Misia and All Paris
Outline of the chapters
1. Misia Godebska
Misia Godebska (Natanson, Edwards, Sert) was born in 1872 to a fashionable Polish sculptor father and a Belgian mother with musical heritage. Her mother Sophie was heavily pregnant when she received a letter with the news that her husband had an affair in St Petersburg with her aunt. Sophie decided to take a train to Russia to confront her husband. She gave birth to Misia in the final moments of her life just after her arrival in St Petersburg. As a child, Misia and her syblings were sent to live with her grandmother in Brussels when she was 4 years old. After her father finally settled down in an opulent home in Paris, Misia and her syblings joined him there. Misia was a difficult child, always head strong, she was educated in private schools and disciplined at home by a line of ‘horid’ stepmothers. She run away from home twice. Misia’s main passion was always music. Gabriel Fauré – the French composer and her piano teacher was the first great man to be conquered by her talent and charms. To his great disappointment, Misia gave up her professional career as a concert pianist to marry and to free herself from family ties. She married Thadée Natanson – the editor of an influential cultural magazine La Revue Blanche.
2. The muse on Painting Street
Misia and Thadée moved into an apartment close to Place de la Concorde. It quickly became an informal editorial office of La Revue, an Annex as she called it. That’s when she became the inspiratrice for Paul Verlaine, Stephané Mallarmé, Toulouse-Lautrec, Auguste Renoir and the Nabis – Édouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonard and Felix Vallotton. Misia became the elusive pivot of the essential style of the Nabis who admired her exquisite taste and the style of the interiors they painted. Misia’s salon was very informal. The Natansons knew anybody there was to know. Apart from the painters, the list of contributors to La Revue Blanche included Claude Debussy, Marcel Proust, Apollinaire, Alfred Jarry, Colette as well as Emil Zola, Paul Verlaine and Oscar Wilde. Next to the offices of La Revue Blanche, in rue Lafitte, the art collector Ambroise Vollard opened his gallery and his Cave de Vollard.
3. La Belle de la Belle Epoque
The first years of Misia’s married life were more than she could ever have wished for. She revelled in her circle of young artist friends and the bo-bo life that she had discovered through La Revue. The Belle époque was a great time to be privileged, and Misia and Thadée were certainly that. They took great pleasure in socialising and when they didn’t have their friends at home, they went out to fashionable bistros, café-concerts and visited salacious night spots of fashionable Montmartre. Toulouse-Lautrec was often their companion and a guide, “Life is beautiful; here comes the French Cancan!” On Tuesdays evenings, the Natansons preferred intellectual debate at Stéphané Mallarmé’s Mardis, defined by remarkable conversation and exchange of ideas.
On one of their trips in a newly acquired automobile, Misia and Thadée found a country house on the river Seine, not far from Paris. It became a home from home for Misia’s artist friends who, one by one kept falling in love with her and became known as her Vernisseurs. Within her circle, Misia ruled. This was her first intoxicating taste of power.
4. Paris on a volcano
In Paris the Belle Époque and its vanguard of inspired fin de siècle artists were ‘rushing head over heels with new ideas towards the twentieth century’ . The elite, led by lawyers, bankers, industrialists and politicians, who lived in the fashionable neighborhoods of the city, developed a passionate interest in literature and the arts and drawn into their circle, intellectuals and artists. Newly found ‘Consumerism’ didn’t suit some and anarchcist movement prevailed. Artists and intellectuals sympathised with anarchists, including La Revue’s very own Felix Féneon, who was arrested after police claimed to have found bomb making materials in his office and accused him of bombing the Restaurant Fayot. With innocent Féneon in prison, Thadée and Misia could not avoid getting directly involved in the so-called “The Trial of the Thirty”, which finally began on 6 August 1894 and lasted nearly three months.
5. Le Fin de Siecle
In 1898 the Natansons acquired their new, more spacious country home – Le Relais, on the river Yonne where she invited all her artist friends, most of them in love with her. Misia’s inspiration was pivotal to Edouard Vuillard’s creativity at the time, he fell in love with her in the process but never found words to declare his feelings.
In 1900, the Exposition Universelle opened in Paris. Misia, Thadée and Toulouse-Lautrec were enthralled watching the American dancer Loïe Fuller, Lumière Brothers’ exhibition of films that synchronised moving pictures with sound for the first time. Misia met 18 year old Picasso whose exhibition representing Spain at the World Fair.
The notorious Dreyfus affair had a profound impact on the Parisian society. Thadée, who had been closely involved in supporting the cause, lost interest in the cultural and artistic milieu and, to his wife’s total amazement became a human-rights activist. He had also invested their savings in a number of risky business deals, investing money in south of France, where the Natanson family owed land. In his absence Misia was invited to League of the Rights of Man charity gala, where she met a host of the evening Alfred Edwards, a millionaire media magnate. Edwards became infatuated with her and pursued her after the show. Edwards’ Machiavellian plot to break up the Natansons’ marriage and take Misia for himself had begun. [i]
6. The last of Thadée
La Revue Blanche was about to enter what Misia described as its ‘death-throes’. All this was putting a great strain on Misia’s marriage.
When La Revue Blanche ceased publication on April 15th, 1903, this signalled not just the end of an era, but also the end of the young, carefree, joyous Misia. It was, perhaps not a coincidence that at this point she stopped running from Edwards and began to accept his gifts and invitations, however tentatively. Edwards also proposed his simple solution— if Misia would agree to marry him, he would pay off all Thadée’s debts. When Thadée begged her to “arrange everything”, She felt alone, helpless and scared. Thadée made his last attempt to declare his eternal love for her. Misia was not impressed, she made her decision and had no intention of changing it- she would marry Edwards.
7. The fourth Madame Edwards
Misia wanted to leave Paris for a while. Edwards took her to Madrid, where, as well as to Misia’s desires, he had some business affairs to attend to. If Edwards was a gifted man of business, it turned out that he was also a very attentive and tender lover. Edwards had instructed his lawyers to arrange the speedy conclusion of their respective divorces, had also bought a large apartment in Paris, at 244 Rue de Rivoli. Once back in Paris, Misia’s relationship with Edwards was on full display to the world.
Misia became the fourth madame Edwards in 1905. She had been the companion of painters and poets, now she would become a doyenne of Parisian high society and the heroine of Marcel Proust’s great novel, À la recherche du temps perdu. Edwards gave her wealth but she gave him class. Soon after they moved into rue Rivoli, Renoir expressed the desire to paint Misia’s portrait , her beautiful eyes, her fresh lips, full breasts and curvaceous body.
She established her new salon, to which she welcomed popular artists and journalists, friends of Edwards, as well as her old friends, including Vuillard, Bonnard, the formidable Colette and a daughter of Marie Curie, Eva and Marcel Proust, whom she considered a social climber.
