Spotlight: The Last Collection: A Novel of Elsa Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel by Jeanne Mackin
An American woman becomes entangled in the intense rivalry between iconic fashion designers Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli in this captivating novel from the acclaimed author of The Beautiful American.
Paris, 1938. Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli are fighting for recognition as the most successful and influential fashion designer in France, and their rivalry is already legendary. They oppose each other at every turn, in both their politics and their designs: Chanel’s are classic, elegant, and practical; Schiaparelli’s bold, experimental, and surreal.
When Lily Sutter, a recently widowed young American teacher, visits her brother, Charlie, in Paris, he insists on buying her a couture dress—a Chanel. Lily, however, prefers a Schiaparelli. Charlie’s beautiful and socially prominent girlfriend soon begins wearing Schiaparelli’s designs as well, and much of Paris follows in her footsteps.
Schiaparelli offers budding artist Lily a job at her store, and Lily finds herself increasingly involved with Schiaparelli and Chanel’s personal war. Their fierce competition reaches new and dangerous heights as the Nazis and the looming threat of World War II bear down on Paris.
Copyright © 2019 by Jeanne Mackin
Of the three primary colors, blue is most suggestive of paradox: it is the color of longing and sadness, and yet it is also the color of joy and fulfillment. On a ship, at night, blue water merges into blue sky, so blue is the color of places with no borders, no edges.
If you throw salt into a fire, the flames will burn blue. Salt rubbed into a wound renews the pain, intensifies it. Seeing others kiss and embrace was salt in my wound, a blue flame burning the length of me.
Blue best represents the contradictions of the heart, the need to be loved and cherished at the same time that we wish for freedom.
Blue, the color of the Worth gown that the little girl Elsa Schiaparelli found in her Roman piazza attic, the color of the covers of the penny romances Coco Chanel found in the orphanage attic.
Blue is what made Elsa Schiaparelli’s daring color, shocking pink, so special: it is pink infused with blue, turning a demure blush into an electric surge. Schiaparelli turned girlish pink into the color of seduction by adding that touch of blue.
And always, there is the blue of the Paris sky on a June day.
Listen. I’m going to tell you a story about fashion, and politics. And of course, about love. The three primaries, like the primary colors.
New York, 1954
“For you.” Liz, the gallery assistant, handed me the telegram. Pale blue paper, bold blue lettering. I turned it over and over in my hands. During the war we had learned to dread telegrams. The war was over and whoever was coming home was already there, but dread remained, the fear of again reading those words, “We regret to inform you . . .”
“Aren’t you going to open it?” she asked.
“Of course.” I hesitated. The only people I loved, those still left to me, were just a few blocks away, downtown. No telegram would be needed, if something had happened to them; they were a local telephone call away. Open it, I ordered myself.
I sat on a packing crate and tore at the paper with my chipped fingernails, reminding myself that sometimes telegrams carried good news. It’s possible.
The message was brief. Come to Paris. Need to see you. Signed, Schiap.
Elsa Schiaparelli. Of course she would send a telegram instead of making a transatlantic phone call. It wasn’t the expense of the call but one of her many phobias and superstitions: she hated telephones. All the noise of the Madison Avenue gallery, the hammering, the whir of measuring tapes, the scraping of ladders being pushed across the floor, fell away. New York dissolved, and I was in Paris again.
I closed my eyes and remembered the accordion player on the corner of rue Saint-Honoré playing “Parlez-moi d’Amour,” the throaty laugh of Schiap as she shared a bit of gossip with her assistant, Bettina. Usually, it had been gossip about Coco Chanel, her archrival. Charlie, handsome in his tuxedo, blond bombshell Ania turning heads in the Ritz bar. The taste of strong café, the smell of yeasty bread, the colors, the gleam of the Eiffel Tower, the medieval miracles of rose windows in the churches.
How long had it been? I’d been twenty-five when I met Schiap in Paris. She’d been forty-eight, only nine years older than I was now. And I had thought of her as old, though she never had. “Women don’t age if their clothes stay new,” she had told me once. “Grown women must never dress childishly, but neither should they accept age as inevitable. It is not, not in fashion.”
After the war Schiap and I had gone separate ways, eager to get on with our lives, to return to what had been interrupted, to try to find what had been lost. Of course, there is no going back. Time is an arrow that flies forward, not back. I’d learned that particular lesson well. Too much looking over the shoulder turns you to salt, like Lot’s wife, salt which burns blue.
Even so, why did Schiap “need” to see me? Why not just “want” or even demand, as she was known to do? There had usually been a bit of drama in her messages, a bit of the self-importance and self-absorption often found in the personalities of the very driven, the very successful. She’d earned that drama, the very famous, some would say infamous, Elsa Schiaparelli, designer of the most beautiful, and sometimes most bizarre, women’s clothing ever worn.
“Bad news?” The assistant put down the wooden frame she was carrying.
“No. I don’t know what it’s about,” I said, folding up the telegram and putting it in my pocket. “Just from an old friend. In Paris.”
She gave an exaggerated sigh of relief. Mr. Rosenberg’s gallery employee was a caring person, likely to give you a hug for no reason, to hold your hand if she suspected you’d had bad news. I liked that quality in her, and I liked how her hands, pale and slender, reminded me of Ania.
“Paris. I’d love to go there some day. You’ve been, haven’t you?”
“Yes. I’ve been.” Oh, how I had been. “We’re just about done. Can we call it quits for today?” I needed to think about that telegram, to decide.
“But the show has to be hung by Monday.” She looked more worried than ever. It was my first show in the famous Rosenberg gallery, and not to be taken lightly. I had been in several group exhibits, and even sold some paintings, but if this show was well received . . . well. I’d be successfully on my way.
Liz looked at the telegram I was still holding. “Okay,” she agreed.
“We can finish tomorrow. Go. Go home.” And that was what Schiap had said to me once, years ago. Life was breaking into repetitive refrains, pulling me back.
The echo of her words didn’t startle me, though. It was the echoed action of opening a telegram and reading those words that had. Come to Paris. Need to see you. Exactly what my brother, Charlie, had written sixteen years ago.
Of course I would go. Impossible not to, in both cases. As Liz began to clean up, I found a scrap of paper and began the list-making needed for any complicated journey made during a busy time. I’d stay for my opening reception and then I’d take an airplane to Paris. An airplane! Before the war, the ocean had been busy with steamers to-ing and fro-ing; now, people traveled by air. It was cheaper. It was faster. Schiap had been one of the first to fly transatlantic, had loved the possibility of being in Paris for breakfast on Monday and New York for breakfast on Tuesday.
