Stealing Magic in Paris

I have a special treat for the kids back home in the States: a photo tour of the Paris scenes in one of their favorite books, Stealing Magic (Random House 2012) by Marianne Malone.

In addition to  my year-long adventure in Paris, I am also a bookseller back in the United States. Some of my bookstore’s most popular children’s books are by Illinois art teacher and author Marianne Malone, including 68 Rooms and Stealing Magic.

Malone’s books start out in the Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago. During a field trip to the “68 Rooms” at the Art Institute, Malone’s young characters find a magical key that enables them to shrink and time travel through the miniature rooms.

In Stealing Magic, the children time travel through Thorne Room E-27, French Library of the Modern Period, 1930s, and find themselves in Paris during the 1937 World’s Exposition. They tour the fairgrounds located at the feet of the Eiffel Tower and befriend a young Jewish girl named Louisa. When Ruthie and Jack time travel back to the United States, they realize they must return to 1930s Paris to warn their friend Louisa about the rising Nazi threat in Europe. It’s a wonderful story with a blend of history, danger, art and adventure.

Thorne Room E-27, French Library of the Modern Period, 1930s, Art Institute of Chicago.

As a treat for all of the 68 Rooms fans back in the States, I mapped out the scenes in the book, and took my camera to the Trocadéro neighborhood for a Stealing Magic literary tour of Paris.

rue Le Tasse, the location of Louisa Meyer's apartment in Paris. Louisa and her family lived on a quiet, private street in a very nice neighborhood. So nice, in fact, that dogs are prohibited from "doing their business" (les chiens faire leurs ordures) on the street.

After Louisa meets Ruthie and Jack, she shows them where she lives: "She pointed across the park to a row of beautiful buildings." . . . "Number seven, rue Le Tasse. Second from the end. . . ." From rue Le Tasse you have a beautiful view of the Eiffel Tower.

See all of the fancy decoration on the building facade? Doesn't it look just like the illustration in the book? Louisa waved at Ruthie and Jack from her balcony of her apartment at 7 rue Le Tasse (p. 175).

The view of the Eiffel Tower from the Trocadéro. Jack and Ruthie would have seen many more buildings near the base of the Eiffel Tower than we see today, including the German and the Soviet pavillions that were build for the 1937 fair. Most of the buildings from the World's Exposition were torn down afterwards.

Ruthie and Jack's view of the Jardins du Trocadéro and the Eiffel Tower. "A long, rectangular fountain ran down the center of the gardens, its jets spraying water dramatically into the air. The ground sloped to the Seine River and a bridge that people walked across to the Eiffel Tower."

Marianne Malone does a wonderful job of portraying Paris life in the 1930s, from the baguettes in the bicycle baskets to the fashionable women in their high heels and skirts. I couldn’t help but smile when she described the small elevator in Louisa’s apartment building: “the accordion-style metal gate . . . only big enough for two,” because for me, that lovely little detail seems to capture the essence of Paris apartment life, whether it’s 1937 or 2012.

Stealing Magic also teaches grade school children about Nazism and the Holocaust in an  age appropriate way. When Louisa’s mother expresses her disbelief about the danger and says: “But surely Hitler can’t control Paris,” we are reassured that Ruthie and Jack know better. It makes for a good story, and at the same time, a valuable learning opportunity.

I highly recommend Stealing Magic and I hope you enjoyed the photo tour.

A Day with Renoir

Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette, Renoir (1876), Musee D'Orsay

No matter how many times I go to the D’Orsay, this painting makes me stop and gawk. I just saw it again recently with my husband in tow. He encourages my painting and puts up with my “I-wish-I-could-do-that” kind of commentary. Standing in front of Dance at le Moulin de la Galette, I was awash in admiration: “look at the pink dapples of light on her dress!”

