Rosamond Bernier Ponders Penguins, Matisse, Halston: Interview

Rosamond Bernier’s living room in New York reflects a long life with lots of great friends.

Max Ernst, Fernand Leger, Louise Bourgeois and David Hockney are just a few of the legendary artists whose works are at home in her apartment on the Upper East Side. Picasso liked her, too.

Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Bernier, who just turned 95, settled in Paris after the war, where she became the European editor for Vogue and then founding editor of L’Oeil, a legendary magazine devoted to modern art.

Later, Bernier delighted New Yorkers with her lively talks at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which she delivered wearing a thrilling array of remarkable dresses.

Sapphire earrings set off her checkered jacket and dark slacks as she toured me through “Some of My Lives,” her just published memoir:

Tarmy: Was it fun to go back?

Bernier: I enjoyed thinking about this other life, for instance, my animals in Mexico. I had quite a large menagerie, and discovered on the rather late side that I was an animal tamer. At the time it seemed to be absolutely normal. But thinking back on it, it is somewhat unusual to go swimming with a penguin.

Bad Buffet

Tarmy: But mostly you walked with greats.

Bernier: Most of them were rather like their work, though you might not think that a very distinguished old man, like Matisse, would paint luscious nudes. But then, maybe you would. Maybe that’s what distinguished old men think about.

Tarmy: Are there any artists from the Paris School who you think have been overlooked?

Bernier: It’s been pretty much mined by people like myself. But I can think of people who did well who should not have, like Bernard Buffet. He was considered a great talent, and it’s lamentable. His work was weak and self regarding and just of no interest.

Tarmy: You’re known for your fashion sense. How do you think that fashion has changed over the decades?

Bernier: Now it’s all about money. The houses are all changing their designers, and everybody is working for everybody else.

There’s no longer the extreme individualism of those days. Somebody like Dior, somebody like Balenciaga, Madame Gres -- they were real creators. Now it’s big business.

Tarmy: And yet you continued to wear couture. In your memoirs you mention a Halston outfit.

Bernier: Oh yes! He made it for me to wear in Paris in 1970. I wore it for my last lecture at the Met, because I go right on wearing my old clothes, you see. And it looked fine. I have the oldest wardrobe in the western world.

Tarmy: You certainly put your wardrobe to good use at your Met lectures.

Karl Lagerfeld

Bernier:  When they asked me to lecture at the Met, they asked me to speak at 8 o’clock. Well, if you think of a female singer coming onstage at 8 o’clock, she has an evening dress.

And I thought: “This is a performance, and out of politeness to my audience I should look as nice as possible.”

So I wore a nice dress. And then kind people gave me dresses, or lent me dresses, so I accumulated quite a lot.

Tarmy: The jewelry you wore at your lectures is also legendary.

Bernier: Oh, it’s all wonderful fake stuff. I had this weird friendship with Karl Lagerfeld which lasted ten years, during which he constantly gave me things.

When I would go to the Chanel Boutique in Paris they would expect me, and say “Monsieur Lagerfeld wanted you to have... everything.”

And I still have it all.

Tarmy: You manage to get all of these prickly people to be extraordinarily nice to you -- what’s your secret?

Bernier: How can I tell you? I was very young and very serious and reasonably presentable.

The only person who wasn’t nice was Jules Romains, who I met along with Le Corbusier. He was terribly rude, and said, “I’m leaving.” And I was so inexperienced that I just burst into tears.

And Corbusier, who’s a sort of crusty old boy, put his arm around me and said to Jules, “How can you be so rude to this charming young person?” That was my only disaster.

Mais Non

Tarmy: How does it feel when you go back to Paris now?

Bernier: It’s changed a great deal of course. There’s still sublime architecture from the 17th and 18th centuries, but there are a lot of cheap high rises, and where there were eccentric mom and pop shops, there are now chain stores with horrible decorations.

Tarmy: What’s a typical day and evening?

Bernier: I don’t go out a lot, though two nights ago I went to a party at the American Museum of Natural History. There were a couple of hundred people. A lot of people I knew, a lot of people I didn’t know, but I just talked to everybody.

(James Tarmy writes for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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