple. She opened doors for him while he broadened her horizons. They reigned as autocrats of taste, giving the word its full sense of adventurous critical discrimination. Diaghilev embodied the spirit that produces, whereas Misia embodied only the lesser spirit that consumes, yet she had virtues to complement his and her nose for quality was if anything even sharper. When Stravinsky first played the piano score of Le Sacre du Printemps to Diaghilev – inevitably this took place in her apartment – she spotted it as a masterpiece before Diaghilev did. When the two Russians almost quarrelled over Diaghilev’s proposed cuts she reconciled them. Debussy sat beside her on the first night. ‘It’s terrible,’ he said. ‘I don’t understand it.’ Misia’s role was to understand both Debussy and Stravinsky even when they didn’t understand each other. She would, it hardly needs saying, have played an important part in the Diaghilev enterprise even had she been obtuse, since Diaghilev’s principal need was for money, not moral support. On the opening night of Petrushku it was Misia who handed over the 4,000 francs that saved the costumes from being impounded. The curtain went up late, but it went up. It is nice to know, how-ever, that it went up to reveal a work of art which Misia understood in its full significance. She was the perfect audience.

But regrettably she had less time for old cronies, since as Diaghilev’s friend she had begun to entertain le gratin, the top layer of Parisian society, which in the heady atmosphere generated by the Russian Ballet had now for the first time risked contamination by the higher Bohemia. Misia was mobbed by the Comtesse Greffulhe, the Comtesse de Chevigné, and all the other ladies who served as models for Proust. She appears in Proust herself, as the lovely Princess Yourbeletieff in the Russian Ballet sequence of La Prisonnière, although some of her characteristics – the less pleasant ones – are given to Madame Verdurin. This last move was a snide one coming from Proust, since Misia was never a climber, whereas Proust, even when you make due allowances for the fact that he was using everything he found, was. In such moments one is reminded of Forster’s objections to Proust. He said that Proust’s analytical knife cut so deep it came out the other side. And certainly Proust could never do justice to the life-giving energy of a woman like Misia, who was fully capable of becoming interested in the world outside herself: all of Proust’s grand women are egotists through and through.

The bad movie becomes a very bad movie. As Satie sits playing Trois Morceaux en Form de Poire to Diaghilev in Misia’s apartment, a friend burst in to say that Austria has declared war on Serbia. Gold and Fizdale tell a sombre version of the famous ambulance expedition to the Front, with Misia in command and Cocteau featuring as mascot. Frederick Brown’s account is more savage. Probably our authors are closer to the truth about this absurd beau geste. Anybody could be excused for not guessing what the war was going to be like, even Cocteau in his specially-tailored nurse’s outfit. If the movie were good instead of bad, it would start, not with a scene of fifty famous artists all being introduced to one another, but with the visually sensitive Misia encountering a corpse whose face was a swarm of flies.

When the war blew away, Paris was still there but not even Diaghilev could stop time. In the era of Le Bouef sur le Toit Misia remained a private arbiter of taste, cultivated by artists in the same way that critics were later on. She discovered Poulenc. But she couldn’t persuade Diaghilev that Ravel’s La Valse would make a ballet – a judgment on her part that Balanchine was later to vindicate, and a lapse on Diaghilev’s that showed how the old impulse was growing diffuse. In addition, Misia had a rival for Diaghilev’s intimacy: her friend Chanel. Misia and Sert helped open Chanel’s eyes to art, but her eyes needed no opening to the main chance. She could write cheques for Diaghilev and Stravinsky just as fluently as Misia could. Misia remained influential to the end, but there was steadily less to influence – the great days did not return.

In Misia’s circle between the wars, fashion steadily got the edge on art. Even though Sert carried on like a Renaissance man (and, according to Chanel, smelled like one), Misia knew that he was not Picasso, just as she knew that Les Six did not add up to Stravinsky. Cocteau, whose task in life was to be ahead of the game, became a more and more prominent part of the décor. Misia and Diaghilev presided over the gala in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles in 1923. The parties grew ever more enormous but the old innocence drained away. When Balanchine auditioned for Diaghilev – in Misia’s apartment, naturally – Diaghilev’s days were already numbered. By this time Sert and Misia were both in love with the same girl, Roussy Mdivani, a junior member of the marrying Mdivanis. Roussy was chic as opposed to artistic. She was also young as opposed to old. The triangle lasted for as long as Misia’s pride allowed, plus a bit longer. Then she consoled herself with Chanel, who now took her turn to assume the dominant role. At Diaghilev’s funeral they were both in the first gondala.

Misia’s legs were as lovely as ever but she grew less steady on them, not just from age but from a bad habit of injecting morphine straight through her clothes. During World War Two her record was good – certainly a lot better than Chanel’s. Misia did her best to save Max Jacob’s life, but not even her pull could rescue Jews from Nazis. At soirées after the war she invited collaborateurs and réistants on different days, but if they happened to bump into each other she left them to sort it out. She loved life too much to let go of it easily so the end was messy, but even in her most dire straits there was never anything mean about her. She was definitely never in it for the prestige: a lot of Proust’s letters she didn’t even bother to open.