I forget, until I see the real thing and get to admire the brush strokes up close, how many colors Renoir uses for sunlight, and how effortless he makes it look. Was the light really reflecting pink that day, or was he just playing with his palette? My own art teachers are always urging me to see the light as it truly is, and not what my brain thinks it is. There is color all around us and we don’t even know it. There is purple in a tree trunk, pink in a skirt, blue under a chin. And Renoir seems to know this best of all.

So I’ve been thinking of Renoir lately, with spring in all of its soft pastel colors breaking out in Paris. I decided to go visit the very place where Renoir painted this scene back in 1876, at the Moulin de la Galette in Montmartre. The windmill was relocated from the original site further up the hill where the real dance hall was located. The Moulin de la Galette is now a restaurant at 83 rue Lepic, with a lovely quiet outdoor terrace and an English menu board.

Renoir painted en plein air at the Moulin de la Galette on Sundays, when he had a little help from his his friends. Because it would be impossible to capture real people who were so busy moving and dancing, he asked his friends pose for him in small groups. Renoir had to drag the extra large canvas back and forth to his studio, which was located up the hill and a couple of blocks away from Moulin de la Galette. He had to grapple with the wet canvas – a future masterpiece – in the heavy winds on the butte.

Renoir’s former studio is now Musee de Montmartre, 12-14 rue Cortot in Montmartre. The museum has a beautiful outdoor garden and courtyard, which happened to be in the earliest spring bloom when I was there. From the gardens, you can look up the hill toward Sacre Coeur, or downhill toward the Montmartre cemetery, the vineyards and Au Lapin Agile. The perfect place for an artist to live and create.

The view of the vineyards of Montmartre and Au Lapin Agile out the back window of Renoir's home

Pardon the bird poop, but this sign explains that The Swing was painted in this garden, where a replica of the swing still hangs from a tree.

I don't care if it's not the same swing from 135 years ago. I sat on it and still got goose bumps.

For more about Renoir, I recommend the book Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland, which tells the story behind another one of my favorite Renoir paintings. Maybe later this spring I will plan a day trip out to La Maison Fournaise in Chatou on the Seine, where Luncheon of the Boating Party was painted. Care to join me?

Coco Chanel: Sleeping with the Enemy

Sleeping With the Enemy is a bubble-bursting kind of book.

When most people think of Coco Chanel, they probably picture her like I used to, as played by Audrey Tautau in Coco Before Chanel (2009). Either a hard-working young thing from the provinces, or the ambitious and innovative fashion icon she became later in her life.

After reading Hal Vaughan’s 2011 book, Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel, Nazi Agent, a new image comes to mind, and it’s not good. At best, Chanel was a powerful woman who would do anything to survive, to succeed, and to walk away from the war unscathed. At worst? Chanel was an anti-semitic Nazi collaborator and morphine-addicted snob who not only slept with the enemy, but aided them.

U.S. Edition (2011)

Hal Vaughan’s book relies on documents from a variety of archives and other legitimate sources, including German files discovered in the Soviet Union. They show that Chanel had a long-term love affair with a Nazi spy, the handsome, aristocratic and half-British Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage, known to his intimates as “Spatz.”  At the beginning of the Second World War, Chanel sought help to obtain her nephew’s release from a prisoner of war camp in Germany. Spatz was the perfect string-puller. It didn’t take long until the two formed a long-lasting romantic alliance.

Chanel’s relationship with Spatz enabled Chanel to keep living in luxury in the midst of war. Although Chanel initially departed for Vichy, France, Spatz called in a favor with the German High Command and they invited Chanel to move into the Cambon wing of the Ritz as the Nazi’s “Privatgast.” Chanel’s new rooms weren’t quite the same as her old suite facing Place Vendome, but they would do.

While other Parisians suffered through severe food rationing during the long, desperate years of occupation, Chanel sipped champagne with the top German officials who had taken over the Ritz. Chanel and Spatz dined at Maxim’s, went to black-tie affairs at the opera, and attended glamourous dinner parties at the German Ambassador’s residence on the Left Bank.

