By April 1909, Paris was in a fever; a state of frenzied excitement that had even been given its own name— “balletomania”. Posters of the dancers adorned every street corner hoarding and Morris Column from Montmartre to Montparnasse and beyond, announcing THÉÂTRE DE CHÂTELET / SAISON RUSSE / MAI JUN. Le Figaro, meanwhile, was releasing daily bulletins describing how rehearsals and preparations for “opening night” were progressing. When it was announced that all dates had been sold out all hell broke loose, until, that is, new dates were added. Diaghilev beamed with joy, his financial troubles over it seemed. Saison Russe would go ahead as planned. Benois, Bakst and Fokine were relieved, although, despite the problems created in the wake of Grand Duke Vladimir’s untimely demise, they had never doubted that Diaghilev would make it happen, even if they had little idea how. On reflection, however, without the “committee of friends” in Paris, headed by Misia Edwards, the show would surely not have gone on.

Between the “committee”, their rich friends and Gabriel Astruc, Diaghilev’s financial chestnuts were pulled from the fire, at least for the time being. Not that this meant all his problems were over. At the Châtelet, the new scenery and sets were still under construction, while the theatre refurbishment itself remained, it seemed, a perpetual work-in-progress. At the same time, the opera company and the ballet company were at permanent war, as each fought to possess the stage in order to rehearse —the ‘vanquished side’, as Tata Karsavina recalled, ‘gathering “props” resentfully vanished to the remote parts’—; a struggle personified, as Le Figaro later reported, by the confrontation between ‘the gigantic Chaliapine and the delicate Nijinsky’; all that and the eighty-piece orchestra had yet to arrive. When it did, on 16 May, it could muster only seventy-nine musicians, as one oboist had gone awol. He had apparently got off at Smolensk thinking it was Paris and was never seen again.

Rehearsals at The Châtelet

From their arrival in Paris, the Russian dancers had just two weeks to rehearse. A fortnight, as Tamara Karsavina recalled, that was ‘arduous, feverish, hysterical. The Châtelet was well-nigh shaken to its foundations by the tornado of what was to be the first Russian season in Paris…and hot enough to breed salamanders.’ The ‘stage hands, gruff as they can only be in Paris… regarded us all as lunatics.’ “Ces Russes, oh la la, tous peu maboule”, they cried, as the dancers danced around them in the dust and drying paint,  half-crazy from the relentless sawing and hammering, as the carpenters  constructed trap doors and finished off the stage.

‘The indescribable bedlam of those days, looked back at, becomes highly entertaining’, wrote Karsavina. ‘At times the din drowned the feeble tinkle of the piano. Fokine in white frenzy, would call out in the dark: “Sergei Pavlovitch, for mercy’s sake, I cannot work with this blasted noise.” A voice from the dark promised that all would soon be quiet, and entreated us to carry on. We carried on till a new interruption. At noon all noises stopped as if by magic; the workmen deserted the Châtelet. Noon is a sacred hour. Paris feeds from noon till two.’ [1]  Now, finally, the dancers could hear the musicians and the musicians could see the dancers, so instead of breaking for lunch themselves, Diaghilev ordered pate, salad and roast chickens from Larue’s and the company  pique-niqued sitting on boxes amongst the scenery and props, and the ballerinas danced on.

If the atmosphere back stage was heated, even poisonous at times,  Le Figaro made no mention of this on 11 May when it told its readers: ‘We are at the Châtelet, in the feeble grey light of backstage. Scenery is being wheeled on, they are mending the stage… From far off one hears the little hammers of the upholsterers who are lining the auditorium with red cloth. In the midst of all this creaking wood and grinding metal, in this dim dusk without light or shade, there is still a brilliant focus— the Russian dancers. The thin highly-strung young man who looks like a fencing master in his cotton tunic is Mikhail Fokine, ballet-master and reformer of the Russian Ballet. This dark, slender girl with almond eyes and an ivory complexion, who evokes dreams of the gorgeous east, is Vera Karalli from Moscow. The blonde, so smart and supple in her movements, is Alexandra Baldina… This elusive, thoughtful beauty who seems wafted with infinite grace is Tamara Karsavina… Among the men there is the extraordinary Nijinsky… whose dazzling technique is allied to a plastic feeling and a distinction of gesture which are certainly unequalled anywhere.’

Fokine claps his hands, the talking stops, the dancers take their positions. Fokine’s sharp eye misses nothing. Watchful, he demonstrates, mimes, shows everyone his steps, darts from pianist to dancer and dancer to pianist… One by one, the dancers fade into the wings, and the stage is empty. Then they reappear, dressed for the street, talking. What are they talking about? About Paris, the big, terrifying astounding and ravishing city! What have they seen so far? One has been to Manon, another has seen the famous monkey. All, as they talk, sketch out with their fingers the steps they will be dancing tomorrow.’ [2] 

With his streak of white hair, Chinchilla struck an idiosyncratic pose.  Tata compared him to a sea lion, Nijinsky saw him more as a ‘magnificent bear’. In fact, he was a spider patrolling his web, determined to catch and keep all that he needed to fulfill his craving for artistic success. He supervised the musicians, the dancers, singers, stage sets, costumes, make up, press briefings, photo shoots, even the complimentary tickets going out to sponsors, friends and the crème-de-la-crème. He organised everything, was everywhere, missed nothing; as one writer put it: ‘He could spot a single bulb that had burnt out among the stage lights or hear when the orchestra’s second trumpet was playing flat.’ [3]   

Those influential Parisians lucky enough to be invited to rehearsals, however, were far more interested in the dancers they had read about in Le Figaro than in seeing Diaghilev— beautiful Karsavina, erotic Rubenstein and, of course, Nijinsky, who Igor Stravinsky would later describe as ‘the most exciting human being… ever seen on the stage’; and what caught their eye especially, was the seeming gravity-defying height of his leaps. [4]  What they saw had them chattering away so excitedly that they were told to shut up, while Robert Brussel was actually thrown out of the theatre for flirting with Karsavina by a jealous Fokine.  Uncharacteristically, Misia, who attended rehearsals most days, paid little attention to all the commotion and the intrigue, so caught up was she in the music and the dance. Nevertheless, she could not avoid noticing the intimacy that was developing between Diaghilev and Nijinsky. 

Astruc believed that for the Saison Russe to be a real success with the Parisian public they must first ‘capture the patronage of the arrogant world of artistic fashion—  “Mes chers snobs”, he called them, “without whom no new artistic venture could ever prosper”’; Tata Karsavina agreed: ‘the pink of society, literary, artistic and critical there and then determined success or failure.’ That was why a chosen few individuals had been admitted to rehearsals. But now Astruc went a step further and organised a preview, a special matinee performance, evening wear obligatory; a gala dress rehearsal or, to give it its official title, a “repitition generale”, for May 18, the day before the official opening night, to which the same select few, plus others deemed fashionable and influential enough to be worthy of the honour, were invited. As Astruc explained: ‘It was always my principle to devote as much thought to my preview audiences as though they were themselves part of the production.’ [5] 

The dress rehearsal was a stunning success. The costumes were resplendent, the sets spectacular, the dancers magnificent, the hand-picked audience captivated. Yet, the previous evening, at a dinner given in honour of Diaghilev and the corps de ballet by Misia Edwards and Comtesse Greffuhle at the Hotel Crillon, the Comtesse, who had never before seen the Ballet Russes, was shocked at ‘how drably provincial and uncultivated they all seemed.’ ‘Her heart sank’, she added with dismay, to the extent that she  ‘almost regretted having allowed herself to be so swept off her feet by Diaghilev’s aristocratic and European charm as to believe all his wondrous tales of their capacities.’ 

Nijinsky’s sister Bronia had worried that her hat would not be stylish enough for the event, and it quickly became clear that she was right to do so, as she sat surrounded by an array of glittering, diamond encrusted aristos in their most fashionable clothes, including Misia’s friends from Venice, the green-eyed blue-blood, Contessa Annina Morosini, and the ugly little Italian poet and intellectual dandy, Gabriele D’Annunzio, who, according to a salacious rumour that was spreading like wildfire throughout the room, had just had sex  in the lift at Hôtel Meurice.

