Girl History Month – Coco Chanel, Essence Of Style

chanel

Famed fashion designer Coco Chanel was born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel on August 19, 1883, in Saumur, France. With her trademark suits and little black dresses, Coco Chanel created timeless designs that are still popular today. She herself became a much revered style icon known for her simple yet sophisticated outfits paired with great accessories, such as several strands of pearls. As Chanel once said,“luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury.”

Her early years, however, were anything but glamorous. After her mother’s death, Chanel was put in an orphanage by her father who worked as a peddler. She was raised by nuns who taught her how to sew—a skill that would lead to her life’s work. Her nickname came from another occupation entirely. During her brief career as a singer, Chanel performed in clubs in Vichy and Moulins where she was called “Coco.” Some say that the name comes from one of the songs she used to sing, and Chanel herself said that it was a “shortened version of cocotte, the French word for ‘kept woman,” according to an article in The Atlantic.

Around the age of 20, Chanel became involved with Etienne Balsan who offered to help her start a millinery business in Paris. She soon left him for one of his even wealthier friends, Arthur “Boy” Capel. Both men were instrumental in Chanel’s first fashion venture.

Opening her first shop on Paris’s Rue Cambon in 1910, Chanel started out selling hats. She later added stores in Deauville and Biarritz and began making clothes. Her first taste of clothing success came from a dress she fashioned out of an old jersey on a chilly day. In response to the many people who asked about where she got the dress, she offered to make one for them. “My fortune is built on that old jersey that I’d put on because it was cold in Deauville,” she once told author Paul Morand.

In the 1920s, Chanel took her thriving business to new heights. She launched her first perfume, Chanel No. 5, which was the first to feature a designer’s name. Perfume “is the unseen, unforgettable, ultimate accessory of fashion. . . . that heralds your arrival and prolongs your departure,” Chanel once explained.

In 1925, she introduced the now legendary Chanel suit with collarless jacket and well-fitted skirt. Her designs were revolutionary for the time—borrowing elements of men’s wear and emphasizing comfort over the constraints of then-popular fashions. She helped women say good-bye to the days of corsets and other confining garments.

Another 1920s revolutionary design was Chanel’s little black dress. She took a color once associated with mourning and showed just how chic it could be for eveningwear. In addition to fashion, Chanel was a popular figure in the Paris literary and artistic worlds. She designed costumes for the Ballets Russes and for Jean Cocteau’s play Orphée, and counted Cocteau and artist Pablo Picasso among her friends. For a time, Chanel had a relationship with composer Igor Stravinsky.

Another important romance for Chanel began in the 1920s. She met the wealthy duke of Westminster aboard his yacht around 1923, and the two started a decades-long relationship. In response to his marriage proposal, she reportedly said “There have been several Duchesses of Westminster—but there is only one Chanel!”

The international economic depression of the 1930s had a negative impact on her company, but it was the outbreak of World War II that led Chanel to close her business. She fired her workers and shut down her shops. During the German occupation of France, Chanel got involved with a German military officer, Hans Gunther von Dincklage. She got special permission to stay in her apartment at the Hotel Ritz. After the war ended, Chanel was interrogated by her relationship with von Dincklage, but she was not charged as a collaborator. Some have wondered whether friend Winston Churchill worked behind the scenes on Chanel’s behalf.

While not officially charged, Chanel suffered in the court of public opinion. Some still viewed her relationship with a Nazi officer as a betrayal of her country. Chanel left Paris, spending some years in Switzerland in a sort of exile. She also lived at her country house in Roquebrune for a time.

At the age of 70, Chanel made a triumphant return to the fashion world. She first received scathing reviews from critics, but her feminine and easy-fitting designs soon won over shoppers around the world.

In 1969, Chanel’s fascinating life story became the basis for the Broadway musical Coco starring Katharine Hepburn as the legendary designer. Alan Jay Lerner wrote the book and lyrics for the show’s song while Andre Prévin composed the music. Cecil Beaton handled the set and costume design for the production. The show received seven Tony Award nominations, and Beaton won for Best Costume Design and René Auberjonois for Best Featured Actor.

Coco Chanel died on January 10, 1971, at her apartment in the Hotel Ritz. She never married, having once said “I never wanted to weigh more heavily on a man than a bird.” Hundreds crowded together at the Church of the Madeleine to bid farewell to the fashion icon. In tribute, many of the mourners wore Chanel suits.

Girl History Month – Héloïse d’Argenteuil

Héloïse d’Argenteuil

Héloïse d’Argenteuil

Heloise, seduced and abandoned by her teacher, Peter Abelard, is one of the most famous (and forgiving) tragic heroines of all time.

