Le Tout Paris and Misia Sert

‘Le Tout Paris’ – fashionable and affluent elite, including aristocracy, politicians, bankers, industrialists, prominent artists and well known celebrities who frequented fashionable places, events and established trends in Parisian culture.

They met at a dinner at Cecil Sorel’s house in 1917. Misia found sitting next to her a young, attractive woman who the world would get to know as Coco Chanel. At the time she had a small shop and was then becoming known for designing simple, innovative clothes for a modern woman.  Her problem was that she didn’t have an entre to Le Tout Paris but this was something that Misia could help her with and did. Coco became Misia’s new project.  When her lover Arthur Boy  Capel died in a car crash it was Misia who who raced to be at her side and was invited to join Misia and Sert on their honeymoon in Venice. Coco later said, “Without the Sert I would have been an imbecile”.  Misia introduced Coco to many artists and composers, one or two of whom, like Igor Stravinsky and Paul Reverdy who became her lovers. Misia’s introduction to Diaghilev resulted in Coco sponsoring as well as designing costumes for The Ballets Russes. Their relationship was often very tempestious but they remained each other’s closest female friends until Misia’s death.

Count Etienne de Beaumont (1883-1956)

Comte Etienne de Beaumont was a leading figure in Parisian society. Beaumont and his wife Edith were famous for their elaborate and extravagant parties and masquerade balls. He hired many of the leading avant-garde artists to decorate his  palacial house and garden for these events.  In 1919 Misia’s third husband JoJo Sert designed decorations for one of the parties while Misia and Coco Chanel gave advice on costume design. What surprised Misia was that in spite of being her friend Mademoiselle Chanel, an unknown designer at the times was treated like a trade’s person and didn’t get an invitation to the party. In solidarity with her friend Misia didn’t attend the party on this occasion. As Misia anticipated all along, Chanel had “all the bluebloods, including Beaumonts, groveling at my feet” only two years later when her acquired fame and fortune made her too important to ignore. In 1922 Coco decided to choose Countess Beaumont to design jewellery for her boutique in Paris.

Beaumont was a generous patron and passionate about the arts. In 1920, he assisted Jean Cocteau to stage Le Boeuf sur le toit, a theatrical event that incorporated circus elements. Before the First World War Beaumont and his wife Edith financed avant-garde films and performances of Ballets Russes.  In 1924, with the assistance of Cocteau and Léonide Massine, Beaumont presented the Soirées de Paris at the Théâtre de la Cigale in Montmartre, Paris. They combined ballet performances with poetry and theatre.



Count Robert de Montesquiou (1855-1921)

His paternal grandfather was Count Anatole de Montesquiou-Fezensac (1788-1878),  aide-de-camp  to  Napoleon  and grand officer of the  Légion d’honneur.

Robert de Montesquiou was often seen at Misia’s  salons, her lodge in the theatre. He had been a habitué of Misia’s Thursday evening soirées in the Rue St. Florentin and carried the coffin of the vagabond poet, Paul Verlaine to his resting place. Misia and the count had mutual friends, he was a ‘poseur absolute’ who prefered to associate with celebrities at the time. They included  Alphonse Daudet ,  Sarah Bernhardt,  Gabriele d’Annunzio,   Anna de Noailles,  Marthe Bibesco,  Luisa Casati  (1881-1957). When Ballets Russes arrived in Paris he didn’t miss a single dress rehearsal. He was particularly excited and shouted words of adoration for ‘Cleopatre’ and for Ida Rubinstein. Afterwards he went backstage, where a triumphant Ida was holding court, he then asked Ida to accompany him to his Pavillon Rose in Neuilly and she agreed.

He was often shadowed by Marcel Proust, who used him as a model for the extravagant Baron de Chalrus. Montesquiou prefered  company of young artistic men and appeared not to have affairs with women, although in 1876 he reportedly once slept with the great actress Sarah Bernhardt, after which he vomited for twenty-four hours, Bernhardt remained a great friend  of his.  His poetry was called untranslatable and was poorly received by critics at the time. He also wrote a play, essays, biographies and the verses found in the choral parts of Gabriel Fauré ‘s  Pavane.

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954)
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954)                                                                

Misia and Colette met at the offices of La Revue Blanche, where her husband Henry Gauthier-Villars or Willy, worked as the music editor. He had previously founded Le Chat Noir  in Montmartre.  Willy  used Colette to write  four novels – Claudine stories, which appeared under his name in 1901-1903. She had no access to the earnings of the best selling Claudine books, because the copyright belonged to Willy. After divorcing Willy she followed a stage career in music halls across France, sometimes playing Claudine in sketches from her own novels.  She embarked on a series of relationships with other women, notably with  Mathilde de Morny – Marquise de Belbeuf  (Missy), with whom she sometimes shared the stage.   In 1907 Colette and the blue blood Missy  appeared at the Moulin Rouge in a lesbian pantomine called Rêve d’Égypte.  was witnessed by Le Tout Paris, including Misia, and ended in a full scale riot not known since Jarry’s Ubu Roi. Misia and Colette kept in touch throughout their lives. In 1932 their friendship was cought on camera in a short movie also featuring Roussy Mdivani (JoJo Sert’s second wife). Colette was a prolific writer and many of her best known novels, like Vagabond and Gigi, were based on her life’s experiences.  She was in her sixties when Paris was occupied and, just like Misia, she remained in the city. When Colette’s third husband Maurice Goudeket, was arrested by the Gestapo in December 1941 Misia’s husband’s intervention led to his release.  One day before the liberation of Paris, Misia held a party in rue Rivoli, where all her guests, including Collette and Sert, watched the bullets flying around in the Place de Concorde  from Misia’s balcony.