8. La Lantelme
Edwards was tired of playing the theatre impresario. Misia’s friend, the ambitious actress Réjane was looking to emulate her great rival Sarah Bernhardt and bought the theatre. When Theatre Réjane opened its doors to the public with the play La Sevelli, which was “both indigestible and flimsy”, invited audience was chosen from the most fashionable and well-connected members of le Tout Paris.
There was a striking young actress who had a small part in the play, yet Misia knew instantly that she had to be the starlet Geneviève Lantelme. Edwards sent her a magnificent bouquet of red roses with a necklace. From this point on, Lantheme was to experience the full Edwards’ courting technique. They became lovers. Misia was experiencing jealousy for the firmst time in her life.
There was only one course of action left for her to try to make Edwards jealous by having an affair of her own and the man she chose for this important assignment was the playwright Henry Bernstein. The whole episode ended in a duel between Misia’s ex – Thadée who defended her honour and Bernstein.
Next, she travelled to Rome where she met Romain Coolus, the boulevardier-playwright and Lautrec’s former bar and brothel companion, who had always fancied her. Broken-hearted Misia had now succeeded in breaking Coolus’ heart too. But then she was not to know that just days after returning from her Italian escapade, she met the man who would become the love of her life and her third husband, the Catalan painter, José-Maria Sert.
9. Jo-Jo and Chinchilla
José-Maria Sert was a squat, swarthy man in his mid-thirties. What he lacked in good looks he made up for in immense charm and an intensely, vibrant joie de vivre that most women, and men for that matter, found irresistible. Jo-Jo created large decorative panels, incorporating monstrous, flowery, complicated forms, a kind of baroque, Goya-esque expressionism, totally out of fashion at that time. Nevertheless, he was receiving lucrative commissions from around the world, especially America.
From the very beginning Misia felt at ease with José-Maria Sert and joined him on his trip to Rome. Sert showed her the “Eternal City” as if she was seeing it for the first time and their days together “unfolded in a procession of pleasures.” She got back to Paris wondering why she had ever been so traumatized by Lantelme. Misia and Sert were having supper in Prunier’s restaurant when Sert introduced her to Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev. Misia was thrilled and even before he had sat down she was pouring out her passionate feelings about the opera Boris Godunov brought by Diaghilev to Paris. When Diaghilev told Misia that he intended bringing the dancers of the Imperial Ballet of Saint Petersburg to Paris for the 1909 spring season, she was thrilled and immediately began to use all her influence to secure sponsors for her new friend. Her salon became a platform for his endeavors and her bank account a welcome fund with which to pay his bills. Misia would reinvent herself once again. She was about to discover a new role to make her happy— as a wealthy, well-connected Parisienne she was perfectly cast to become Diaghilev’s and the Ballet Russes’ fairy godmother.
In 1909 when Misia divorced Edwards, Paris was in a state of frenzied excitement that had even been given its own very name— “Balletomania”. Posters announcing SAISON RUSSE adorned every street corner from Montmartre to Montparnasse and beyond.
Opening night, Wednesday, 19 May, 1909, is a date etched in the history of art: the debut in Paris of Ballet Russes. The evening was a revelation— ‘a shocking, entirely novel, even life-changing experience’. By the time the second part of Saison Russe commenced, on 2 June “Balletomania” was becoming ever more hysterical. Cléopâtre was the main ballet of the evening, with its strange music, sultry passions, and the sexually charged opulence and colour-saturated intensity of Léon Bakst’s set designs and costumes. Joyous and proud Diaghilev now had le tout Paris eating from his hand. He invited everyone back to Larue’s for a champagne-drenched first night supper.
Misia was tingling with excitement. It became clear to her that she had finally found her new destiny! As Madame Natanson, Misia had tremendous cachet among the aesthetes and the artists of Bohemian Paris. Now, as Madame Edwards, she had got to know all the influential politicians, editors and journalists of the day, not to mention the financiers, fashion-designers and furriers. All those are valuable conections she will use as one of the most influential women in Paris.
Misia and Sert spent their summer holiday in Venice, which in the sumer was a one long party. Before that she visited Poiret’s salon where she was approached by Helena Rubinstein, the future “Queen of Beauty”, a wealthy workaholic, who spoke to her in Polish. Misia became Helena’s entry to Le Tout Paris and Helena Misia’s personal ‘Cosmetoligist’ who also gave some tips to Proust about women’s beauty routine.
One thing spoilt Diaghilev’s fun, a disturbing letter from Astruc informing him that he was left with a final debt of 76,000 francs. Realising the danger all their plans for the 1910 season were in, Misia immediately saw her contacts in the hope to find a way to bring Astruc and Diaghilev back together.
11. The flood, the fashion and the Firebird
When Misia returned to Paris she was a little surprised to discover that Ballets Russes remained a hot topic of conversation, only now it centered around the question of Diaghilev’s financial dealings with Astruc, the composers and the dancers. All everyone wanted to know was whether Misia believed there would be a Saison Russe in 1910.
Misia made one final attempt at reconciliation between angry Astruc and Diag. Astruc agreed to book the season of Ballet Russes at the Palais Garnier while Diaghilev miraculously managed to get his hands on a little new money and he paid Astruc what he owned.
The evening of 4th June in Opera Garnier proved to be the most glittering event of the year. Schéhérezade with its spectacular sets and costumes in bright, oriental colours, was the hit of the evening. Paul Poiret’s new collection inspired the the ballet’s style sultane would be a great success.
The Firebird – a ballet of magic and love, frenzy of colour and avant-garde choreography with score by Igor Stravinsky, would make the perfect finale to the 1910 season.
Alfred Edwards, without much warning, refused to renew the lease on Misia’s Rue de Rivoli apartment. He also cut her allowance. Misia new apartment on Quai Voltaire became an open-house to all, expressly the members of Ballets Russes.
Pierre Bonnard has just completed four large and strikingly colourful panels, which she had commissioned for rue Rivoli in 1906. Now Misia decided to hang them on her dark emerald green walls in the dining room at Quai Voltaire and held a black-tie event on Christmas Day for her family and celebrated friends.
Misia – the remarkable hostess – adoring, attentive, passionate and indulgent.
12. Phantasmagoria in Paris and London
Same-sex love affairs were quite common within Misia’s circle of friends, to the point that they were regarded as almost “chic”, especially among the coterie of rich American heiresses living in Paris centred around Natalie Barney, including Princess de Polignac, Winnaretta Singer, Misia’s fellow patron of the Ballets Russes and Romaine Brooks.
Misia had encouraged Diaghilev to commission new ballets and new music by Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky and Satie, as that was where she thought the future lay. So they were both caught a little by surprise when in Monti Carlo the first ballet of the 1911 season, Le Spectre de la Rose, turned out to be a phenomenal success, a sentimental piece, danced to romantic piano music. Nijinsky got 50 curtain calls for his final leap through the bedroom window.