The Banquet Years, les beaux jours: whatever you call those times, Misia Sert was at the heart of them, helping make life sweet for the artists who were busy enriching the future. She was unique in her period – her imitators, however grand their titles, had nothing like her certainty of taste – but not in cultural history, which shows many examples of fruitful interplay between creativity and a receptive social élite, with a stylish woman as the mediator. Catullus complains about being rejected by the high-stepping Clodia but not about the debilitating effects of being accepted: obviously he found in her comfortable surroundings a welcome relief from his lonely pushing of the stilus. Whether she was as thrilled by his poems as he was by her cushions is unknown. The friendship between Michelangelo and Vittoria Colonna brooks no romanticising but its balance of forces is familiar enough. Their mutual appreciation was a trade-off, in which the obsessed artist got a taste of grace and the lady fraternised with immortality. That she knew he was immortal was an indispensable part of the deal: a useful conjunction of high art and high living has always depended on the second respecting the first as much as the first the second.

Another case in point was Isabella d’Este, of whom the great Russian critic Muratov wrote in terms that might easily be applied to Misia. She existed, he says (and any pomposity is in my English, not his Russian),

not so much for herself or for those near to her as for all epochs. Of her one thinks as of some living monument of the Renaissance. She didn’t just live, she represented. In the literal sense she personified both the intellectuality of the Renaissance and the whole brilliance of its materialism.

Her taste, however, could be wobbly. She spurned Mantegna’s portrait of her, preferring a more Haltering one by the hack Giovanni Santi.

Isabella didn’t get the point of Leonardo either, but if the artist got on the wrong side of her he could always move somewhere else. In the Renaissance, the artists could both enjoy aristocratic patronage and remain independent, since they constituted a high social stratum on their own account. On the ability of such a social stratum to form and grow has often depended the artist’s freedom to thrive, and in some cases his survival. This social drama can be seen acting itself out in parallel with the accelerated history of musical Vienna, Haydn, though perfectly adjusted to court life, established what independence he could. Mozart might have lasted longer if he had had more earlier. Beethoven was free to fall hopelessly in love with fine young ladies because he had his own standards to fall back on and live by – those of an artistic calling grown self-sufficient. With Schubert, the independence acquired the support of the bourgeois 19th century, but it is still best regarded as characteristic of high Bohemia. What can happen to genius when there is no Bohemia to retreat to is exemplified by the fate of Pushkin, who was forced to live by aristocratic rules and rapidly died of them. In the literary civilisation that he called for in vain, he might have met the right kind of woman. In the Italian Renaissance, he could have skipped town and set up shop in a rival court. In Misia’s Paris, the duel would have been fought with epigrams.

Goethe’s Weimar saw the special relationship between the talented men and the wellborn ladies so well-established that the Misia Serts were jostling for compliments. On this subject I have attained temporary omniscience by means of Frauen der Goethezeit, an anthology of letters edited by Helga Haberland and Wolfgang Pehnt.[†] Caroline Schelling-Schlegel was praised by Novalis for her ‘magisches Atmosphare’ and complained of by Friedrich Schlegel for her ‘hoher Corruptibilität: i.e. they were all crazy about her. After a night at a bad inn, Goethe subsided with a purr into the well-judged ambience of Annalie Fürstin von Gallitzen. He commended the modesty of her surroundings, but obviously they were a vast improvement on the inn. She thanked him for helping kindle the Platonic spark that drives the shadows from the soul.

But for Goethe the most enchanting of them all was Anna Amalia Herzogin von Sachsen – Weimar-Eisenach, whose life, he recalled, was composed of ‘mythologische Szenen’. Goethe had a way with a thank-you letter that harked forward to the calculated humility of Rilke, who was likewise capable of telling his titled ladies that their lives were composed of mythological scenes. The titled ladies usually responded by inviting him back to their castles the following year. But Rilke’s soul-mates should not be despised for allowing him to suck up to them. The Duino Elegies are dedicated to Marie von Thurn and Taxis Hohenloe as her ‘possession’. The compliment might seem fulsome but she undoubtedly deserved something like it. The most you can say against her is that she might have done better to treat some of Rilke’s letters the same way Misia treated Proust’s.

As Arsène Houssaye has it in his memoirs, the aged Chateaubriand, walking in relaxed enjoyment of Madame Rècamier’s company, assured Saint-Beuve that if he had his time again he wouldn’t pick up a pen. This may have been rhetoric – if he had never picked up a pen he would not have met Madame Récamier – but it was understandable. It had not been all that long since Molière had died in harness. Great artists are always simple but rarely stupid. They usually realise that there is something distorted about the way they live for art, and are often attracted towards those who make an art of living. The same goes double when the artist is coming up from nowhere, devotes all his energy to his work, and finds at a late stage that he is without manners. There was nothing parodic about the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter except her name. Emanating from the French branch of the Rothschild family, she was a jazz fan whose New York apartment served as un fastueux logement de dépannage for Charlie Parker, If he had met her earlier he might have lasted longer.

