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Book Review: Some of My Lives: A Scrapbook Memoir by Rosamond Bernier

Some of My Lives: A Scrapbook Memoir by Rosamond Bernier
Some of My Lives: A Scrapbook Memoir
by Rosamond Bernier
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 304 pp.
CLR [rating:4.0]

Rosamond’s Feast

Call her a social butterfly! You wouldn’t be far from wrong. Still, Rosamond Bernier not only met and cultivated just about “everyone,” throughout her span of the 20th century, she depicts them astutely, often wittily in her “scrapbook” memoir.

Though that might not sound like the sort of recommendation to have you rushing out for a copy of Some of My Lives: A Scrapbook Memoir, I need only mention who such “everyone” might consist of. The cast is staggering, at the least, since it includes a star-studded list of nearly anyone of importance in the arts. Name-dropped here, are just some of them—and these are not just her mere acquaintances, but constant friends and mentors: Henry Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Aaron Copeland, Lennie Bernstein, Joan Miro, Max Ernst, Diego Rivera, Malcolm Lowry, Paul and Jane Bowles, David Hockney, Jerome Robbins, Henry Moore, among countless others.

And if you are not convinced as yet, let me add that Bernier is as classy a stylist, as she is in her choice of friends. Her brief depictions of such artists are sharp, her anecdotal conclusions hilarious, and her arch comments on such encounters are always vivid. Let me give you a quick example: Here’s Bernier’s recapitulation of her first meeting with Alberto Giacometti, the great sculptor.

Alberto himself was an impressive presence, solid of build, handsome features as rugged as if they had been hewn out of the rocks from his native Swiss mountains. He came from Stampa, a remote village high in the Italian Alps. Years of living in plaster dust seemed to have coated him permanently; even his clothes begin to look like fragments of an old wall. He smoked incessantly, so a dusting of ash added to the patina…

In fact, they soon became such close friends that over the years, she never neglected to send postcards from wherever she traveled if she thought something there would interest him.

Rosamond Bernier was born in Philadelphia in 1916, to an American father, Samuel R. Rosenbaum, the son of Hungarian-Jewish immigrants. Young Rosenbaum was then “president of his University of Pennsylvania class, president of his year at law school, editor of their law review and Phi Beta Kappa” as well. No doubt that he was a promising young man, the pride of his observant parents.

“And what did he do?” she quips right off. He married her English mother, Rosamond Rawlins, a snooty Episcopalian. Indeed, this was something which, as soon as they learned of it, his family said “Kaddish over him and never met my mother…” Bernier’s comment on all this is quite simply, “I hardly ever saw them.”

Her mother is described as “quintessentially English and patriotic,” and you can be sure that she saw to it that her daughter was immediately scooted off to Europe to be properly educated. As a consequence, young Rosamond was brought up like a proper little English girl, complete with horse-backing lessons, “admirably fitted jodhpurs” as well as a French governess. Not only that, but to make society acquaintances, her mother saw to it that the family spent considerable time crossing the Atlantic on luxury British ships.

At 10 years of age, she was enrolled in at a proper English board school, Sherborne School for Girls. It was her mother’s last wish for her daughter before her early death in Rosamond’s eighth year. The child would then leave her father and only return to America for Christmas and summer holidays. And, this way of life was to continue for several years until a severe illness put an end to her boarding school days. For a bit, she then tried Sarah Lawrence College for Girls, yet that restlessness which infected her throughout her career was already in place. So after three “happy years” she left school, never graduating.

Rosamond’s very early experiences with the great and famous were connected with her father’s love for music. Because he headed the Board of Directors of the Philadelphia Orchestra, she went often to rehearsals and concerts as a child, and when conductors and soloists were invited to Sunday luncheons at the Rosenbaum’s regularly, she was enthralled by their artistic talk and liberated manners. Among those she encountered and admired then were Otto Klemperer. Nathan Milstein, Jose Iturbi, Eugene Ormandy among others. So collecting her anecdotal tales of their eccentricities and foibles began even then. She even speaks of the Philadelphia Orchestra as “her extended family.” In fact, she concludes that “I cannot remember a time when I didn’t know Leopold Stowkowski.“ And it was Stokowski, who later invited Edna Phillips, the first woman, and one still in her twenties, to join that orchestra, and who was soon to become Rosamond’s step-mother.

Her fascination with artists and the arts, its gaiety and glamor (only later was she to discover its potentials for poverty, its seamier side) developed thus in childhood, prospered, and with it came that observant eye for the idiosyncrasy connected with such pursuits. During her sophomore year at Sarah Lawrence, she went off to Mexico. And it was there that she first made a life-long friend of the composer, Aaron Copeland. Here’s the way she describes their meeting at a concert rehearsal:

It was love at first sight, at least on my part. I always thought Aaron looked more like a scientist than a musician. He was tall, gangling, engagingly toothy. He gazed out at the world with blue-gray eyes, through clear-rimmed glasses, with an expression of benevolent curiosity.

She then concludes: “This turned out to be an epic occasion for me. The only other people sitting in on the rehearsal were Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. We were introduced, we chatted, and to my delight and surprise they invited me to go with them in the box that evening to the concert.