Fortunately, the dress rehearsal was so amazing that by the end Comtesse Greffuhle had fallen ‘completely under the sway of those “drab provincials” in whom she had been so disappointed, and once and for all became a firm believer in the “miracle of Russian art.”’ [6]  This was definitely good news for Diaghilev and his cash-flow conundrum, although he still had much to worry about. Two hundred and fifty dancers and an eighty piece orchestra did not come cheap, not to mention the cost of sets, costumes and the theatre refurbishment. He was heavily in debt, despite  box office receipts and the generosity of his  patrons. The second part of his spring season would follow in June and tickets for that were about to go on sale, so he could ill afford a bad review at this point. Tomorrow was “opening night” and it had to be a success.  But for now there was nothing more to be done, so he, Misia and Sert, together with Astruc, Benois, Bakst, Fokine and Nijinsky, went off to Larue’s for dinner and to drink their finest champagne, and wait for the verdict.  Finally, someone arrived with the evening’s edition of Le Figaro and they scoured the pages for Brussel’s theatre column, wondering whether his untimely removal from the theatre days earlier would sour his review; it didn’t.  He wrote: ‘Tomorrow Paris will see, conjured up by magic, one of the finest spectacles with which it has ever been presented.’ They raised their glasses. Nothing could go wrong now, surely.

Divine Genius Triumphs in the Theatre of Cheap Emotions

Opening night, Wednesday, 19 May, 1909, is a date etched in dance history— the debut in Paris of Ballet Russes. That it would be an event “conjured up by magic” became clear from the moment the first-night audience arrived and saw that Théâtre du Châtelet, the old, down-at-heel, ‘retail shop of cheap emotions’, had been utterly transformed, into a place where fashionable Parisians could confidently show off their tailcoats and tiaras, silk gowns, diamonds and feathers, against a suffusion of plush red velvet upholstery, tailored by Belsacq.  Once inside the auditorium there was another surprise, for sitting in the front rows of the dress-circle —at Astruc’s invitation— were fifty-two of the most beautiful actresses in Paris; twenty-six blondes and twenty-six brunettes; blondes alternating with brunettes. As one writer put it: ‘Not a tail-coat, not a bald head to break through the lustrous semi-circle: only beauty, diamonds and bare-shoulders.’ As a ploy to grab the attention of the audience it proved masterly, for, as Astruc said himself, ‘the sight of this row of smiling beauties caused the rest of the house to burst into applause.’ [8] 

And what a house it was. Had there ever been representatives of so many  different worlds together under one roof? Le gratin, of course: including Comtesse de Chevigné, Comtesse Greffulhe, her cousin, Comte Robert de Montesquiou, Princess Alexandre de Chima, Princesse de Polignac aka Tante Winnie, the Rothschilds, Béatricee Ephrussi and her hapless husband Maurice, Contessa Morosini of course, and a clutch of Russian dukes and princes. The diplomats and politicians: the Russian Ambassador, French cabinet ministers and the German diplomat and secret agent, Count Harry Kessler; the writers: Leon and Lucien Daucet, Octave Mirbeau, André Gide, Gabriele D’Annunzio and Marcel Proust, who had left his sick-bed to be there; the composers,  Faure, Ravel, Debussy, Saint-Saens; the artists, Rodin, Jean-Luis Forain, Bonnard, Renoir, Jacques-Émile Blanche, the caricaturist Sem; the dress makers, Caron, Paquin, Doeillet and Poiret; the actresses, singers and dancers, Isadora Duncan, Rejane, Cecile Sorel, Jane Marnac, Louise Balthy, both Lautrec’s old friend Yvette Guilbert and Misia’s old adversary, La Lantelme, as well as Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Then there were the Directors of the Opéra, the Opéra Comique, the Comédie Française, the Met, New York and the Boston Opera House; as well as Michel Calvocoressi and Robert Brussel. Such was the full turnout of the fashionable, the fabulous, the famous and the fortunate that Picasso, on holiday in Spain with Fernande, was conspicuous by his absence

Diaghilev felt his heart flutter, as he sat at the back of Misia’s loge and watched the performance unfold, anxiously gazing at the stage through his mother-of-pearl opera glasses over a ‘murmuring ocean of jewels, feathers and heads’, waiting upon the verdict of these rows of pampered Parisians. [9]  He need not have worried. The poet, Princess Bibesco-Bassaraba de Brancovan, better known as  Anna de Noailles, the French Sappho, was there that evening and she wrote: ‘It was as if Creation, having stopped on the seventh day, now all of a sudden resumed… Something completely new in the world of the arts… a sudden glory; the phenomenon of the Ballets Russes.’ [10] 

The glory began with Le Pavillon d’Armide, a ballet in one act— music by  Tcherepnin, libretto by Benois, choreography by Fokine, sets and costumes designed by Bakst, whose  ‘bejewelled colours, swirling Art Nouveau elements and sense of the erotic, re-envisioned dance productions as total works of art.’ [11]  This was le Tout Paris’s first sighting of Nijinsky and they were mesmerised. Whilst offstage, said Benois, he was ‘more like a shop-assistant than a fairy-tale hero’, short and squat, with a bull neck and a placid, slightly sulky expression, once he put on his costume, in this case a white and silver skirted jacket and a plumed turban, with a touch of yellow, he was miraculously transformed into ‘whatever being he saw reflected in his mirror’ – and tonight he was Princess Armide’s favourite boy slave.  But it was what he did at the end of his pas de trois with Karsavina and Alexandra Baldina that both made  the audience gasp and his reputation.

Instead of running off into the wings with the girls, according to Karsavina, Nijinsky ‘rose up… described a parabola in the air, and disappeared from sight.’ [12]  In effect, by leaping off the stage and landing out of sight, Nijinsky had given the startled audience the impression that he had flown away. Momentarily stunned into silence, they suddenly broke into such a riotous applause that the orchestra stopped playing. It is said that the Ballets Russes began its conquest of Paris and Europe, and with it the transformation of ballet ‘into a vital, modern art’, at the moment Nijinsky took to the stage. Not so; it surely began with that leap.

The glory continued with the grotesque Dance of the Buffoons, the third act from Borodin’s opera Prince Igor, and finally Le Festin, with fabulously exotic costumes by Benois and Bakst and a series of separate dances including a pas de deux danced by Nijinsky and Karsavina that electrified the audience once more. As one member of the audience put it: ‘But when these two came on, good Lord! I have never seen anything like it.’ At the interval, the curtain rose and fell, ‘I don’t know how many times’ recalled Karsavina. And after that came wave after wave of bravos, an earthshattering roar of applause and the charging of the stage by an audience hell bent on congratulating the director and the performers, especially their new idols, Vaslav Nijinsky and Tata Karsavina.  

As Tata remarked: ‘I realised something unusual was happening to me and around me… my senses were all blurred that night. The familiar barriers between the stage and audience were broken… The stage was so crowded with spectators that there was hardly room to move… Hundreds of eyes followed us about; scraps of exclamations: “He is a protégé”, and “C’est elle.” And then a breathless wait in the wings, when my heart beat in odd places.’ Diaghilev came down from Misia’s box and pushed his way through the crowd looking for Karsavina. ‘Where is she? I must embrace her,’ he shouted. Then somebody else asked Nijinsky if it is difficult to stay in the air so long when he jumped. ‘No! No! Not difficult,’ he replies. ‘You have just to go up and then pause a little up there’.

The evening was a revelation— ‘a shocking, entirely novel, even life-changing experience’, were typical of the phrases used to describe it. [13]   The Ballet Russes, exclaimed Anna de Noailles, ‘took possession of our souls’. [14]  While the art critic Maurice Brillant wrote: ‘I do not believe that in the entire history of our theatre there was a more rapid revolution, a more irresistible foreign invasion, or a quicker triumph… won on the first night.’ It was an experience that, as another writer put it, ‘sprang from Diaghilev’s vision of total theatre, a ravishing synthesis of music, dance, drama, and design, unlike anything Paris had seen before. In the following days, two topics were the talk of the city: the exotic sets and costumes of Bakst and Benois; and Nijinsky, whose frank sexuality and fantastic leaps reminded Paris of something long lost to the art of dance— the male. As for the other dancers, Isadora Duncan, for one, was captivated by Pavlova and Karsavina, almost as much as by Nijinsky, regarding all three as, she said, ‘ethereal artists of divine genius’. [15] 

Misia was tingling with excitement. At that moment it suddenly became clear to her that she had finally found her new destiny! Just as with Revue Blanche, twenty years before, Ballets Russes was becoming the centre of her world. The spoilt, rich Madame Edwards who wondered if her life would always remain so dull, was dead. Misia was in her element again. La Lantelme had done her a big favour.

