Friday, 15 February 2013

Verdura Jewelry in Paris

Verdura in the Napoleon costume he wore for the '1799' ball he gave in honor of the famous lovers, Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton, at the Palazzo Verdura in 1929.
AS THE FAUCIGNY-LUCINGES' guest in 1927, Fulco found himself at the heart of the youngest, most brilliant constellation in the Parisian social galaxy. Baba and Jean-Louis had married only four years earlier while they were still in their teens, despite parental misgivings on both sides. Now, aged twenty-three, Jean-Louis was taking his first steps in the world of high finance at Daniel Dreyfus & Company, after shelving plans for a career in diplomacy. It was considered good form for the husband of an heiress, no matter how blue his blood, to be involved in a lucrative activity.

Baba's family, the Erlanger’s, were prominent hankers of German origin, closely linked to the Foulds and the Rothschild’s, and known for their patronage of the arts. They had prospered in France under Napoleon III, before settling in England where their barony was recognized. Although by Erlanger standards the Faucigny-Lucinges were merely well off, theirs was an ancient dynasty with impeccable bloodlines.

 In the eleventh century, the Faucigny-Lucinges had ruled over a small Alpine principality, and were connected through marriage to the House of Savoy as well as the French Bourbons.

“We were a young couple," Jean-Louis later recalled, "with a sense of curiosity and a taste for the company of artists, writers and musicians, combined with a liking for the parties and frivolities that embellish life." Their villa in the leafy residential quarter of Passy was a regular meeting place for the haute boheme of the capital. Although Baba did not have a traditional salon, or one special (lay of the week when she played hostess, almost every evening a group of friends would gather for a drink before going on to theater or dinner engagements. 

Fulco with his great friends of the 19ans and 19305, the Faucigny-Limoges, in fancy dress.
The Faucigny-Lucinge crowd included many of the artists who frequented Le Boeufsur le wit, a popular nightclub whose name came from Milhaud's 1920 pantomime about a New York speakeasy called the 'Nothing Doing Bar'. To habitués, it was "the crossroads of destinies, the cradle of loves, the hearth of discord, the bellybutton of Paris"; outsiders viewed it somewhat warily as "a chic and comfortable Congo near the Place de la Concorde." The composer Georges Auric and his Austrian wife Nora, a painter, Jean and Valentine Hugo, both designers, the surrealist Salvador Dali, the illustrator and scenographer Christian Berard, Diaghilev's protégés Boris Kochno, and Serge Lifar all congregated there. In this unconventional, animated company, the hilariously wicked imitations that were Fulco's forte quickly "inspired liking and a certain fear."

Baba's principal means of self-expression was fashion. With her elongated pallid visage and her dark almond-shaped eyes, she was often compared to a princess in a Persian miniature. To Bettina Ballard, an editor with American Vogue, it appeared that "her chic all stemmed from her head, her unsmiling strange oriental face, the hard almost shocking chic of a woman who, though not pretty, projected allure."

Baba sounded as special as she looked, her numerous bracelets, brooches, and necklaces tintinnabulating softly at her slightest gesture. She launched the fad for tiny evening hats, cocked turbans, sprays of feathers, a puff of black lace; or she would simply tie her hair back with a narrow silk bowknot. The idiosyncratic clothes she designed for herself were much admired and frequently copied. Yet her one foray into the garment business met with scant success: it turned out that there was little demand for Tyrolean beach attire.

A black pearl and diamond set of cufflinks and studs made by Fulco for Nicky de Gunzburg.
Baba's lush Second Empire taste in interior design ran counter to the shiny, hard-edged Art Deco manner that was popular at the time. In the various Faucigny-Lucinges residences, she perfected a theatrical, mediaevo-baroque ambience accented with crimson and white baldaquins and pelmets, bestrewn with an eclectic clutter of needlepoint cushions, Staffordshire spaniels, plaster busts, and glittering objects de vertu. On the Paris scene, where style was paramount, Baba stood out as a personage of great influence, exuding a fantastic personal aura of fashion which in retrospect is inexplicable.