The company returned to Paris for the 1911 performance of Petrushka, Igor Stravinsky’s commission for Ballets Russes, with Nijinsky in the title role. Once again le tout Paris was there in all its finery, eagerly anticipating the latest sensational offering from Diaghilev. As everybody waited for the show to start agitated Diaghilev burst into Misia’s loge and asked her for 4,000 francs? “The costumier refuses to leave the clothes without being paid”. Even before he had finished speaking Misia was gone, 20 minutes later she was back with the money and the show went on.
Lady Gladys Ripon came from London to the premiere of Petrushka at Misia’s invitation. She had already saved Covent Garden Opera from terminal mediocrity and now she wanted to cap her achievement by presenting, ‘the exotic and Bohemian Ballets Russes’. The Ballets Russes duly performed at George V’s Coronation Gala in London on Monday 26 June, 1911.
When Misia opened the daily Le Petit Parisien she saw the photo of her former rival and the headline: “Lantelme— drowned in the Rhine”. She had drowned while on a cruise with Edwards and friends, on Misia’s beloved yacht L’Aimée! Lantelme was now famous, an A-list celebrity. The press seized the opportunity to link Lanthelme’s death to an onboard orgy of sex, alcohol and drugs.
13. Madame Verdurin and Princess Yourbeletieff
Misia had run into Marcel Proust often of late, sitting at a corner table in Larue’s Restaurant as ‘green as a ghost’, sipping hot chocolate and making notes, whenever she went there for supper with Diaghilev, Sert and friends after a show. She had long known that he had an unhealthy interest in the petty gossip and salacious stories that were always circling around fashionable Faubourg St. Germain. What she didn’t, perhaps, fully realise was that he was at Larue’s precisely to gather material for the novel he was writing, in which the manners and mores of the French bourgeoisie would play a definitive role.
Proust was a balletomane, captivated by what he described as the Russians ‘charming invasion’, and had attended as many premiers as he could. Nevertheless, he only really began to take a “professional” interest, so to speak, in Ballets Russes, when he realised that le gratin, the upper crust of French society, was itself in thrall to “balletomania”. Fortuitously, for ‘Little Marcel’, at the beating heart of all this was a social manipulator of genius, non-other than his old friend Misia Natanson Edwards. Misia, he knew, loved nothing better than to bring people together she thought would benefit from knowing one another, like Jean Cocteau and Diaghilev for example, or Debussy and Diaghilev. That is, when she wasn’t cruelly pushing them apart, if she saw them benefiting too much, of course. That was why Proust began to take an even keener interest in Misia’s activities than ever before.
Misia was now forty and as desirable, extravagant, despotic and provocative as ever. She electrified Diaghilev, who had the same taste for intrigue, but she could also be remarkably generous. This was the dual personality that Proust found so intoxicating. So much so that he had taken Misia’s traits, her history, her life if you will, and created from it two characters in his novel In Search of Lost Time (published in 1913, Princess Yourbeletieff, the exquisite Fairy Godmother of Ballets Russes and the manipulative Mme Verdurin who was always by her side, as if though the two characters and Misia were one.
14. The last hooray for La Belle Epoque
In 1912, Nijinsky’s interpretation of the Afternoon of a Faun, written by Claude Debussy to the poem of Mallarme, was charged with eroticism that caused excitement in the audience and a great scandal in the press the following day. Debussy, the composer of the piece, was shocked. Auguste Rodin wrote an article defending the ballet. In June 1912, the designer Paul Poiret was much influenced by Le Faune throwing a shamelessly extravagant party in Pavillon de Butard, in the gardens of Versailles. The party was themed La fête de Bacchus. Isadora Duncan danced on tables amongst 300 guests (mainly artists and their rich clientele dressed as nymphs, satyrs and gods), 900 bottles of champagne and oysters decorated with real pearl necklaces.
When Igor Stravinsky first played the piano score of Le Sacre du Printemps to Diaghilev in her apartment — Misia spotted it as a masterpiece before Diaghilev did. It took a lot of persuading before Diaghilev decided to stage La Sacre du Printemps, seeing a role for Nijinsky as a choreographer. On 29th May, 1913, the night of the premiere Misia was nervously waiting in her box for the show to start. She knew every musical note af Stravinsky’s shuddering music. Nijinsky’s choreography evoked prehistoric rites and ritual sacrifice, the dancers were instructed to perform jerky movements. The audience felt cheated, there was no glamour or eroticism on stage! The Rites caused the riot but Misia was in a rapture – this was the game with the highest stakes in her life! Her subversive spirit conquered again but she had no doubt at all that the public would very soon be forced to “recognise the magnificence of this ballet”.
The title Sacre du Printemps was changed next day to Massacre du printemps by the observers. The ballet was taken off the programme after only six performances. After the premiere Igor Stravinsky gave Misia the original score of the ballet as an appreciation for her understanding of his music, which was beyond comprehension to virtually everyone else.
At the beginning of September, 1913, Misia and Sert spent their annual holiday in Venice. They were joined by Diaghilev. Misia was with Diaghilev when he received a telegram which said that Nijinsky was marrying a Hungarian aspiring dancer Romola de Pushky in Buenos Aires. Diaglilev became hysterical and ordered his secretary to wire Nijinsky with the news of firing him from the Ballets. Nijinsky took the separation badly. Misia and Gladys Rippon in London tried to convince Diaghilev to accept him back. Diaghilev wouldn’t badge.
In March, 1914 Misia was told that her ex-husband Edwards was seriously ill. Carried away by impulse she decided to see him immediately but she arrived too late. He had just died of severe influenza. After they had separated Edwards urged Misia to legalise her financial position but because of her fervent dislike of lawyers she kept putting it off. Now, with Edwards dead, all his possessions, including the Théâtre Réjane and the Casino de Paris were left to Colonna Romano, his latest wife. There was no provision left for Misia who was struggling financially at the time. When Proust’s secretary mentioned to her that some rich Americans were looking for an apartment, she quickly offered to rent her own apartment for a large sum of money. Just before she moved in with Sert she invited her friend Eric Satie to play for Diagnilev. She had tried to influence Diaghilev to consider Satie for a new ballet. Just as Satie finished playing Morceaux en forme de poires, an old friend rushed in to tell those gathered at Misia’s that Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. After hearing the news Misia thought to herself “What luck! Oh God, if only there is a war!”