Diaghilev was joyous and proud. He now had le Tout Paris eating from his palm. He invited everyone back to Larue’s for a champagne-drenched first night supper; Benois, Bakst, Fokine, Nijinsky, Karsavina and Misia. It was a fun evening, Nijinsky told his sister Bronia afterwards; Diaghilev even flirted with Misia, kissing her and playfully poking a banana down her cleavage. It was an uncharacteristically rude gesture that Misia wasn’t expecting, made worse by the fact that when she looked up she noticed Marcel Proust at a corner table, green as a ghost, drinking hot chocolate and taking everything in. She quickly turned to Nijinsky sitting next to her and began speaking Polish with him; Nijinsky who was born in Poland and baptised in the same Warsaw church that held Chopin’s heart. Nijinsky told Bronia the next day that they had become “great friends”. [16] 

It was perhaps now, as the evening wore on, that Tata realised that despite his cheeky dalliance with Misia, Diaghilev had become —overnight it seemed—  the leader of the Paris homosexual set; a group that included Marcel Proust, Lucien Daudet, Reynaldo Hahn and, in due course, Jean Cocteau. And, she said, ‘it rather went to his head.’ The composer Igor Stravinsky, soon to become part of the Ballets Russes family, later remarked that it was ‘impossible to describe the perversion of Diaghilev’s entourage, a type of homosexual guard he surrounded himself with.’ [17]  It was all a little disturbing for naïve Tata, who hadn’t known what homosexuality was until very recently. Now that she did, she began to look at Diaghilev in a rather disgusted way, until his physician, Dr Sergie Botkine, explained to her that it was ‘a cruel misjudgment to give an ugly name to what is, after all, but a freak of nature’, and he mentioned the names of homosexuals who had lived good, worthy lives.  With that Tata relaxed a little, and as she said: ‘Botkine made me see that it was the quality of love that makes it beautiful, no matter who the object. The quality of Diaghilev’s affections was single-hearted, true and deep, bury them as he would beneath his blasé mask.’ [18] 

The following morning, Tata recalled, ‘rose hot and beautiful, as indeed the whole time we remained in Paris. I do not remember a cloud in the sky. June worked its gay witchcraft over Paris. The glitter of vermillion gold that tinted the whole atmosphere dwelt in one’s heart. Even in the dark passages of the Châtelet it descended like a whiff of scent lodged in one’s clothes.’ [19]  Tata was happy when, over a leisurely breakfast, she read in the morning’s Le Figaro: ‘Le Gala Russe’. ‘Quelle soiree, quelle salle, quelle assistance!’ Shall I ever find the words to describe such a sight —from the panting, endless lines of motor-cars to the dazzle of diamonds reaching as far as the back row of the amphitheatre…’ [20] 

Later that day Tata returned to the Châtelet, but not to perform this time. Given that ballet played on alternative nights to opera, it was the turn of the latter to make its mark, with the first performance of The Maid of Pskov; an opera in three acts by Rimsky-Korsakov, (recently deceased), starring Feodor Chaliapine, which Diaghilev re-christened Ivan the Terrible.  The audience for this was as illustrious as for the ballet, with the same cascades of diamonds and the same corbeille of beautiful actresses and dancers, this time augmented by the dancers of the Ballets Russes, like Karasavina, enjoying a night off, who was so enchanted by Chapliapine’s singing that she came to hear him as often as she could, as did Nijinsky’s sister Bronislava, who was falling in love, but not only with Chapliapine’s voice, with the man himself.

With ballet and opera alternating, the dancers had plenty of free time to enjoy the delights that Paris had to offer. Karsavina went to see Versailles, Diaghilev and Misia showed Nijinsky the Louvre and Bakst hired a carriage to drive him through the Bois de Bologne. Then they all attended the “Pink and White Ball” that Winnaretta Singer had organised in honour of Isadora Duncan, and another time they partied and danced on the Quai d’Orsay. And after each performance, Diaghilev entertained his “committee of friends” at Larue’s— Benois, Bakst, Fokine, Misia and Sert, of course, plus Mr Parrot, the critic Valerien Svetlov; the great tea-drinker, Walter Nuvel; General Bezobrazov, godfather to the St Petersburg ballet; and Nijinsky and Karsavina, who Diaghilev now called his children. Then, one evening Misia arrived with a handsome stranger in tow; a “young Adonis”, as one writer described Jean Cocteau.

Cocteau had sat in the Châtelet on opening night with his family, absolutely enthralled. This was no surprise, as this frail looking young man, who had once been particularly susceptible to childhood ailments, had, as he put it, ‘caught an illness much more serious than scarlet fever or measles— what I call the red-and-gold disease: theatre-itis.’  Cocteau had been besotted by the theatre since he was a boy, when from his bedroom window he would watch Régane arrive at the Théâtre du Vaudeville in her carriage pulled by her famous pair of mules, a present from the King of Portugal, and he would dream of the dramatic scenes being played out inside. Then, once when he was taken by his parents to see Around the World in Eighty Days, he became so excited he actually began to run a temperature.  Not surprisingly then, “opening night” at the Châtelet would change his life forever; this would be ‘the last Paris gala for fifty years to which he was not bidden’, as the very next day he arranged, through a mutual friend, Maurice Rostand, an introduction to Misia, knowing full well that she was the golden thread that would lead him finally to Diaghilev. [21]   

Misia duly invited the boy genius to her Rue de Rivoli apartment and he arrived, as Claude Arnaud writes, ‘determined to cast a spell on this fairy of the arts.’ He ‘turned up at her place with the assurance of a Bonaparte, launching into stories… discussing poems with an authority he’d acquired in the Daucet circle. Making people, laugh, think and feel at the same time— the ideal achievement for a salon.’

“He’s irresistible”, declared Misia. [22]  Diaghilev, however, was not so easily impressed. Cocteau was crestfallen, his ability to charm that he relied upon so much, letting him down for once. But at least he got the opportunity to study Chinchilla at close quarters for the first time:  ‘His face was a bull dog’s, his smile a very young crocodile’s, one tooth on the edge. To grind this tooth was for him a sign of pleasure, or fear, or anger.’ He also noticed Diaghilev’s “wet eye” which looked downwards, Cocteau said, with ‘the curve of a Portuguese oyster.’ [23] 

Misia Is Received

Two years earlier, Misia had given a dinner party in honour of Prince Georges Bibesco and his bride, Mademoiselle Lahovari. It was a small but stylish affair, for about a dozen guests who included the tennis star, Claude Anet, the painter Hellue, the caricaturist Sem, Marthe Letellier and her husband, and Marcel Proust, as Misia recalled, ‘still very young, but already very  delicate’.  All the men wore dinner jackets except for Claude Anet who was in tails. When Misia ribbed him about being overdressed, inquiring ‘in whose honour he had made himself so beautiful’, Anet replied haughtily that he was going on afterwards to Princess Murat’s.

‘Is it nice at the Murats’?’ Misia asked him, in a faux naïve kind of way.

‘Nice? What do you mean by “nice”, Misia? They’re society people,’ he answered.

‘Society people— what does that mean? Who are they? Aren’t we all society people?’ asked Misia.

Anet began to laugh. ‘You are astonishing! You don’t seem to be aware of anything! The Murats are people who would never ask you to their house.’

‘I was not vexed, only astounded’, recalled Misia. ‘How was that? Were there people who would not ask me to their house’, she pondered. ‘What was this mystery? What category of individuals did these strange specimens of humanity represent? The Queen of the Belgians came to have coffee with my grandmother! My coming out ball was at Court. For me there had been kings and artists, and those who were neither. But “society people”… somebody had to elucidate this enigma for me.’

Misia as Madame Natanson had had tremendous cachet among the aesthetes and the artists of Bohemian Paris; the painters and their dealers, the actors and writers, poets and playwrights, composers and musicians. Then, as Madame Edwards, wife of the wealthy proprietor of Le Matin, the biggest selling newspaper in Europe, she had got to know all the influential politicians, editors and journalists of the day, not mention the financiers, fashion-designers and furriers.  And yet, as she wrote in her memoirs, whilst ‘the circle of my friends was very varied’, it took Claude Anet to ‘open my eyes’ to the fact that there existed a class of “society people”, of which previously ‘I was totally ignorant’.

This is slightly perplexing, as, surely, this was a class Misia had tried to run away from when she became the “Muse of Painting Street”; and eloping with Edwards while still married to Thadée, and then with Sert while still married to Edwards, had done nothing to bring her back into the fold. But now, as Diaghilev’s closest confidant and effective head of  Ballets Russes’ “committee of friends”, she began to be  associated once more with le gratin, the upper crust of French society’, as it took its first timorous steps outside of the Faubourg, in thrall to fashionable “balletomania”, led by Comtesse de Greffulhe, Comtesse de Chevigné, the Rothschilds, the Ephrussis, and, ironically, even Princesse Murat. 