Impressed by Fulco's knowledge of the fine and decorative arts, his enthusiasm for the same then unfashionable historical periods that she favored, Baba found him a job with an antiques dealer who was in partnership with one of her cousins. It was a novel experience, and one that would have been unimaginable in Palermo, where aristocracy and trade did not mix not even in the course of regular business transactions. Fulco's mother never actually set foot in a shop, but would have wares sent home for her inspection. In Paris, however, it was acceptable and, in certain cases, even desirable to be employed, although the old school maintained that an aristocrat might engage in artistic activity as a pastime, but not as a paid profession. There still persisted the vague idea that a man can remain a gentleman if he paints bad pictures, but must forfeit the conventional right to his Esq. if he makes good pots or furniture." It fell to the White Russian colony to lead the vanguard of what might be called a social revolution, in favor of employment for the nobility. 

Most resourceful were the Youssoupovs who, leading a life of blithe desperation on the outskirts of town, supported themselves thanks to a variety of cottage industries: a beauty school, a training center for the applied arts, a couple of restaurants, a porcelain factory, and a fashion house called Irfe, combining the first two letters of their Christian names.

'Byzantine' gold and colored stone brooches designed by Verdura, c. 1930, for Chanel. Short on cash, long on style and ancestry, Fulco was in a situation in some respects not unlike that of the Russian exiles,. Jean-Louis observed that Fulco had the "high spirits that only those who have nothing to lose can permit themselves; poverty then becomes a heaven-sent grace." It is hardly surprising that two of his closest friends were young Slays. Nicolas de Gunzburg belonged to a wealthy family of investors that had been ennobled by the Romanovs. Five years younger than Fulco, Nicky had actually been an expatriate from birth. With rare prescience, his father had chosen Paris (where he owned the Crillon Hotel) as a convenient base from which to manage his Swiss bank accounts; thus the Gunzburgs' opulent lifestyle remained unaffected by the Revolution.

 One of the wittiest and most genuinely charming men about town, Nicky also had sultry good looks: his heavy-lidded, slanting eyes, high cheekbones, and full lips gave him the prominent air of a New Kingdom pharaoh. He rebelled against his family's stifling sense of decorum and yearned for an acting career, possibly on the silver screen. His lavish allowance enabled him to make this dream come true by bankrolling the Danish director Carl Dreyer's early horror masterpiece Vampyr. Starring as the undead hero, Nicky was featured resting in a coffin, gracefully arranged upon a bed of tuberoses.

Fulco with the Marquise dc Saint-Sauveur at Nicky di Gunzburg's 'Le Ital des Entrees held in Paris, 1925.
Princess Natasha (or Natalie) Paley also caressed the ambition of becoming an actress. A diaphanous beauty with deep-set gray eyes and pale blond hair, Natalie was often mistaken to her delight for Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich. At the end of 1927, however, she opted for the security of marriage to her employer, the couturier Lucien Lelong. Natalie's need of protection far outstripped any yearning for celebrity; hers had been a precarious existence long before the Revolution. As the offspring of Grand Duke Paul Alexandrovich's morganatic union with a divorced noblewoman, Natalie was a non-person at the Tsarist court until 1915, when Nicholas II finally granted the princely Paley title to all members of his uncle's second family. Only two years later, however, the Paleys were all placed under house arrest; after the brutal murders of Natalie's father and brother, her mother succeeded in escaping with her two daughters to Finland.

 She described her adolescence dramatically, as having been "bespattered with the clotted blood of the Romanovs." At one point Natalie was briefly considered as a match for Prince Albert, the second son of Britain's King George V, who after his brother's abdication reigned as George VI. When that possibility evaporated, together with her meagre funds, Natalie became a mannequin. Fulco was entranced by her fey sense of humor and strange Russian melancholy, as much as by her ethereal loveliness. Once married, Natalie gained the freedom to act in an experimental film made by the photographer Hoyningen-Huene. According to her co-star, the photographer Horst, the movie was "not merely underground; it had no title and no plot, and it was never shown." The general theme was "middle-class city life and love," grittily illustrated with street scenes and kitchen shots.