15. Misia’s war
Anti-German sentiment had been building up in Paris for some time. On 1st August France mobilized her troops. Misia’s servants volunteered for the front and she could move in with Sert at the Meurice Hotel. The Meurice very soon became a political centre and Misia its political hostess. The Americans paid in advance a rent of 50 thousand francs. On 3rd August 1914, Germany declared war on France. By the third week of August German forces were sweeping across the Franco-Belgian border. Many of Misia’s friends left Paris, along with the whole government, who were evacuated to Bordeaux. General Gallieni permitted Misia to organise a convoy to give aid to the wounded soldiers under the banner of Red Cross. Her team of volunteers that went with her to the front included Jo-Jo Sert, Jean Cocteau and Paul Iribe. After a few weeks, the convoy’s trips ended with the official presence of Red Cross. In 1923, Jean Cocteau wrote a novel Thomas l’Imposteur inspired by this episode in his life. He based the character of Princess de Bormes on Misia.
The war cut off the incomes of artists living in Paris. The president of the Salon d’Automne exclaimed publicly, “At last, cubism is doomed!” Most of the art dealers had left the city, the galleries were closed. Misia remained an eternally extravagant hostess who effortlessly, it seemed, managed to provide her artistic friends with a deep sense of luxury.
16. Art without borders
In 1915 Misia and Sert travelled to Switzerland to see Diaghilev. As it was impossible to arrange performances during the war, Diaghilev, Massine, Bakst and the dancers had stayed in Switzerland for some time. Stravinski rented a villa nearby with his wife and family. The Ballets devoted their time to rehearsing new material while Diaghilev worked hard at raising money for the troupe. They also took part in benefit shows for Red Cross, including Geneva and Paris.
In Paris, Paul Poiret held an exhibition entitled “L’Art moderne en France”. This was when Pablo Picasso exhibited his Demoiselles d’Avignon for the first time. Misia didn’t like the painting or the concert given by the future musicians of Les Six. She criticised the evening and the interpretetation of Stravinsky’s music in a letter written to the composer.
Eric Satie invited Misia to one of the exhibitions at Germaine Bongard’s fashion boutique. Misia found the project very thrilling and new. “One could look at the paintings of Picasso, Matisse, Derain and Modigliani having a dress fitted at the same time.” Satie had played to Misia some music which brought about the idea of the ballet Parade and later attributed the origin of the music for the ballet to her. Cocteau also discussed the idea of the ballet with Misia around the same time. Later however, when she wasn’t included in the formalising stage of the project, she decided to undermine it to Diaghilev. Her claims over and interference during the production of Parade angered those involved. They baptized Misia “Tante Trufaldin”. In February 1917, Cocteau, Diaghilev, Massine and Picasso travelled to Rome where they worked on the ballet, which became Parade. When Diaghilev returned to Paris, Parade was a reality and he was enthused about it to Misia as he tried to get her concord.
With age, Misia’s taste for drama ripened, she preferred uproar to tranquility. She was afraid of boredom to the point that it impeded her fun. Paul Morand said in his Journal: “Middle aged Misia inspired adoration…Misia is Misia, someone with no equal….. Misia will take her place in the history of taste, of Parisian art, more important than all the Defffands and all those silly women of the eighteenth century.”
In March, 1917 Misia helped Pierre Reverdy to finance a new cultural journal Nord-Sud. Apart from Reverdy’s aesthetic theories, the journal published cubist, dada and surrealist art and literature reviews, attracting contributions from the likes of André Breton, Tristan Tzara, Pablo Picasso, Max Jacob and Apollinaire.
17. Chanel’s champion and Picasso’s model
On 18th May, 1917, The gala opening of Parade at invitations only was to benefit the war victims. Misia dominated the arrangements, chatting to the president of the Red Cross and to other influential guests. Cocteau noticed that she acted as if though “she was marrying off her own daughter.” She was dressed to kill, in a black and white satin dress and her signature silver tiara. She shared her box with Satie, Diaglilev, Cocteau, Picasso and the painter Maria Laurencin.
In program notes Apollinaire used a new word surréalisme to describe the ballet’s miraculous décor, lyrics, music and dance. The plot of Parade incorporated popular Parisian and American entertainment traditions. Yet, there was very little music in a traditional sense, mainly noise, sounds of ragtime mixed with typewriters, guns, foghorn and milk bottles. Picasso’s cubist costumes were made in solid cardboard, allowing the dancers a minimum of movement. Parade caused a scandal which brought all the culprits together: Cocteau, Satie, Massine, Picasso, Misia and Diaghilev – made up and formed a united front in, what Cocteau called “The greatest battle of the war”.
Misia and Sert were invited to the reception organised by the celebrated actress Cécile Sorel on 30th May, 1917. Coco Chanel, who by then was becoming known as an innovative clothes designer, was one of the guests. “Misia who fished for geniuses could sense the genius in Chanel from the beginning”, said the pianist Arthur Rubinstein. She decided to take Coco under her wing, Coco would shadow Misia almost everywhere. With time, under her friend’s tutelage Coco perfected her manners, her own dictatorial style and became a force to be reckoned with. As always, she worked hard and returned money that her lover Boy Capel put into her business. Chanel’s new designs favoured by young artistic elite instantly made the clothes of Paul Poiret look old fashioned.
In winter 1917-18 Pablo Picasso painted a portrait of Misia (Portrait de femme). He was by then a fashionable painter and Misia was a powerful celebrity, arbiter of taste, a sponsor and a friend of artists. Misia send the painter photographs to work from. Picasso must have still been cross with Misia about her involvement with Parade when instead of Renoiresque tribute to her charms he made a caricature of her features, with mean expression, brioche hairstyle and pearls the size of ping-pong balls.
In June 1918, Misia was a witness at the wedding of Pablo Picasso and Olga Khokhlova and held a luncheon party for them before their honeymoon in Meurice Hotel.
18. The third honeymoon
On 11th November 1918 arms salvo announced the surrender of Germany. France was in ruin, nearly a million and a half Frenchmen were dead, Paris was dilapidated and the nation’s treasury empty. In spite of delapitation of Paris and nation’s treasury being empty, Parisians were ready to forget the war. The boulevards became crowded with excited tourists, the cafés filled with customers again. Montparnasse – the new cultural centre on the Left Bank, became home to the artists. It’s buzzing artistic community and the civil liberties attracted once again émigrés from Eastern Europe and United States. Powerful Right Bank culture re-emerged with theatres, galleries and clubs. Magazines such as Vogue published latest Chanel fashions, Misia’s world “absorbed Chanel like a whirlpool”, said Chanel’s biographer Edmonde Charles-Roux.
Coco’s boyfriend Boy Capel married another woman, an arisocrat Diana Lister Wyndham. He still kept in touch with Coco after his wedding. In December 1919, Coco received the news that Boy was involved in a car accident near Cannes and that he died instantly. Coco was in deep mourning, the only man that Coco would ever love was dead.
