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10:01 pm
Mon January 16, 2012

The Charmed and Charming Life of Rosamond Bernier

Originally published on Tue January 17, 2012 8:48 am

In 1947, Vogue magazine sent Rosamond Bernier to Paris to cover European cultural life as it recovered after World War II. She met everyone who was anybody — Pablo Picasso befriended her, Henri Matisse gave her fashion tips, Alice B. Toklas baked for her. Bernier's memoir Some of My Lives is a lively compendium of this movable feast of art and genius — and of the author's own considerable charm.

Even though Bernier's father's connections opened doors for the young writer, it was her own curiosity, intelligence and receptivity that brought her into contact with the era's most brilliant artists and composers.

In 1936, on summer vacation from college, she met the young, almost penniless Aaron Copland rehearsing a concert in Mexico City. He was staying in a small village, trying to adjust to undependable electricity and other rural challenges. It was all fine, he told Bernier. But he missed marmalade.

The Sarah Lawrence sophomore immediately commandeered a boyfriend, got him to drive her to Copland's cottage and presented the musician with cartons of the stuff. Thus began a lifelong friendship.

"A cloudless friendship," she describes it. At her third wedding, Copland gave her away. (Leonard Bernstein walked her down the aisle, and architect Philip Johnson hosted the event.) But when Bernier recounts it, it doesn't feel like name-dropping but rather a life well-lived.

Her friendship with Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein began with an introduction from American composer, Virgil Thompson.

Bernier wanted to photograph Stein for Vogue. Stein, never shy about publicity, picked the place: the salon of fashion designer Pierre Balmain. Stein brought along her poodle, Basket, who posed between Stein and one of Balmain's sylphid models.

"There was Gertrude Stein looking like Man Mountain Dean," Bernier recalls. "This enormous creature, confronted by this willowy, ravishing model."

The picture, by fashion photographer Horst, became famous. But when it's reproduced, it's always cropped. You don't get to see, way back in a right-hand corner, the tiny figure of Bernier herself, observing the proceedings.

Bernier knew Frida Kahlo, too. The Mexican painter gave the college girl a bit of a makeover.

"She took one look at me and said, 'Come on, kid. I'll fix you up.' She took me in and she dressed me completely like her, with the blouse, the ruffled skirt and endless pre-Colombian necklaces."

Decades later, dressed in designer gowns, Bernier, who lectured at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. By then she had incorporated another fashion lesson, from another celebrated painter: Henri Matisse. Each time she visited him, he would ask, "What have you done for color today?" Once the legendary colorist suggested that she wear a yellow scarf with her orange coat.

Not even Picasso was immune to Rosamund Bernier's charm. She went to meet him that first chilly winter in Paris in 1947 with an introduction from a prominent Swiss publisher, who warned her: Don't ask any questions, and don't wear a hat.

Hatless, and as inconspicuous as possible, Bernier nevertheless caught Picasso's attention because she spoke Spanish.

And Bernier being Bernier — with her beautiful bearing, her eye for greatness and nose for the new — ended up being invited to Provence to see Picasso's latest work. Naturellement.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Back in 1947, Vogue magazine sent Rosamond Bernier to Paris, to cover European cultural life as the continent recovered after the Second World War. She met everybody who was anybody. And she writes about them in her memoir "Some of My Lives."

NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg met the book's 95-year-old author.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Its clear Rosamond Bernier never met a person she didn't charm to pieces. Some examples, in 1936, on summer vacation from college, she met the young almost-penniless Aaron Copeland rehearsing a concert in Mexico City. The composer was staying in a small village four hours away. Bernier asked how Copeland liked it.

ROSAMOND BERNIER: And he said it's very nice. The electricity goes off and on, but you get used to candlelight. And he said the only thing is, I miss marmalade. I like marmalade for my breakfast.

STAMBERG: Rosamond Bernier commandeered a boyfriend. Got him to drive her to Copland, and presented him with cartons of marmalade.

BERNIER: And Aaron said the girl is crazy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STAMBERG: Thus began a lifelong friendship, a cloudless friendship, as she describes it. At her third wedding, Copland gave her away after Leonard Bernstein walked her down the aisle at architect Philip Johnson's house.

When she tells all this in her smart Eastside Manhattan apartment, it doesn't feel like name-dropping, but rather, a life well-lived.

(SOUNDBITE OF ACCORDION MUSIC)

STAMBERG: Music and food have fueled many Bernier friendships. In Paris, in the '50s, as creator-editor of "L'Oeil," an art magazine, Bernier often went to Alice B. Toklas for tea.