Liz folded the stepladder and gave me another concerned look over her spectacles, always worn low on her nose, the way Coco Chanel wore hers when she thought no one was looking. Outside the gallery window, Madison Avenue throbbed with life. New York had recovered from the war. The shelves in the neighborhood delis were full; the window displays at Bonwit Teller, Macy’s, Henri Bendel were opulent. The city was stronger than ever, like a flu patient who wakes up to find himself healthier for having spent a few days in bed.
The children out walking with their mothers or nannies that day were well-fed, rosy-cheeked in their winter hats and mittens; the women were dressed in their new postwar coats and dresses, mostly Dior and Dior knockoffs; the New Look, the yards of fabric in the full skirts speaking of wealth and prosperity, the pinched-in waists making women ultrafeminine once again.
The Madison Avenue women looked so gay in their new clothes, the fashions meant to restore the world to glory, or at least to normalcy. Schiap had taught me that. Clothes aren’t just clothes. They are moods, desires, the quality of our souls and our dreams made visible. The female shape morphs into the dreams and hopes of a generation. Clothes are alchemy, the philosopher’s stone, my friend Schiap would have said. The second skin, the chosen skin, the transforming art we wear on our backs.
During the war women were filling shells in ammunitions factories, spending lonely nights on top of skyscrapers listening for the angry growl of Messerschmitts. Perhaps they nursed the wounded at Normandy or the Ardennes. But that was over. Women were staying home, making families. New York was full of babies and strollers, and thanks to the new bras, women’s bosoms were as full and pointed as weaponry.
Every once in a while a different kind of woman would pass by the window with an expression in her eyes that made me wince: loss, the kind that paints permanent blue shadows around the eyes. My face had looked like that, during the war, after I’d opened my We regret to inform you . . . telegram.
I watched out the gallery window until Liz came out from the back room, jangling the door keys. The next time I stood and stared out a window the view would be of Place Vendôme, not Madison Avenue, the view outside Schiap’s boutique, that elegant, glorious circle of Paris where Napoleon stood guard on top of his tall colonnade. Napoleon and all his little soldiers. Except Charlie wouldn’t be there. And Ania . . . so many wouldn’t be there.
Okay, Schiap. Let’s hear what you have to say. Maybe she had some gossip about Coco Chanel, her old enemy? The thought made me smile. It would be like the old days, full of malice and fun. No. It wouldn’t be. Nothing would ever again be like the old days. And then I thought of even older days, the long sad days before I had met Schiap, when, young as I was, I thought my life was already over.
There are moments of convergence in life when the stars align just so. Every mundane detail, from the burnt morning toast to the ladder in your new stockings, when the universe itself becomes a question demanding an answer. The answer will decide the rest of your life. Stay. Or go.
That moment, for me, occurred on June 6, 1938.
“Telegram for you,” said Gerald, the school physician, my supervisor, once my brother-in-law. By then, we had both said farewell to any family relationship, to anything other than stiff greetings, cold nods of the chin as we passed each other in the school halls or met to discuss work.
The telegram on his desk was from France and it had already been opened. Since I worked for the school, Gerald assumed any correspondence sent to me would be about a work matter and he could read it. He was wrong, this time.
“From your brother,” he added. He didn’t hand it to me. I had to reach over, pick it up from his desk.
Come to Paris. I want to see you. Arrived from Boston, here for the summer. Meet me at Café les Deux Magots. June 9. Two pm. Charlie.
I read it twice, then folded it and put it into my pocket.
“You won’t go, of course,” Gerald said, looking up from his folder of medical charts. “To see your brother.” His glance was icy. I didn’t blame him for this, nor was I surprised. If the situation were reversed, if I thought Gerald was responsible for the death of my brother, I’d give him the same look, even worse, a dragon look, a dragon breath to incinerate.
“I won’t?” I said.
“Classes aren’t finished. The term hasn’t ended.”
“Of course,” I said. “Here are the notes for the week.” I kept notes on the girls who took my art classes, especially those who had been ill, and Gerald, as school physician, read them dutifully. The boarding school had a reputation, an excellent one, of educating and caring for exceptional girls, especially those with serious and long-term health problems. There were several recovering polio victims, young girls with uncertain steps who needed daily therapy and exercise, and a girl with a stutter so severe she could barely speak. At the school, they were able to receive treatment while also living a social life with other girls their age.
Keeping the notes on the students was part of my contract with the school. Free room and board and a decent if not generous salary in exchange. It had seemed a suitable arrangement two years ago, after Allen’s funeral, when I had no idea of where and how I was to live. The school’s offer of employment had seemed an answer of sorts. And it meant I could stay where I had been happy with Allen.
Passing on those notes had come to feel like a betrayal to my students, a breaking of confidence. Art begins as a private exploration of dreams and desires and should be kept private till the artist deems it is ready to be shown. My notes to Gerald betrayed those secrets I discerned in the paintings and in our classroom conversations. What about those dark places that we need to keep for ourselves, those mysterious shadows where others couldn’t intrude with their shoulds and should nots, their Freudian theories and respectable dictates?
Florrie, a quiet girl with red braids, had confessed yesterday to sketching a nude male but had torn it up before anyone could see it. Next time, I told her, let me see it first. Hands and feet are difficult, all the bones, tendons. The other parts are actually rather easy. Look at Michelangelo’s statues. Simple geometry. Florrie, intelligent girl that she was, had the sense not to giggle. She’d be married in a few years. A mother soon after, a busy responsible woman with a trunk in the attic full of her unused art materials.
“The notes seem a little brief this week,” Gerald said, still not looking at me.
“There wasn’t much to write.” I certainly wasn’t about to reveal Florrie’s growing curiosity about the male physique. “Miserable weather, isn’t it?” Rain pelted at the windows, running down in sad rivulets. Not go to Paris? When Charlie has asked me to come see him?
“Good for the gardens.” Gerald studied the neatly arranged papers on his desk, pushing and sorting in a way that indicated this meeting was over.
“So much green,” I said.