But of course, there was a price to be paid for Spatz’s favors. And it appears Chanel had no trouble paying it. Chanel and Spatz traveled to Berlin to meet with with a top SS intelligence chief, and Chanel became German Secret Agent F-7124, code name “Westminster.” If Vaughan’s book has a weakness, it is here, where he seeks to explain the nature of Chanel’s missions on behalf of the Germans. It is not entirely clear what specific traitorous acts she performed against the interests of the French people. Nevertheless, it is perfectly clear that Chanel was a pro-German collaborator who was not quiet about her dislike for Jews.

Chanel didn’t just nod when other people said bad things about Jews at German dinner parties. She spouted quite a bit of venom herself. But even worse, she actually tried to use anti-semitic laws to fight for the ownership of Chanel No. 5. Back in 1924, Chanel had sold her highly successful perfume line to the Jewish Wertheimer family, and  she wanted it back. Spatz introduced Chanel to the senior Nazi official in charge of the “Aryanization” of Jewish property in France, and he helped her try to wrestle the control of Chanel No. 5 away from the Wertheimers. However, the Wertheimers were prepared and had already placed the company into a trust. For once, Chanel did not succeed.

It is still a mystery how Chanel was ever able to avoid arrest and prosecution after the war. According to Vaughan, a case was opened against her and she appeared for an interrogation, but the case went nowhere. The rumor is that Winston Churchill intervened on her behalf. Chanel slipped out of France and headed straight to Switzerland, where she spent several more years living with Spatz.

Chanel made a huge comeback in Paris in 1954. She was in her 70’s and the French didn’t wanted to be reminded of who did what in the the war. She died in her rooms at the Paris Ritz in 1971, the past varnished over. She was a fashion icon worth over $54 million. And the brand lives on.

Despite everything I learned from Vaughan’s book, and I was still interested in going on the Paris Walks Fashion Tour, which I did just this week. The tour guide was well informed about Chanel’s past, and offered a middle-of-the-road, no-one-really-knows interpretation of Chanel’s role with the Nazis. The tour guide shared a particularly interesting quote. When asked about her relationship with Spatz, Chanel supposedly said: “At my age, I’m so happy to have a lover, I don’t ask for a passport.”

In any event, here are some photos from the Paris Walks Tour, which I highly recommend.

And just in case – like me – you don’t have the right credentials to get on the Chanel VIP list for current tours of Chanel’s apartments, at least we can enjoy the photos of someone who does. Check out this story from the Guardian, complete with eye-popping photos of Chanel’s glamorous lifestyle on rue Cambon.

The flagship Chanel boutique at 31, rue Cambon in Paris. Chanel had apartments above the boutique where she entertained her clients, but she did not sleep there. She slept at her apartment in the Ritz, just across the street.

The back entrance to the Ritz on rue Cambon. Chanel's apartments during the war would have overlooked this street.

The famous mirrored staircase leading up from the boutique to Chanel's private apartments. Picture Spatz and Chanel here.

Chanel's suite at the Ritz before WWII, facing Place Vendome. It can be yours now for only 8,500 Euros per night. (Hopefully without any smoke damage from the recent garage fire!)

Pleasure Seeking in Amsterdam

History of a Pleasure Seeker (Knopf 2012)

Amsterdam. That is where I discovered an immensely pleasurable novel by Richard Mason.

Based on the exploits of a handsome young tutor in a grand Amsterdam canal house at the height of the Belle Époque, History of a Pleasure Seeker is like a fun, sexed-up Downton Abbey.

Canal houses in Amsterdam are a real pleasure to visit. On a recent trip, I toured the Willet-Holthuysen Museum at 605 Herengracht. I just love a good display of decadent Belle Époque excess.

