on March 7, 2012
Few people live a life as full and as interesting as Ms. Bernier has enjoyed. If have an interest in Aaron Copland, Frida Kahlo, Leopold Stokowski, Fernand Leger, Leonard Bernstein, Alberto Giacometti and many others of the worlds of art and music of the twentieth century, you should find this book very enjoyable reading.
Ms. Bernier was fortunate enough to be born the daughter of the chairman of the Philadelphia Symphony and as a result met many of the world's leading musicians while growing up. Being attractive, intelligent and apparently very charming, men tended to give her particular attention and that included very famous men. These personal characteristics served her well throughout her adult life and when she moved to Mexico with her first husband in the late '30s, she seemingly inevitably fell into a circle with Frida and Diego Rivera and anyone else of interest in the country at the time. From there to Paris after the war where she casually mentions that Vogue wanted her to write features for them "a position for which I had absolutely no qualifications beyond curiosity". Somehow, the fact that she knew Alice B. Toklas, Madame Gres and Christian Dior probably helped. In her role at Vogue, she met Picasso, Chanel, Matisse, Le Corbusier and everyone else in the field of arts and design in the decades after the war.
She started her own arts magazine in Paris, L'Oeil, and as a result she not just wrote about, but became friends with Giacometti, Henry Moore, Miro, Goncharova, Wilfredo Lam among other great artists of the last century. This was the material which made her lecture series in New York instant sellouts. And now she is sharing her stories about these figures with us.
When she wed critic John Russell in 1974 at Philip Johnson's Glass House, she was "given away" by Aaron Copland with Andy Warhol, Stephen Spender, Johnson, and Leonard Bernstein among those in attendance. Later she sat for portraits by David Hockney and Alex Katz.
This is a woman with many stories to tell and she does so in an anecdotal style which allows you to pick up the book, read a chapter or three and then put the book down to return later without losing any continuity. I found it both interesting and fun.
on January 19, 2014
The book hit me the wrong way, and I see that I'm in the minority of readers who posted reviews. Bernier knew a lot of people, but somehow the book seemed lifeless, without much connecting the relationships. There aren't anywhere near enough personal anecdotes about her friends to make for a fun read. One page has six or eight small pictures of her in different evening gowns, each one shot backstage at a number of dressy musical events she attended. She said she wanted a record of what she wore. Well, what a yawn. They may be designer gowns, but from today's point of view their pzazz has vanished, they just look dated, along with the bouffant hairdo. Some uncomfortable tattle-tale stuff, too, like other people's shopaholic wardrobe excesses, and this from a woman who was a lecturer at the Met? She strikes some bad notes in the book, that's the reason I found it both off-putting and sometimes embarrassing to read, an icky adolescent need to be fawned over. Sadly, I think the book should have been published about 20 or 30 years earlier, she would have written it better, perhaps more wittily, and the content would have been of more interest. The cover sums it up pretty well -- it's her, but very, very posed.
on March 25, 2013
Bernier leads one of those charmed lives in which so many doors open to her, that it's an embarrassment of riches. She knew just about every great creative artist in the latter half of the 20th Century. Granted, some of them were on their last bows, but some of them were up and coming, and some she actually helped to become celebrated. Her anecdotes about Giacometti, Picasso, Miro, Stokowski, Copland, Virgil Thomson, Leonard Bernstein are not deep meditations on their work. They are little throw-away day-to-day observations, taken from life, as to how it was to work around them. As such, the book is a sequence of bon-bons, and can be picked up and read from any point. In fact, the book is so episodic (it is called "a scrapbook memoir"), that to actually read it cover to cover is probably the wrong way to do it, as there is no real thread of action. Rather in the same vein as Frank Langella's latest memoir, it isn't meant to have that kind of thread. But when she is late to see Chagall, we are late too, and her narrative can be thrilling and anxiety-inducing at the same time. Also, Bernier was in a good position to see the people who lived around the greater names; the Alice B. Toklas, Giacometti's brother, Diego; Picasso's housekeeper. Some of those anecdotes are worth the price of admission.
on February 26, 2013
Few people can look back on a life as rich as Rosamond Bernier’s. Published to coincide with her 95th birthday last October, Some of My Lives, A Scrapbook Memoir, gives us tantalizing glimpses into the many fascinating personalities Bernier has known in the course of her long life. Artists, musicians and fashion designers whose names are household words populate this witty, charming book. Leonard Bernstein, Coco Chanel, Aaron Copland, Madame Gres, Alberto Giacometti, Frida Kahlo, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein...ctically the whole pantheon of the arts in the 20th century makes an appearance in its pages.
Ms. Bernier was born in 1916 in Philadelphia to an English mother and an American father who was a successful lawyer and chairman of the Board of Directors of the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra. Samuel Rosenbaum’s Hungarian Jewish parents “said the Kadish over him” when he married an Episcopalian, and Rosamond was brought up like a wealthy English girl, with riding lessons, a French governess, and frequent visits to England on luxury ships.
When Rosamond was eight years old her mother died. Two years later, when she was not quite ten, her governess fell ill and her father put her on a ship by herself to return to her English boarding school. Every evening aboard, Bernier would change into a party dress, go down to the dining room for her favorite dish of cold smoked tongue, then proceed to the smoking room for gambling. “I had spectacular luck,” Bernier writes. Her good fortune seems to have held remarkably well through most of her life.
During a childhood steeped in music, Bernier played the harp and came to know many legendary personalities such as Otto Klemperer, Eugene Ormandy, Leopold Stokowski, Walter Gieseking, Sergei Rachmaninov, and Jose Iturbi. She was most impressed by Klemperer, “not only because he was enormously tall, way over six feet, but also because of the jocular way he threw butterballs at his wife at table.” Stokowski “had a seductive, caressing accent, entirely self-invented. He was born in London.” Ormandy “was not given to understatement.” Asked by Bernier’s father how things had gone after a conducting tour, Ormandy would invariably reply, “I was a zenzation.”