Green is a secondary color made by mixing yellow and blue. Blue for sky, yellow for sun; chloros, or green, in nature. And that’s the problem: only the true greens of nature look believable. All other greens look what they are: imitation. Green is unreliable. There are so many wrong greens, greens where the yellow is too dominant, making a sickly tint like a fading bruise, or greens where the blue is too dark, making the green look like a storm cloud over an angry ocean. To me, only when green is accented with black does it look authentic in a painting, black pigment made from burnt bones. Fire. So much of life is about fire and destruction.
“Travel is very difficult these days,” Gerald said. “All those Austrian refugees clamoring at the embassies.”
The sad clock ticked. Footsteps rushed down the hall, one of the girls late for her class. I studied the pattern in the worn carpet, torn between obeying Gerald, and my duty to the school, and a growing desire to see Charlie. It had been a long time.
Gerald looked up and I could see in his face that awful puzzlement: Why is she alive, when my brother is dead? It was my fault, and it was unforgivable. I agreed.
I ate boiled beef and greens with the students and other faculty in the dining hall that night, and then went to my studio. I hadn’t painted since the accident, since Allen’s death. Colors defied me, wouldn’t come true. I would try a study in blue, but when it dried it would be gray, only gray, and I didn’t know if it was my vision that had changed or the paints themselves. It was like a singer losing her voice, knowing what the notes are but not being able to replicate them. Death can do that, make reality as hard to hold on to as water dripping through your fingers.
That night I tried to size a canvas, just to see if I could still do it. It felt important not to lose the craft of painting, even if the art of it eluded me. The schoolgirls were at a dance in the great hall, drinking pineapple punch and pretending, as Allen and I had, that they were somewhere else, somewhere festive and gay. I could hear the gramophone, a Freddy Martin song, “April in Paris.”
One of Allen’s favorite songs. I was so distracted I applied the glue too thickly and ruined the linen. I decided not to try a second one. Why waste school supplies? I turned off the lights, locked up the room, and crossed the graveled courtyard to my little bedroom over the school garages. It smelled of gasoline, but I had my own entrance, a modicum of privacy. An owl hooted. Somewhere in the fields beyond the manicured lawns a fox barked, a rabbit screamed. Life and death in the peaceful English countryside.
I listened to creeping darkness, a light patter of rain on the roof. What if I did go to Paris, and see Charlie? I dared a brief moment of happiness. And there it was, a pale blue rising in me out of the gray, not quite joy, but something close to it. Anticipation.
I hadn’t seen my brother since my husband’s funeral. Charlie had wanted to visit, but I always said no. I did not want consolation or reminiscing about earlier times. I wanted to be alone with the heartbreak.
My father had been a physician famous for his treatments of skin grafting during World War I. After he and my mother died of the Spanish flu, Charlie and I were taken in by my father’s sister. I was five, Charlie only three. He barely remembered them, so during our childhood I would make little sketches of Momma and Poppa from my own memories to share with Charlie, so that he would know them, at least through my own memories. Art can do that, save the best of the past for us.
Aunt Irene had married a man who owned the northeast franchise of the Fuller Brush Company, but they were childless. Their parenting style required that we be fed, housed, and educated but never coddled, so Charlie and I grew completely dependent on each other, two primary colors not needing a third to be complete.
After I finished high school my aunt and uncle supported me through a year of studies at the Art Students League. I exhibited one small oil, a portrait, in a minor exhibition in a small downtown gallery, and thought I was on my way to a career—but when I was nineteen Aunt Irene said, “Enough! You can’t be a student forever!” She offered to “finish” me with a trip to Paris for a month. I wouldn’t go unless Charlie came with me.
That was in August of 1933, when, after the crash, a Hooverville appeared behind the Metropolitan Museum on Fifth Avenue, tin and cardboard shanties in straggling rows of the newly homeless. In Paris money stretched further—whenever my aunt said that, I imagined bills and coins of rubber, stretching like broken hairbands. We shopped, dined, walked in the parks. When my aunt was resting in the hot afternoons, Charlie and I went to the Louvre.
And one day, when I went to revisit the Mona Lisa, a young Englishman, tweedy and polite, was sitting there, on what I thought of by then as my bench. He looked straight ahead at the Mona Lisa in front of him, and the ginger color of his hair and mustache, the sharp line of his nose, reminded me of one of Renoir’s early self-portraits. Say what you will of the cloying sweetness of some of his subject matter, Renoir knew how to use color.
The Englishman rose gallantly and offered to share the bench. “Allen Sutter,” he said, taking my hand. That single touch, a warm grasp, and I felt I had been jolted awake from a deep sleep.
“Lily Cooper, and my brother, Charlie.”
The three of us sat down and pretended to study Mona Lisa, but all the while I was giving Allen sideways glances and he was returning them. He was thin and tall, and his eyes were very dark brown, not the pale gray that often goes with red hair. Unusual coloring that made me want to try a portrait of him. And then I wondered what it would be like to kiss him, to hold him.
Why him? It was the time, the place, and there was a sparkle in his dark eyes that made me want to make him laugh. Coup de foudre, the French call it, the lightning strike. Love is partly what we feel about the other person and partly how that other person makes us feel about ourselves. With Allen, from our first meeting, I felt confident and pretty as a girl in one of Watteau’s paintings of country courtships.
After that initial encounter, for the next two weeks, we met at the Louvre every afternoon, when my aunt was napping.
When Aunt Irene did finally return to New York in September, I didn’t go with her, insisting that I was going to stay in Paris and study art there.
She peered hard at me when I told her. “If I hear so much as a whisper of misbehaving, your allowance will be cut off and you will return immediately to New York,” she said. “Do you understand?” Charlie studied the ceiling and gave me a little poke in the ribs.
When Charlie hugged me good-bye at the pier, just before he boarded, I had my first and only moment of doubt. We had never been separated before. “Don’t behave,” he whispered. “Have fun.”
Three months later, Allen and I were married in a civil ceremony at the Mairie de Paris. Well, I suppose you are ‘finished’ now, my aunt wrote, when I sent her a telegram announcing my marriage. Try and be happy. You’ll find it’s not as easy as it seems. Good luck, and love. Fingers crossed.
