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The Charmed and Charming Life of Rosamond Bernier

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
January 17, 2012

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 wooed her, Alice B. Toklas baked for her. Bernier’s memoir Some of My Lives is a lively compendium of this moveable 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 interest, 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 grow accustomed to living by candlelight.

But he missed marmalade.

Bernier commandeered a boyfriend, got him to drive her to Copland 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 as Bernier recounts it, it doesn’t feel like name-dropping, but rather, a life well-lived.

She struck up a friendship with Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein, whom she met through another 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 alongside 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, Bernier herself, watching the proceedings.

Bernier knew Frida Kahlo, too, who gave her 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.”

And decades later, the now famously soigné Bernier who lectured at the Metropolitan Museum on art and culture, got another fashion lesson from a celebrated painter. Henri Matisse once asked her, “What have you done for color today?” And the legendary colorist suggested she wear a yellow scarf with her orange coat.

Not even Picasso was immune to her 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. Naturellment. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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