To Claude Anet’s surprise and perhaps disgust, these “society people” now started falling over themselves to “receive” Misia. So popular did she become that she had sometimes to find excuses not to be “received”, especially if she felt that the evening at hand promised to be a tedious affair, one likely to trigger a bout of ennui; that particularly French weariness of the spirit that she had always done her best to avoid. Artur Schopenhaurer, son of the great German  salonnière , Johanna Schopenhaurer, and author of the “porcupine dilemma”, maintained that ‘want and ennui are the two poles of human life’ —and, as the American writer, Agnes Repplier further elaborated, ‘the further we escape from one evil, the nearer we inevitably draw to the other. As soon as the first rude pressure of necessity is relieved, and man has leisure to think of something beyond his unsatisfied craving for food and shelter, then ennui steps in and claims him for her own.’ [24] 

In Misia’s case, while she had never really wanted for anything, at least nothing that mere money could buy, her fear of boredom was such that she had been known to leave a party 15 minutes after she arrived, even her own, to avoid it. Perhaps little Marcel’s imaginary friend, Madame Verdurin, had the right idea when she barred evening dress from her salon; ‘because you were all “good pals”, and didn’t want to look like “boring people” who were to be avoided like the plague.’ Misia hated the bores too. She wanted to be with people who amused her, but, unlike Madame Verdurin, their titles mattered far less than their wit. She once got into an argument with the snobbish Boniface de Castellane, the Marquis de Castellane, over the seating arrangements at a dinner he was giving, because he intended sitting the teenage Duc de Luynes to the right of the hostess in preference to ‘two artists of great repute’.

‘If Victor Hugo were to come to life’, Misia had asked him, ‘you’d place him after the boy in precedence?’

‘Without hesitation,’ Boni had replied. ‘The question doesn’t even arise.’

Misia explained to Boni the etiquette for such a situation as explained to her by the diplomat Philippe Bertholet: ‘The rule is – the stupider always on the right.  That way everyone is happy.’ Boni grimaced. To him, top-table etiquette was a serious business, not to be taken lightly, but Misia forgave him, if only because, recently divorced by his wife, the American heiress Anna Gould, after he had managed to spend $10 million of her money in no short order, he was embarrassingly low on funds. Not that it seemed to bother him too much. As Misia noted: ‘He is the only man I know who moved from an income of ten million francs a year to the platform of a bus with perfect indifference.’ [25] 

Misia had known the Boniface de Castellane for many years, and Poiret’s haughty client, Comtesse de Greffulhe, even longer, from the time, in fact, when she was just plain Princesse Elisabeth de Caraman-Chimay, the older sister of Misia’s childhood friend Ghislaine. Whenever Misia thought back to those days she remembered the  Comtesse, as she said, ‘through a cloud of tulle, lively, slender, graceful as a gazelle. She represented for me all my childhood in Belgium, the beautiful summers in Halle, the pianos, the stately dining room, the old Queen and her café au lait.’ A renowned beauty, who, with her marriage to the Comte, had become as rich as she was beautiful, the Comtesse began to entertain the cream of Parisian society at her home, 10 Rue d’Astorg, including Edward VII, who loved to dine there.  Comtesse de Greffulhe was the uncontested queen of the salons of the Faubourg Saint-German. As Misia wrote in her memoirs: To be a Maecenas was as natural a tendency with her as to be gracious… I know of no figure so typical as she of the grande dame.’

Comtesse de Chevigné was also beautiful, but not quite as beautiful as  Comtesse de Greffulhe. She made up for that, however, with a certain style —very chic, very modern—, which her youthful figure allowed her to carry off so effortlessly throughout her life. A figure that she kept in trim by taking a brisk two-hour walk every morning while often wearing an elegant tailored suit from Creed’s and a small hat with a veil designed by the “Queen of Milliners”, Catherine Reboux. A young Marcel Proust, waiting in the shadow of a building just to see her daily appearance along the Rue d’Aujou, described her morning constitutional as “an entire poem of elegance”. Even into her seventies the Comtesse still had the slim, stylish figure of a girl of eighteen. So much so that on one occasion a young artisan perched high on some scaffolding on a nearly building site, called to his friend as she past, “Ah, the beautiful babe!”. She replied: “Wait, little one, you haven’t seen the front view!”

Comtesse de Chevigné had many admirers who came to see her daily. They were so used to their routine, that they barely greeted each other when they arrived, nor bid farewell when they left. Proust, for example, came as often as the Comtesse would allow him, in addition to attending her weekly salon, when Misia could never resist teasing him about the great importance he attached to social gossip and the energy he put into being a snob and a social climber. She was perplexed why this intelligent, deep thinking man cared so much about frivolities and was so intent in quizzing her about make-up and fashion. “What does a society lady use to keep her face looking young and beautiful?” he would ask her. “How does she decide what to wear to a ball, or to go cycling in the park?” 

Born Laure de Sade, Comtesse de Chevigné was one of the very few women whom Misia admired for her caustic wit— a formidable weapon, especially when delivered with a husky voice born of years of heavy smoking. She was also intrigued by the fact that Laure was a direct descendent of the Marquis de Sade; something that explained, according to Misia at least, why she got away with saying the most outrageous things— ‘things that would not have been forgiven anyone else.’

The other influential member of Diaghilev’s “committee of friends” was Princesse de Polignac, Winnaretta Singer. Misia had known Winnie for many years, as just about the same time that she married Thadée and moved to Rue St. Florentin, Winnie and the Prince started a Tuesday evening salon that quickly became a haven for avant-garde music, as well as providing Marcel Proust with much of the minutiae of salon culture that would adorn his great novel that had yet to see the light of day.   


By the time the second part of Saison Russe commenced, on 2 June, Nijinskymania was well underway: society composer Reynaldo Hahn had declared that ‘when one has seen Nijinsky dance, nothing else matters’,  while Monsieur Willy, Revue Blanche’s erstwhile music critic Henri Gauthier-Villars, had declared him  the ‘wonder of wonders’, and Le Figaro had crowned him the ‘God of the dance“.  Diaghilev was so thrilled that his boyfriend-genius, his ‘pride and joy’, as Serge Lifar put it, had become the talk of Paris that he presented him with a platinum Cartier ring decorated with an enormous sapphire.  Count Harry Kessler, meanwhile, who we last met two years earlier at the Cave de Vollard, discussing the odious Alfred Edwards with Renoir and Bonnard, had written excitedly to his friend, the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal, informing him that Nijinsky was like ‘a butterfly, but at the same time… the epitome of manliness and youthful beauty. The ballerinas, who are just as beautiful, are completely eclipsed by him.’ Then, just to make sure that he had got his point across correctly Kessler added: ‘The audience went mad. If you ever write a ballet with Richard Strauss we must get hold of this young Nijinsky.’ [26] 

Fashionable Parisians of both sexes began to pursue him. Those who caught him, however, were a tad disappointed, for off-stage Vaslav lacked confidence. He believed what Diaghilev had told him— that if he did not want to make a fool of himself he should keep his mouth shut. He was therefore, as one writer recalled, ‘awkward, withdrawn and tongue-tied.’ That was why Misia had concluded, perhaps unfairly, that he was, as she put it, an ‘idiot of genius’. [27] 

While “opening night” had seen Nijinsky establish his genius, it was said that Tata Karsavina, finally out from behind the shadow of Pavlova, had taken a mere one and a half minutes to captivate Paris; her ‘dark, lustrous beauty…the incarnation of Russia, and her mischievous smile winning all hearts’. And the very next day, when Tata read the morning newspapers over breakfast, she recalled, ‘I learned amazing things about myself… and that I was “La Karsavina.” There was quite an extemporaneous feeling of wonder in me at suddenly perceiving my double.’ She was also told that she had “adamantine eyes and a smile of cruel sweetness.” ‘Some vanity there must have been in me; I always wanted to look fatal. Therefore of all the clever and good things said, I treasured this.’ [28]  ‘My happiness knew no bounds’, she wrote. ‘Paris loved, petted and flattered me.’

“Balletomania” was becoming ever more hysterical, but just in case someone had been unfortunate enough as to miss “opening night”, on the day before the second part of the programme was to commence, the arts magazine, Comoedia Illustré  thought it beholden to its readers to explain that ‘right now, the Russian season dominates all our theatrical attractions…The originality of their national costumes… ravishes the eye!…. But I want above all to talk of the audience… where all the notable and artistic elite were present. The intermissions were enchanting, and one simply left one sort of ravishment to enter into another….On the balcony were… the most beautiful dancers…Isadora Duncan, Mlle Trouhanova in a sparkling tiara… and one could smell a new perfume created by Oriza, called “The Gardens of Armide.” [29]  

That was all very well, but would the second part of the programme be as magical as the first? There was certainly immense pressure on Diaghilev to make sure it did, especially as those few fashionable snobs who had shunned the first “opening night”, had finally succumbed to the hysteria of “balletomania”, bought tickets for the second and were now  expectant of wondrous things. As the critic Valerian Svetlov observed: ‘Everyone was bursting with curiosity. When the curtain went up… the whole house gasped with admiration and surprise… the dancers were like blue pearls.’ 