Peter Abelard (1079-1142) was a French philosopher, considered one of the greatest thinkers of the 12th century. Among his works is “Sic et Non,” a list of 158 philosophical and theological questions. His teachings were controversial, and he was repeatedly charged with heresy. Even with the controversy that surrounded him at times, nothing probably prepared him for the consequences of his love affair with Heloise, a relationship destined to change his life in dramatic ways.

Heloise (1101-1164) was the niece and pride of Canon Fulbert of Paris and a brilliant student. Abelard later writes in his “Historica Calamitatum”: “Her uncle’s love for her was equaled only by his desire that she should have the best education which he could possibly procure for her. Of no mean beauty, she stood out above all by reason of her abundant knowledge of letters.”

Wishing to become acquainted with Heloise, Abelard persuaded Fulbert to allow him to teach Heloise. Using the pretext that his own house was a “handicap” to his studies, Abelard further moved in to the house of Heloise and her uncle. She was supposedly a great beauty, one of the most well-educated women of her time; so, perhaps it’s not surprising that Abelard and she became lovers. Also, she was more than 20 years younger than Abelard… And, of course, Fulbert discovered their love, as Abelard would later write: “Oh, how great was the uncle’s grief when he learned the truth, and how bitter was the sorrow of the lovers when we were forced to part!”

abelardheloise

They were separated, but that didn’t end the affair. Instead, they discovered that Heloise was pregnant. She left her uncle’s house when he was not at home; and she stayed with Abelard’s sister until their son Astrolabe was born.

Abelard asked for Fulbert’s forgiveness, and permission to marry Heloise; then with Fulbert’s assent, Abelard tried to persuade Heloise to marry him. Abelard wrote: “She, however, most violently disapproved of this, and for two chief reasons: the danger thereof, and the disgrace which it would bring upon me… What penalties, she said, would the world rightly demand of her if she should rob it of so shining a light!”

When she finally agreed to become Abelard’s wife, Heloise told him, “Then there is no more left but this, that in our doom the sorrow yet to come shall be no less than the love we two have already known.” In regard to that statement, Abelard later wrote, in his “Historica,” “Nor in this, as now the whole world knows, did she lack the spirit of prophecy.”

Secretly married, the couple left Astrolabe with Abelard’s sister. When Heloise went to stay with the nuns at Argenteuil, her uncle and kinsmen believed that Abelard had cast her off, forcing her to become a nun.

“Violently incensed, they laid a plot against me, and one night while I all unsuspecting was asleep in a secret room in my lodgings, they broke in with the help of one of my servants whom they had bribed. There they had vengeance on me with a most cruel and most shameful punishment, such as astounded the whole world; for they cut off those parts of my body with which I had done that which was the cause of their sorrow.” After his castration, Abelard became a monk.

At the convent in Argenteuil, Heloise took the habit and eventually became prioress. She and the other nuns were turned out when the convent was taken over by the abbey at which Abelard had first taken his monastic vows. At this point Abelard arranged for them to enter the Oratory of the Paraclete, an abbey he had established, where Héloïse became abbess.

About this time, correspondence began between the two former lovers. In letters which followed, Heloise expressed dismay at problems Abelard faced, but scolded him for years of silence following the attack upon him, since they were still married.

In a letter to Abelard, Heloise wrote: “You know, beloved, as the whole world knows, how much I have lost in you, how at one wretched stroke of fortune that supreme act of flagrant treachery robbed me of my very self in robbing me of you; and how my sorrow for my loss is nothing compared with what I feel for the manner in which I lost you.”

Ultimately, after telling Heloise of instances where he had abused her and forced sex, Abelard insisted he had never truly loved her, but only lusted after her, and their relationship was a sin against God. He then recommended her to consecrate herself fully from then on to her religious vocation.

Some scholars insist Abelard was attempting to spare her feelings (or his feelings, altered from disrupted hormones) and others point to the damage of his hormones and psyche, but from this point on, their correspondence focused on professional subjects rather than their romantic history.

Heloise never wavered in her devotion to Abelard, and their tragic love story is a testament to her unconditional love.

Tomb of Heloise and Abelard in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris

Tomb of Heloise and Abelard in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris

Happy Birthday Edith Wharton

edith wharton

Reprinted from The Writers’ Almanac

It’s the birthday of Edith Wharton who said, “Life is always a tightrope or a feather bed. Give me the tightrope.” She was born on this day in New York City (1862). She wrote about frustrated love in novels like The House of Mirth (1905), Ethan Frome (1911), and The Age of Innocence (1920), for which she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize.