Misia and Sert had lived out of wedlock for 12 years. They married on 2nd August, 1920 in a fashionable Church of Saint Roch. When Misia saw that Coco was heading for a break down after Boy’s death, she naturally came to her friend’s rescue. She invited Chanel to join her and Sert on their honeymoon in “the most healing of places” – Venice. “The Serts saved me from despair”, Coco said later. Misia introduced Coco to Daghilev, who was complaining about luck of funds for a new production of Rites of Spring. Back in Paris, Coco arranged to meet Diaghilev and offered him a large sum of money for the Ballets, Diaghilev accepted.
19. All that Jazz
The offer of financial help to the Ballets which Misia wasn’t to know about, made Chanel central to the life of the composer of the Rites of Spring. Coco generously invited Stravinsky with his wife Catherine and their two daughters to stay in her villa Bel Respiro in Garches near Paris. After arriving back from the Serts’ honeymoon Coco stayed at the Ritz Hotel.
The Ballets Russes winter season 1920 started at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées on December 15th, with Pulcinella, Stravisnky’s composition, Picasso’s sets and costumes and Le Tricorne, with music by Manuel de Falla, sets and custumes by Picasso. later the audience saw the remake of Rites of Spring, which according to Misia’s predictions was a great success second time around.
Chanel and Stravinsky began a love affair when his wife and children stayed in Biarritz during the summer. She thought Igor was a genius deserving indulgence, while he broadened Coco’s musical horizons. When Misia found out about the affair, she could sense a “catastrophe”, she had words with Sert and Sert had words with Igor but the secret soon became a common knowledge amongst friends. Coco was furious with Misia and stopped seeing her for a while. Chanel kept Stravinsky as her lover until she met another Russian, the Grand Duke Dimitri. She invited Dimitri to travel with her in her new Rolls-Royce to Monte Carlo. Despite the break up of their love affair, Chanel continued to support Stravinsky financially.
The club Le Boeuf sur le Toit, where eclectic music and dress code were le rigour, became a favourite watering hole and music venue to the successful artists and intellectuals from Montmartre and Montparnasse who mingled with the Right Bank society in their leisure persuits. Misia’s sharp ears tuned into new music of clasically trained musicians – Les Six, promoted by Cocteau. Even Stravinsky was heard playing famous Piano-Rag-Music at Le Boeuf . The club provided inspiration for Darius Milhaud’s spectacle le Boeuf sur le toit, for which Jean Cocteau wrote the lyrics. Milhaud first presented music for this ballet at Misia’s.
Spring in Paris was a season of costume balls, charity events and theatre premieres. They were all grand affairs – organised by Beaumonts, Polignacs, Murats, Prince Firouz and other wealthy Parisians, many of them aimed to appeal to the guests with taste for modernist art and music. Proust who never declined an invitation to a ball was slowly becoming a recluse, so It was a rare occasion when he made his appearance in public at the Majestic hotel, on the night of 18th May 1922. The occasion was the premiere of Stravinky’s ballet Le Renard, performed by Ballets Russes at the Opéra. The party was given in honour of Diaghilev and was remembered for it’s dazzling guests list. The Modernist party, as it was called, is now considered one of the most important events of the whole decade. Marcel Proust died a few months later.
In 1923 the Duke and Duchess Faucigny-Lucinge gave a party in honour of Proust. The guests were asked to choose costumes to memorise characters in Proust’s novels. As Proust based two of his characters on Misia, she naturally appeared at the party dressed as herself – always a faithful “Fairy godmother of the Russian ballets”.
Another spectacular affair was the funeral of Raymond Radiguet, a young writer and a boyfriend of Jean Cocteau. Loved by absolutely everyone, he died unexpectedly at the age of 20. Misia and Jojo took care of the expenses and Coco staged the funeral all in white with music played by a jazz band from Le Boeuf sur le Toit.
At the end of the season Diaghilev was invited to stage a gala evening in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, a benefit concert for the restoration of the palace. The President Poincaré was welcomed by Diaghilev and Misia by his side.
20. Monte Carlo chic and Polish Colourists in Paris
When Diaghilev made Monte Carlo the ballets’ base for the winter season, the company proceeded to rehearse the new ballet Les Biches (The Does) composed by Francis Poulenc who dedicated the score to Misia. She took a special interest in the ballet and could often be seen backstage with Marie Laurencin who designed costumes and painted her portrait. The setting of the ballet was around the social circle of Misia and Chanel. The design was characterised by refinement and modernity. The ballet’s main characters had ambiguous sexual relationships, which would entertain and tantalise the audience. Chanel and Misia stayed in Monte Carlo for the premiere. This was when Chanel met the richest man in England and probably in Europe, Arthur Grosvenor – the Duke of Westminster, or Bendor for his friends. By now, Chanel had become the most fashionable designer in France with the perfume No. 5 to her name. She was rich but she still preferred the company of the artists she met at Misia’s gatherings. When Diaghilev suggested she should design costumes for the new ballets Le Train Bleu, she agreed. Picasso was a designer of the famous curtain for the ballet, Cocteau wrote the scenario and Darius Milhaud wrote the score. The ballet featured fashionable people in persuit of Mediterrenean sun. After its premiere in 1924, the members and friends were invited to Misia’s apartment for a celebratory supper.
In February 1924, Misia and Jojo Sert travelled to United States. They attended an exhibition of Sert’s work at the Wildenstein gallery in New York.
When Misia applied for new travel documents before the journey, she changed her date of birth, making herself 10 years younger. Warsaw became her new place of birth. With age, Misia liked to mention her Polish ancestry and often invited talented Polish artists strugling in Paris. She was particularly close to the painter Josef Pankiewicz (a friend of Bonnard), a representative of a young group called the Colourists, whom she helped organising fund raising events. They were later called ‘Super Jazz Balls’. To those balls Misia invited charitable Parisians and the most influential people from artistic world, including Picasso.
Misia’s brother Cipa Godebski and his wife Ida were also actively involved in Parisian artistic life. Their apartment on the rue d’Athénes had been a leading literary salon receiving the most brilliant writers, artists and composers. Misia encouraged her favourite niece and Cipa’s daughter Mimi, to follow her carrier in writing.
