No one interested in fashion, style, or the high-flying intrigues of café society will want to miss Christopher Petkanas’s exuberantly entertaining oral biography Loulou&Yves: The Untold Story of Loulou de La Falaise and the House of Saint Laurent.
Dauntless, “in the bone” style made Loulou de La Falaise one of the great fashion firebrands of the twentieth century. Descending in a direct line from Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli, she was celebrated at her death in 2011, aged just sixty-four, as the “highest of haute bohemia,” a feckless adventuress in the art of living—and the one person Yves Saint Laurent could not live without.
Yves was the most influential designer of his times; possibly also the most neurasthenic. In an exquisitely intimate, sometimes painful personal and professional relationship, Loulou was his creative right hand, muse, alter ego and the virtuoso behind all the flamboyant accessories that were a crucial component of the YSL “look.” For thirty years, until his retirement in 2002, Yves relied on Loulou to inspire him, make him laugh and talk him off the ledge—the enchanted formula that brought him from one historic collection to the next.
Yves’s many tributes shape Loulou’s memory, as if everything there was to know about this fugitive, Giacometti-like figure could be told by her clanking bronze cuffs, towering fur toques, the turquoise boulders on her fingers and her working friendship with the man who put women in pants. But another, darker story lifts the veil on Loulou, a classic “number two” with a contempt for convention, and exposes the underbelly of fashion at its highest level. Behind Yves’s encomiums are a pair of aristocrat parents—Loulou’s shiftless French father and menacingly chic English mother—who abandoned her to a childhood of foster care and sexual abuse; Loulou’s recurring desperation to leave Yves and go out on her own; and the grandiose myths surrounding her family. Loulou felt that her life had been kidnapped by the operatic workings of the House of Saint Laurent, and in her last years faced financial ruin. Loulou&Yves unspools an elusive fashion idol—nymphomaniacal, heedless and up to her bracelets in coke and Boizel champagne—at the core of what used to be called “le beau monde.”
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About the Author
CHRISTOPHER PETKANAS covered Loulou de La Falaise and the House of Saint Laurent from 1982 to 1988 while living in Paris, picking up with Loulou again more than two decades later, in 2010, the year before she died. He has written for The New York Times, Vogue, and Architectural Digest, and his books include At Home in France: Eating and Entertaining with the French, and Parish-Hadley: Sixty Years of American Design (with Sister Parish and Albert Hadley). He resides in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
Sir Oswald and Lady Birley
ROSI LEVAI She was the root of all evil.
LOULOU DE LA FALAISE [She was] the first hippie.
MARGALIT FOXRhoda, an Irish beauty, was considered an eccentric even by the elastic standards of the British Isles. Lady Birley often made lobster thermidor, for instance, and then fed it to her roses.
MAXIME DE LA FALAISE She would make fish stew and sometimes would forget that she was making it for the garden. So she would add a bit of cognac, some garlic and spices. The roses would almost cry out with pleasure ... She was the only woman in Ireland allowed to ride to the hounds, dressed in a suede jacket and Hindu turban.
HUBERT DE GIVENCHY In her Mexican petticoats and piles of necklaces, Rhoda Birley made Millicent Rogers look like the store-bought version of a bohemian. She had the mysterious air of a fortune-teller — you could picture her around a campfire in Romania. She could also be fantastically chic in a navy suit from the sale at Balenciaga. If she had you to lunch, there'd be Cecil Beaton or John Gielgud or Oliver Messel, she'd cook the meal herself, and that's what she'd wear while tossing the salad: couture ... a projection of the future Loulou. It's the fact that they were three, a trinity — Rhoda, Maxime, Loulou — that makes them so fascinating, a dynasty of utterly singular women, each with her own extraordinary style, multiple generations of intense creativity, the beauty perpetuated, one more eccentric than the other. I was lucky enough to know and admire them all. Rhoda married Sir Oswald, an English portraitist favored, as you know, by society and the Court of St. James. Maxime married a French count.
HAMISH BOWLES[Loulou] was the true descendant of a line of formidably stylish women. Through her birthright she had inherited the whimsy and poetry of Ireland, the pragmatism and eccentric flair of England, and the chic and dash of France.
GEORGINA HOWELLFor sheer longevity as aristocrats of style, the de La Fa-laise family are the most famous of fashion dynasties ... Maxime was a young crop-headed comtesse, tall and thin enough to carry off the most extreme clothes of an extreme period ... With her rusty bobbed hair, scornful green eyes and feline face, Loulou has, since her first meeting with Saint Laurent in 1968, inhabited the world of inspiration between the couturier's dreams and the first snip of the scissors. Then there is Lucie ... small, with fine features and a cameo profile.