Allen and I spent our honeymoon in a Left Bank one-room studio, eating bread and cheese and rarely rising from the mattress we had put on the floor. We were young and so delighted with each other we couldn’t imagine needing anything else. In that first year I didn’t even miss my brother, who had begun medical studies in Boston. Allen was lighthearted and full of practical jokes, a perfect antidote to my somber childhood, his sunny yellow next to my gray-blue. He once taught children in our apartment building how to fill water balloons and drop them from the roof, a morning’s work that did not endear us to others in the neighborhood. He was playful, and passionate in our lovemaking, teaching me the delights the flesh could provide, the way colors burst upon closed eyelids in ecstasy.
Allen was a math tutor who helped students prepare for the difficult baccalauréat exam, and I received my allowance—it was to continue until my twenty-first birthday—so we made do for an entire year in Paris, with the mattress on the floor and a single cooking ring smuggled into the room. But one morning the silly jokes were gone and he was serious. When I asked what was wrong, he said that it was time to plan for the future. “I have to provide for you,” he said. “And there may be children, you know.”
Children. Believe it or not, I hadn’t even thought of that, hadn’t realized that there could be even more love in the world than I already had. “Children,” I repeated. “Lovely. Let’s practice.”
His brother, Gerald, got him a job as math teacher at the girls’ boarding school outside London, where Gerald was resident physician. Newly serious, somewhat reluctantly, we left Paris and went to damp, cold England. As much as I had grown to love Paris I didn’t mind, because I was with Allen. We were a universe of two. A quiet universe of two, still waiting for my first pregnancy to happen, when two years later I, still waiting for motherhood and bored of so much countryside, begged Allen to go to a dance in town with me.
He was tired, and wanted to stay in. He already had his slippers on, his pipe lighted, a pile of algebra tests on the table, waiting for grading. “Come with me,” I pleaded. And he did.
If I had known then how easily, how quickly, how total destruction could arrive around the next bend in the road, I would have locked him in his room, like a treasure, and me there, locked in with him.
Instead, I killed him. I was driving, and I hit ice on the road, and barreled into a tree. A brief memory of screams, and when I woke up, in the hospital, Charlie was there, trying to comfort me, to calm me, to rouse me back to life, but not even Charlie could do that. My universe had collapsed, because Allen had died in the crash.
After the funeral, I sent Charlie back to Boston, to his medical studies. Gerald, my brother-in-law, told me to stay at the school as long as I needed; he would move me to a smaller room, a room for one person, a widow’s room. My punishment, and I accepted it, wanted it. Gerald never looked me in the eyes again.
But now Paris, the city where I had fallen in love with Allen, was calling me again. Paris, and Charlie—I wanted to see them. Both of them. I wanted to take a deep breath, to walk on city streets, to have even a small vacation from misery, from the constant ache for Allen.
I found a scrap of paper and began making a list of what I would need to pack.
Two days after receiving Charlie’s telegram, Gerald drove me to the train station. I had given the girls a final evaluation, turned in my paperwork, and ended the semester early. Gerald was furious and I could see in his face that he wished I would lose my passport in Paris, that I would never return, never stand before him again, reminding him. I was alive. His brother wasn’t.
When I arrived at the Gare du Nord the next day, it was a sunny June afternoon, and the cavernous station was busy with girls in summer frocks, les hommes d’affaires with their briefcases and rolled-up shirtsleeves, younger men sitting at the buffet tables drinking coffee and watching the crowd, looking for a specific face or perhaps any pretty face. I found a cab on rue de Dunkerque and went to meet Charlie, my little brother.
He wasn’t at Café les Deux Magots when I arrived, still a little sick from the Channel crossing and train ride. I checked the telegram—correct time, correct place. Charlie was late. This was unlike him, good responsible Charlie, but it was spring and Paris and I decided not to worry, to take in my surroundings, to observe how the Parisian women sat in their chairs, how they tilted their heads to the side, lifted their coffee cups with their hands wrapped possessively around them, women with the colorful frocks and dark eyes that Matisse painted.
Saint-Germain-des-Prés was busy and the café crowded. All the tables huddled under the faded awning or sprawling into the street were occupied and the air was thick with the hum of conversation, the chink of coffee spoons against china, and occasional bursts of laughter. When the café door swung wide I could see the two brightly painted Chinese figurines posed atop pillars that gave the café its name. The mandarins looked very contented, those two, subdued and self-possessed, as if nothing could startle them.
Sunlight gilded the pavement and the gray façades of the buildings across the street. A ginger cat strutted past, back arched high, sniffing his way toward the fishmonger’s shop. Schoolchildren in blues and plaids, a fruit seller with trays of oranges and apples and grapes—a rainbow, all in one place.
The sky was the shade of blue that Rossetti had used for the sky in Dantis Amor. I wasn’t a fan of the ethereal pre-Raphaelites, but when their colors appear in a real sky the effect is fabulous.
“Another coffee?” The waiter hovered over me, formal in black trousers and white towel tied around his waist. I tapped the paperback spread-eagled on my table, pretending I was preoccupied, though I hadn’t read a single word since I had sat down, a half hour earlier.
He squinted and leaned a little toward me. “Perhaps an aperitif as well? A Pernod?”
I shook my head. “Just coffee, please.”
A group of boys wearing new khaki-green French army uniforms took the table next to me. Two and a half million young Frenchmen had been put into uniform that year, according to the BBC. Yet we all hoped, still believed, there would be no war. Roosevelt said so, over and over in his fireside chats.
It was a warm day, so the newly conscripted young soldiers had taken off their berets and neatly folded them into their front pockets, making sure the golden anchor, the army symbol, glinted visibly and brightly.
I could tell from the loudness of their comments about the menu and their field training that they were trying to impress me. One of them, the tallest, most handsome one, winked at me. I frowned and looked away.
Opposite me, a table with four young German soldiers, dashing in their tall black boots and fitted uniforms, made sideways glances at the passing girls and whispered together the way boys do, ignoring the curious, sometimes hostile glances of the older people at the café, some of whom would remember Verdun, the Somme, the other bloody battles of World War I.
In March, Germany had annexed Austria, but many people thought they had been within their rights to take back territory that had once been theirs. And if Hitler was running amok in Germany, that was their problem, not ours. So we thought. That was the time, the brief time, when French and German soldiers could still sit peacefully opposite each other in a café.
At the table on my other side a young couple sat, staring into each other’s eyes, oblivious to everything and everyone around them. Birds sang. An occasional breeze stirred the scalloped awning, making it snap like a sail. Happiness lapped at me like waves at the shore, but I was separate from it, the way water and sand are separate, even when they touch.
