Les Parisiennes is a story about women’s lives during the dark years of Nazi occupation and beyond and includes British and American women caught in Paris as well as native born resisters who were eventually sent to camps. Couturiers and jewellers, some of whom flourished in wartime, as well as actors, singers, night club dancers and housewives.
The lecture opens with a magnificent surrealist circus ball held by Elsie de Wolfe at the magnificent Villa Trianon, a Louis XV chateau in the grounds of the Palace of Versailles. Many of the guests there could not believe that war is imminent but, in a different part of Paris, thousands of refugees such as Miriam Sandzer are only too aware that they must escape as soon as they can, but how?
By 1940, following the swift defeat by Germany, Chanel moved into the Ritz with her German lover as wartime Paris became a city of women. The men were either prisoners of war in Germany, with de Gaulle and the Free French in London or in hiding. Several British women working as secret agents began living clandestinely in the city escorting downed Allied airmen from one safe house to another. Women were essential because they attracted less attention and many of those who joined Winston Churchill’s secret army of SOE (special operations executive), first had to get to Britain for training before being flown back in. Most, such as Violet Szabo and the Indian princess, Noor Inayat Khan, were caught and tortured. Few survived.
While these women were leading highly dangerous lives, actors were performing at the Comédie Française and the Wagnerian, Germaine Lubin, singing at the Opera House as the Germans wanted to create an illusion that everything was carrying on as normal. The wealthy heiress and keen horsewoman Beatrice de Camondo foolishly believed it was and since her family had already given so much to the state, including her magnificent home, she would be safe. Alongside the creativity of jewelers such as Cartier and Van Cleef, designers including Jeanne Lanvin and Maggie Rouff were flourishing partly because they were making costumes for stage and screen as well as gowns and jewels for the wives of German officers. But at the same time the brilliant story teller Irène Nemirovsky, author of Suite Française, was sent to her death.
After the war, American and British diplomats, tourists and secretaries flooded in to Paris. There were cultural, diplomatic and economic initiatives – as well as affairs – and In 1947 Paris celebrated Christian Dior’s New Look as well as a perfume, Miss Dior, named after his sister Catherine, a resister, who had only just survived a prison camp and never wanted to talk about her experiences.
The lecture ends with two Americans arriving in Paris for short stays with dramatic results; Julia Child, a former diplomat discovered French cuisine and wrote a ground breaking book about it while Jacqueline Bouvier stayed with a countess, a war widow in hard times who had survived a camp, and discovered the Parisian style for which she was forever renowned.