JANE ORMSBY GORE Rhoda, Maxime, Loulou — they were all quite original, weren't they? Not sort of Bob Basic, misses twinset and pearls, were they?
WILLY LANDELS I have a terribly funny image from the sixties. Desmond FitzGerald was working in the V&A furniture department. Rhoda, Maxime and Loulou were seated on a sofa in his flat in Pont Street, all three immensely chic, all three smoking joints.
JOSÉPHINE RINALDI Maxime gave a party in Paris in the late forties, greeting guests stretched out on a bed while covered in fresh flowers. Underneath she was naked. Rhoda arrived at the opera one night in an evening dress, carrying a marketing basket with leeks spilling out, carrots — everything she needed to make pot-aufeu. Loulou was practically the sanest of the three.
AMY FINE COLLINS The beauty was stamped out like a coin. Maxime was a close second to Rhoda, Loulou less beautiful than Maxime. Lucie, Loulou's niece, is pretty but not ...
JOHN RICHARDSON It's remarkable, that family, three Irish beauties in an unbroken line, all with an Irish fecklessness I find rather attractive.
ELIZABETH LAMBERT[Rhoda's] were the colors of high summer — emeralds and purples and reds — and she was likely to wear six scarves, three sweaters, probably even two skirts, all jumbled together at once ... Friends remember her as a scatterbrain of immense heart; a romantic, a Celtic beauty, a beautiful clown, always close to poignancy and sadness as well as to laughter.
CHRISTOPHER GIBBS A potent creature, Rhoda. Her aura made me careful of her company. She had a gypsyish, untamed elegance — she's not Maxime's mother for nothing. And we can see it shining on in Loulou. We all turn into our grandmothers sooner or later. And Loulou got there soon.
JOHN STEFANIDIS Rhoda was born into the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy. She traveled to India in the twenties, returning with saris and jodhpurs that Loulou made into her own. The grandmother was a remarkably stylish woman and of course in that regard a very important influence on Loulou. Rhoda and Maxime had a certain loucheness. But style in the family goes back even further, to Rhoda's mother ...
MAXIME DE LA FALAISE Vavarina Pike ... wore only cream and natural colors: an ivory fedora, heavy silk shirts with pearl buttons, beige tweeds, and a gold pince-nez on a fine chain. I remember her in those manila-colored cardigans from men's departments in London [stores].
CHRISTOPHER PETKANAS Catherine Henrietta ("Vavarina") Howard of County Wexford married Robert Lecky Pike, barrister and blustery high sheriff for County Carlow. Robert was from a long-established Quaker landowning family with fishing rights on the river Slaney, and had attended Magdalen College, Cambridge. Rhoda and her two brothers' food education took place in an age of groaning breakfasts and sumptuous teas, the family shadowed by retainers as they moved about the country on their rounds of visits. According to the 1911 census of Ireland, conducted when Rhoda was twelve, it took thirteen people to care for five Pikes: a governess, a butler, a footman, a chauffeur, a "garden labourer," a groom, a cook, two kitchen maids, two housemaids and two ladies' maids. Robert and Vavarina were tormenting, not to say terrorizing, parents.
MAXIME DE LA FALAISE Once my grandmother fell into a muddy stream when she was out walking. She called for the servants to bring a change of clothes, a chair, a bathtub filled with hot water, and a Coromandel screen to the water's edge. She couldn't bear the thought that my grandfather would see her as anything but perfect.
LADY RHODA BIRLEY [I was raised] surrounded by horses, stables and racing. [My governess] was marvelous — a great linguist ... We went through George Eliot and Hardy together and couldn't wait for the postman to bring the next batch of books.
Vavarina grew tired of the Troubles, of the Northern Ireland conflict, and brought Rhoda to London, where she met Oswald Birley. As a painter, Oswald was like William Orpen without the romance, John Lavery without the chic. Rhoda fancied herself an artist, too. She and Oswald married in 1921. He was forty-one, nineteen years her senior. Rhoda's diary for 1922 failed even to mention the arrival of baby Maxime. Her godfather was a Frenchman, Oswald's friend Sem, the great Belle Époque caricaturist. Mark, Maxime's only sibling, arrived in 1930. It was said that the family took baths together, but were not close in the way that mattered.
HUBERT DE GIVENCHY George V sat for Sir Oswald, Queen Elizabeth, heads of state, the leading hostesses of the day — Lady Cunard — and Oswald's friends Churchill, Eisenhower and Gandhi. With Rhoda, and Maxime as a child, he traveled to India and America for commissions. Rhoda had a lot of men in her life, and why not? Churchill was a great admirer. Oswald gave him painting lessons.