A half hour later I was ordering my third coffee. Where was Charlie? Had he forgotten? That wasn’t like him, but then maybe he had changed. I certainly had.
Just when I was beginning to worry, a blue Isotta roadster with a convertible top pulled up to the curb in front of the café. The car was the color of a package of Gauloises cigarettes, the blue that Gaugin used to paint Tahitian lagoons. The driver, his face obscured by a silk scarf and sunglasses, maneuvered closely to the wooden cart in front of him, and the vegetable seller, startled, skipped up to the curb.
“Hey! Good-looking!” the driver called.
I stared down at my unread book and pretended not to hear.
“Lily,” the voice said more softly.
“Charlie? Charlie!” All the colors of the street glowed a little brighter when I recognized his voice.
“Wherever did you get that car?” I shouted back. It was the kind of car that movie stars like Gary Cooper or Fred Astaire drove, not exactly what medical students from Harvard could afford.
“Borrowed from a friend,” Charlie said.
He took off his sunglasses and studied me. There was so much in his eyes . . . love and worry, and something else I couldn’t name. Anticipation, an announcement. He looked like someone hiding a gift behind his back.
“Get in!” he said. His hand was resting on the car door and I took it and grasped it, hard, and it was like being pulled back from a dangerous place.
“It’s been a while,” he said. “Too long.”
We stayed like that for a long while, just enjoying being together again. He laughed when that moment passed. “What are you wearing?”
I looked down and brushed some lint from my dress. The waist began just under my bosom and the skirt fell almost to my ankles. “What’s wrong with it?”
“Nothing except that it is hideous.”
“Clothes don’t matter.”
“Sure they do. Believe me.”
“So this friend of yours who owns the car. A woman?”
“As a matter of fact, yes, a woman.”
“If you have so little to say about her, I’d guess she’s a married woman.”
Charlie stopped smiling.
“Oh, Charlie, does her husband know you’ve borrowed both his wife and his automobile?” My brother had a reputation and one for which he wasn’t completely to blame. Women found him irresistible, and when he left New York for Harvard Medical, he’d left behind several brokenhearted debutantes, according to Aunt Irene.
“No, he doesn’t know, and we won’t tell him, will we?”
“Does that mean we’ll be meeting him?”
“I hope not, but it is always a possibility. How long are you here for? Did you book at the Hotel Regina?”
The Regina, a respectable hotel just steps away from the Louvre, was the hotel our aunt had chosen years before. “Bye Bye Blackbird,” she sang, when she first saw it.
“No. I decided to stay at L’Hotel Paris. It’s cheaper.”
“And, it’s on the Left Bank, with the artists,” he said. “You can’t fool me. Did you get Oscar Wilde’s room? I wonder if it has the same wallpaper. ‘Either the wallpaper goes . . .” Charlie gave me a gentle poke in the ribs.
“‘Or I go,’” I finished. Those supposedly had been poor Oscar Wilde’s last words before he died. He left; the wallpaper stayed.
Charlie turned the steering wheel and the automobile pulled away from the curb. I flinched as soon as he put his foot on the accelerator pedal. “It’s safe, Lily,” he said.
Two years had passed since the accident, but I still felt dizzy with fear whenever I got into an automobile, still felt the sudden lurch off the road, into the stand of trees.
“Where are we going?”
“To buy you a birthday present. Something to wear to a party.”
“A party. How nice of you, Charlie.” I tried to sound enthusiastic, but he heard the reluctance in my voice. I forced my hands to relax in my lap, fingers unclenched, palm up.
“How long since you’ve had some fun, Lily? A while, I’d guess. We’re going to change that. I do have my motives. If all goes well and we get the thumbs-up, I’ll be invited to an even bigger party later. One with lots of rich potential donors. I need you to look your best, so we’ll get you a dress. Have any cash on you? I may not have enough.”
“A little. And my birthday isn’t for another two months.”
“Who’s counting? So, on to Chanel!”
“Coco Chanel? Couture? Shouldn’t we go to a department store?”
“Not off the rack this time. You need to look swell. Better than swell. Magnificent.”
“It doesn’t work like that, Charlie. Even if we did find a swell—a magnificent dress that didn’t cost every penny we both don’t have, it takes weeks for the fittings.” Besides, magnificent, even swell, weren’t adjectives for a woman in mourning, a woman who, when she bothered to look in her mirror, saw a tragedy of her own making.
“Please, Lily,” said my little brother, just the way he’d said when we were small and I wouldn’t let him play with my pick-up sticks, even though now he was twenty-one and I twenty-three.
I pulled off his driving cap and ruffled his hair. “You win. But not Chanel.” I wanted to go somewhere else for that party dress. Allen had sometimes looked over my shoulder at the fashion magazines I read and hadn’t liked Chanel, thought the clothes too severe, almost masculine.
“You’re kidding. What woman doesn’t want a Chanel evening frock?”
“This woman, at this moment, wants Schiaparelli. Let’s go there. Her daughter was a student at the school. I’m curious to see if she remembers me.”
The student, Marie Schiaparelli—she used her mother’s name, not her father’s—had been a girl with the kind of accent acquired only by belonging nowhere and everywhere, a girl born in New York, educated in France and Germany and England. She’d had polio, and Allen and his brother Gerald had been fascinated by her medical history, the long list of therapies and surgeries that had transformed the polio-crooked, thin legs into those of a beautiful young woman who swam and skied.
Her mother came up from Paris sometimes on Sunday afternoons, draped in furs and heavy jewelry and impossibly stylish frocks and suits, to take her daughter out for a Sunday lunch. “And to see her London lover,” Marie had told me, straightforwardly. “Actually, both of them. Brothers.”
One dreary November Sunday when the sky was littered with gray clouds, Madame Schiaparelli had invited Allen and me to join them.
“Gogo tells me that she loves your art classes,” she had said, standing in the school’s reception room, her tiny head peeking out of a huge sable coat. “So, come. Roast beef and a salad. No bread or puddings. This school is making my daughter fat!” Even in the dim room, Madame glittered with jewels and gold embroidery, a bird of paradise who had wondered into a pigeon coop.
We drove into London, Madame’s chauffeur maneuvering around bicyclists and strolling parsons, and at a hotel dining room lavish with gleaming silver and white cloths we stuffed ourselves on roast beef, more meat than we’d normally eat in a fortnight at the school.
