Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Q&A with Susan Goldman Rubin

Susan Goldman Rubin is the author of Coco Chanel: Pearls, Perfume, and the Little Black Dress, a new biography for older kids. Her many other books include Maya Lin: Thinking With Her Hands and The Quilts of Gee's Bend. She lives in Malibu, California.

Q: Why did you decide to write about Coco Chanel?

A: I was asked to do the book. I had done a book, Hot Pink:The Life and Fashions of Elsa Schiaparelli, and in doing the research, it was exciting to find out about people I never knew about before.

In the case of Schiaparelli, she was the designer who introduced hot pink to the fashion world in the 1920s. I was doing a program in San Francisco on Elsa Schiaparelli, and hot pink was the color of the year!

In the course of my research I found and wrote that she and Chanel were rivals. Elsa Schiaparelli was a single mother and adored her daughter at a time when it was rare that a woman would be abandoned and make a career for herself and take very good care of her daughter. It made her less nasty.

I wrote a little about it, and to my surprise they were both designing at the same time in Paris and would make very snippy remarks. When I read about it, I thought, kids will get this. My editor said, Would you want to do a book on Coco Chanel?

I leaped at the chance. I didn’t know much about her. My 12 ½ year old granddaughter knew about Chanel. I thought, Kids know this name. Then, the minute I started, I was wowed by her story.

I begin by getting every book I can. Don’t ask about my book bill! And I said, she’s everything you want in a children’s book heroine: an orphan, miserable, and a liar. And she turns out to be one of the most successful designers.

I still had to do a proposal. The story was just waiting for me…the orphanage was to influence her and her designs. I don’t own Chanel, but am totally influenced by her innovations...

There was one picture book by Candlewick [about Chanel], and one of the criticisms had been that it overlooked her relationship with a Nazi officer in World War II. I thought, I am going to tackle that. There was a book called Sleeping with the Enemy [that looked at that issue].

Q: So your granddaughter knew about Chanel already—what are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about her?

A: My granddaughter thought she was the epitome of glamorous elegance, and high style. What she didn’t know is that she was penniless, from a poor background, her mother died when she was 11. She was such a brat no one in the family wanted her. Her dad was a scoundrel.

To be born out of wedlock was a stigma she could never escape. Men of high society couldn’t marry her. It’s so different from life today. She would say to other girls that her dad was in America making a fortune.

Time online excerpted a chapter from the book, “I Am Not an Orphan.” She denied it her whole life long, yet her years at the orphanage influenced her style—black with touches of white was her palette. When she designed her villa, she wanted to duplicate the staircase at the monastery.

There were so many things [that surprised me about her]. When she finally graduated you had a chance to become a nun…Coco Chanel did not want to be a nun. Her name was Gabrielle. She lied about how she got the name Coco.

She was a charity case at a Catholic school. When she left she got a job at a shop. They had an outdoor cabaret with professional singers, and local amateurs could sing. It was a regiment town full of dashing soldiers. They goaded her to go on stage. I didn’t know she wanted to be a singer.

She had fantasies of being a cabaret singer. One of her boyfriends said, Your voice is like a trombone. Evidently she was a rotten singer, but she was so determined.

Between the main acts, she would sing one of two songs she knew, “Who Has Seen My Dog Coco?”  The soldiers would say, More Coco! That’s how she got her name, but she lied and said her father gave her that name.

I thought, why did she lie so much? Why lie about the orphanage? There must have been so much anger and resentment and shame. Her birth brothers went to work on a farm. She didn’t want any association with them...

What surprised me was that most of the clothes I wear were generally influenced by her. I have four or five striped shirts. I had no idea it was Coco Chanel who introduced those sailor shirts 100 years ago. It was typical of her to take men’s clothes and wear them.

I always thought fashion designers would make sketches. Be an artist. I was fascinated to read that she didn’t draw at all. She worked directly with the model, with scissors. She would shape the clothes with her hands like a sculptor. The poor models would have to stand for so long.

She went out of favor and then came back. There are so many elements of her story that are inspirational...

I didn’t know what fine tailoring is. I had no idea what she did to make the clothes hang just right. It shows the care and attention to detail....At the Oscars you see actors tugging at their dresses—not if they came out of the House of Chanel! Even when something was finished, photos showed her readjusting the sleeve of a coat…

Q: In the book, you describe her anti-Semitism and the idea that she may have been a Nazi sympathizer. Can you say more about that?

A: I don’t think she was a Nazi sympathizer at all. And of course, I’m Jewish. She found the whole war annoying. For her it was an intrusion. It wasn’t like, What can I do for my country? She was asked by the government to design uniforms for nurses, and she said no.

I don’t think she had feelings of sympathy. She had been through rough times as a child, and knew how to maneuver herself into a better position. She may have used her charm and attractiveness to get back to the Ritz [where she had been based].

And then she had this romance. She always had a romance. The only one she loved was Arthur Capel, who couldn’t marry her because of her status. To have a lover 100 years ago who was encouraging [about her work, as he was], was unusual. She loved men—she was always seeking love.

She needed and wanted love, and here is an officer, 15 years younger than she. She claimed she had known him before the war. They began a romance. Her maid attested after the war that he never came to see Chanel in uniform. They couldn’t go out to restaurants.

One of her best women friends criticized her for the affair. Her friend had been married to a Jew. Chanel didn’t care. The villa she built had been used by the Resistance; it was used to help Jews escape. Whether she knew it or not, she was helping the Resistance.

Because of her romance with the Nazi officer, who may have been a counterspy, someone asked her help to use her influence with her boyfriend to get a Jew released [and she agreed].

She was anti-Semitic herself. It was typical of the times. Kids were raised by the Church, and it was drummed into them that Jews were Christ-killers. This wasn’t unique to Chanel—many of her friends were anti-Semitic....

After the war any woman who had boyfriends who were German was punished—sent to jail, had their head shaved. She was so clever. She was known for the perfume Chanel No. 5, and its producer, Paul Wertheimer, was Jewish.

He had turned the business over in name to a friend who was not Jewish. Because of the perfume, she stayed afloat. At the end of the war, she offered free bottles of Chanel No. 5 to American GIs, and they wouldn’t let a hair of her head be touched. The woman was so shrewd.

She had become friends with Winston Churchill. As soon as the war was over, young men would round up anyone who seemed like a collaborator. She told her maid, If I’m not back in an hour, here’s the number to call. It was Winston Churchill’s number.

An anonymous caller called and said to go to Switzerland. That’s why she stayed there, to be out of the public eye. She was not in favor with the majority of the French people. She stayed away, got bored, and came back.

I wanted to show how a woman coped with ups and downs, and became one of the wealthiest women in the world.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: One of my big projects is a biography of Paul Robeson. Old Man River was written for him. Most importantly, he brought spirituals to the concert stage. He was a great athlete, a brilliant scholar, he won a scholarship to Rutgers, and was the only black student on campus.

He went on to be politically involved for the cause of peace, and he used his magnificent voice to sing and to speak. I would like a soundtrack to go with the book. He was an activist before the black civil rights movement took hold. He broke all kinds of barriers—he was the first black actor to play Othello on the American stage…

I’m also doing a new book about Edgar Degas, in collaboration with the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When I was a kid in New York, I knew every one of his paintings by heart.

I’m doing a book on voting rights for older readers, and it couldn’t be more timely.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Susan Goldman Rubin.

No comments:

Post a Comment