A brooch of a hot air balloon set with a large cabochon emerald and caliber cut sapphires, c. 196o.
Yet another thread of Fulco's Parisian life took up where the Venice season left off with the Porters and a crowd of 'Continental Americans', cultivated, moneyed expatriates. Linda and Cole had an extraordinary house which, though located in the center of Paris on rue Monsieur, was surrounded by an old-fashioned orchard. Within, the decor was an up-to-the-minute blend of New York glitz and Parisian elegance, featuring figured platinum wall panels, zebra carpets, red lacquered furniture, and white kid upholstery. The French, who loved the Porters' lively, gossipy soirees, punningly referred to their hosts as the Colporteurs (from colporteur, meaning tattler). 

Sometimes, as the party drew to a close, Fulco and Linda would sing duets to Cole's piano accompaniment. There were long evenings that often ended at dawn at Bricktop's bate, which served the foreign artistic community as a combined maildrop/bank/rehearsal hall/club-house. "I can't tell you how many people there were who wanted to write or paint or perform and who had the money but not the talent and then on the other side were all those people who had the talent but no money," she recalled. "The beautiful thing was that the rich ones took care of the poor ones. F. Scott Fitzgerald later wrote that in those days in Paris it didn't matter if you were broke, because there was so much money all around you."

Fulco naturally gravitated to le clan des italiens, presided over by the formidable Countess Anna Letizia Pecci Blunt, a grand-niece of Pope Leo XIII. When Mimi Pecci married the American financier Cecil Blumenthal, her surname was joined to an abbreviation of his actually his New York cable address. The Vatican made him a papal count. At the Pecci Blunt townhouse on the rue de Babylon, there was always a synergetic mix of intellectuals and moneyed socialites. An astute patroness of the arts, Mimi knew the value of the right kind of promotion for the avant-garde createurs she supported. She was regarded as an unofficial cultural ambassadress between Italy and France. At her Piazza Aracoeli palazzo in the heart of Rome, she organized concerts to acquaint the lethargic Roman nobility with "modern international music." One series was notable for presenting new works by Hindemith, Markevitch, and Milhaud, conducted by the composers themselves.

On the outer fringes of the Pecci Blunt crowd hovered Fulco's cousin, Baron Ugo Oddo, one of many aristocrats on Gabrielle Chanel's payroll. Aware of Fulco's skill with a paintbrush, Ugo engineered a meeting with his employer. Chanel, nearing the peak of her career, had just launched the 'little black dress that could go anywhere, any time. Paul Poiret, speaking for an earlier generation of couturiers, blamed her for fostering a "de luxe shabbiness" with the sporty garconne style. He deplored the passing of women who were "architectural like the prows of ships," now replaced by "little underfed telegraphists."

Antonio de Ganderillas, Baba de Faucigny-Lucinge and Fulco in fancy dress at the 'Bat des Matieres’ gave by Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles in 1929.Others, like Princess Marthe Bibesco, recognized the sociological implications of the change: "The Frenchwoman who first started this revolution in clothes is known to be a woman of the people. She is a genius in her way, and none of us can be grateful enough to her. Mlle Chanel has done more for aristocrats than they can ever do for her. Has she not given them the conviction that they exist independent of their fineries? When it comes to wearing jersey, the uniform of the poor, and a necklace of glass beads, a certain manner is indispensable if [a lady] is not to be taken for a shop girl." But it was not politics that made women love Chanel; it was the understated refinement and sheer ease of her clothes.

Although their paths had crossed occasionally in Venice, it was Fulco's first close encounter with Chanel. Then 44, she already had the look she maintained to the end of her life: glossy dark hair cut in the page-boy style, powdery complexion, emphatic eyebrows, wide crimson lips. The ingratiating Cocteau called her the Black Swan; with her flaring nostrils, she reminded Colette more of a little black bullock. To Fulco, Chanel's face resembled "a wonderful Japanese mask, like a Samurai mask." The interview for that is what it was proved successful beyond his wildest expectations: Fulco was hired instantly as a designer in Chanel's rapidly expanding textile department. He was flabbergasted: "She was the first person ever to take me seriously."