For her achievements as a writer, Colette, received the award of Grand Officer (1953) of the Légion d’honneur and when she died in 1954 she was given a state funeral in 1954.  

   Helena Rubinstein (1872-1965)

Misia and Helena met in Paris through mutual Polish friends around 1909. Rubinstein emigrated from Poland to Australia in 1902, with no money and little English and a few samples of beauty cream in her luggage. She was noticed for stylish clothes and good complexion and soon found buyers for her beauty cream. Fortunately for Rubinstein, the main ingredient of the cream, lanolin, was readily at hand from sheep farming market. She disguised the smell of wool grease with lavender, pine and water lillies. In 1909  Helena opened her salon in London and later in Paris in 1912.  Helena was a shrewed businesswoman and she learnt whatever there was to learn about the beauty business while visiting cutting edge salons, spas and beauty products manufacturers all over europe as an enterpreneur or as a client. At the same time her husband worked in publicity, the talent he later used in seting up a small publishing house where he published  Lady Chatterley’s Lover  and hired  Samuel Putnam  to translate famous artists’ model Kiki ‘s memoirs.

With Misia, she had in common the love of art, antique fairs and fashion. Helena knew that Misia’s name opened every door that mattered in Paris and she wasn’t disappointed.   Misia immediately suggested, “You have to start entertaining, this will help you rid of your shyness, you will learn fluent French and at the same time find customers for your beauty products!” She introduced Helena to interesting and wealthy people and became her guide round the art dealers. Misia loved Helena for her sharp tongue and sardonic humour. After establishing her business in Europe Helena moved to America with her husband Edward Titus. This was the beginning of her rivalry with Elisabeth Arden. Rubinstein took charge of manufacturing and wholesale distribution of her products, which paid off. In 1928 she sold her American business to Lehman Brothers and after the arrival of the Great Depression, she bought back the worthless stock for 10% of its initial price and turned the shares into multimillion dollars values. She divorced her huband and moved to Paris, where Misia arranged for her to buy Sert’s townhouse in up and coming Isle St louis in Paris, on which she made a killing. Helena continued to run her multinational business, travelling and investing in art untill she died in her nineties.

  Élisabeth, Countess Greffulhe (1860-1952)

Countess Greffulhe was a French socialite, Misia’s friend and rival known as a renowned beauty, uncontested queen of the salons of  Saint-Germain in Paris and the member of aristocracy or le gratin. France may have been a Republic, but the members of aristocracy remained incredibly exclusive. The countess regularly entertained the cream of Parisian society in the arts, sciences, and politics. Her regular visitors were Gabriel Fauré, Robert, comte de Montesquiou and Marcel Proust. The comtesse was a cousin of Misia’s friend Robert, comte de Montesquiou and was in love with him throughout her life. She helped establish the art of  James Whistler, and she actively promoted such artists as  Auguste Rodin ,  Antonio de La Gandara  and  Gustave Moreau .  Gabriel Fauré  dedicated to her his Pavane .  She was a patron of  Ballets Russes , and launched a fashion for  greyhound  racing. Fascinated by science, she helped  Marie Curie  to finance the creation of the Institute of Radium.  She is one of the main inspirations for the character of the duchesse de Guermantes in  Marcel Proust ’s  À la recherche du temps perdu.

  Princess de Polignac (1865-1943)

Winnaretta Singer ‘Winnie’, Princesse Edmond de Polignac was an American-born heir to the  Singer sewing machine  fortune. She used this to fund a wide range of causes. She run an acclaimed musical salon and organised music concerts in her Mansion house in Paris and a Palazzo in Venice.  Her protégés included  Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc. Singer made two marriages that were unconsummated, and openly enjoyed many high-profile relationships with women. She was one of the sponsors of Diaghilev and Ballets Russes.


  Paul Poiret (1879-1944)

Paul Poiret, the self-proclaimed “King of Fashion” made fashion an artform. He freed women from corsets and worked with fabric by draping it directly on the body rather than  tailoring and pattern making. In 1910, Inspired by Leon Bakst’s designs for Sheherazade, he invented such startling creations as “lampshade” tunics, “hobble” skirts, “harem” pants which took Paris and London by storm. He totally changed colour palette of fashion by replacing pastel shades with vivid, exotic shades. Together with his wife Denise (modelling his designs here), Poiret was known for throwing the most lavish and extravagant parties in Paris, to which they invited Le Tout Paris.  Denise was his muse and a lot of his designs were created with her in mind.  Paul Poiret and  Misia shared interests of music art.


Work in progress….