LOULOU In my family, the women have always invented themselves ... My grandparents used to spend half the year in India, when they weren't busy discovering the small harbors of the Côte d'Azur ... Inventing oneself is a way of earning one's living, considering there was never any money at home ... You have to be quite brave about it. You've got no choice, unless you bind yourself to rules you don't like.
Loulou's long-suffering grandfather was educated at Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge. He studied old masters in Dresden and Florence, later receiving Beaux-Arts training at the Académie Julian in Paris. Oswald's first exhibited work earned an honorable mention at the 1903 Paris Salon. He was knighted in 1949, three years before his death. The auction record for a Birley was set in 2012, when his velvet-and-pearls portrait of a thirteen-year-old poor little rich girl, Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton, brought $36,250, with premium. The seller was Vogue's Hamish Bowles, no surprise there.
Oswald came from well-fed burgher stock in Kirkham, Lancashire, but was born in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1880: His parents, Hugh Francis and Elizabeth Birley, née McQuorquodale, were on a world tour. More than fifty Birleys were buried in Kirkham between 1767 and 1940. Their fortune was built on sailcloth, cordage and the spinning of linen, flax and cotton. In the eighteenth century, the family business furnished the Royal Navy. By 1876, Messrs. Birley and Sons' flax mill had grown to sixteen hundred workers and was shipping its wares to New York. The one stain on family history is Loulou's great-great-grandfather. In 1819, Hugh Birley, a Manchester Tory, helped lead the Peterloo Massacre. Two thousand men charged a crowd of fifty thousand demonstrators demanding parliamentary reform. The yeomans directly under Birley slashed their way through with sabers. Eighteen were killed and five hundred wounded. A jury concluded that Birley's offensive had "been properly committed in the dispersal of an unlawful assembly."
The family was granted armorial bearings by the College of Arms, four boars with their tongues out, and lived well as country squires at Bartle Hall and as town fathers at Hillside, handsome Georgian houses in and around Kirkham. As the nineteenth century flickered out, so did the Birley textile works, hobbled by obsolete machinery. But Oswald thrived, earning equal billing in a group show with Glyn Philpot and Gerald Kelly at the Knoedler gallery in New York, painting Aubrey Beardsley's actress sister, Mabel, as an Elizabethan page in a fur-tipped tabard, and showing at the London Salon and Venice Exhibition. A pit bull named Joseph Duveen helped Oswald wrest commissions in the United States from the man who created the Gibson Girl, and from what passed for American royalty: J. P. Morgan, Jock Whitney and Andrew Mellon. Oswald, with Duveen and art historian Kenneth Clark as fellow judges, awarded first prize to an anonymous work in an amateur painting competition in 1921. The Sunday artist was Winston Churchill. The friendship between Churchill; his wife, Clementine; and the Birleys was thus founded on art, and on World War I — Oswald had been in the Royal Fusiliers and then a captain in the Intelligence Corps. As Churchill lay dying in 1965, Scotland Yard opened the door to his home in Hyde Park for a last visit from Prime Minister Harold Wilson, family members and Lady Birley. Lady Churchill's friendship with Rhoda continued at Chartwell, her home in Kent, and on widows' holidays on the Riviera.
In London, the Birleys ran with Sybil, Lady Colefax, who founded Colefax & Fowler, the bluestocking decorating firm, with Tom Fowler; June Capel, whose father, "Boy," had been Chanel's lover and first backer; the diplomats Harold Nicolson and Duff Cooper, 1st Viscount Norwich; and Cooper's wife Lady Diana, actress and society totem. Maxime and Mark were raised in East Sussex at Charleston Manor and in London. Long since leveled, the Corner House, at 60 Wellington Road, St. John's Wood, had been remodeled by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, architect of Portmeirion, the wacky Welsh resort village modeled on Portofino. Charleston was a working farm with modest possibilities when Rhoda chanced upon it in 1928. But it had pedigree: The property dated to the eleventh century, its owner, William the Conqueror's cupbearer, assuring that Charleston was recorded in the Domesday Book. Nikolaus Pevs-ner, foremost scholar of English architecture, declared it "a perfect house in a perfect setting."
LOULOU Lady Birley had [it] exorcised. Everyone except her is a bit nervous there.