In 1927, when Fulco entered Chanel's orbit, she was planning a major financial operation: the purchase of the Blacque-Belair textile factory in the suburb of Asnieres. The introduction of social security charges in France that year had raised the cost of labor; Chanel responded by seeking control of the entire production line, from mill to maison. Also, from a purely creative standpoint, she was eager to experiment with supple new weaves and jerseys that would enhance her sporty designs. The firm, rebaptized Tricots and then Tissus Chanel, came equipped with an important human asset, a thirty-four-year-old Georgian painter-poet named Ilia Zdanevitch. 

He was a gifted draughtsman as well as a technically innovative loom builder. Before migrating to France in 1921, as Iliazd he had acquired a reputation as the most flamboyant of the Russian Futurists. He practised body painting; declared that American shoes and torn shirts were more beautiful than the Venus de Milo; composed plays in a sonorous, nonsensical tongue, the `transmentar Za-oom. In his less iconoclastic moods, Iliazd was also a superb typographer and art publisher, a scholar interested in medieval grammarians, Renaissance travelers, and seventeenth-century ballet treatises.

Fulco did not actually work at Asnieres, but rendered his proposals after informal discussions with Chanel and Iliazd. "Why not develop this motif from the mosaics of the Cathedral at Monreale?" "What about a pattern taken from the coloured cosmatesque inlay in St Mark's Basilica in Venice?" Printed and striped materials were the basic ingredients of Chanel's versatile two-piece outfit, consisting of a coat with a lining that matched the fabric of the dress. While Fulco's compositions had jagged, angular lines in keeping with the taste of the day for "geometrical splendour", they also reflected his own interest in historical ornamentation. He favored a rich palette that contrasted with the muted gray, lavender, and fawn harmonies generally in vogue. The results were sumptuous, more appropriate for dressy damask evening suits than daywear.

Chanel had started hiring members of the nobility only a few years after she first attracted the attention of fashion reporters with what Harper's Bazaar termed a "charming chemise dress." At the time, she was involved with the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovitch (Youssoupov's co-conspirator and Natalie Paley's half-brother); thus her recruits were mainly Russian. Lady lya Abdy made handbags for Chanel, Grand Duchess Maria designed brightly hued embroideries; a former governor of Crimea was promoted from doorman to business administrator. 

The Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg, photographed by Horst in ton. Nicky, Natalie Paley, and Verdura, formed a devoted trio of friends.
Their liberal 'what-is-yours-is-mine' attitude amused her, and she was captivated by the barbaric ostentation of their heritage an exciting new source of inspiration. Successive waves of British, French and Italians operated as agents mondains, ensuring that her dresses got worn and noticed at all the right places. That pre-eminent artiste-couturier of the Belle Epoque, Charles Frederick Worth, was the first to recognize the value of trophy customers. Jean Patou dressed his mannequins de vile free of charge. It was Chanel, however, who codified the practice, establishing responsibilities on both sides: "I never paid anyone for doing nothing."

These fashion ambassadors were a public relations necessity. Dressmakers still ranked as suppliers rather than taste-makers; they did not stand on equal footing with their clients, and were not welcome as guests in their homes. Maurice de Rothschild was famous for having extended an invitation to the comely Madame Louis Cartier (nee Countess Almassy) and then, when she arrived on her husband's arm, turning the couple away: "I am not in habit of entertaining tradesmen." As Princess Jane's daughter-in-law Lydia Redmond recalled, "Couturiers were more modest in their ambitions; one sometimes went to their parties, but never to their houses." Lelong alone was grudgingly accepted not as a styhicte, but as a grand bourgeois; after marriage, his status improved as the consort of an ex-quasi-Imperial Highness. The cultivated Paul Poiret had a salon of sorts, but it was not one to which a gentleman might decently bring his wife, since the ladies there were all professionals: singers, actresses or demimondaines.