What they saw was a forest scene at the centre of which stood Anna Pavlova —now back with the company—  and Tata Karsavina, leaning their heads on Nijinsky’s shoulders, while the other dancers reclined around their feet. And so Les Sylphides —a re-working of Chopiniana— began; with Karsavina ‘running backwards, fluttering her arms hand to lips, and making a spreading gesture, as if to part the curtains of the air’, followed by Pavlova dancing across the stage, ‘darting in and out, swooping… a transparent, weightless creature, all spirit, a fairy’, enticing Nijinsky to come closer, which he did in ‘such languid jumps that he seemed to lie upon the breeze’. He lifted Pavlova into the air, higher and higher, until it appeared to the audience that ‘she was flying off and he was trying to catch her.’ It was ‘like the dance of a man with a butterfly.’ Finally he knelt, turning her onto his shoulder and bringing her back to earth again. She began running backwards again, conveying the impression that she was desperately trying to break free, but ‘drawn magnetically back towards him, she fluttered to and fro, paused and poised for a second, then flew off, with him after her, into the night.’ [30] 

The curtain fell and the audience, entirely captivated by Pavlova’s ethereal grace and beauty, the like of which had never been seen on the Paris stage before, began cheering, until the lights came on and everyone trooped out into the foyer for the interval chattering wildly. It had been a performance they said they would never forget, and yet by the time the audience arrived home that evening, that is precisely what most would have done. What had brought about this sudden memory lapse was Cléopâtre, the third and final ballet of the evening, with its strange music, sultry passions, and the sexually charged opulence and colour-saturated intensity of Bakst’s set designs and costumes. Ever since Napoleon’s triumphant Egyptian campaign, the French had been infatuated by tales of the mystic east, but this ballet, transporting ancient Egypt on a hot, sultry evening, to the Châtelet stage, was something else; taking the Parisian audience on a magic-carpet towards a new age of exoticism. [31] 

Pavlova had the central role, as the slave Ta-Hor who watches her betrothed, Amune, danced by Fokine, share a night of love with Cleopatra, in the knowledge that he has agreed to forfeit his life in return and will die at dawn— ‘I love you and offer my life in exchange for one night of love’, declares Amune, and seals his fate; love and death merging together in this ultimate in one-night stands. [32]  This time, however, it was Diaghilev’s latest discovery, Ida Rubinstein as Cleopatra, and not Pavlova, who stole the show. Her success was ‘immediate and decisive’. [33] 

This was exactly what Chinchilla had planned and why he had eagerly publicised the fact that a ‘dazzlingly sensuous society woman’ was to play his Queen of the Nile; one who, in addition, had performed the Dance of the Seven Veils from Oscar Wilde’s Salomé in St Petersburg, and had dared remove even the last of her veils to stand completely naked before her audience. That said, nobody in the Châtelet that evening was quite prepared for what they were about to experience; one of the most remarkable events in theatre history. Fortunately, Jean Cocteau had had the perspicacity to write down what he saw, beginning with Ida’s astonishing entrance, carried onto the stage in a gold and ebony casket by six slaves. His contemporaneous account is worth repeating:

‘The unforgettable entrance of Ida Rubinstein must be recorded for all time. I shall merely transcribe a few notes I jotted down during the course of the performance. May that feeling of immediacy which memory cannot recapture, excuse this disorder.

‘A ritual cortege was seen to appear. There were musicians who plucked long, oval-shaped citharas, their tones richly resonant yet as soft as the breathing of serpents. Flautists, their arms raised in angular poses, blew from their sonorous pipes spirals of sound so piercing, so sharp, ascending in turn, that one’s nerves could hardly endure them. There were terracotta-complexioned fauns, with pointed elbows and flat eyes. Finally, borne on the shoulders of six colossi, an ebony and gold casket appeared, which a young black slave watched over diligently, touching it, clearing the way, urging the bearers.

‘The bearers set the casket down in the middle of the temple, opened the double lid, and from within lifted a mummy, a bundle of veils which they placed upright on its ivory pattens. Then four slaves began an astonishing manoeuvre. They unwound the first veil, which was red with sliver lotuses and crocodiles; then a second veil, which was green with the history of the dynasties in gold filigree, then a third, which was orange with primatial stripes; and so on until the twelfth veil, a dark blue, which one divined, enclosed the body of a woman. Each veil was unwound in a different fashion; one called for a mélange of intricately-patterned steps, another for the skill needed to shell a ripe nut, another for the casualness with which one plucks petals from a rose; the eleventh veil, in what seemed the most difficult moment, was peeled off in one piece like the bark of an eucalyptus. The twelfth veil, dark blue, Madame Rubinstein herself released, letting it fall with a sweeping circular gesture…’

From the moment the slaves began to divest Cleopatra of her eleven veils of shimmering colours, to the beautiful but terrifying music of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mlada, the tension had begun to tighten inside the Châtelet, until the last veil fell and she was revealed to an astonished  audience, wearing a blue Egyptian wig with short gold braid, turquoise-green body paint and very little else—  ‘a divine body omnipotent in its beauty’, as Benois described, ready to ‘give herself up to the ecstasy of love’; one jewel-encrusted hand resting on the head of her favourite slave, played by Nijinsky, crouching next to her, ‘like a black panther ready to pounce if danger threatened.’ [34]   Nijinsky did in fact snarl and bare his teeth, conveying, as one writer remarked, ‘his animal-like ferocity… pent up violence and killing instincts… that drove audiences to the point of hysteria’, while his Queen stood, beautiful and still, her vacant grey eyes, elongated with face paint giving her a serpent-like gaze; her pallid cheeks and open mouth exuding a fatal sex appeal that seemed to embody all the erotic temptations and taboos of the orient; her long legs and skinny boyish body giving her a mysterious, androgynous sensuality. Even the original ‘sorceress of the Nile’ would have struggled to match the inscrutable, sphinx-like presence of Ida Rubinstein. This was truly a woman ‘for whom wars could be fought and empires lost, who at a glance could bewitch her hapless subjects… Here was not a beautiful actress appearing naked… but a real, fatal enchantress.’ [35] 

Cléopâtre climaxes in a bacchanale of sexual ecstasy, death and depravity. First Diaghilev’s Queen of the Nile allows Amune to make love to her. Then, once their coupling is completed, she wastes no time in forcing him to keep his promise and surrender his life. She dances off across the stage, then glides slowly back, a poisoned chalice in her hand, to where Amune is by now ‘cowering on the floor, whimpering and begging her to stop’,  but to no avail. She forces him to drink the poison and waits patiently for him to die, standing beside him, her near naked body ‘an almost translucent, death green, shining with sweat after their coupling.’  As she walks off, Amune’s beautiful but deadly enchantress oozes icy eroticism, but shows no trace of emotion on her face. Only his dead body is left on stage for Ta-Hor/Pavlova, his true love, to find. She is heartbroken and begins to weep inconsolably, over his corpse.’ [36] 

For anyone in the audience still worrying about the rise of feminism and the menacing figure of the “New Woman”, this was very disturbing. ‘Salome infiltrating the shores of Swan Lake… the sexualising of the virgin ballerina… the dusty sylph of the Romantic  ballet replaced by the queen of hedonism… where Pavlova, the Dying Swan incarnate, danced the role of the faithful woman who loses her fiancé to Cleopatra’s insatiable sexual appetite.’ Cléopâtre is a world away from classical ballet, where Sleeping Beauty waits a hundred years in a fairy-tale castle for Prince Charming to wake her with a kiss. Ida represented an astonishingly modern image. She was, as the writer Toni Bentley put it, ‘an early metaphor for the athletic, demanding woman ruling her emasculated man’  that had so terrified the fin du siècle French male and, some believed, fed into France’s  “crisis of masculinity”. [37] 

One member of the audience who was not too terrified at the thought, was that ultimate arbiter of good taste, the so-called “Prince of Aesthetes”, Comte Robert de Montesquiou, a habitué from Misia’s Thursday evening soirées in the Rue St. Florentin, who we last met carrying the coffin of the vagabond poet, Paul Verlaine, to where everyone thought would be his final resting place.  Montesquiou had tried sex with a woman, but only once, with Sarah Bernhardt in fact. She seduced him and he was left, he said, feeling nauseous for twenty-four hours afterwards. [38]  If Ida’s long-legged, small breasted, slim-hipped Cleopatra announced the belated arrival of the “phallic female”, he, for one, was thrilled. ‘Was she not the flat cruel hermaphrodite of whom he had dreamed when he was twenty?’ [39] 