She came from a rich and snobbish New York family who lived off the inheritance of their real estate and banking tycoon ancestors, and she spent several years of her early childhood traveling around Europe. When she was 10, her parents re-settled in New York, around 23rd and Park Avenue. She was a teenage bookworm, reading insatiably from her family’s expansive library and feeling alienated and adrift in the New York high-society circles her family moved in. At 23, she married a family friend, a classy, good-looking sportsman named Edward “Teddy” Robbins Wharton, who wasn’t particularly fond of books. He had a tendency for manic spells, extravagant spending sprees, and infidelity. It was a long and miserable marriage.

She met Henry James in Europe and became good friends with him. He encouraged her to write about the New York City she knew so well and disliked. He said, “Don’t pass it by — the immediate, the real, the only, the yours.” And it was Henry James who introduced her to his friend Morton Fullerton, a dashing, promiscuous, intellectual American expat journalist who reported for the London Times from Paris. Edith Wharton fell hard for the man, filled her diary with passages about how their romance and conversation made her feel complete, wrote him pleading letters, and about a year into their affair, when she was in her late 40s, moved full-time to Paris, where he resided. The affair ended in 1911, the year she published Ethan Frome. She once wrote to him:

“Do you know what I was thinking last night, when you asked me, & I couldn’t tell you? — Only that the way you’ve spent your emotional life while I’ve … hoarded mine, is what puts the great gulf between us, & sets us not only on opposite shores, but at hopelessly distant points of our respective shores. Do you see what I mean?

“And I’m so afraid that the treasures I long to unpack for you, that have come to me in magic ships from enchanted islands, are only, to you, the old familiar red calico & beads of the clever trader, who has had dealing with every latitude, & knows just what to carry in the hold to please the simple native — I’m so afraid of this, that often & often I stuff my shining treasures back into their box, lest I should see you smiling at them!

“Well! And what if you do? It’s your loss, after all! And if you can’t come into the room without my feeling all over me a ripple of flame, & if, wherever you touch me, a heart beats under your touch, & if, when you hold me, & I don’t speak, it’s because all the words in me seem to have become throbbing pulses, & all my thoughts are a great golden blur — why should I be afraid of your smiling at me, when I can turn the beads & calico back into such beauty —?”

He left her in 1911, and she stayed married to Teddy for a couple more years, though the two lived apart from each other during the last part of their 28-year marriage. She loved living in Paris, and there she mingled with people like André Gide, Jean Cocteau, Theodore Roosevelt, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, whom she once told: “To your generation, I must represent the literary equivalent of tufted furniture and gas chandeliers.” But she wasn’t prim or overly proper, and she famously enjoyed one of Fitzgerald’s scandalous stories, about an American couple in a Paris brothel, which he drunkenly related the first time he met her.

Modernist writers were among her contemporaries, but she didn’t use modernist techniques like stream-of-consciousness in her own writing, and she wasn’t a fan of it in others’. She once said about James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), “Until the raw ingredients of a pudding make a pudding, I shall never believe that the raw material of sensation and thought can make a work of art without the cook’s intervening.”

She died in Paris at the age of 75. At the time of her death, she was working on a novel called The Buccaneers, about five rich American girls who set out to marry landed British men, so that they can have English feudal titles in their names, like “Duchess.” In her last days, she lay in bed and worked on the novel, and each page that she completed she dropped onto the floor so that it could be collected later, when she was through.

Many of her novels have been made into movies. The House of Mirth, The Glimpses of the Moon, and The Age of Innocence were all adapted into silent films around the 1920s. John Madden directed a version of Ethan Frome in 1993, the same year Martin Scorsese directed a film adaptation of The Age of Innocence. In 2000, Gillian Anderson starred in The House of Mirth, directed by Terence Davies.

Edith Wharton said, “There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that receives it.”

Happy Birthday Marie Duplessis

camellias

Reprinted from The Writers’ Almanac:

It’s the birthday of French courtesan Marie Duplessis, born Alphonsine Plessis in Normandy (1824). She was a beautiful young woman: petite, dark-haired, and slim. She was working as a laundress at the age of 13 when her father decided that prostitution paid better. He sent her to live with a rich and elderly bachelor in exchange for cash. After a year, she went to live with cousins in Paris. For a time, she was kept by a restaurant owner, who gave her a place to live in exchange for her favors. It wasn’t long before she set her sights higher. She learned to read and write, and she studied a wide variety of subjects so that she could hold her own in any social situation. She started appearing at places where the rich and powerful were likely to be, and she attracted lots of attention.

She suspected she had tuberculosis when she developed a cough that only got worse. She was treated with everything from spa cures to strychnine to hypnotism. And through it all, she kept dressing up and holding salons and going to the opera. Having grown up in poverty, she couldn’t get enough of luxury. Noblemen from all over Europe would call on her whenever they were in Paris, and they brought her expensive trinkets, which she sometimes pawned to support herself between lovers.