Chanel's collection of salaried social butterflies was seen by some as a delayed reaction to the snubs she had endured as a kept woman. However, she denied employing aristocrats in order "to flatter my vanity or to humiliate them"; other, subtler forms of revenge existed, had she wished to implement them. Rather, it was their scintillating, brittle attitude which commanded her respect: "They have wit, tact, ravishing perfidiousness, classy nonchalance, and a very exact, well-honed insolence that is always on alert." Whatever her true reasons, having a battalion of glitterati in circulation meant that Chanel could sleep soundly, confident that she would be kept informed of all that had been said and done at the most select gatherings. 

Fulco's cousin, Baron Ugo Oddo, in hussar’s uniform for a ball given by Nicky de Gunzburg in Paris in 1934. Finally, although she would never willingly admit it, there was still much she might learn from her titled help. Chanel had made the most of liaisons with wealthy and supportive beaux such as Etienne Balsan and Boy Capel, who backed her earliest millinery venture; but she could not shrug off the memory of her wretched origins. Descended from peasant chestnut-pickers, the illegitimate daughter of itinerant village hawkers in the Cevennes, she had been educated as a charity pupil in a convent. Her brother thought himself lucky to be able to support his family by selling shoes in the marketplace at Clermont-Ferrand.

Chanel must have felt some slight twinge of satisfaction when in 1924 she enlisted Count Etienne de Beaumont to string beads for her only four years after she had suffered the public humiliation of being excluded from one of his famous fancy dress balls. Beaumont was already a living monument to the Twenties. Eccentric, ridiculously affected, and haughty, the Count might have been a figure of fun, had he not displayed such a deep affinity for and understanding of the most avant-garde art, music and theater of his era. As a collector, Beaumont could afford to be audacious, since his eye was infallible: he was one of the first to hang Picassos alongside Old Masters. 

However, he demonstrated greatest flair as an amateur impresario, surpassing even Diaghilev as a talent scout. The Soirees de Paris which he organized in Montmartre that spring marked a turning-point in the cultural life of the capital. The programmer reflected Beaumont's conviction that contemporary theater should partake equally of aristocratic divertissement and music-hall varietes. Ida Rubinstein danced flamenco; Eric Satie's Mercure was given its first performance, with Leonide Massine's erotically charged, slow-motion choreography winding through and around huge cardboard and wire constructions by Picasso; Les Roses, Henri Sauguet's first ballet score, was performed against a pastel backdrop by Marie Laurencin, who lived in a pavilion in the grounds of the Beaumont townhouse on the Left Bank.

Exceedingly tall and slender, Etienne de Beaumont moved with the fastidious ungainliness of a large bird; his high-pitched voice had a sharp, yapping quality; his blue eyes seemed to protrude in perpetual amazement. Yet he was every inch the grand seigneur. Portrayals of the Count, not always flattering abound in the literature of the period. He was the model for Proust's Marquis de Saint-Loup; he was satirized as the Duc Toto d'Anche in Edouard Bourdet's plays La Fleur des Pois. 

Together with his gentle wife Edith, he was immortalized in Raymond Radiguet's ambiguous cult novelette, The Ball of Count d'agel, in which it was revealed, that "the deepest passion of men of his class through the centuries [was] disguises."Etienne de Beaumont ran his private fetes with the same ruthless aplomb and insistence on quality that he had displayed as producer of the Soirees. These masquerades belonged to a traditional genre of elite entertainment, in which spectators and performers held interchangeable roles; Louis XIV, surrounded by his courtiers, had both applauded and danced in the ballets staged for his amusement at Versailles. Between the two World Wars, the taste for extravagant fancy dress galas was revived in Paris, thanks to a unique symbiosis of society, fashion, and the arts.

Fulco in sailor's uniform, with Contessa di Assam and Cav. Michele de Stefani. Competition was fierce for invitations, for costumes, for order of precedence. Yet money never changed hands, and there were no sponsors: everyone, according to Jean-Louis de Faucigny-Lucinge, subscribed wholeheartedly to "an almost naive concept of sacrificing to beauty".

