Paula Gellibrand looked like a Modigliani come to life. Rooms framed her. She
dressed according to the instructions of avant-garde decorator
Baroness d’Erlanger: very plain nurses coifs; her nun’s habit wedding dress; a
hat trimmed with wisteria for the Ritz; a coat of honey beige summer ermine to
match her Bentley’s pigskin upholstery. She married the Cuban-Castilian Marquis
de Casa Maury, a Bugatti-driving Grand Prix ace who owned the first Bermuda-rigged
schooner in Europe. He lost his fortune during the Wall Street Crash and remade
it running the Curzon cinema in Soho.
d’Erlanger, daughter of the Baroness, was Paula’s best friend and another
exotic addition to London nightlife. She grew up in Lord Byron’s old house in
Piccadilly, attended by a Mameluke. A distinctive belle-laide, her black bob was as hard and glossy as Chinese lacquer, she rimmed her eyes with thick kohl, painted her lips scarlet and the tips of her nails
maroon. She wore severe black robes and masculine suits to contrast the
prevalent chiffon plunge and emphasise her razor-shell figure. On the Riviera
she wore swimsuits threaded with jewels and artificial fruit, topped with a
tarbush cap. In the late 30s she opened a shop in Paris selling Tyrolean
beachwear. In 1923 she married Prince Louis de Facigny-Lucinge.
left: Iris Tree and Tallulah Bankhead; a floor girl or two at Taglioni’s;
Duchess Sforza in a silver lace hat with glycerine ostrich feathers; Ina Claire
wrapped in an enormous rough white caracul coat; the Dolly Sisters gambling
away all their money at Cannes in front of a crowd six-deep.
Cecil Beaton and Greta Garbo indulged in “a dangerous game of staring full-face
at each other”: dangerous because obsessive scrutiny disfigures, contours
become indistinct, flaws magnify and twist into deformities. Individuality
immolates when parts fracture. So Beaton liked to remake the face,
let it compose itself and record that final composition. In so doing, the face
would lose flesh and blood, lose corporeal bits. Shadows organised
on a white disc. Inside Beaton’s lens and out (after-image) the face
became an orchestration of light. Selenic topology: LUNAR FACES. A peculiar, half-empty idolatry, signifying nothing
but secular apotheosis.
“Panchromatic film dragged the face back down to earth” ushering a wider
malaise: singularity erased. In 1957, Beaton published an anthology
called The Face of the World, his eulogistic gift to a “faceless”
society filled with “Human Caviar.” Individuality, he said, must entail: a
certain intensity and mystery; something exclusive and divined:
a shopping trip could not only make you a new person but might help to
salvage the human race, resisting the drab regimentation that had overtaken the
No one actually thinks about it anymore. Hedonism is a satisfying and sensual
response to destruction. In the Weimar Republic it is bitter, savage,
deracinated; something other, sublimated or violated (George Grosz, Otto Dix).
For the rest, it is not exorcism, just rejection, simply. For example, things
happen. People appear out of nowhere. There are new options. There is dancing
in restaurants. Dancing at the Silver Slipper with the glass floor and dancing
to stay slim for clothes and tennis. Smart, rich girls in
Coco Chanel lines. Nowitzky bathing suits on the Venice Lido; a champagne
picnic on the sand. In some hovel in Montmartre, choking on nicotine and tar;
abstraction, a beautiful woman who does not wash, hard liquor and crusty
loaves. Or, a flight to the Alps, to go skiing; a whole new set of friends and
clothes and snow still settled, still untouched, sky surprisingly clear.
Add inherited wealth: money amassed alongside prestige and indestructible class
and social tiers, all part of the same tight bond that will, in turn, harness
the hard glow of youth. Nancy Cunard and Iris Tree cause a slight rip in the
social fabric: have it all given, use it, lose it, and gain something
Man Ray, Cecil Beaton and Baraba Ker-Seymer portraits, 1928.
Nancy’s Hours Press office at 15 rue Guebeguad in Paris gave off...an
antipatriotic glow made of blue notes and fed flags and ivory bracelets, - a certain
surrealistic glamour composed of sex, primitivism, left politics and jazz. And
there she staged a series of salons in the 20s and 30s around the intersections
of surrealism, communism, avant-garde writing, African art and ivory artefacts,
jazz and anti-fascism in Spain, a centre where African intellectuals and
political leaders and black artists from all over the world were apt to meet
Beckett or Janet Flanner, Louis Aragon or George Moore.