What soon followed was an invitation to dinner with Copeland and the encouragement to come visit him at his little rental house nearby in a little town called Tlaxcala. The year was 1936 and the poverty-stricken musician said he loved working in the quiet there, even though the electricity went off so frequently, that he had had to get used to using candles, but, above all, that “he missed his marmalade.”

Before she knew it, Rosamond had inveigled an obliging boyfriend to drive her there along with the whole carton of marmalade that she’d managed to get hold of to take along. She tells us of his characteristic giggle when they arrived, along with his,“The girl’s crazy!”

Their friendship bloomed, as did the artist’s fortunes. He would later take the train to Bronxville to join her at Sarah Lawrence. And Rosamond made a point of going to New York whenever a new work of his was performed. Soon, she was Aaron’s “date,” and through him was to meet all sorts of young performers, composers, and comers in the arts, among them Marc Blitzstein, Clifford Odets, Harold Clurman and John Houseman. Above all, there was Lenny Bernstein, one of his best students, who was to become Rosamond’s sustaining and devoted friend.

In the months after, when the same, obliging boyfriend who’d driven her out to Copeland’s little Mexican house proposed to her, she accepted. He was to become her first husband, Lewis A. Riley, who was himself a handsome American who lived and worked down there, in fact, the very one who subsequently developed the resort of Acapulco. As Bernier has it he was thereby was responsible for the “eventual ruining the idyllic coastline.”

Moreover, when Aaron Copeland first heard of her engagement to marry Riley, as Bernier reports it, he, a closet gay (as was the custom of those times) wrote of it to a friend:
“My girl had gotten herself engaged—the only girl I could have married.” Then he added (I can almost hear the giggle), “this will confuse the biographers.”

And so her tale proceeds to her years in Mexico, where the newlyweds lived in a house built especially for them and she soon spent time cossetting her once hissing and snarling pet ocelot. Once again she took up with Rivera and Kahlo, and of the latter, she reports engagingly, “…laughed a great belly laugh of satisfaction at her work (she could laugh like a trombone in rut) tossed down one more little shot of tequila….” She also tells of coming upon and welcoming wandering writers like Malcolm Lowry, Paul and Jane Bowles.

But, actually, it was in her life and times in Paris, something which came not so long after the dissolution of her first marriage that brought her truly to her element. It all came about through a friend she had made in Acapulco, one Nada Patcevitch, the British-born wife of a Russian exile, Iva Patcevitch, who was now “the stylish guiding spirit at Condé Nast.” She instantly looked her up in New York once her marriage to Lewis was over, was warmly received, and found herself invited to drinks at their house. There she was to encounter “in one swoop,” the whole high command of the publishing firm. Not only Patcevitch, but the ever influential editor Alexander Liberman and his designer wife, Tatiana along with Edna Chase, the editor in chief at Vogue Magazine.

What with her fluent French and now, Spanish (acquired during her years in Mexico) she brashly inveigled herself into a job, convincing Chase, that she could gain entry anywhere, had the savvy for approaching almost any of the major artists in Paris. Indeed, at that time that was the place to be, the only art scene of consequence. And, though she openly confessed she knew absolutely nothing about fashion, Chase’s pooh-poohed it, responding that, “My child, I know a fashion editor when I see one!” and promptly arranged for her meeting her features editor as well, in order to land the job!

The year was 1945, and for Bernier, it was Paris that began another of her lives. She hardly ever returned to the United States for some thirty years following. Moreover, she was soon to discover that not only could she manage to gain access to the various painters, musicians, writers and architects working in Europe, befriend and socialize with them, she could query them, bring them out in her interviews, and write succinctly about them to suit every taste! Among her triumphs was managing to interest Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in talking with her, and even arranging to have Horst photograph Stein and her legendary poodle, Basket.

There were encounters with Jean Louis Barrault, Henry Matisse, René Clair and Vittorio de Sica. And, on one of her self-devised assignments, since “nobody has done it,” she set off “in search of Proust,” scouring the city for everything that remained of his world. She managed to find aged survivors to talk to about him, among them a Duchess who had entertained Proust at her family property in Normandy in her youth, and was now ‘brandishing an ear trumpet” as they talked. She got to work as well with top photographers, such as Irving Penn who managed subjects as recalcitrant as John Cage, a man she describes as “almost disappearing into an open grand piano,” and Arshile Gorky who was without the benefit of a comprehension of any mutual language as they worked.

Even those achievements failed to satisfy her anymore. So, after a while, Bernier left her post at Vogue to found her own magazine in the arts in Paris. She called it “L’OEIL” and managed to include in its first issue an article about Pablo Picasso and a piece on the Alberto Giacometti. Cyril Connolly, the great British critic wrote for it on the recherché subject, 18th Century Bavarian rococo. She also managed to have the first edition signed for her by her artist friends Picasso and Braque.

And there is yet, much living to come. Far too much to bring forth here. For example, her subsequent marriage to John Russell, the distinguished art critic for the Sunday London Times and later The New York Times, and her various lives connected with that union and their return to the United States.

To use a phrase of her own, this is a “prestissimo gallop” through lively artistic territory. I recommend your taking a look for yourself and you’ll see.

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