Rhoda sped through the countryside at night in an open-topped Avies, face veiled against hay fever, head- and neck scarves flying, not caring to turn on the lights, preferring to rely on moonlight and her homing instinct to guide her back to Charleston. For the renovation, the Birleys hired Walter Godfrey, one of the finest conservation architects of his time. The largest tithe barn in England was transformed into a painting studio for Oswald and a four-hundred-seat theater where René Blum's post-Diaghilev Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo performed. The Birleys' close association with the company resulted in portraits by Oswald of Nijinksi's daughter, Kyra, and the prima ballerina Alexandra Danilova. Rudyard Kipling and Oliver Messel's parents, and later his sister, Anne, Countess of Rosse, were friends living nearby at Nymans. Devoted gardeners, the Messels and Birleys helped fund seed expeditions in the Himalayas. Rhoda knew her roses, old-fashioned, climbing and shrub. At Charleston, she employed or consulted a trinity of twentieth-century horticultural greats: Harold Hillier, Gertrude Jekyll (hence the cold crabmeat "Lady Jekyll" Rhoda served with soda bread and stewed medlars for tea), and Vita Sackville-West, whose hand was suggested in a succession of garden "rooms." Rhoda and Vita are thought to have met through their involvement in the Land Girls army of civilian farm workers in World War II. At Rhoda's death, in 1980, she still retained several gardeners and a chauffeur.
The Birleys were two of only twenty-four guests, excluding the hosts and the guests of honor, to attend a dinner for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth given by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his wife, Anne, on March 29, 1942. Eight years before, Oswald had gone out to Windsor with his easel for sittings with the king's father, one of the many times he painted him, and mother. Queen Mary recorded her opinion of the finished portraits in her diary after viewing them in the artist's St. John's Wood studio: "good." Hers hung in the King's Writing Room at the castle, his in the Queen's Vestibule. Oswald was nearly commanded to wear breeches to the Chamberlains' dinner — until Mrs. Chamberlain asked the king's preference and the palace reminded her that breeches are permitted only when the host wears the Garter: the prime minister did not. Following protocol, a proposed list of guests was submitted to the king's private secretary. Everyone was approved, including Charles Vane-Tempest-Stewart, Marquess of Londonderry, and his wife, Edith; the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire; Lord Halifax, former viceroy of India; and Lord Maugham, Somerset Maugham's brother. As the Birleys sipped their consommé, they couldn't have known that in 1954 their son, Mark, would marry the Londonderry's granddaughter Annabel.
ANNE DE COURCY 1939: THE LAST SEASONIt was only the third time in the century that the Sovereign had dined at 10 Downing Street ... The royal couple arrived punctually at 8.25 p.m. ... guests stood waiting in a half-circle ... presentations were made ... Those invited included friends at the highest political level, known to be greatly liked by the King and Queen ... The Londonderrys ... combined politics and social grandeur ... Edith was the most famous political hostess of her day ... The brilliant entertainments at Londonderry House were a noted feature of the Season ... Representing the arts was the portrait painter Oswald Birley, for whom Mrs. Chamberlain had just sat ... Birley's well-cut clothes, neat military mustache and genial manner gave him more the air of a solider than of the artist and music lover that he was. He and his dark Irish wife ... shared an interest in Indian philosophy and had visited India several times already. For him, the invitation to dinner held an additional bonus: he was able to study the King, the subject of his next portrait, at close quarters. Although the order of precedence of the various distinguished guests was unequivocal, the seating plan had not been achieved without a certain amount of anguished consideration ... the list of precedence ... was sent along with the table plan to the Palace ... Food, drink, the chairs the guests were to sit on ... all had to be settled in advance ... There were four services of waiters ... In deference to royal tastes, the meal was comparatively simple: ... filets de sole Bercy, selle d'agneau bouquetière with pommes Parisienne were followed by Poussin à la Polonaise, salade de laitue, asperges vertes, Parfait comtesse Marie aux fraises Grand Marnier with crème Chantilly ... The names of those brought up to talk to Their Majesties had been carefully arranged ...
("The Queen suggests starting to talk with Moucher Devonshire and Lady Londonderry, followed by as many of the others as there is time for.") ... The royal couple stayed until 11.40 p.m.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Loulou & Yves"
Copyright © 2018 Christopher Petkanas.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
1. Sir Oswald and Lady Birley
2. A Tribe Called Falaise
3. Rogue Countess
4. Les Mis
5. A Precocious Itinerary: Sussex to Gstaad, New York to Provence
6. The Knight of Glin
7. "She's Married to a Fairy, so What's Her Problem?"
8. Donald Cammell, Sex Addict
9. Hippie de Luxe Londonienne
10. The Years Between, 1968-1972
12. Anne-Marie Munoz, Mater Dolorosa
13. Thadee--or Ricardo?
14. Glue-Gunning Ahead of the Curve
15. STOP PRESS
16. Wedding of the Decade
17. La Vie en Couple
18. Bijoux de Fantaisie
19. Les Clans
21. The Fiat Guy
22. Les Girls Saint Laurent
23. Lady Libertine
24. Slogging Through the Nineties
25. Ain't Laurent Without Yves
26. Loulou, Inc.
27. Final Stretch
28. In Extremis
29. "The Second Death of Saint Laurent"
Notes on the Contributors