Marie—I couldn’t yet call her by that strange nickname, Gogo, that her mother used—was shy and did not look up often from her plate. Madame Schiaparelli was full of jokes and gossip. Even the stiff waiter smiled when Madame told the story of how, as a young woman, she’d traveled to Cuba with the singer Ganna Walska. She’d had to smuggle Walska out a back entrance between acts because the Havana audience had begun to riot, Walska’s voice was so bad.
“In Havana, people on the street mistook me for Anna Pavlova. We looked much alike,” Madame said. “Too bad. I’m not particularly fond of dancers.”
Marie tilted her head up and raised her one eyebrow knowingly. “They tend to steal other women’s husbands,” she said. Her mother ignored her.
Elsa Schiaparelli, as she revealed in a streaming monologue punctuated by jokes, had been born in Rome; escaped—the word she used—a strict family by fleeing to New York with, I assumed, the husband who had later left; and then, solo again, went to where all artists and city adventurers went: Paris.
“I go back to Rome only to see my mother, as little as possible. Rome is filled with brown shirts.” She shivered. “Oh, that awful man, Mussolini. What he is doing to my country. When I saw his photo in the paper with Hitler next to him, I sat on the curb and wept.”
“Mussolini and the Italian fashion board have forbidden Mummy’s designs to be shown there,” Gogo added. “She refused a luncheon invitation with Il Duce.”
“Let it be said, now and forever, I have nothing to do with fascists, and I certainly don’t want them wearing my clothes. God forbid. Coffee? Then we must start back.”
“Wasn’t she charming?” I asked Allen later, when Madame’s limousine was pulling away down the school drive. “So confident and worldly. Sophisticated. That beautiful fur coat.”
“Not bad for an old lady. I like them younger.” He kissed my neck, just where the itchy wool collar of my dress ambushed the skin.
“Okay,” Charlie said, taking back his cap and tilting it over his forehead. “Schiaparelli it is. Your choice. But I have to make a quick phone call. We were supposed to meet someone at the Chanel salon.” He went into the café and was out again a minute later, smiling sheepishly.
Charlie aimed the blue roadster into the thick traffic of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. We prowled down lanes and avenues, dodging around fruit and vegetable carts, policemen on horse, jaywalking pedestrians, and other automobiles. We crossed over the Seine. “Pont Royal!” Charlie shouted. “Tuileries,” he shouted as we whizzed by pastel gardens. “Remember?” We had played there as children. Charlie saw me gripping the door, white-knuckled, and slowed down.
A silver Seine, trees in full leaf, pots of red geraniums on every stoop, under windows, rows of schoolchildren in uniform following black-and-white nuns, handsome gendarmes, and over it all, hanging like an invisible presence, the sense that this was the best place to be. Even I, indifferent to so much, felt it. June in Paris.
“Place Vendôme.” Charlie pulled over to the curb.
The huge open square, one I hadn’t seen as a child because doctors’ wives did not shop in this expensive neighborhood, was lined with columned arcades and palatial stone façades.
“That’s Napoleon up there,” he said, pointing to the top of the tall central column, a bronze shaft made from the melted cannons from the battle of Austerlitz. “They keep pulling him down, melting the bronze, and redesigning his outfit.”
“I don’t imagine the emperor would appreciate the pigeons sitting on his shoulders.”
“And this, it seems”—he waved his arm—“is the Schiaparelli boutique. You’re sure about this? I mean, look at the crackpot window!”
Gilded bamboo stalks made a grid over the panes so that the window was like a museum display, or a shuttered palace, or . . . a jail? Inside the window, behind the gilded bamboo, straw figures stooped over trays of earth, watering jars in hand, as if they were tending a summer garden. But instead of flowers, out of the earth poked lobsters, some still half-buried, their red claws jutting against the painted back drop of the sky. The figures wore dresses that hung straight down from the shoulders and past the knees, brightly colored, adorned with buttons of different colors and shapes. Some of the buttons were fish-shaped; others were large squares or flowerpots.
“Very strange,” I agreed. The colors of the dresses were beautiful, though, deeply saturated shades of orange, blue, red. “Schiaparelli made the trousseau for the Duchess of Windsor. There was a photo layout of it in Vogue.”
“I bet she didn’t wear that necklace of gilt pine cones.” He pointed at it.
“Probably not,” I agreed.
The ground floor of the boutique was full of ready-to-wear: hats, scarves, handbags, sweaters, gloves, those things that could be worn without the many fittings bespoke clothes required. Vendeuses dressed in elegant black-and-white suits glided through the room, opening cases, answering questions. I tried on a large-brimmed summer hat.
“That’s the hat that Marlene Dietrich bought,” a vendeuse said. “It suits you.”
“Not today.” Charlie pulled it off my head and whispered, “No accessories. We’re not at Macy’s, and there’s a reason why there’s no price tag on these things.”
“Right,” I said, amused by a pair of gloves I spied. They were the color of poached salmon and had a frill stitched up the center that looked like fish fins.
Women turned in our direction and coolly assessed me and my clothes; they found me wanting, judging by the disdain in their faces. These women, rich and stylish, wouldn’t be caught dead in off-the-rack and hand-me-downs. But when their eyes went to Charlie, they fixed on him the way children fix on cake and candy displays. Tall and slender, he looked a little like the aviator Lucky Lindy. Charlie had to be the handsomest man in Paris, with his thick, white-blond hair and sapphire eyes, the way he shuffled his feet shyly and held his hat in front of his chest as if need of protection. Something about the suggestion of vulnerability in a man brings out the flirtatiousness of women.
Charlie ignored them, which made them stare even harder, and we walked up the stairs, to the showing room. We sat on little gilded chairs. Charlie placed the automobile keys on the tea table between us.
“Can I help you, monsieur?” asked a young woman, her eyes narrowed with pleasure.
“Yes, please. A frock for my sister. Something . . .” He struggled for the word. “Something swirly, if you know what I mean.”
“Sister?” She gave me a sly, sideways glance. While Charlie is fair in that Nordic white-blond kind of way, I’m dark. Brown hair, brown eyes, olive skin, a throwback to my grandfather from Italy. “Certainly,” she said in that knowing way of salespeople.
“Is blue still your favorite color?” he asked me.
“I suppose. Haven’t thought about it. It was Allen’s.”
“A blue frock,” he told the sales girl. “For evening.”