The Count drew exquisite, often sadistic, gratification from all phases of the proceedings: "I give balls for the pleasure of not inviting certain people." As punishment, latecomers were not allowed to parade in their finery, but remained sequestered in a back room until all the other guests had made their entrées. Afterwards, he commemorated each party with a fantastical collage, combining photographs of the most spectacular costumes with colorful cut-outs from seed catalogues and travel brochures. Then, with careful brushstrokes, he would ensure that, at least in retrospect on paper, his vision had been achieved in flawless detail. These dreamy party-scapes caught the attention of a young dealer interested in surrealism, who exhibited them in his gallery; his name was Christian Dior.

One of the first balls Fulco attended was the 1928 Beaumont Ike: mariners and medusas were the theme, so he went as a pirate. The host, wearing a shroud-like satin sac, made an appearance-as a somewhat spectral stingray, his pallid face emerging from the creature's maw. Chanel, now the Count's employer and very much persona grata, was a giant starfish. Dressed as a waiter, Jean Hugo staggered in under the weight of a tray bearing the Maharanee of Kapurthala disguised as caviar and almost dropped her. The Maharajah remarked amiably: "In India, we would have put him to death on the spot."

Early the following year, three hundred of Fulco's closest friends around the world received a large card from the Duc de Verdura, embossed with the five-pronged ducal coronet, requesting in French-the honor of their presence at a "fete at Lady Hamilton's in 1799", on the i3th of April, at Palazzo Verdura. Fulco's party, as the piece de resistance of a seven-day Palermitan 'season', would consume whatever crumbs remained of his father's inheritance. In Sicily, however, the idea of dilapidating a patrimony did not carry only pejorative connotations; indifference to pecuniary matters was regarded as a sign of high breeding. In The Leopard, the old Prince Salina gave an historical explanation of his nephew's charm: "It is impossible to obtain the distinction, the delicacy, the fascination of a boy like Tancredi without his ancestors having romped through half-a-dozen fortunes."

With acceptances running high, and the major Parisian couturiers working day and night to complete the specially commissioned period costumes, the British, French, and American editions of Vogue sent a three-man team to cover what was already being referred to as The Palermo Ball. The writer was Johnnie McMullin, the magazine's Paris correspondent and constant escort of the decorator Elsie de Wolfe. Cecil Beaton, now a recognized photographer, was to shoot group and individual portraits of the smart set. There were sketches by Mark Ogilvie-Grant, the young caricaturist who was soon to illustrate Nancy Mitford's first novel, Highland fling. 

Maria Felice with Pietro Salazan at Fulco's famous '1799' ball.
Their arrival in Sicily after a long train journey was far from promising: "It seemed incredible looking at the ugly disorderly town from the windows of the car, which one could ever witness the wonderful series of balls that had been discussed and planned and replanted in Paris and London Rome and Cannes. But suddenly the panorama of the country against a background of jagged mountains burst on the view and the romantic balls seemed credible. Palermo means beauty hidden behind walls of ugliness."

Fulco's ball inaugurated the round of festivities. For hours before, "the hotels were tense with excitement, everyone running from room to room, powder floating about, and with it peals of laughter. Someone needed gold powder for his hair. All the gold powder was gone. Was silver any use? None, with a gold costume." Finally, at midnight, the guests were ready. There was applause from the hotel staff crowding the foyer, as they made their exit to the waiting limousines. There were cheers from the populace as the motorcade negotiated the narrow streets around Palazzo Verdura, which had been cordoned off by the police. At the entrance, a resplendent majordomo brandished a gold- knobbed baton; ant I lining the grand staircase was footmen in perruques and sixteenth-century scarlet liveries, trimmed with gold braid and streamers. "The whole scene was in a scale of magnificence and colour exactly suited to our own dresses."

Champagne and compliments flowed freely in the salons where Lady Hamilton had once entertained Lord Nelson, until it he entrées were announced in the ballroom. It was "a spectacle very like that other night, when the real people of the drama were living the story for the first time." Mimi Pecci Blunt, a keen amateur cinematographer, was on hand to film the procession of "doubly historical personages." The Italian party also included the Robilants, the Morosinis, the Volpis, and the San Faustinos; even Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa put in a rare appearance. Lady Errol and Hamish St Clair Erskine were among the ranking British visitors. The Porters and the poet Louise de Vilmorin belonged to the Paris contingent, together with the Vicomte and Vicomtesse de Noailles Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles who vied with the Beaumont’s in their enlightened patronage of contemporary artists: "Just as sculptors and painters create art, so the Noailles create an environment in which to live the modern life."

