Friday, May 4, 2012

There aren't many people of whose lives I am envious, but Rosamond Bernier's is one of them. If you've read my Paris book, you already know that I had the supreme pleasure of meeting Bernier, on several occasions, during the summer of 1980, which was the summer between my junior and senior year of college (I won't recount it here as the story is a little long, but you can read it in full in my book -- it serves as the introduction to a piece by Bernier, which was her introduction to the excellent book Paris by her husband, John Russell).

Some of you may know Bernier from the lectures she gave for many years at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, or you may know the magazine she co-founded in Paris in 1955, L'Oeil, one of the most distinguished and noteworthy monthly art publications of the 20th century. Still others may know that Bernier was made an officer of the French Order of Arts and Letters in 1980, and that she wrote for Vogue and the former HG magazine.

All of these are reasons to be impressed but not necessarily envious. The reasons for envy are revealed in her book published late last year: Some of My Lives: A Scrapbook Memoir (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux). The truly extraordinary life she has lived -- filled as it's been with fabulous experiences and people -- was surely partially shaped at a young age as her father, Samuel Rosenbaum, then head of the Board of Directors of the Philadelphia orchestra, routinely invited visiting conductors and soloists over for dinner many Sunday evenings. "I was brought up in a bath of music," Bernier writes, and she also notes that "The Philadelphia Orchestra was my extended family." Among the many people she met in the music world were Leopold Stokowski, Otto Klemperer, Nathan Milstein, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, and Eugene Ormandy (did you know his real name was Jeno Blau and that he took his stage name from the ship on which he'd traveled to America, the Normandy?)

Once you've met people in the music world it's not a great leap to then meet people in the art world, and Bernier has known many, many (which is to say practically all) of the greatest artists of the twentieth century. And she didn't just know them in a superficial way. Take note:

*once she'd become friends with Matisse, he told her he was going to design a chapel, and Bernier wrote the first story to appear anywhere about the Sainte Marie du Rosaire chapel in Vence.
*she was the first person from the outside world to see what works Picasso was creating at the Chateau Grimaldi in Antibes, and after the inaugural issue of L'Oeil was published, Picasso gave her a gift: he sent her to Barcelona to see his sister, Dona Lola de Vilato, who had a large body of his work that was completely unknown; none of it had ever been published. Bernier was the first person Picasso had ever sent to his family, and she was able to publish a number of early sketches, paintings of family members and friends, and a group of paintings dating from 1917 in the fourth issue of L'Oeil (most of these works are now in the collection of the Picasso Museum in Barcelona). The issue was met with international acclaim.
*When she told Miro that she was working on an article about Barcelona and asked for his suggestions of what to feature, he offered to be her personal tour guide. So Bernier and the photographer Brassai were led "up and down and all around the town" for a week with Miro.

But much of Bernier's life was spent in Paris, and I think it is not a stretch to say that the name Rosamond Bernier is actually synonymous with Paris. If you love Paris as much as I do, you will rejoice in reading Bernier's memoir.  'Scrapbook' is an accurate word in the title as Bernier writes in rather short chapters and  simply tells story after story, sharing experience after experience as well as photos (all of these are to die for, by the way). Bernier was often in the right place at the right time, but she had (and still does) loads of elegance, grace, curiosity, and intelligence, plus she's kind and humble, all of which endeared her to others. All the artists she came to know had a great deal of respect for her, and they treasured her friendship.

[And the photograph on the book jacket? Of course, there's a story about it: Bernier and a photographer, Erwin Blumenfeld, were working on a story about Proust and they were in Normandy on August 15th, the national holiday of Ascension when there is not a hotel room to be found unless you have made a prior reservation. Bernier and Blumfeld had not, but when they were discussing what to do in the restaurant of the auberge Guillaume le Conquerant (a favorite of Proust), the manager overheard them and offered that Rosamond could sleep upstairs in the Madame de Sevigne museum -- her bed was on display -- and as long as Blumfeld slept in the car and Rosamond promised to be out by 6 a.m. the manager would be happy to help. When Blumfeld woke Bernier up promptly at six, he snapped the photo and gave a print of it to her as a souvenir.]

Bernier's beautiful book Matisse Picasso Miro As I Knew Them (Knopf, 1991), with 350 illustrations, photographs, and reproductions, is terrific to read together with her memoir. A few of the anecdotes that originally appeared in this book are repeated in her memoir, but it is a wholly different experience to look at the artworks mentioned while reading Bernier's stories about them.

In every chapter of Some of My Lives there is some interesting fact or detail that leaves you saying "wow" or "what must that have been like?" or, in my case, "I so want to be Rosamond Bernier." She has a gift for putting the people she's writing about in the spotlight, but when you're finished reading about them you realize that she is equally as interesting as her subjects.  The Paris Bernier experienced in her younger years really doesn't exist anymore, and she is keenly aware of that. She's also aware that she was very fortunate to be in Paris at a time when the city attracted such a hit parade of talented people in the arts.  Perhaps someone else within this artistic circle could have written a similar memoir of these years, but I think Bernier is the perfect chronicler as she was an "insider" who was also an "outsider."

I love this book and I didn't want it to end, and I will keep pulling it off my shelf to reread certain chapters. I would also be a bit disingenuous if I didn't admit to being more than a little pleased that Rosamond's Foreword to John Russell's Paris appears not only in my book but here in her memoir, on page 271.  I believe that the essays and articles I select for my books in The Collected Traveler series are worthwhile, and it is gratifying when this is confirmed.  Bernier's Foreword deserves to be read and recounted many times over, as does her splendid memoir.

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