Days later, I spotted a striking paperback novel in an Amsterdam bookstore. It had an eye-catching design in turquoise and black, with a row of gold-colored canal houses across the top. (Knopf released the U.S. edition pictured above in February 2012, but I came across the Orion UK paperback edition pictured here.)  I bought the book and dove right in at a nearby café. Only then did I learn that it was set in the very canal house I had recently visited. And just like the characters in the book, I quickly succumbed to its protagonist’s charms.

Entertaining and roguish, Piet Barol is the only child of a disappointing marriage between an uninspired Dutchman and a Parisian singing teacher. He grows up at the piano with his mother, where he learns the language of love and desire. Piet is attracted to the scent of power and is closely attuned to the distinctions of class. Piet nurses his ambition in private until he arrives at the front door of 605 Herengracht for a job interview.

Fortunately, Jacobina Vermeulen-Sickerts, the middle-aged lady of the grand canal house, is desperate to find a tutor for her emotionally disturbed but musically gifted young boy. She asks Piet to audition on the piano. Piet quickly intuits what Jacobina’s true needs might be, and chooses to play the second nocturne of Chopin in E flat major (“the only key for love,” said his mother long ago). It is cunning musical success. Jacobina is left breathless – as are most readers, I would predict – and Piet is hired on the spot. Flirtatious, ambitious and irresistibly handsome, Piet seizes the opportunity and seduces his way up the gilded curve. His exploits are fueled by the adrenalin of risk, but he is not completely foolish or unkind. He is generously sexy with both men and women, but he is not completely promiscuous. He is wise enough to resist the temptations of flirtatious daughters, desperate fellow employees and the paid-for pleasures of the demi-monde. Piet might be an amoral opportunist, but he is never unlikable. His dangerous liaisons are like a tight-rope display that we watch with horror and suspense. He is naughty and ambitious and we love it.

Go, if you can, to the Willet-Holthuysen Museum the next time you’re in Amsterdam. Until then, I hope you’ll enjoy the photos I was able to take on my own recent visit. Mason has done a great job of capturing the magic and power of the canal house at the height of its glory. It is a beautiful setting – almost a character in its own right – as it clearly deserves to be.

Willet-Holthuysen Museum, Herengracht 605, Amsterdam ("The house was five windows wide and five storeys high, with hundreds of panes of glass that glittered with reflections of canal and sky.")

The Kitchen

The Entrance Hall ("Piet did not wish to appear provincial, and his face gave no sign of the impression the entrance hall made.")

The Dining Room ("The table was Georgian, bought at an auction in London; the chairs were Louis XVI, resprung and upholsted in olive-green and white. The gilt salt cellars came from Hamburg, the clock on the mantelpiece from Geneva, the figures beside it from the Imperial Porcelain Factory in St. Petersburg. None of this detail was lost of Piet, who had a fine and instinctive appreciation of beauty.")

The Men's Parlor

The Collector's Room ("...the room with the French windows, which was nothing but a tiny octagon, constructed of glass and stone and furnished with two sofas of extreme rigidity. It told him plainly that the splendours of the drawing room were reserved for men better and grander than he ...")

The Bedroom, the scene of an important climax in the book: ("Maarten took charge. 'My dear, let us go to bed.' He offered his wife his arm.")

Have you seen Richard Mason’s wonderful website? If you’re enticed to learn more, you can go there to listen to the music which is such a key part of the book. It is exactly what I wish for when I read a book with a strong musical element. Well done.

In case you noticed the strangely alphabetized paragraphs throughout this post, allow me to introduce you to two more wickedly fun characters in the book, Constance and Louisa, the two spoiled Vermeulen-Sickert daughters. As a co-employee explains to Piet: “Don’t let their politeness fool you. They’re vicious when they choose. . . . They like to humiliate people – but subtly, so their target never knows. Lately they’ve taken to leading their victim through a conversation in alphabetical order. Very funny when the poor fool doesn’t catch on.”

Just let me know if you caught on – perhaps by starting with K in the comments?