A few minutes later a mannequin with eyes ringed with black glided past us in a midnight-blue floor-length gown, tight to the knees, then swirling out to the ankles. The pink jacket that went over it was embroidered with elephants.
“No,” Charlie said. He was right. I, unused to evening wear, would trip in such a thing, although I thought the elephants added a pleasant touch, something unusual.
“Something shorter,” Charlie said. The next dress had a neckline that plunged almost to the waist. Charlie winced. The third gown was worn with a violet matador’s bolero embroidered with plumed dancing horses.
When the mannequin reappeared in the fourth selection, her pasted-down spit curls no longer as precisely arranged and a glint of impatience in her eyes, Charlie and I both leaned forward with interest. This dress was white chiffon printed with blue lines of sheet music, with red roses dotted here and there as notes. The neckline was scalloped, the waist tight.
“That’s the one, isn’t it, Lily? How much is it?” Charlie asked, another testament to his charm, because no one else could have asked that crass question in a couture salon and gotten away with it. The salesgirl bent toward him and whispered something in his ear. The dress whispered as she moved, the red roses fluttered.
His fingers drummed on the wooden arm of his chair. “It’s three month’s salary for an intern,” he whispered to me. My heart sank and the drowning of desire for that frock was like an I told you so. How dare you want. Anything.
There was a commotion in the arched doorway. Everyone turned to look at the woman who had just come in, tall, majestic, her pale summer dress billowing about her knees as if she carried her own personal breeze with her, a woman with the kind of looks and style that makes heads turn. Her hair was blond without the brass that peroxide gives; her eyes were copper, long and narrow so that she seemed to be smiling even when she wasn’t.
“Charlie. How good to see you!” She came to us and bent to give him a kiss on the cheek. Was I the only one who noticed that she discreetly picked up the keys he had placed on the table? She slipped them into her purse.
“I got here as soon as I could. What a to-do! Charlie, whatever did you say to that woman? Coco is having a tantrum because I left without making an order.”
“Only that we were meeting at the Schiaparelli salon instead,” Charlie protested.
“My God. No wonder. Coco and Schiap detest each other. She is, what do you say, fit to be tied?”
“They are in the same business. You’d think they’d be colleagues,” Charlie said, blushing.
“That is how a doctor thinks, not a dress designer.” She laughed, showing a misaligned tooth, an imperfection that made her even more charming. “But why are we here? You know I love Chanel.”
“My sister’s choice. Ania, this is my sister, Lily.”
“How do you do?” she asked, formally. “I think I am a little afraid of you. Charlie talks about his older sister so much.”
The salesgirl pulled a third chair to our table and Ania sat between Charlie and me. I could see their fingers touch under the table, then twine together so tightly their knuckles whitened. I looked away, overwhelmed by the intimacy.
“Very strange, this place,” Ania whispered. “That window! Have they shown you something you like?”
“Yes, but the cost is . . .”
“Formidable, of course. Which costume is it?” Charlie described it, and one of her long eyebrows, pale as a moth wing, shot up. “I have seen that dress. It is from the collection Schiaparelli showed the season before the Circus Collection.”
The way she said “Circus Collection” indicated we should know it. I, an art teacher in a girls’ school, and Charlie, a medical student, did not. Ania read our ignorance in our faces.
“The Circus Collection,” she repeated. “Buttons shaped like leaping horses, gowns embroidered with elephants and drums. She showed the collection in February when Hitler took over the German army, when they began to call him the ringmaster.”
“That madman,” Charlie muttered. “Why don’t the Germans get rid of him?”
“He promises them work,” Ania said quietly. “He promises that he will make Germany great. And they believe him.”
“He’s already gotten the communists working. In labor camps,” Charlie said.
There was a long moment of silence. Talk about Hitler did that to conversations, truncated them and turned words into meaningless sounds. No one knew what to make of him, of what was happening in Germany and Austria, and what would happen next. We’d already begun hearing about the camps, how Hitler had exempted them from all German laws and left the prisoners at the mercy of the guards and administrators.
We sat, making small talk about the weather, the latest Hollywood films, whether or not Mae West would make a comeback. Her latest film had bombed and the Hollywood Reporter had put her name on the box office poison list, along with those of Greta Garbo and Fred Astaire and Katharine Hepburn, names, they assured us, we’d never be hearing from again.
Ania leaned over Charlie to speak directly to me and I caught him inhaling her perfume, eyes briefly closed and head tilted as if the sun had suddenly caught his face. “Did you have a pleasant trip?” she asked me. “The Channel crossing was not too bad? I get, what is the word, Charlie, mal de mer? Seasick?”
“If you look straight ahead and not down, the motion sickness is not as bad,” he said, opening his eyes.
“Your brother is so smart.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “He is.” Head of his class at Harvard Medical, but Charlie didn’t like to boast about that.
End of that conversation. The ormolu clock ticked away on a marble mantelpiece.
The salesgirls whispered in corners, worked lethargically at straightening displays and folding sweaters . . . the strangest sweaters, with bows knitted into the pattern, like a surrealist joke.
“Madame would like to see something?” The salesgirl who had sniffed at me like I had come in through the wrong entrance all but groveled before the beautiful Ania.
“No, I think not. Too strange!” she laughed.
“Go ahead, Ania,” I said. “As long as we’re here.” Why did I say that? Was I making small talk, encouraging this beautiful Ania to try on a dress that was humorous and not necessarily beautiful?
“We have a little time,” Ania agreed.
The parade began again, the model strutting out in dress after dress as Ania tilted her head, put a scarlet-tipped finger to her dimpled chin, and contemplated. Her wedding ring was set with a huge diamond that glittered each time she moved her hand.
“That!” Ania exclaimed when the model had come out in a long, clinging gown of black satin worn with a white organza blouse tied at the waist, peasant style. A half hour later she had also ordered a brown-and-yellow morning suit with oversized buttons, a sequined cocktail dress that glistened like mermaid scales, and extravagantly wide silk beach trousers in four different colors.
“So playful!” she said. “From Coco I get the beautiful suits and dresses but I think she maybe lacks humor? So serious, her clothes.”
I looked at Charlie, who was beginning to fidget like a child being held after school. His girl was rich. Or at least her husband was. I felt that thud in the bottom of my stomach that was foreboding.
Ania was just rising to go into the fitting room when the atmosphere in the room charged with electricity.