With the possible exception of Clodia, none of the women I have mentioned, least of all Misia, could possibly be described as a groupie. Sex hardly enters into it. Lou Andréas-Salomé, Alma Mahler, Peggy Guggenheim were out to establish a physical connection with the immortals. The Misia Serts have always been concerned with a spiritual interchange in which aloofness underlines the intimacy and vice versa, with both hostess and guest being free to draw back. In any society where the middle class has expanded to the extent that the artist is no longer a hired member of the grand household, it has always been up to him how often he comes to dinner. It is true that high living is an enemy of promise, but whether it is succumbed to is a matter of will – and the will, as Chesterton pointed out, means nothing if not the willingness to give things up. Tom Moore sang for his supper until there was nothing left of him, but it was not the fault of Holland House, which could be walked away from, as Byron proved.

There is a crushing sort of determinism which tries to make social élites responsible for the corruption of artists. In fact, it is up to the artist. In our own time, T. S. Eliot received a lot of abuse from Dr Leavis for attending cocktail parties and having his values corrupted. The truth of the matter was that Eliot, while encouraging Harriet Shaw Weaver to play the role of artistic patron to which she was clearly suited, was pretty good at keeping his values intact. Leavis would have done better to complain about D. H. Lawrence, who was glad enough to accept Lady Ottoline Morrell’s hospitality, mean enough to caricature her afterwards, and, in a way that Rilke and Proust would have recognised, was always careful to stay in good with such generous women as Mabel Dodge Luhan. But in Leavis’s eyes Lawrence was someone like himself, a man consciously dedicated to creativity and with his face set like flint against temptation. Like many critics, Leavis had trouble realising that artists, far from being consciously dedicated to creativity, are simply born to it, and experience no difficulty in warding off temptation if they have a mind to.

A successful artist, unlike a critic or an academic, is a celebrity. Celebrities are fated to be lionised anyway, so it is no mystery when they choose to have it done by people who know how and won’t bore them. The wise cultural hero, however, is always careful to disarm the resentment of his own admirers by keeping a low profile. Picasso was a social lion all his life but took pains to cultivate a reputation as someone who never stopped working.

There is also the question of the artist’s attitude to his material, which is best summed up by saying that everything is grist to his mill. Hence the absurdity of condemning a writer for his associations without first assessing what use he puts them to. One of the advantages of an historical perspective, however scrappy, is to dispel the illusion that England is the only country possessing a class system. The whole history of civilisation offers not a single example of a country that doesn’t. At any time, anywhere, can be found impeccably humble stay-at-homes who accomplish nothing and frantic bounders who achieve great things. Moralistic criticism based on the social behaviour of the artist is useless as criticism and not even moral. Even Professor Carey, the cleverest of reviewers, seems resolutely wedded to provincialism in this matter. Writing a typically brilliant review of a book whose essential foolishness he failed to detect, Professor Carey happily classified Brian Howard and Evelyn Waugh as twin exemplars of a decayed ruling class. Any attitude which can find two such men even remotely similar is worthy of study in itself. It takes no great predictive power to see that in the long term there will be no such thing as a social context in which Evelyn Waugh can be placed. The context will be gone and his work will remain.

To the artists she favoured, Misia Sert was as exciting at the time as they will always be to us. She was the way they felt: she didn’t just live, she represented. We should bear this in mind when considering that, of the two redoubtable women bobbing in the gondala, it was Chanel and not Misia who was the practical creator. Fortunate not to be lynched after the Liberation, Chanel had her repellent aspects, but she knew what she was for. She belonged, even if in a small way, to a more robust history than that of chic. The Chanel suit should figure early in any virago’s list of artefacts that shook the world. In teaching her the ways of the beau monde, Misia was fulfilling the timeless function of the great lady educating the artist born of the people. Chanel knew it and in their later years paid her back with such loyalty as she could summon. On the train south they would cackle scandal at each other and shoot junk. Coctcau dramatised their rancid friendship in Les monstres Sacrès but really they were beyond him, and he knew them both well. It would be a brave outsider, at this distance, who presumed to solve the mystery of such an alliance.

The mark Chanel made is still discernible. Misia survives only in the work of others. The authors of this book can be charged with having failed to tell us what she was like, but probably nobody could now since even the most gifted artists of the day could only partly do so then. Gold and Fizdale have talked to everyone still alive who ever knew her. In doing so, they have assembled an admirable testimony to her personality. But the personality itself has been long gone. In a way that no artist can ever quite understand but nearly all of them find irresistibly attractive, she did nothing with her capacity for beauty except live. Yet the human personality, which dies with the memory of individuals, and the work of art, which lives on in the collective consciousness, are different forms of the same thing – a truth made acutely visible by Misia’s portraits, which, if they do not capture her, certainly capture uncapturability. She gave the artists the gift of her sublime ephemerality and they made it last. That true sacred monster the Comtesse Anna de Noailles wrote herself an epitaph which would have done much better for Misia: ‘I shall have been useless but irreplaceable.’

[*] Le Temps Canel by Edmonde Charles-Roux (Chêene/Grasset).

[†] Stuttgart, 1960.