21. Princess Mdivani
While Misia was occupied with family matters, her husband was busy chatting up a young girl, who one day visited him in his studio. Roussadanna Mdivani, Roussy to her friends, was half Polish and half Georgian and only nineteen years of age. She was a sculptress who needed Sert’s help with a new commission. Being tall and slender with ash-blond hair and large grey eyes, she had the looks of a Pre-Raphaelite beauty. She was charming, playful and very soon ended up in Sert’s bed, who of course kept this a secret. Misia knew about his occasional adventures, they weren’t a threat to her. This time, however, when Sert talked to her about Roussy with great enthusiasm and childlish excitement, she was alarmed. Out of curiosity she decided to invite Roussy and her sister to dinner. Misia was touched when she realized how much Roussy missed her dead mother. She started thinking of Roussy as the daughter she had never had. Before long the Serts and Roussy became inseparable. Their relationship became the subject of gossip amongst people who saw the trio always together. Misia felt that Roussy mirrored her younger self, which she missed so much. She started working hard at making herself look younger, cutting her hair and wearing the latest fashions from Chanel. She was photographed for Vogue in Chanel’s black dress.To Roussy’s adoring family the whole affair looked like ménage á trois and unable to tolerate the situation, they decided to send her to America. Misia felt guilty denying Sert his happiness, Sert was upset about making the two women he loved miserable. Shortly after her return to Paris, Roussy fell ill with high fever and dizziness. In the summer 1927 the Serts made their habitual trip to Venice and Florence, Roussy who had just recovered from her sickness travelled with them.
After returning form Italy Misia accompanied her first husband’s niece, Bolette Natanson, to New York where she helped her launch the interior design business. Misia also started making minature trees decorated with stones and cristal, which she sold in New York. A three page article entitled ‘Mme Sert’s Precious Trees’ was published in Art end Industrie. Meanwhile, Sert applied for a divorce which was declared on 28th December, 1927.
22. Cartier rubies and earthy illusions
‘To dine at madame Sert is to find oneself at the centre of what’s the most cultural, artistic and worldly’, said Vogue. When the manuscript of ‘All quiet on the western front’ appeared on Misia’s desk she asked Maurice Sachs to arrange for it to be published. It was translated and published in France in 1930.
After Sert left the marital home, Misia suffered a ‘violent liver attack’ and now it was Coco’s turn to take care of Misia who was also terribly upset to hear that Sert and Roussy were getting married. Yet, Misia’s generosity towards the couple took priority when she decided to go with Roussy to Chanel’s boutique to chose her wedding dress. Misia also helped Sert to choose a present for his future bride, it was a much talked about ruby neckless from Cartier. The wedding was to take place in The Hague on 18th August 1928. Seeing her friend in despair again, Chanel insisted that Misia travels with her to England but Misia couldn’t take her mind off Sert and Roussy and decided to join them on a cruise in Genoa after receiving an invitation from them. The trio travelled to Venice where they saw Diaghilev, who must have been one of the very few uderstanding friends. A perpetual voyeur and and hedonist, he divided his attentions between Serge Lifar and Boris Kochno at the time. Misia’s situation continued to be a subject of great interest, she even became a subject of two books – Maria written by Alfred Savoire and Jean Cocteau wrote Les Monstres Sacrés.
In 1928 Edouard Vuillard painted his last portrait of Misia when he visited her in her new Parisian apartment in rue Constantine. The painting is called Les Tasses Noires, (The Black Cups) Misia’s niece Mimi is also present in the picture. Misia’s not so large apartment with its walls hung with large paintings of famous artists, was usually jam packed with a stream of people, who often were only able to exchange a few words with their gracious hostess. The writer Maria Kuncewiczowa said, “Madame Sert looked elegant, extremely worldly, sharp without being rude, she spoke good Polish, she was not just an excellent hostess, but also a soul of the party.” Salvadore Dali wrote: “At Misia’s one could run into the most delicious gossip in Paris.”
Misia introduced Diaghilev to Karol Szymanowski – the most celebrated Polish modernist composer.
22. Death in Venice
Ballets Russes still enjoyed a great deal of success all over Europe, but financially, Diaghilev always juggled between triumph and catastrophe. Fifty six year old impresario began to lose the gift of uncompromising persuasion he used to realise his goals. Some say that he had never recovered from the loss of Nijinsky, who by now was overcome by schizofrenia and only danced in times of remission. In December 27, 1928 Diaghilev met the dancer backstage after the Ballets Russes performance, Misia, Tata Karsavina, Serge Lifar were also present. Nijinsky looked old, his expression was vacant, his skin grey and saggy, he looked like a “totally burnt out human beeing”. Diaghilev now realised there was no chance of Nijinsky returning to Ballets Russes. He blamed himself for this. The tragedy of genius dancer was felt deeply by everyone present. That same evening, the whole troupe had a dinner at the nearby Restaurant de la Paix.
Misia was worried about Diaghilev’s health, he was showing the signs of exhaustion, his untreated diabetis, excessive drinking, consuming endless chocolates, rich food, sniffing cocaine and interrupted travelling, brought him to the point of crisis. Misia travelled to see him during London Ballets Russes season. Although Diaghilev’s health was fading, he continued to work whole-heartedly on new productions. One of his latest signings was Georgio de Chirico, an already famous Italian artist who was going to design a new ballet Le Bal, with music by Vittore Rieti. Misia and Diaghilev planned to meet in Venice in a month’s time. First, Misia left London to join Coco and the Duke on his yacht to cruise along the Dalmatian coast. Before the month was over the yacht’s operator handed madame Sert a telegram: “I am sick; come quickly, Serge.” Misia and Coco were worried, they impatiently waited for the Flying Cloud to reach Venice. After arriving there, they rushed to the Grand Hôtel des Bains on the Lido, where Diaghilev stayed with Lifar and Kochno. Diaghilev was lying in bed, his face covered in sweat, in the heat of the summer Diaghilev was wearing his dinner jacket to stop shiverring. He looked delirious and spoke Russian. He was happy to see Misia and Coco, Misia spoke to him for hours, trying to divert his thoughts from the illness. She sent for an English nurse and a German doctor. She spent the night at Serge’s side. “The first rays of the sun lit up his forehead at the moment when he ceased to breathe”, she later said. It was 19th September, 1929. Misia took care of funeral arrangements and paid Serge’s bills. After the mass in the church San Giorgio dei Greci, a gondola carried Diaghilev’s coffin to the cemetery on a small island of San Michele across the lagoon. In the first of the three gondolas forming the cortege were Misia, Coco, Lifar and Kochno. Both women wore white dresses – Diaghilev’s favourite colour.
23. PR woman and the pianist
Westminster took Chanel and Misia on his yacht Flying Cloud round the Mediterranean. He knew that Chanel was too independent to give up her business for him. Coco soon found out that Westminster had a lover Lady Loelia Mary Ponsonby whom he would soon merry. This was the beginning of the end of their affair. Chanel spent summers in La Pausa, her magnificent villa built in Roquebrune with the view of the Mediterranean coast. Côte d’Azur was by thenbecoming a paradise for the rich, who adopted Riviera chic which Chanel had designed.
In 1933 Misia organised a concert to help the talented pianist Marcelle Meyer to relaunch her career. She was hoping that it would be a low key affair because she hadn’t given a public performance for the last few decades. At the same time she wanted to invite friends and acquaintances and hoped to bring to light the talent of Marcelle Meyer and to raise money for charity. She rented a large hall in hotel Continental, where supper would also be served and tickets sold for an inflated price. Dinner concert was an original formula at the time. The concert was followed by another one and both of them were a great success.