BERNIER: And she always made very what, very wonderful cakes. There was no question of just an old dried biscuit.

STAMBERG: This was after Toklas his life partner, writer Gertrude Stein, had died. Bernier met the women through another American composer.

BERNIER: I had an introduction to Gertrude Stein by Virgil Thompson who, of course, knew her very well.

STAMBERG: Bernier told Stein she wanted to photograph her for "Vogue." Stein, never shy about publicity, picked the place: the salon of high fashion designer Pierre Balmain. Stein brought along her poodle, Basket, who also posed alongside with one of Balmain's gorgeous models.

BERNIER: There was Gertrude Stein looking like Man Mountain Dean. You know, this enormous creature, confronted by this willowy ravishing model.

STAMBERG: The picture, by fashion photographer Horst, became famous. But when it's reproduced, it's always cropped. You don't get to see, way back in a right-hand corner, Bernier herself, watching the proceedings.

Rosamond Bernier has designer clothes in her closet. She wore them, the gowns, whenever she lectured at the Metropolitan Museum. For decades, she spoke at the Met about art and culture - no notes, couture gowns. But decades earlier, in Mexico - that Aaron Copland time - she wore her schoolgirl best to do a concert with painter Frida Kahlo.

BERNIER: She took one look at me and said, oh, come on, kid. I'll fix you up - because she spoke English. So she took me in and she dressed me completely like her; with the blouse, with ruffled skirt, with endless pre-Colombian necklaces. And she worked on my hair making all kinds of blows and flowers. And she made me a replica of the way she dresses.

STAMBERG: Many of these famous doors first open for Rosamond Bernier through her father, a prominent lawyer who loved art and music, and sat on the board of the Philadelphia Orchestra. So: Sarah Lawrence for College, Mexico City for vacation, Paris for Vogue, all those brilliant creative people who agreed to let her write profiles.

Tell what you were like then. In the late '40s, who were you? And how did you present yourself in the world?

BERNIER: The main thing is that I was interested in them. I was receptive. I knew something about them, obviously. I knew about their work. I knew about their music. I think it was just showing an intelligent interest in them and their work.

STAMBERG: But you were young. You were lovely. You were charming.

BERNIER: Well, I have no idea if I was charming. I was earnest.

STAMBERG: And still, at 95, modest and unpretentious - perfect manners, too.

And what was Paris like in 1947?

BERNIER: Heating was very uncertain. The telephone had a sort of freakish life of its own. And getting around, of course, The Metro was working, but there was very little street traffic. And it was still terribly cold, terribly cold.

STAMBERG: So cold that the Vogue staff put up at the Hotel Crayon, not just because it was a grand hotel, but also because it was the only place in town that had reliable heat - which means it was chilly when she went to meet Picasso, with an introduction from a prominent Swiss publisher who also offered this advice.

BERNIER: He said don't ask any questions and don't wear a hat.

STAMBERG: So, hatless - and as inconspicuous as possible - Bernier nevertheless caught Picasso's attention because she spoke Spanish. He ended up inviting her to Provence to see what he was painting.

She met Matisse through her good friend and his son, Pierre. She gets a bit racy describing the great painter.

BERNIER: One of the few times I saw Matisse not in bed, was the first time I saw him.

STAMBERG: Most of the time, Matisse was not well and eventually became bedridden. But always, the artist was well groomed.

BERNIER: He was a great, distinguished old gentleman, always carefully arranged. The beard neatly trimmed, scanty hair neatly combed, very formal. And I was young at time, but he addressed me always as Madame.

STAMBERG: Once on a visit, Matisse asked: What have you done for color today. Then the legendary colorist suggested she wear a yellow scarf with her orange coat. They met several times over the years. Bernier told him she had seen a documentary film about him, the camera coming in close as he drew.

BERNIER: He looks very troubled. And he said, when I saw it, I saw that my hand did a little movement before I started to draw. He said, you mustn't think I was hesitating. He said (French language spoken), I have not yet begun to see.

STAMBERG: With her eye for greatness, her nose for the new, and her lively interest Rosamond Bernier is a woman full of charms. She's led a charmed life and a charming life, and is herself a charm, replete with twinkling stories and eyes that shine as she tells them.

Her memoir is called "Some of My Lives."

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

INSKEEP: Photos of the author and some of her friends and acquaintances are at NPR.org.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.