Styliste de Mode; ‘Grace: A Memoir’ by Grace Coddington [2012]

gamWhenever I look at something pretty it reminds me I really need to redesign this blog; which then reminds me I lack a creative eye, which then makes me sad. Grace Coddington, Creative Director at American Vogue, is secretly talented; secretly in that she does not boast or seek the limelight. Thus, I both admire and envy her. I cannot say why, but I was not expecting her to have lived the life she had, I did not expect it to be so interesting.

Beautiful. Willful. Charming. Blunt. Grace Coddington’s extraordinary talent and fierce dedication to her work as creative director of Vogue have made her an international icon. Known through much of her career only to those behind the scenes, she might have remained fashion’s best-kept secret were it not for The September Issue, the acclaimed 2009 documentary that turned publicity-averse Grace into a sudden, reluctant celebrity. Grace’s palpable engagement with her work brought a rare insight into the passion that produces many of the magazine’s most memorable shoots.Synopsis from GoodReads

As with many people unfamiliar with fashion, I came to know who Grace was from The September Issue, a 2007 documentary on the production of Vogue’s September issue – the biggest of the year. Before then I had no idea she existed, I knew vaguely of a few models who style I enjoyed, and an editor here and there, but fashion has never been something I passionately pursued. While I still cannot say I am a converted fashionista, it was fascinating reading about Coddington’s life. She is old school and her values in fashion are very easy to connect to; where Anna Wintour brings fashion forward Grace helps retain the old school style with a modern twist. It was also very nice to know they have a very genuine respect for each other, one that came across only briefly in the documentary.

Accompanied with various photos of her as a model, on shoots and the shoots she so cleverly orchestrated, Grace: A Memoir is a delight to read; there is not a moment of her life you want to skip through. She tackles the difficulties she has faced with a brilliant rationalism, what is done is done; which is pleasantly refreshing. There is no woe is me attitude or clamour of to be the centre of attention that could come from the life she has lead. Instead, we are presented with a wonderfully held together individual who is an inspiration to women. Her only downside is that she likes cats, I cannot stand cats.

False Spring: ‘A Moveable Feast’ by Ernest Hemingway [1964]

“‘That’s what you are. That’s what you all are,’ Miss Stein said. ‘All of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation.'”

I have become rather obsessed with the Lost Generation of late, those who came of age and were displaced by The First World War. Hemingway, Ford, Fitzgerald, O’Hara, Steinbeck etc…, a cohort of individuals trapped by this event; they saw and experienced things we could not imagine. It is no wonder that they sought intellectual solitude in Paris, where they would not be judged as lazy or damaged, but were instead free to create.

Published posthumously in 1964, A Moveable Feast remains one of Ernest Hemingway’s most beloved works. It is his classic memoir of Paris in the 1920s, filled with irreverent portraits of other expatriate luminaries such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein; tender memories of his first wife, Hadley; and insightful recollections of his own early experiments with his craft. It is a literary feast, brilliantly evoking the exuberant mood of Paris after World War I and the youthful spirit, unbridled creativity, and unquenchable enthusiasm that Hemingway himself epitomized.Synopsis from GoodReads

A Moveable Feast journeys Hemingway’s time in Paris while married to his first wife, Hadley Richardson; it is beautifully written, you will fall in love with Hemingway’s Paris. While an interesting coverage of Hemingway’s progression as a writer, you cannot help but feel he skipped over a lot of detail; remembering his past with rose tinted glasses. Hadley Richardson must have been the love of his life, he looks back on her with great fondness; and on his second wife, whom he blames for losing Hadley, with great loathing. One of the many occasions where Hemingway excuses or explains away his own actions and blames another.

The deterioration of Hemingway’s friendship with Gertrude Stein was sad, but what seemed to be the natural progression of a student outgrowing his teacher. Hemingway (unlike with his alcoholic friend F. Scott Fitzgerald) did not explain or sympathise with Stein’s faults, merely mentioning how he tried to ignore them. This could be attributed to Fitzgerald’s generational link to Hemingway, whereas Stein was older and outside of that understanding. Hemingway paints Stein as quite an insecure and bitter personality, jealous of the male writers she surrounded herself with and uncomfortable when they surpassed the knowledge she bestowed on them. Hemingway’s description of Stein flutters between pleasantry and critical, it appears that he could not think of her fondly when they fell out so acrimoniously.