Fulco's aunt Princess Gangi was Pauline Borghese; as Goethe's Bettina, the Duchess de Gramont wore a simple muslin corsage offset by a gaily beribboned skirt. Madame Henri Letellier, the piquant young beauty whose romance with an older man inspired Colette's Gigi, had a gown reproduced from a Romney canvas. Elsa Maxwell got herself up as a cross between a Bonapartist drummer and an admiral. Etienne de Beaumont made his entrance as Chateaubriand, with Lady Abdy in white and gray tulle by Alix. The South American millionaire Carlos de Beistegui, an early patron of Le Corbusier and a great collector of eighteenth-century furniture, came as Sir Reginald MacDonald: his towering blue and red feathered hat, fur-lined mantle with double pelerine was copied from Lawrence's portrait. Louise Boulanger dressed Elsie de Wolfe as Mrs. Garrick in a white gown. Chanel was well represented by Edith de Beaumont in a white velvet dress edged with sable with a feathered muff, and by Madame Henry Bernstein, the playwright's wife, also in white, with a little plumed and beaded coif.

Other guests pictured included Elsa Maxwell, Carlos de Beistegui, and the Baroness Lo Monaco.Fulco gallantly cast Alice Wimborne as the lady of the house: her pink satin gown and green velvet cape had been copied by Worth from a Romney portrait of the Divine Emma. Fulco's was a gesture as audacious as it was gracious, tantamount to a public announcement of their liaison. Although over 40, Alice Wimborne still had the fair radiance that Fulco always found appealing in women. They shared a passion for music, and a taste for lavish entertainments. For 'Queen' Alice's famous musicales, often featuring the Quartet Society, Wimborne House in London was regularly transformed into a scented bower, with great triumphs of waxen blooms, illuminated with hundreds of candles. The overwhelming ambience was described as "Rome before the Fall."

With typically provocative bravado, Fulco welcomed his guests as Napoleon. No historical character could have been more loathsome to the predominantly French company, whose families had lost titles and properties as a result of the Revolution. The tough, sexy youth of Abel Gance's recent silent film Napoleon was his inspiration: he affected a hypnotic, movie-star gaze, emphasized by the use of kohl to rim his eyes, and his hair was combed forward in flame-like licks. A short fitted jacket with broad lapels and tight embroidered britches showed off his shapely dancer's physique to best advantage. At three in the morning, Fulco introduced his guests to an old Sicilian custom: flanked by two footmen with baskets of yellow daisies, scarlet tulips and arum lilies, he paraded through the halls of Palazzo Verdura bestowing unwieldy sheaves of blossoms upon all the ladies. Finally, supper was served on a vast terrace tented with crimson brocade; over two hundred guests sat at long draped tables lit only by rows of glittering silver candelabra.

The following day Baroness Lo Monaco gave a dinner-dance at the Villa Igiea, and the next night yet another costume ball this time with a Second Empire theme was held at Palazzo Mazzarino by Fulco's boyhood friend Count Fabrizio Lanza di Mazzarino and his Cuban-born wife Conchita Ramirez de Villaurriba. In a homage to the court painter Franz Winterhalter, Jola Letellier made an entrance as Empress Eugenie, in a "white satin dress with deep white lace ruffles about the shoulders and about the bottom of the skirt...and a vivid green ribbon like a slash of colour, attached at the shoulder, again at the waist, and falling away over the voluminous skirt to the floor." 

Also inspired by a Winterhalter portrayal was Princess Cora Caetani's Empress Elisabeth, in "yellow and red shot taffeta, with masses of ruffles and a collection of jewelled orders worn on a broad scarlet ribbon across her breast." But all eyes were on Fulco and Alice Wimborne as they made their romantic entry together, waltzing giddily to the strains of the Blue Danube he in a hussar's befrogged uniform with a tall gray astrakhan hat, she in a billowing tulle confection, again by Worth, that precisely matched the cornflower circlet in her hair.