Soon afterwards, she was asked to give a concert at the theatre des Ambassadeurs where Princess de Polignac – the last great mecenas of arts – would play second piano and Serge Lifar would dance on top of both pianos to the Afternoon of the Faun.
24. Casualties of emotions
In 1934, induced by the outstanding violinist Pawel Kochanski and his wife Zofia, Misia travelled to Warsaw in Poland. This was an emotional journey to the country of her ancestors, where her great grandfather died heroic death in the battle of Raclawowice on the outskirsts of Warsaw, her grandfather made a memorable speech at the Parliament in 1831 and her celebrated sculptor father designed the monument of the Polish poet Mickiewicz. She travelled again the next year accompanied by Serge Lifar who took some time off the rehearals of Harnasie – composed by Karol Szymanowski and choreographed by Lifar. “She was very enthusiastic about the country”, said Lifar. Misia had helped to pave the way for Karol Szymakowski’s premiere of Harnasie in Paris Opera in 1935.
The same year Roussy’s beloved brother Alexis and his lover Maude Thyssen travelled to Spain to visit the Serts in their coastal villa. While driving round hilly coastal roads his Rolls-Royce went out of control, Alexis and his wife were killed instantly. When his devastated body was brought into Roussy’s villa, she was stunned, hysterical and heartbroken. She suffered from insomnia, took large amounds of drugs, including morphine, she neglected herself and wanted to kill herself. When Misia heard the news she took a train to Barcelona to see Roussy but the Serts refused to let her into the house.
Misia travelled to south of France to stay in La Pausa where she met her good friends Lifar, Poulenc and the photographer Horst. La Pausa was featured in Vogue this year as “The essence of simplicity”. Paul Iribe, Coco’s new lover, who had travelled with Misia and Cocteau to the front during the war, arrived at La Pausa and as always enjoyed his game of tennis the next day. Halfway through the game he collapsed, suffering a massive heart attack. He died in the hospital. Coco was in a terrible state for months, she suffered from insomnia and became addicted to sedatives. Misia stayed with her in south of France for a while, offering comfort, knowing very well that Coco needed to be doubly strong as her rival designer Elsa Schiaparelli had the Vogue cover and seemed to succeed on all fronts. Young and carefree women started wearing Schiaparelli’s shocking pink, red eyelashes and pancake hats.
In 1936 the news about Spanish civil war hit Paris. Republican government commissioned Picasso to create an artwork for a Spanish exhibition pavillion in Paris. Picasso’s composition was born suddenly as a reaction to fascist bombing Guernica in June, 1937. Jojo Sert was the first to see some of the sketches for the project. Both painters were united in common cause of protecting priceless Spanish works of art from their brutal obliteration by the fascist attacks. A few year earlier, Sert had been commissioned by Spanish government to create large paintings for the chapel of the church of San Telmo. The most impressive grand scale murals that Sert had created proudly celebrate the most important events in the history of the Basque country. Now, San Telmo is the main part of the museum devoted to Basque history and culture.
Misia’s beloved half-brother Cipa Godebski died in 1937. She was hoping to remain close to JoJo and Roussy but they didn’t want to accept her “interference” in their private affairs. In the meantime Roussy’s health was failing. Misia wasn’t allowed to visit her. Chanel, Sert and Roussy’s sister Nina were all there. Misia felt desperate and decided to travel to Lourdes where she would pray to save Roussy’s life. At church, She felt a sudden throbbing pain in her eyes and from this day her eyesight got slowly worse. When Misia arrived in Paris she found out that Roussy was dead. She died on 16th December, 1938 at the age of 32. Misia was shattered and traumatised, this was the peak of her tragic life experience.
25. Misia’s eye
With all the commotion around her Misia was hardly ever alone, she was somehow able to mobilise the inner strength and carry on. She often felt volatile and was often unpredictable. She resolved to taking higher doses of morphine to combat her rheumatic pain but she wasn’t the only one as many people from her circle indulged the habit, including Chanel, Sert and Cocteau.
Spring season of 1939 started with an exhibition in Marsan pavilion at the Musée des Arts Dècoratifs commemorating the 10th anniversary of the death of Serge Diaghilev. It was organised by Serge Lifar under the patronage of the Prince of Monaco. Introduction to the catalogue of the exhibition was written by Misia Sert. She still missed this incredible man who had made so much impression on the arts of the time.
Misia agonized over the problem of her eyesight which was deteriorating. She was out of control, she had to put herself in other people’s hands and have a painful eye treatment in a clinic in Switzerland. Although Misia no longer played an active role in Parisian cultural life, to all those who knew her, especially to younger generation, she was a bond with the past. The model of Toulouse-Lautrec and Renoir whom Marcel Proust had called “a historical monument”. Her life became a legend in their eyes. She liked young and inspiring company while they enjoyed her stories told with humour, wit and the directness untypical to a lady in her position. At the same time she became demanding and merciless about what she deemed her own family’s failings and weaknesses. The new art she had embraced in the past left her cold and she often complained about the lack of talent.
In April 1939 Misia suffered a heart attack. Jo Jo Sert put it down to the stress she suffered because of Roussy’s death. He cancelled his trip to Spain to stay with Misia who recovered from her heart attack and was well enough in June to attend a party given by Polish Embassy, invited by her friend Jan Lechon, who was a cultural attaché at the embassy. Misia, just like most of the reluctant champagne drinking guests, knew very well that the war wasn’t going to be far away and that Poland will be attacked first. On 1st September, 1939, 3rd September France declaired war on Germany.
26. The occupation
In spring 1940 Misia and Sert watched the German troops goose-stepping by from Sert’s balcony in rue Rivoli overlooking the Place de la Concorde. At the top of the Arc de Triomphe thy placed an enormous flag with a swastika. Misia felt shocked and mortified. She never hid her revulsion of German aggression. Sert who was fiercely anti-German and a pacifist made sure that he wasn’t short of anything, it being supplies of coal or the best Spanish ham. Misia helped a lot of people, even those who weren’t her best friends, through Sert’s contacts. During the war she lived in Rue Constantine with her grand piano, her portrait painted by Renoir hung proudly above the piano. There were drawings of her by Lautrec as well as paintings by Bonnard and Vuillard. Most of the time she occupied her massive sofa from which she would stretch out her arm to reach for semi-precious beads which rested in bowls on a low table in front of her. She then placed the different beads on pieces of thin wire, building with them branches which she transformed into little Japanees trees, individual pieces of art she sold at Chanel’s boutiques and in America. Sert who lost many fortunes in his lifetime was always late with maintenance, she complained. Her celebrated friends the Picassos, Coco Chanel, Serge Lifar and Jean Cocteau often popped in. Misia recognized her friends by the sound of their footsteps outside. JoJo Sert travelled freely carrying out commissions and benefiting from certain privileges as a member of diplomatic corpse. He was now an artistic attaché to Spanish Embassy in Paris. Misia’s friend Count Harry Kessler – a diplomat, an international socialite and art collector, continued to write journals which contained a lot of interesting stories about Misia in Paris.