Each time Hemingway mentioned a writer I knew and had read I got a little excited. I was delighted that Ford Madox Ford was mentioned, even though it was not completely favourable. Ford was shell-shocked from The First World War, and thus a little unbalanced. Hemingway’s description of Ford initially appears a little dismissive and patronising, Ford’s shell-shock leaves him forgetful and unaware of it. Ford was, however, clearly a beloved member of their cohort, as Ezra Pound instructs that Hemingway be careful with Ford.

Hemingway and his contemporaries were lost at sea in 20s Paris, floating damages of the Lost Generation. Hemingway wrote A Moveable Feast as if his life were fiction, so I am unsure what details to trust; Hemingway’s fourth wife Mary edited and published A Moveable Feast posthumously. Some moments are remembered with overt fondness, as if they were perfection itself, others are remembered with fractured bitterness. Hemingway idealises the past and looks back fondly on his life with first wife Hadley. In his old age, with failed relationship after failed relationship behind him he looks back wistfully on Paris and sees Hadley as the only woman he probably ever loved and Paris as the only place in which he belonged.

“There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached. Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it. But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.”

A Movable Feast; ‘The Paris Wife’ by Paula McLain

I was 18 when I visited Paris, Montmartre to be specific. It was magnificent, culturally different to anything I was used to and even though I was not on top form (suffering from insomnia; how my friends put up with me, I don’t know!) it far from failed at being beautifully inspiring.

Paris has an intellectual and cultural allure; it is beautifully grimy, secretively open and destructively generous. In the 1920s the Russian artist Marc Chagall wrote of coming to Monparnasse, Paris, “I aspired to see with my own eyes what I had heard of from so far away: this revolution of the eye, this rotation of colours…, that could not be seen in my town. The sun of Art then shone only on Paris.”From What Paris Paris was an artistic and intellectual Mecca, and it was this image which drew me to The Paris Wife.

One of the best things about Paris was coming back after we’d gone away. […] It was filthy and gorgeous, full of rats and horse chestnut blossoms and poetry. […] Interesting people were everywhere just then. The Cafes of Montparnasse breathed them in and out; French painters and Russian Dancers and American writers. On any given night, you could see Picasso walking from Saint-Germain to his apartment in the rue des Grands-Augustins, always exact the same route and always looking quietly at everyone and everything.Extract from The Paris Wife

I began this literary adventure as a Hemingway novice; I knew little to nothing about Ernest Hemingway, having one wife was new to me, let alone four. I slowly devoured this book, I wanted to learn about Hadley and Ernest as I read, so I researched their Parisian adventures as I consumed McLain’s wondrous fiction. When I finally left their world, I left with an absolute love and fascination for the first Mrs Hemingway.

The first thing I noticed while reading The Paris Wife was how connected I felt to Hadley, I understood her detachment and naive connection to society – her isolation from life, her daydreaming. Hadley reminded me of myself; the naive character who blooming so differently from Ernest. Hadley was such a marvellous character, McLain’s skill at taking a historical character that could have easily been portrayed as weak or pathetic and making her utterly human radiates throughout the novel. Even though The Paris Wife is classed as fiction its structure, faithfully following the facts, just adds to its realistic feel and makes me love the book even more.

This isn’t a detective story – not hardly. I don’t want to say, Keep watch for the girl who will come along and ruin everything, but she is coming anyway, set on her course in a gorgeous chipmunk coat and fine shoes, her sleek brown hair bobbed so close to her well-made head she’ll seem like a pretty otter in my kitchen. […] Ernest will read his book and care nothing for her. Not at first. And the tea will boil in the teapot, and I’ll tell her a story about a girl she and I both knew a hundred years ago in St Louis, and we’ll feel like quick and natural friends while across the yard, in a sawmill, a dog will start barking and keep barking and he won’t stop for anything.Extract from The Paris Wife

Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘Happiness in intelligent people is one of the rarest things I know’. While supportive and malleable you never feel Hadley is oblivious to Hemminways detachment; she overlooks or chooses not to acknowledge certain faults he has. I felt Hadley marries Ernest knowing what he is, loving the good and trying to placate the bad. She is devastated when it ends yet, I felt she knew this would happen eventually. Ernest’s needy nature was sucking the life from her; it must have been as exhausting as it was wonderful.

I cannot recommend The Paris Wife enough! Go out, buy it, read it and then go back out and buy copies for your friends. Now.

Image from Wikipedia