She was a daughter of the aristocracy who embraced Surrealism, Modernism,
Communism and civil rights. An only child, she was heir to the Cunard Liner
estate, but formally disinherited for living with a black jazz pianist on the
Left Bank. In 1931 she wrote a matricidal pamphlet titled Black Man -
White Ladyship, a satirical attack on the moral hypocrisy of English
society as embodied by Lady Emerald Cunard, whom she buried. She was a poet in
thrall to Eliot and Pound, wrote a superior Wasteland pastiche
(Parallax) and set up The Hours Press which printed original editions
of various Cantos and Beckett’s first published poem. Later,
she traveled to Spain and reported on the Civil War for the Manchester
Guardian. She collated a massive anthology titled Negro which
invented cultural studies before it was invented, and was better. In the
20s Vogue wrote about her clothes and lovers. In the 30s the
FBI tried to stop her entering the U.S. Langston Hughes hailed her as “an
appreciator of the off-beat from jazz to ivory bracelets and witch doctors to
Cocteau.” Final accounts tell of deteriorating mental health, alcoholism,
ravings in hotel lobbies and Paris streets. According to Janet Flanner she
spent her last two years writing an epic poem in illegible handwriting on
scraps of paper: a poem “against all wars” called Visions Experienced
by the Bards of the Middle Ages.
Nancy wears: tightly-bound headscarves, a net veiling the eyes, a silk scarf
tied around her neck or a beaded necklace, heavy African bangles creeping up
her arms, leg warmers (“chic shackles”), pale skin emphasised by kohl and thick
lipstick. In the gap between intention and effect style emerges. Cunard’s askew
and torn-in-two look clarifies itself: the more tribalised she makes her body,
the whiter it becomes. Skeletal arms weighed down with thick
ivory bracelets up to her elbows. An aristocratic English body decorated with
tribal markings. Appropriations and erotic codes: empathy and attraction. Crack
continents apart, and re-convene.
want elbow room; we abominate ‘fuss’. Strange contradiction in a neurotic age!
Interior of white silk, feather and crystal by Lalique and Daum with a couple
of Balla lamps. Straw hats and summer dresses: emphasis on the outdoor life:
sport and exercise and sunshine. Keep the figure slim for clothes: no fuss. As clear and calm as a Helen
Dryden Vogue illustration: black china coffee cup placed on
steel table, black bandeaux to keep hair off face, black bone
cigarette holder so fingers stay unstained.
...Music came gently in the person of Constant Lambert, the brilliant writer
of Diaghilev ballets, who told me that Osbert Sitwell is ill at Amalfi. A shoal
of cinema beauties entered, led by lovely Madeleine Carroll. More and more men.
All brought bottles...The heat was terrific - the very caviar was hatching out
- but the party went on till six.
sailing in slacks: breeze ripples in pen and ink illustrations, long bodies and
low waists. Expensive cases lifted onto transatlantic flights. Exclusive cocktails, complex crossword puzzles and bright yo-yos to otherwise
break monotony and underline boredom or undermine elegance. Cloche hat flat and
cold breath, nylon rolled down to toes and Perri gloves
past wrists. Finery silk stockings, sphere suspenders and French heels. Lee
Miller and Marion Morehouse spilling around Conde
Nast’s New York apartment, handcuffs stashed in a laundry bag.
Free of guilt with plenty of Freud; galoshes unbuckled, brims angled just so.
We want to be: the quick, the quintessential.
beauty the appeal of myth remains: lost estates; creeping vines; deer in vast
parks. On the wind: the first aviators attempt another Atlantic crossing. At
play, for very high stakes, outside the blank and black hearts of Mayfair and
Fitzrovia, the Champs-Élysées and Montmartre
it explodes and tears land apart, striates continents, drains oceans. Franz
Marc, The Fate of the Animals
the artistic reflex of all these offensives..
29th October 1929
Replace trees with walls, green lawns with cement paths. Le Corbusier and Gropius draft Utopia and the next bout of hate delivers a chance to turn theory
into practice. It’s a beautiful victory, a vision: buildings in femo-concrete
and vita-glass; marble, metals, variegated wood and lacquer.
Stress resolved; frames; dynamic forces; rivets and celluloid.
Instinct defaults like currency.
One has / With a Charcoal / Traced the right angle /
The Sign / Which is the response and guide / The Act /
The Response / The Choice / It is simple and naked /
But seizable / The savants discuss its relativity and rigour /
But of the conscience / In fact it is a sign /
It is the response and guide / The Act / My Response /