“They don’t write ‘em like that any more”
—Greg Kihn, The Breakup Song
Quoting musician/disc jockey Greg Kihn while writing about the august Rosamond Bernier may be the penultimate mixture of low and high culture, but the chorus of Kihn’s 1981 hit echoed as I read Bernier’s Some of My Lives. This collection of essays, interviews, and reminiscences spans nearly a century. It’s likely one of the final dispatches from the very last of a generation: born in 1916, Rosamond Bernier is now 97 years old. Her memory and capacities are undiminished.
For a generation born after the millennium, Bernier is largely unheard of, a situation Some of My Lives will remedy to a limited degree. I write “limited” because Bernier, born into a wealthy, cultured Philadelphia family, has lived a richly extensive life that will be as foreign to younger readers as the horse-drawn carriages Bernier rode in as a child.
Bernier’s mother died young. Her father, a wealthy lawyer who loved classical music, sat on the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Board of Directors. There began Bernier’s introduction to the musicians and artists who defined the 20th century. Bernier counts among her broad circle of close friends and acquaintances Matisse, Picasso, Aaron Copeland, Leonard Bernstein, Frida Kahlo, David Hockney, and Jerome Robbins, to name only a few. She has lived in Mexico, France, and New York City, speaking French, Spanish, and English.
In the ‘40s Vogue dispatched her to Europe to cover the arts. In 1955 Bernier launched the French art journal L’OEIL, which she edited for over a decade. Bernier then returned to New York, where acquaintances all but pushed her into a second career lecturing. She spoke at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1971 to 2010, with numerous worldwide lectures squeezed in between. Several of her lectures have been recorded, and there are numerous television specials to her credit.
Though Some of My Lives is chronological, beginning with Bernier’s earliest years and moving to the present, hers is an old-fashioned, elegantly measured style that may initially perplex some readers. Bernier prefers discretion to divulging. In our tell-all, know-all world, this can make her appear absolutely reticent. For example, Bernier has been married thrice. Her first marriage, to Lewis Riley, took her to Mexico. After a few years, the couple parted amicably, and Bernier moved to Europe.
Bernier spent several decades in France, marrying again, presumably to a gentleman named Bernier. Nothing is said about this marriage; it’s implied the divorce was acrimonious, possibly partly why Bernier left L’OEIL. But too little is said to be certain. Yes, one could troll the internet and likely find the entire story, but better to respect Bernier’s wish for privacy. In fact, enjoy this kind of telling. Perhaps we need not know every picky detail.
It’s easy to imagine Bernier lecturing engagingly about art: she has the rare combination of qualities necessary to do it well—worldliness, linguistic facility, the kind of classical education that has become nearly extinct, a deep interest in both artmaking and the finished product. After David Hockney invited her to sit for a double portrait with her third husband, writer and art critic John Russell, Bernier carefully recounts how this most genial of painters turned into a silent, ferociously concentrating personage while working. Bernier and Russell were expected to stand in equal silence and uncomfortable stillness for hours. Nonetheless, Bernier looked on as Hockney blocked out the portrait, readied the paper, and laid on the first few brushes of color.
After winning over sculptor Louise Bourgeois, whose impatience with interviewers was legendary, Bourgeois announced she would cast Bernier’s and Russell’s hands. The couple’s hands were buried under a mound of damp plaster, taking two hours to dry; afterward, they waited as a technician took a large knife to the dried hunk of plaster, hacking the couple free.
Other memories are less physically fraught. Picasso was no less mercurial with Bernier than anybody else, but generous when she began L’OEIL, sending her to meet his family and view his earliest work—a true coup for a new, unknown art publication. Both Aaron Copeland and Leonard Bernstein treated Bernier royally while struggling with their then-unacceptable homosexuality. Frida Kahlo was mischievous and fun-loving. “Her vocabulary in both Spanish and English would have made a truck driver blush.” Like so many before her, Bernier notes Kahlo’s dress, seductive manner, and great pain at Diego Rivera’s infidelities.
Jane Bowles was “witty, impossible, adorable,” even as ill health, drugs, and alcohol robbed her of her gifts. Alice B. Toklas was a sharp-tongued intellect and fine cook. Of the controversial recipe for hashish fudge in the Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, Bernier blithely writes: “ She didn’t hesitate to include our mutual friend Brion Gysin’s recipe for hashish fudge.”
“Visits to Matisse” is especially evocative; by the time Bernier met him, he was bedridden but undaunted. He was working on the now famous Chapel at Vence, which presented some design problems for an artist unable to stand. Bernier’s descriptions of Matisse’s working methods give a priceless record of a now famous destination.
Bernier is a lifetime member of the International Best Dressed list. Her appreciation for fashion—and good luck with it—are extensively documented in her book. Lucien LeLong gave her a discount. Madame Grès, a reclusive designer famed for her draping, took a liking to Bernier and made her several gowns free of charge. Karl Lagerfeld dressed Bernier for a decade, again at no cost, furnishing her with an entire Chanel wardrobes. One page of photographs is devoted entirely to Bernier in ballgowns, backstage before her lectures. She had husband John photograph her “So I would have a record of what I wore.”
Precious few of us have lives requiring even one ballgown. Even fewer of us have gowns designed by European haute couture fashion houses. In an already otherwordly memoir, the clothing, the hotels, fine homes, the food and wine lend an overlay of luxury.
A piece on Karl Lagerfeld illuminates his tremendous intelligence and talent while describing a lifestyle of almost insane opulence. “Once Upon A Time: Life At Mouton Rothschild” will either bedazzle or disgust, depending on one’s inclinations. This famed Chateau was inhabited by Pauline Potter, who married vintner Baron Philippe de Rothschild. “Then began the union of money with taste and determination.” Maids ironed the pleated sheets every time somebody lay down. The enormous villa was filled with priceless art and furnishings. Plates and tablecloths were photographed, numbered, and kept in a book, so Pauline could decide what patterns she wished to use on a given day. A woman was hired to produce “table landscapes” at meals, to match the 18th century porcelain. Naturally, one dressed for dinner.
Moving in this moneyed milieu, with countless famous friends in the arts and their attending universes—the symphony, the museums, the ballet, the endless galas, ceremonies, and formal dinners are bound to leave all but the humblest slightly egotistical. Bernier is not shy about her many accomplishments. She is quick to cite L’OEIL as one of the first magazines to cover Mark Rothko, writing: “I went to see Mark Rothko in the Bowery in 1960 and survived having to drink bourbon out of a paper cup at ten in the morning.”
Of a Vogue trip to photograph Gertrude Stein: “Off in the distance are two very small figures: they are Eric (the photographer) and myself. We are often cut off when this image is reproduced, so I make my claim to be seen here.”
Some old-fashioned thinking creeps in—visiting Dominque de Menil in her Texas home, she comments that only French was spoken in the house, including “the gentle-voiced black domestics… from Louisiana, their French colored with a charming eighteenth-century vocabulary.” Ouch. Ironically, she goes on to say the de Menils were ardent civil rights activists. A later anecdote intended to illuminate husband John Russell’s kindness makes a point of noting the recipient is a young black woman.
Still, Some of My Lives rises above these criticisms, for this long-lived woman and her extraordinary offer a glimpse into a world inhabited by tremendously talented people, a world too rapidly flattening into a forgotten past.