Bernier attended Sarah Lawrence College and, during a holiday after her sophomore year, went on holiday to Mexico and met Aaron Copland, who was “very hard up” and told her he missed marmalade with his breakfast. The nest day Bernier “enlisted an obliging boyfriend” to deliver a whole carton of marmalade to Copland, starting a life-long friendship. Bernier returned to college but left without graduating to marry the young man who had driven her to deliver the marmalade. The wedding took place in Bernier’s family’s home in Philadelphia, and Aaron Copland attended bearing as a gift the orchestration he had written of Rosamond’s favorite song.
Lewis A. Riley Jr. was a handsome and wealthy American living in Mexico where he was developing the coastal land around Acapulco. In the late 30s and early 40s, Mexico “was a place where you felt that everything could still be invented,” Bernier recalls. “It was extraordinarily vibrant—architecture was booming; there was wonderful folk art. And of course the colors and nature were wonderful.” There, Bernier learned to pilot a plane, witnessed the birth of a volcano, and assembled a menagerie that included an ocelot, an anteater, a marmoset, a kinkajou with a drinking problem, tropical birds and, most unusual of all, a small penguin from Antarctica who became a favorite swimming companion.
During her time in Mexico, Bernier became friends with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and hosted many colorful personalities, among them Jane and Paul Bowles, and a drunken gringo who had been thrown off a bus. He turned out to be Malcolm Lowry, the author of Under the Volcano.
After an amicable divorce, Bernier returned to the States for a visit and over the course of drinks at a friend met the full “high command” of Condé Nast. A few days later, with zero experience, Bernier had received not one, but three job offers at Vogue! Bernier laughed when Condé Nast’s CEO, Iva Patcevitch, proposed a starting salary of forty-five dollars a week. “Why, Mr. Patcevitch, my ignorance is worth more than that,” she told him. When the offer was raised to seventy-five dollars a week, she took the job and was dispatched to Paris to report on the reopening of the French fashion houses after the war. By 1947, she was Vogue’s first European features editor.
Bernier’s first important couture show in Paris was presented by the house of Lucien Lelong. The clothes were designed by “a shy, cherubic, unknown young man” who two years later would revolutionize the fashion landscape with the New Look. Of course, he was Christian Dior. Bernier soon got to know the top couturiers and “their kindnesses were extraordinary.” Often she was lent clothes, or was called up before a sale. At one point she had her own vendeuse at Balenciaga, the motherly Madame Maria, who once sent her to the Madrid branch to have outfits made at a fraction of the Paris price.
In the mid-1950s, Bernier left Vogue and founded the art magazine L’Oeil (The Eye) with her second husband (who is nowhere to be found in the book). Once again, luck compensated for lack of experience, as Picasso offered her “un regalo” and sent her to his sister’s house in Barcelona, where he had kept a large body of unpublished work. When the first issue of L’Oeil appeared, it caused a sensation. Over her years editing L’Oeil, Bernier wrote about – and became friends with – the likes of Matisse, Giacometti, Henry More, Joan Miro, Braque, Fernand Leger and just about every major name in 20th century art.
In 1970, after 20 years of marriage, Bernier found herself suddenly divorced and jobless (an event vaguely alluded to as a “period of personal upheaval”). She moved to New York, and agreed to give a few college lectures, which soon turned into a career as a “professional talker” (her words). Five years later, she married the British art critic John Russell in a lavish ceremony hosted by Philip Johnson in his famous Glass House in New Canaan (link), Connecticut. The all-star guest list included Aaron Copland, Pierra Matisse, Virgil Thomson, Andy Warhol, and Helen Frankenthaler, as well as Leonard Bernstein, who wrote the music for the occasion.
Bernier’s next chapter found her lecturing on 20th century art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Speaking without notes and stunning in evening dress, Bernier’s lectures sold out months in advance. She stopped lecturing after some 250 performances in 2008, the year Russell died after 33 years of marriage. “They were wonderful years,” Bernier says. “I treasure every one of them. “ A year later Bernier began writing Some of my Lives.
Bernier's anecdotes keep you enthralled from page one without flagging. In one incident, all hotels are full and she ends up sleeping on Madame de Sévigné bed at a Museum – as seen in the cover of Some of My Lives. On another occasion, she arranged the shoot where Horst took a famous photo of Gertrude Stein at Pierre Balmain’s Paris salon. The much-reproduced image shows Stein, a “massive unmovable monument,” with her poodle Basket looking at a model in an evening gown. Bernier and Vogue illustrator Eric are the two small figures in the background.
Bernier’s encounter with Coco Chanel in 1954 is one of the most riveting chapters in the book. Bernier had come prepared with questions, but she did not get to ask any of them. Chanel kept talking for nearly two hours and her observations on how women are perceived, what they should wear and how they ought to behave, her own trajectory and philosophy of life, reveal a complex, brilliant woman. I was spellbound.
If the book leaves you a bit jealous, wondering what it would be like to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth and with the gift of seeming as effortlessly charming and chic as Bernier, it is also an inspiration. Bernier had a wonderful life, but her success owes as much to focus, determination, and hard work as it does to privilege and luck. Throughout, she shows an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time and to enchant everyone she meets. Although she reveals little about herself, it is possible to glimpse a woman of great resilience, optimism, generosity, and pluck. A most elegant woman, inside and out.
Note: This review appeared in the Winter issue of Swan Ways' Newsletter (see [...]).