As he sat and surveyed proceedings from behind his monocle, twiddling his gold-headed cane, the Count became increasingly excited and began to shout out words of adoration for Ida Rubinstein. Afterwards he went backstage, where a triumphant Ida was holding court. He kissed her hand and, perhaps for the first time in his life, was speechless. Ida turned to him. ‘Monsieur, sit down’, she said. It was an exquisite moment for Montesquiou. He had found his ideal woman. He invited Ida to accompany him to his Pavillon Rose in Neuilly and she did. [40] 

If Ida’s effect on Montesquiou had been electric, it would be no exaggeration to say that the rest of the audience also left the Châtelet in some state of shock. A feeling that would become ever more charged, when, days later, the press revealed that Ida took lovers of both sexes, seducing husbands and their wives as well, drank only champagne, posed nude for the bohemian painters of Montmartre and had a pet panther that she walked on a chain around Paris. Ida was, most agreed, perfectly cast as the Queen of the Nile. As Tata Karsavina wrote: ‘The sense of the exotic found its supreme expression in Ida Rubinstein; her Cleopatra was unforgettable.’  Cléopâtre, in turn, made Ida famous. [41]  Her celebrity was instantaneous, much to the chagrin of Anna Pavlova, who was not used to being upstaged. Ida Rubinstein went to bed unknown and woke up a star.

Paris had experienced six weeks of the most spellbinding and exhilarating spectacle, beginning with Nijinsky’s incredible leap during Le Pavillon d’Armide on ‘opening night’ and ending with Ida’s depraved Cleopatra forcing her lover to drink from a poisoned chalice. The Châtelet was sold out every night, and every night was like a gala performance. ‘It was as if the creation of the world had added something to its seventh day… everything that dazzles, intoxicates and seduces us had been conjured up and drawn onto the stage’, remarked Anna de Noailles. No one had ‘seen anything like it before’, the pianist Artur Rubinstein added. ‘The music, the daring colours of the décor, the explosive sensuality of the dances – it was overpowering, and quickly became the talk of Paris.’ Karsavina agreed: ‘Paris’, she wrote, ‘was captivated by the barbaric splendor… the naïve spontaneity of Russia.’

Years later the dancer Serge Lifar tried to sum up the 1909 experience but found that words like  “success” and “triumph” were  inadequate words with which to do so, as they conveyed ‘nothing of the exaltation, the religious fervor and ecstasy, which took possession of the audience… Suddenly, unexpectedly, a new, marvelous, totally unknown world was revealed… whose existence not one of those Parisian spectators had even suspected, and which so intoxicated, so overwhelmed them that for a time all else was blotted out completely. A sort of psychosis, a mass delirium, seemed to sweep over the spectators which the press re-echoed the following day and many succeeding day.’ [42] 

Lifar had omitted to mention that much of this delirium was down to Bakst’s designs and costumes for Cléopâtre, doused in the colour-saturated hues of the Orient— burnt orange, parched yellow, sapphire blue, shocking pink and oceanic turquoise that ‘filled the stage and spilled over onto the boulevards of Paris,’ as fashionable Parisian women, having seen the most beautiful spectacle of their lives, headed off to ‘their couturiers demanding gowns à la Cleopatra.’ And for those skinny, small-breasted women who for a long time felt nature had let them down, there was even more to thank the Russian for, given that, as the English writer Osbert Sitwell remarked: ‘The thin woman had hardly aspired to be a femme fatale until Léon Bakst introduced her as a paragon into Western Europe”’; with a little help from Ida Rubinstein of course. [43] 

There were still one or two more matters that Diaghilev needed to settle before Saison Russe came to an end. Days before, Misia had accompanied him on a trip to England in search of potential venues for a London season. When all he was offered was a spot in a musical hall, he was not overly impressed: ‘Russian Ballet sandwiched between performing dogs and a fat lady playing a silver-plated trombone! Never! Never!’ he exclaimed and headed back to Paris, where, on 19 June, a gala performance took place at the Palais Garnier Opera House, in aid of the city of Messina, which had recently suffered a devastating earthquake. Diaghilev, who wanted to keep in with the management of the Palais Garnier, which he regarded a far more fitting venue than the Châtelet to stage the 1910 Saison Russes, had agreed that Nijinsky, Karsavina, Pavlova and Ida Rubinstein would dance, and they were joined on stage by Sarah Bernhardt, Réjane, the actor Sacha Guitry, the reigning queen of the opera Felicia Litvin and the English comedian George Robey. [44] 

The following night  the dancers re-grouped one final time for a private performance of  Les Sylphides,  a soirée artistique, at a party given by  Béatrice Ephrussi, née de Rothschild, her husband Maurice and their friends, in the garden of their mansion in the Avenue de Bois. Danced against a background of trees into which strings of small electric lights had been threaded through the branches to give the impression of twinkling stars, it was  a magical, unforgettable experience.

Béatrice was captivated by the Ballets Russes, but particularly by Tamara Karsavina, and Astruc kept telling her that Mme Ephrussi was her ‘fervent admirer’, intimating that she  desired to dance her very own  pas de deux with Tata. [45]  Karsavina, who had only recently discovered what homosexuality meant, let alone lesbianism, was deeply shocked and embarrassed by this. But then, unlike Pavlova, who had seven lovers, one for every day of the week, Tata was a good girl and not at all promiscuous. Of course, she had not been born into poverty, the illegitimate daughter of a poor laundress, like Pavlova, so she hadn’t needed to follow the tradition among dancers of finding a rich patron. [46]  Béatrice, who had begun sending Tata suspiciously large amounts of white roses, would perhaps have wanted that role had Tata wished it. Indeed, Béatrice paid her one thousand francs for her performance that evening, an enormous amount of money for the time and twice the fee Diaghilev had originally negotiated. Interestingly, photographs of Béatrice in her early twenties (she was now 45) show that she was not only very beautiful, but that she resembled Karsavina to a remarkable degree. For Béatrice, looking at Tata must have been like looking at herself in a mirror whose reflection had travelled two decades back through time.

The Woman Who Invented Beauty

Even before 18 June, when the 1909 season was due to end, Misia and Sert were arranging for their summer vacation in Venice, where they would be guests of Comtessa Morosini, at the Palazzo da Mula Morosini,  her sumptuous palace on the Grand Canal. According to Misia, Annina Morosini, known to the gossip columnists as the “uncrowned Queen of Venice”, ‘reflected all the beauty of Italy. All who saw her cross the Piazza San Marco remained spellbound… wearing the cap of the Doges on her head, she had the bearing of a thoroughbred horse.’ One day while sitting beside her in her carriage, recalled Misia, ‘I looked through her purple veil at the wide pupils of her eyes, shining with the joy of living, I said to her: “My God, what beautiful eyes you have!” “It’s because they have shed so many tears, my dear”, she replied, with a deep sigh.’ [47]  Such were the problems of the fabulously rich.

That was all to come. But for the moment, Misia was blissfully happy. In fact, she doubted whether she had ever been happier. What she needed now to complete her joy, she told Sert, were some new clothes to take on their trip. So she made an appointment with Paul Poiret to see what he could suggest. The last time she had visited his atelier on Rue Pasquier was just prior to setting off for Italy to meet Coolus, when she had been at a very low ebb. Perhaps that was why Poiret’s costumes seemed so outlandish and ugly to her at the time. But now, with a new man in her life, Misia decided it was high time she became a new woman, and where better to start than back in Poiret’s atelier, with the couturier who had overseen the “death of the corset” and more.

It was Poiret who had suggested to Sarah Bernhardt that she wear a scarf knotted at her waist, which became her trademark; and it was Poiret who had dressed Isadora Duncan in Greek inspired tunics and knee-high boots. But the real reason for his success was his rejection of extreme decoration. A move that would in 1913, lead to Vogue christening him “The Prophet of Simplicity”. He also wanted to design comfortable clothes, often constructed from rectangular pieces of fabric, which at the time was ground-breaking. His draping brought a radical change in fashion after the strict, stiff tailoring of the past. In doing so he had become the darling of the young generation— young women who were tired of those constricting costumes their mothers wore. Poiret had also single handedly changed the woman’s silhouette from full and curvy to slender, which Misia felt, if she were honest, did not quite suit her natural attributes.