She began an affair with Alexandre Dumas the younger when they were both 20 years old. He was a struggling writer, and he wasn’t able to give her lavish gifts like her other lovers. He kept her with him out in the country for a while, for the sake of her health, but she missed the lively Paris scene and went back to the city after a year. Finally, he couldn’t take it anymore, and broke it off with her, writing in a letter, “I am neither rich enough to love you as I could wish nor poor enough to be loved as you wish.”

Duplessis never answered Dumas’s letter. She was too ill, and she had begun an affair with the composer and pianist Franz Liszt. She wanted Liszt to bring her along on his concert tour, but he was afraid he would catch tuberculosis from her, so he left her behind. He promised to take her to Turkey one day, but he never saw her again. After she died at the age of 23, Liszt regretted not coming to her bedside, and said: “She had a great deal of heart, a great liveliness of spirit and I consider her unique of her kind. […] She was the most complete incarnation of womankind that has ever existed.”

Four months after Duplessis’s death, Dumas published his novel The Lady of the Camellias (1848). It’s the story of a courtesan named Marguerite Gautier, based on Duplessis. She breaks the heart of her lover — Armand Duval — to spare him from ruin. Dumas wrote it in four weeks. It was later made into a play, which in turn inspired Verdi’s opera La Traviata (1853).

Joyeux Le Quatorze Juillet!

Hey, don’t think I’ve forgotten!  I’m covered with honey and thinking about Napoleon!

Run For The Roses

The Kentucky Derby is a stakes race for three-year-old thoroughbred horses, staged annually at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky on the first Saturday in May.

Organized horse racing in the State of Kentucky dates as far back as the late 1700s when several different race courses were built in and around the city of Louisville.

In 1872, Col. M. Lewis Clark, traveled to England, visiting the Epsom Derby, a famous race that had been running annually since 1780. From there, Clark went on to Paris, France, where in 1863 a group of racing enthusiasts had formed the French Jockey Club and had organized the Grand Prix de Paris, which eventually became the famous Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

Returning home to Kentucky, Clark organized the Louisville Jockey Club for the purpose of raising money to build quality racing facilities just outside of the city. The track would soon become known as Churchill Downs, named for Lewis Clark’s relatives, John and Henry Churchill, who had provided the land for the racetrack.

Besides the consumption of the Mint Julep drink, other traditions have played a large role in the Derby atmosphere, with elegant women appearing in long dresses, big hats, and carrying fancy umbrellas.

The Derby is frequently referred to as “The run for the roses,” because a garland of red roses is awarded to the Kentucky Derby winner each year.

Les Abeilles – The Bees of Paris

Bees and beekeeping have a long and treasured history in Paris.

In the nineteenth century, many people left the French countryside to live in the city of Paris, and some of them brought their beloved bees along too. They soon discovered that their bees loved Paris as much as they did.

The bee tile floor of La Maison du Miel

A century ago, there were more than 1000 hives in the city of Paris. The bees almost disappeared in the decades after World War II, but a new generation of beekeepers has brought them back to the city. Today, it is estimated that  there are close to 500 hives in the City of Light.

One of the first of the modern beekeepers was Jean Paucton, a retired accessory designer for the Palais Garnier, the baroque Second Empire opera house best known in the U.S. as the home of the fictional “Phantom of the Opera.”

Jean Paucton and his bees

Twenty-seven years ago, Monsieur Paucton studied beekeeping at the city’s Jardin du Luxembourg, where a school has been teaching beekeeping to Parisians for more than 150 years.  He ordered his first hive, which was delivered to him sealed and full of bees at the opera house. He had intended to install them at his new country house, but it wasn’t ready.

The beekeeping school at the Jardin du Luxembourg

Another opera employee suggested he put the hive on the roof where the bees wouldn’t bother anybody.  (That employee had been raising trout in the opera’s water reservoir used for fighting fires. The opera sounds like a very interesting place!)

Monsieur Paucton lugged the hive up to the roof and opened it up. Two weeks later, he found it already full of honey.  He decided to leave it there and over the years added four more.

Because Paris is pesticide-free and gardens and tree-lined streets are plentiful, bees are happy there. They make more honey in the city than in the country, according to many urban apiculturists.

Flowers in the Jardin du Luxembourg

The Paris-based National Apiculture Association runs a seven-year-old program to encourage beekeeping in cities, the largest such project in the world. The program has been a big success, and today the famous rooftops of Paris provide homes for the world’s most sophisticated bees.