Boulos Ristelhueber, Misia’s secretary who edited her memoirs, kept a diary. Misia featured in it a great deal. He lunched at Misia’s, dined at Misia’s and gossiped at Misia’s, dined with Jean Cocteau, Colette, Coco Chanel, Picasso, Sert….Misia gave dinner in her bedroom. Picasso was one of those present. After dinner he comfortably sank onto Misia’s bed and spoke about his distressing divorce process from Olga. Her relationship with Chanel became more distant, Misia watched her pronouncements and pretended she didn’t know about Chanel’s whereabouts. She knew that Chanel had a Grman boyfriend – baron Hans Gunther von Dicklage, also called ‘Spatz’ (sparrow). Now that Misia and Sert spent a lot of time together in Sert’s apartment in 252 rue Rivoli, she held dinner parties for her friends, treating them to Spanish ham, sausages and even champagne. She enjoyed a ‘dangerous’ conversation and liked inviting people of different persuations who would end up argueing with one another. Yet, she tried to protect her friend Chanel from other’s gossip and even from herself.
Sert spent a lot of time travelling to Spain, Italy and to Switzerland where he had a lover. She was a wife of a German diplomat. Misia cought them in the bedroom and after this her eyesight got worse. She preferred not to mention it but her friends. A few writer friends confirmed the fact that he saved people from prison or deportation, Francis Poulenc amongst them.
When on 19th September 1944 the French rose and under the command of general Leclerc took over the outskirts of Paris and progressed into the centre. These moments were remembered by Collette who watched the fighting “as in the theatre loge” from Serts’ corner balcony facing the direction of shooting – Place de Concorde. Misia and Sert entertained at least 50 guests who all stood on the balcony watching the ‘spectacle’. 72 year old Misia looked “sulky but thrilled”, wrote Porel, she listened to the sound of armats and machine guns coming from Tuileries on the opposite side of rue Rivoli. All the windows were broken on the Place de Concorde side of the buiding, Sert didn’t want to miss a single moment of the spectacle and ended up with a few drops of blood on his head. As soon as the shooting calmed down, Sert gathered the guests who were hiding in wardrobes and behind armchairs, appologised for inappropriate rift and invited them to a dining table.
27. “Life isn’t beautiful anymore”
In September 1944, Chanel disappeared from Paris and simultaneously from Misia’s world. Those who were suspected of collaborating were pursued without mercy. After a few hours of interrogation, probably thanks to some influence from outside, she was let free but adviced to leave the capital as soon as possible. In summer 1945, Zygmunt Mycielski, Polish composer visited Misia on his way from the war, he was thin and his clothes were tattered. He remembered Misia as the woman with all the power to dictate Parisian tastes. They talked about music and Paris, Misia recalled her excitement of seeing Rite of Spring, Daphne and Chloe or Pocasso’s Arlekins but now there was nothing to be excited about. “If there was anything worthwhile I would know about it even if it was behind the Chinese wall”.
Jojo Sert frequently travelled to Spain, he was passionately working on the frescoes in Vich cathedral which had been distroyed by the fire during Spanish war. He was awaiting his heart operation but died unexpectedly on 8th December 1945 before the operation took place. Misia rushed to Spain to see his grave at Vich cathedral. With the loss of Sert Misia had no more desire for living, with her tears she forgot the humiliation, abandonment, and treasons.
After Sert’s death Chanel remembered the times when she travelled with Misia and him round Italy, unfortunately, she was not there, next to Misia to reminiscent Sert…Misia in her desolate and often cold apartment, filled with memories and her morbid thoughts. She ddidn’t play piano any more, she couldn’t write… but she felt she still has a lot inside her to convey, she still wanted to prove she couldn’t be beaten… now she wanted to write her own story. Boulos, her friend and writer also provided her with drugs. She confessed to him feelings about art and artists, “I loved them, their pleasures, their work, their troubles and their joy of life, which I shared with them. My father always said: “Each thing is beautiful and it’s distinctive.”
28. Beautiful in white
In 1947 Misia visited Venice where Horst photographed her in Piazza San Marco. She wore elegant Chanel’s clothes – a light, elegant dress with a short, dainty cape attached to it, matched with white high healed shoes and some classy jewelry. Her youghtful silhouette and sophisticated stance didn’t seem to belong to a woman of 75. In Venice she took time to reflect on her life. She visited Serge Diaghilev’s grave on a very small island of San Michele. After Misia’s return to Paris, her niece Mimi moved in with her. Mimi was a good writer and could help Misia with the memoirs. However, as Lifar said, “At rue Rivoli Boulos and drugs ruled”. Boulos’s presence deterred friends from coming. In 1949 Mimi died in a car accident, which Misia took very badly and resolved to taking higher doses of morphine to forget.
Misia’s closest family lived in Camargue, south of France. She was visited sometimes by Mimi’s brother, the painter Jean Godebski with his wife and children. Her grand niece Isabelle remembered a very nice old lady with royal manners, who was always surrounded by a lovely smell of perfume. “We knew she used to be beautiful and that she loved music. I met some fascinating people in her place, food for at least a dozen was always on the table, incredible hospitality. Isabelle remembered Misia’s voice, always emotional and passionate, she remembered very well her generosity, always getting a handsome cheque accompanied by a reprimand that she should practice piano more intensively. “She visited us in the Camargue when she was nearly eighty, her posture was straight and she glided along the floor with her unique walk, without separating her knees. She didn’t look like she was going to die.”
In the first days of October, 1950 Misia stayed in bed, she had a flue and couldn’t get rid of her cough. She still dictated her memoirs and in between she dozed off to sleep until she was woken up by a door bell or the dog barking. Misia in bed, gave orders on future funeral ceremony…”no flowers, mass in Polish church…”. She died in the night on 15th October, 1950. Next morning Coco Chanel took charge. She had Misia’s body moved to Sert’s canopied bed, told everyone to leave and set about making Misia beautiful for the last time. She arranged Misia’s hair, made up her face and put on her jewels. She dressed her in a white dress and surrounded her with white flowers. When she opened the doors her friends were overcome with admiration. It was Chanel’s last offering of love. The funeral was held in a Polish church in rue Cambon. Misia was laid burried next to Mimi and a few steps away from Mallarmé, in Samoreau, a small cemetery overlooking the Seine near Valvins, where as a young woman she spent carefree days with her artist friends.