A ring made with a cabochon sapphire, amethyst, and pave diamonds c. 1945. The second ring consists of a black opal and rubies, c. 1950.
The "historic Palermo ball" was soon the "talk of all the capitals," according to Vogue, and "there is now a Palermo season lasting a week, following the Riviera season and preceding the London one. One had to be there." Beneath the wreathed medallion vignette of Fulco published in the magazine, the caption read: "We must put the laurels round Napoleon, the Duc de Verdura himself, who was the life and soul of all Palermo parties." As a witty, multilingual, titled single man, Fulco had always been much in demand. Almost overnight, his name hitherto known only to a circle of intimates began to appear in the chronicles of society columnists, not as one of Chanel's stable of designers, but as an arbiter of fashion in his own right.

By June, he had returned to Paris, to attend the Beaumont Opera Ball, where a theatrical decor was provided by Marie Laurencin's trompel' oeil panels. As Mercury from Offenbach's aphee aux Enters, Fulco wore a lame body suit with little wings attached to his heels. He was accompanied by the Marquise Pauline de Saint Sauveur as Diana, in a matching short metallic tunic; an early fan of Chanel's millinery, she was now in charge of the designer's parfumerie and accessories line. Etienne de Beaumont was Prince Danilo, escorting the extravagant taste-maker Misia Sert as Lehar's Merry Widow. In the Madame Butterfly group, Marie-Laure de Noailles appeared as a geisha with "Yankee sailors" Carlos de Beistegui and the poet Rene Crevel. Proud of their gymnastic skills, Elsie de Wolfe and John McMullin executed cartwheels in an acrobatic Moulin Rouge entrance.

The Noailles' Bal des matieres was hailed as "one of the most beautiful fetes of modern times." A magic lantern show by Jean Hugo was projected during the performance of Auric's score, Faust magician. Nijinska choreographed a ballet for a specially commissioned Aubade by Poulenc, played by the composer together with an ensemble of seventeen instrumentalists. The challenge for the guests was to invent costumes using bizarre or unusual materials, such as paper, cellophane, straw, glass. Marie-Laure and Charles de Noailles wore shiny plastic holly outfits. 

Iya Abdy was a unicorn, and Cocteau an implausible orang-outang. Valentine Hugo made the sequined heraldic masks for the Beaumont’s' gothick divertissement. There were bevies of ostriches, angels and raffia lampshade chorus lines. Fulco, dressed in a coat of mail and leotard, made an entry with Baba de Faucigny-Lucinge and Antonio de Gandarillas, a handsome young Chilean who boasted a phalanx of illustrious admirers, including at one time or another Osbert Sitwell, Felix Youssoupov and John Singer Sargent. The group posed for a photograph with Max Jacob, the Chanel house poet.

Verdura and Lady Alice Wimborne in Second Empire costume at the dinner-dance in Palermo given by Lo Monaco in 1929.
That September, Venice "was never more brilliant", is drawing the usual habitués: Prince Umberto of Savoy, the Sitwell’s, the Faucigny-Lucinges, and, of course, Alice Wimborne. So intense was the social calendar that visitors complained of needing more luggage than for the London season. "Women were covered with jewels and their only enemies were the mosquitoes." The Duke of Verdura introduced a welcome note of informality, Vogue reported, by launching a bold new fashion in beachwear Chinese coolie trousers, completed with matching colored shirts and cardigans; the ladies followed suit, discarding their satin pajamas for this even more casual unisex attire. At ball given by Elsa Maxwell and Baroness Lo Monaco at the Lido, Fulco was a winner in the dance contest.

Chanel was intrigued and impressed by Fulco's apparently effortless ascent, as well as by his sense of style a playful blend of pageantry and nonconformity in keeping with the capricious spirit of the times. And when by chance she discovered that Etienne de Beaumont was dealing surreptitiously and very profitably in imitation Chanel jewels out of his own home, she knew instantly who would be the ideal replacement.

Writer -  Thames & Hudson
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