“She’s here,” someone murmured, and even the straw and wire forms the clothes hung on seemed to stand straighter.
Elsa Schiaparelli, small and slender, and her face, with its olive complexion and heavy-lidded eyes, was striking rather than pretty, exactly as I had remembered her. With that solemn, Roman face she could have been a saint preparing for martyrdom, so stern was her expression. She wore a simple black suit, belted at the waist, and a huge bangle on her wrist, a golden snake entwining it three times, and a little cap with a curling black feather that almost encircled one eye.
She strode into the room and gave the lingering salesgirls an evil glance. They scattered in different directions, back to their counter stations and fitting rooms. Then she headed straight for us, hand extended, all smiles. Rather, she was heading for Ania.
“Madame Bouchard? Yes, I think it is. How marvelous to finally have you in my salon. Have you been treated well? Have they shown you anything you liked?”
“I’ve been meaning to come so many times,” Ania lied. “Yes, the most marvelous dress and jacket and a suit. The beachwear . . .”
“I will supervise the fitting myself,” Madame Schiaparelli announced.
“My friend has found a dress as well. But . . .” Ania, eight inches taller than Schiap, leaned over and whispered something into the designer’s ear. Schiaparelli frowned, then whispered something back. This went on, back and forth, for several minutes.
“Lily Sutter,” I said, interrupting them, extending my hand. I waited to see if she would remember our lunch together in London with Allen and her daughter, how Allen had amused her by trying to explain Zeno’s arrow paradox about change and time. “Then they can’t exist?” she had shouted at Allen. “Nothing ever changes? That’s very bad for fashion.”
But she didn’t remember and it would have been rude to mention it, to make a claim of acquaintance with her daughter when we were haggling over the price of a dress.
Schiaparelli and Ania continued their whispering for a few minutes, and then Ania smiled at me. “You can have the frock at half price. It is from an order that was not picked up. Will that do?”
“Yes!” I lifted the dress from the chair it had been draped over and walked to the mirror, holding it against my shoulders. Behind me, Madame Schiaparelli was also reflected in the mirrors. Her businesslike expression changed to one of curiosity.
“I know you,” she said. “Gogo’s art teacher at that awful school! They made her so fat!”
“Yes,” I said, relieved that she had brought it up, not me. “You took me out to lunch once. Roast beef and salad, no bread or pudding.”
“And your husband, who told me change is impossible, that nonsense about Zeno. How is he?”
I put the dress down and felt the brightness of the day grow dim. Charlie put his arm across my shoulders and hugged me closely.
“He died,” Charlie said softly. “Two years ago.”
“Oh, my dear. I’m so sorry. You two, so in love. I saw it.” She turned in a little circle, thinking, then went to a glass case. She took out a hat of blue satin formed like a sailor’s cap. “You should have this, to go with the dress. A gift.” She gave my battered straw hat, resting on the table next to Ania’s coffee cup, a malignant glare.
“I couldn’t . . .” I protested, no longer interested in dresses or hats.
“It is nothing,” she insisted. “Once, when I was a child in Rome, I gave away all of my mother’s fur coats and evening gowns. Threw them out the window to the people in the street, just like Catherine of Siena did. No sweets for a week after, but it was worth it. It’s good to sometimes let things go. And people, too,” she added.
I threw my arms around her and it was like hugging a child, she was so tiny. A very well-dressed child, of course. “How can I thank you, Madame Schiaparelli!”
“I’ll think of a way,” she said. “But you must call me Schiap. All my friends do, and we will be friends.” She looked at Ania. “We will all be friends, yes? Try on the dress and if little needs to be altered, I’ll send it to your hotel later today. You are going to Elsie’s soirée tonight? You will wear this.”
“Make the alterations this afternoon? You are crazy!” a salesgirl complained.
Schiap clapped her hands. A fitter came running through the arched doorway, the rose pincushion on her wrist bobbing, several tape measures around her neck swaying. With astoundingly swift and precise movements, she measured me from shoulders to waist, from waist to knee, around the bust, around the shoulders, her hands moving in gestures as precise and ritualized as a Java dancer.
Ania pushed me into a dressing room and had me out of my faded cotton dress and into the Schiaparelli gown before I could say a word. The fitter came in and I was measured a second time with the dress on me. The fabric was so light it billowed and swirled with the slightest movement.
“Good shoulders,” Schiap declared. “Small waist. You measured accurately?” she asked the fitter, who was still on her knees, her mouth porcupined with pins. “Good. It must fit perfectly.”
Then, Ania’s turn. The green sequined dress was lifted over her and smoothed down over bust, hips, thighs. It already fit perfectly, even the length. Ania was a perfect model’s size.
“I would love to wear this tonight,” Ania said.
“Then you will. This very dress.” There was a glint in Schiap’s eye, a giveaway of victory to come that I wouldn’t understand until later.
When we were leaving the shop, Schiap gave me another hug. She turned away and stared out the window at the column where Napoleon posed on top, presiding over the Place Vendôme.
“You are maybe four years older than Gogo? You remind me of when my daughter was a schoolgirl and needed her Mummy. They grow up so quickly,” she said. “And then, they are gone. All his little soldiers,” she murmured. “It’s something between Gogo and me. “She says, ‘Napoleon,’ and I say, ‘And all his little soldiers.’ It is how we tell each other ‘I love you.’”
Just as we were going out, another group was coming in, speaking in Italian, and Charlie and I both had enough school Latin to understand them. They were talking about the parades in Rome a few weeks before, when Hitler had visited, the jubilant glory with which Mussolini had shown off his city.
“Not all of the city,” Elsa Schiaparelli said in a low voice. “The pope locked the doors of the Vatican Museums and turned off the lights.”
The Italians hadn’t heard her, and weren’t meant to. They were customers, after all. The comment was for Charlie and me.
“From what I’ve heard of Herr Hitler’s artistic ambitions, it was a wise move,” Charlie said.
When I stumbled a little going out the door, “Quick,” Schiap said. “Touch iron, for luck.” She guided my hand to a metal hat form on a table.
Excerpted from The Last Collection by Jeanne Mackin. Copyright © 2019 by Jeanne Mackin. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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About the Author
Jeanne Mackin is the author of several historical novels, including The Beautiful American. She taught creative writing at Goddard College and has given numerous workshops. She lives with her husband in upstate New York.