The wasp-waist was out, to Misia’s deep regret. Nevertheless, she had read that those poor benighted frumps who weren’t dressed by Poiret looked dated and old, and she definitely did not want to be included amongst them. And Poiret’s flowing lines, based on French Directory fashions and the style of Empress Joséphine— dresses inspired by ancient Greece and Rome, were, she admitted, absolutely right for the time; evening clothes that were daringly revealing and scandalous at first, made in fine, layered, translucent fabrics, intensified by the use of colour and set off by the artistically  placed addition of furs and feathers.

It was while visiting Poiret’s salon that afternoon that Misia was approached by a tiny, dark-haired woman with a tight chignon and a large forehead, clearly pregnant, but elegantly dressed and wearing bright red lipstick to enhance her pale complexion, who spoke to her in Polish. She was Madame Helena Rubinstein —or plain “Madame”, as she preferred to be called—  who had just arrived from London to complete the purchase of a beauty salon from Madame Chambaron at 255 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré; a Maison de Beauté, her first in Paris. She was a business woman definitely on the up. Born into poverty in Krakow in 1872, the eldest of eight sisters, she had left Poland to visit relatives near Melbourne seven years before, arriving with just a parasol and twelve jars of beauty cream; jars that became the foundation of her beauty empire. As one newspaper summed it up: “Little Polish girl makes good in Australia with family beauty formula.” [48]  Helena found herself in exactly the right place at the right time, as fashionable and modern young Australian women, who had been given the vote in 1902, were prepared to wear make-up, really for the first time, to enhance their looks; something that they had previously been reluctant to do lest they be accused of making their living on the stage, or, worse, on the game.

Helena had met Misia three years before through mutual friends in Poland. ‘Come and see me whenever you’re in Paris’, Misia told her, ‘I receive friends every Thursday.’ It was an open invitation that Helena had been determined to keep if only because she had been reliably informed that Madame Edwards knew all the people  worth knowing in the city. And now they had bumped into one another by chance; not that Misia, nor Helena, thought anything that happened in life was by chance. Helena Rubinstein was an ambitious woman and quite a character herself, and like Misia, known for her sharp tongue.  ‘Women have a duty to keep young’ she would say. ‘We should live adventurous lives, travel, work hard, earn money, spend it, love somebody deeply… That’s life.’

Misia smiled. She was, she exclaimed, delighted to meet Helena again and promptly took her off to the Ritz for afternoon tea, where,  motivated by her constant need to re-invent people, she decided to make this wealthy cosmetologist under her wing. ‘Helena! You have to start entertaining’, Misia told her. ‘This will help you get rid of your shyness, you will learn fluent French and at the same time find customers for your beauty products.’ During the many chatty afternoon teas that followed, Misia made it clear to Helena that the women of le Tout Paris desperately needed beautifying. A challenging task that Helena, who detested the present French fashion for sooty eyes, pallid faces and blood-red lips, had already taken up with enthusiasm.

Misia also schooled her in the tricky Parisian subjects of taste, decorum and pleasure – enjoying exquisite food and wine, wearing gorgeous clothes, attending openings, concerts and the theatre. Finally, when she thought her ready, she suggested that Helena begin to receive guests on a Sunday and even organized her first reception for her, including the guest and prospective client list and the buffet. At first Helena was puzzled why the men appeared unwilling to engage the women in conversation but preferred to gawp at them lewdly. She concluded that the evening had been a disaster and told Misia so. Misia burst out laughing at Helena’s naivety and explained to her that ‘the only requirement of a brilliant society hostess in Paris was that she provide plenty of good food and wine and invite enough pretty women to look at and speculate about.’ Perhaps her friend Colette would have had something else to say on the matter, nevertheless, all the guests duly returned the following Sunday. Helena’s salon had been a big success. [49] 

In truth, Helena preferred to work than to party, unless, of course, it was good for business to do so. She had a way of bringing people “under her spell” – that’s how she was described by many— and profit was almost certainly her motive in doing so. With that in mind, Helena began to attend Misia’s Thursday night salon with her husband Edward Titus, an international publisher who would, in due course, have the distinction, of being the first person to publish Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Titus loved Paris and loved being with beautiful, talented, well-bred people, especially if they were sexy women. And there were certainly many people who fitted that description at Misia’s.

Misia, said Helena, ‘was some mehuggenah, an eccentric…  a Queen. Rich. Social, artistic…Polish. That’s why she took to me. We spoke the same language, shared similar memories. Besides, I wanted to learn…I was green. I didn’t know about society. I had to make my own way. Someone had to show me, to guide me. That’s where Misia came in… Misia knew everybody.’ Not only was she at the centre of Paris’s thriving Polish ex-pat community, its ‘queen bee’, in fact, but also, as Helena explained, ‘she was one of the first to mix artists with dukes,  princes, even kings. She knew everybody’, including the artists around the Bateau Lavoir: Braque, Gris, Picasso, Modigliani, Henri Rousseau and Matisse, Helena’s favourite. Soon, not only were the likes of the Comtesse de Greffulhe, the Comtesse de Chevigné, the Duchess de Gramont, the Princess de Broglie, the Grand Duchess Maria Pavlova and Colette regular customers at 255 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, but, said Helena, ‘I was able to meet all the artists of Paris… all thanks to Misia’. [50] 

Misia and Helena were similar in many ways. They had the same sense of humour, irreverent, sardonic and often rude, and both were highly manipulative and despotic. But in other respects they were opposites—  Misia was lazy and bored by detail, while Helena was hard working and brought an accountant’s mind to bare upon  life. Helena had grown up in poverty and counted her pennies, despite her vast wealth, whereas Misia had never had to want for anything and didn’t think about money, so long as she had enough for her quite considerable needs. Misia spent money with the same ease that Helena earned it.

Finally, Misia was a great spotter of genius, while Helena had problems remembering even their names. ‘What was his name?’ she would ask her secretary. ‘That Jewish writer Misia introduced me to, who slept in a room lined with cork and wrote the famous book I could never read. You know, Marcel something.’ “Marcel Proust?” he replied. ‘Yes, that’s the one. Nebbishy looking. He smelt of mothballs, wore a fur coat down to the ground, asked heaps about make-up. Would a duchess use rouge? Did demi-mondaines put kohl in their eyes? How should I know? But then, how could I have known that he was going to be so famous? If so, I might have told him a thing or two.’ [51] 

Diaghilev’s Assets Seized, Nijinsky Dances with Duncan

Five weeks after the end of Saison Russe, Louis Blériot, a Frenchman whose previous claim to fame was to have invented a headlamp for trucks, made the first flight across the English Channel; winning the prize of £1000 offered by the Daily Mail in the process. [52]  When the news reached Picasso and Braque, who went regularly together to the Issy-les-Moulineaux aerodrome on the outskirts of Paris to watch these daring aviators, like Wilbur Wright, they became excited as little children on Christmas morning, and scoured the press for details of this amazing event.

They discovered that Blériot had taken off at 4:41 a.m. from a farmyard close to Calais, with his engine belching clouds of black smoke. First he hugged the French coastline, then headed north over the sea, flying at about 27 metres above the waves. Weather conditions were near perfect when he set out, but just as the grey line of the English coast hoved into view on his left; the wind increased, blowing him to the east of his intended course, into thick clouds and rain. “For more than 10 minutes I was alone’, Louis told the Daily Mail, ‘isolated, lost in the midst of the immense sea, and I did not see anything on the horizon or a single ship.’ He altered course and picking up the coast again followed it until he spotted a large Tricolour being waved by Charles Fontaine, Le Matin correspondent, standing in Northfall Meadow close to Dover Castle, where there was a low point in the cliffs. Blériot circled twice, descending to 18 metres and cut his engine. In the gusty conditions he could not avoid making a heavy “pancake” landing. The plane’s nose hit the ground first, shattering its undercarriage and turning the wooden propeller into match sticks, but Blériot was unhurt. The 35km flight had taken 36 minutes; certainly a short enough time for Louis Blériot to make history and become a celebrity into the bargain. [53] 

Misia and Sert were by this time in Venice. Diaghilev remained in Paris, looking after Nijinsky who had a sore throat. After that he planned to go to St Petersburg and only then would he have time for a holiday. They agreed to all meet up at the Grand Hôtel des Bains de Mer on the Lido in Venice in August.  Besides, he told Misia, he needed to complete some important business, including meeting with Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, from whom he intended commissioning new, “modern” ballets; if for no other reason than to answer the Paris critics who wondered how his ballets could be so innovative yet the music so hackneyed and well-worn.

Misia was pleased, as she had been championing her artist friends with him for some time. [54]  Debussy, regarded as the leading French composer of his generation, was, at first, unenthusiastic, remarking that he could not come up with a new ballet ‘at the drop of a hat’, but then became intrigued at the idea and started to compose Masques et Bergamasques, which he continued through the summer. While Ravel began work on his own ballet for the 1910 season, a Greek romance, Daphnis et Chloe, together with Fokine, whose idea it was. It would not be easy for as Ravel remarked later: ‘What complicates things is that Fokine doesn’t know a word of French and I only know how to swear in Russian’; enough said. [55]  

What Diaghilev didn’t mention to Misia was that he had approached the Palais Garnier with a view to hosting the 1910 Saison Russe, despite the fact that he knew  Astruc had already arranged to bring Toscanini, Caruso and New York’s Metropolitan Opera to the Châtelet for a season of Italian opera at the same time. Nor did he mention that when Astruc found out  he was outraged and immediately began telling all and sundry of Diaghilev’s “fraudulent” business practices, including, and especially, his enemies in St Petersburg, Grand Duke Andrei and Matilda Kchessinskaya, who believed it was ‘her mission to break Diaghilev in any way possible.’ [56]  Astruc even wrote an 11 page report denouncing him to Tsar Nicholas II.

Misia had discovered all this just before she left for Venice. Realising the danger that their plans for the 1910 season were now in, she rushed to see her friend Pierre Gheusi, assistant manager of the Palais Garnier, in the hope that he could engineer a way to bring Astruc and Diaghilev back together. She could do no more and left with Sert for Italy . By the time they arrived at their hotel, a letter from Ghueusi was waiting for them. It was not encouraging, as events had moved on, taking an even darker turn.  Gheusi had spoken to Astruc and what he had found  out, he wrote, ‘makes it absolutely impossible for me to join forces with this ostentatious man… In short, I must not, I cannot be associated in any way with Monsieur Diaghilev… There will be no official Russian season in Paris next year. That is the formal wish of the Russian court and the Grand Dukes… my strict duty is to advise you, both of you, not to get mixed up with certain others. Is that clear?’ Pierre ended with a lament:  ‘Ah how good it would be in Venice with you, delicious friend’, he wrote, ‘with Sert as our guide to the lively picturesque sights! But that is to dream.’

Misia and Sert were taken aback at Gueusi’s letter, especially the news that the Tsar’s court had come out so strongly against a 1910 season. Nevertheless, they decided to ignore his warnings and do everything in their power to help Diaghilev. But there was something else they were not aware of— the 1909 season, despite its great success, had lost an awful lot of money. Diaghilev most certainly knew this, but he had ‘dismissed it with an aristocratic shrug.’ Then again, money had never interested him much. On 15 June, he had received a disturbing letter from  Astruc informing him that while total takings for the season were estimated at 510,000 francs, total expenses were  expected to be  600,000.

Diaghilev was left with a final debt of 76,000 francs. When it became clear that he could only pay off half, Astruc immediately seized his only assets: the sets, costumes and props that belonged to the Ballets Russes, and used them as surety for a loan of 20,000 francs from the Societe de Monaco, on the understanding that they would pass to the Casino Theatre of Monte Carlo if not redeemed within a certain date. But that was not all: Astruc also carried out a saisie foraine, an official seizure of all Diaghilev’s possessions at the Hotel de Hollande and then began bankruptcy proceedings against him at the Tribunal de Commerce de la Seine. [57] 

Misia always looked forward to getting out of Paris for the summer. Once it had been to La Grangette in Valvins, and later Le Relais in Villeneuve on the banks of the Yonne, where she had run for refuge from the sweltering city, to picnic with her family, friends and especially her vernisseurs; now she went to Venice with Sert as her guide. But this year she could not relax, as she feared that Diag and Astruc would be unable to patch up their differences without her. Yet, while she reluctantly concluded that the chance of there being a 1910 season was now extremely remote, back in Paris, Chinchilla continued making his plans. He contacted Debussy again,  urging him to complete his score quickly so that he could take it with him to Venice to show his choreographer. Given that Fokine was not in Venice, it is clear that he had another in mind. So, not content with having rubbed one collaborator up the wrong way, with dire consequences, clearly Diaghilev now intended doing the same to a second.

Finally, in August, Diaghilev, Bakst and Nijinsky left for Venice, stopping at the spa town of Carlsbad in the Czech Republic on the way. Diaghilev and Nijinsky must have looked an odd couple, as  historian Lucy Moore describes: ‘an impressive, middle-aged, rather ancien regime gentleman in his summer uniform, a black jacket with a gardenia in the buttonhole, his tie held in place by a black pearl and an eyeglass dangling against his waistcoat, a silver-topped malacca cane, narrow white trousers, white shoes and a straw hat, which he kept lifting to sponge his forehead, accompanied by a twenty-year-old boy whom he obviously adored… looking like a stable lad, a plumber’s apprentice or a clerk. As Cecil Beaton said of Serge Lifar, it didn’t matter how immaculately Diaghilev dressed him, he always looked “like a street urchin”’. [58]   

Once on the Lido, Bakst painted a portrait of Nijinsky on the beach against the blue lagoon. He, Diaghilev and Sert also tried to improve Vaslav’s education by taking him to the Gallerie dell’Accademia and  the Scuola di San Rocco, to see its treasures and art collections, especially the paintings by Tintoretto, a highlight of the Venetian Renaissance. Venice in August was one long party, especially for Diaghilev, as it was full of their friends, including Gabriele D’Annunzio and the Marchesa Casati, the eccentric bisexual muse, one of the growing band of “friends of the Ballet Russes”. [59]  One evening he, Misia, Sert, Bakst and Nijinsky attended a lavish soirée given by the  Marchesa at the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, her house on the Grand Canal. Like Ida Rubinstein, she had been orphaned at thirteen to inherit a vast fortune. And like Ida, she was tall, thin, possessed of an enigmatic beauty, painted her face a deathly white and outlined her huge green eyes with kohl. She also had a penchant for wearing live snakes as jewellery, using racehorses to pull her carriage because ordinary horses were to slow, seating wax mannequins as guests around her dinner table, and taking evening strolls, naked under her furs, with a pair of cheetahs on bejewelled leashes, accompanied by black male servants whose bodies were covered in gold paint.

Rumour has it that she had also obtained a wax image of the penis of one of her past lovers which was said to contain his ashes. However, Marchesa hadn’t really enough time to devote to love affairs, as they threatened to interfere with her passionate love of herself. That perhaps explains why she was a “quaintrelle”; a female dandy whose very existence, whose every faculty of her soul, spirit, purse, and person is dedicated to the wearing of clothes wisely and well: so that while others dress to live, she lives to dress. [60]   ‘To live and die before a mirror’, according to Baudelaire, that was the dandy’s slogan. It certainly applied to the Marchesa, who the poet Filippo Marinetti said had ‘the satisfied air of a panther that has devoured the bars of its cage.’ [61]  She said of herself: ‘I want to be a living work of art”.

Sitting next to Nijinsky at dinner was Isadora Duncan, who, at one point in the evening, turned to him and suggested they marry. ‘Think what wonderful children we would have’, she told him. ‘They would be prodigies… Our children would dance like Duncan and Nijinsky.’  According to Misia, who was sitting across the table, Nijinsky was somewhat taken aback. For while he respected that Duncan had, as he said, ‘dared to give liberty to movement’, when it came to dancing he said that her ‘barefoot childish hoppings and skippings should not be called an art.’ As Karsavina put it, Duncan was like ‘a child who knows the alphabet but cannot yet read the book.’ [62]  But the evening wasn’t entirely spoilt for Isadora, for while Nijinsky refused to father her a child, he did agree to dance with her, which she found to be an absolutely thrilling experience.  In fact, as she told a friend later, ‘it was more wonderful than making love with a Negro boxer on Mr Singer’s billiard table’. Mr Singer, being, of course, Paris Singer, Tante Winnie’s brother and Isadora’s lover at the time; and the father of the child she would conceive just one month later. [63] 

As August turned into September it became clear to Misia that Diag had no idea of how to get out of the mess he had created for himself with Astruc. Instead, he chose to approach Tsar Nicholas yet again for money, with the help of the Tsar’s aunt, Grand Duke Vladimir’s redoubtable widow, the Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, doyenne of St Petersburg high society, ignoring the fact that Astruc had already poisoned the Russian court against him to such an extent there would never be a way back for him. As his biographer, Sjeng Scheijen, wrote: ‘Looking back, Diaghilev’s naivety seems almost comical. Did he really believe he could regain the court’s favour? Did he really not see what was happening around him?’ [64]