Before her career as editor and columnist at fashion magazines Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, Diana Vreeland, like other society women of her class, ran a little lingerie shop near Berkeley Square in London. She often traveled to Paris where she would buy her clothes, notably, Chanel. She remembered one such trip in the summer of 1932:
“One night in Paris, after I was married, a friend and I went to a little theatre above Montmartre to see a German[-French] movie called “L’Atlantide,” with a wonderful actress in it called Brigitte Helm, who played the Queen of the Lost Continent. It was the middle of July. It was hot. The only seats in the theatre were in the third balcony, under the rafters, where it was even hotter. There were four seats in a row, and we took two.
“We sat there, the movie started…and I became totally intoxicated by it. I was mesmerized! …I was absorbed by these three lost Foreign Legion soldiers with their camels, their woes…they’re so tired, they’re delirious with dehydration…And then you see the fata morgana [mirage]. That means that if you desire a woman, you see a woman, if you desire water, you see water – everything you dream, you see. But you never reach it. It’s all an illusion.
“Then…a sign of an oasis! There’s a palm…and more palms. Then they’re in the oasis, where they see Brigitte Helm, this divine looking woman seated on a throne – surrounded by cheetahs! The cheetahs bask in the sun. She fixes her eyes on the soldiers. One of them approaches her. She gives him a glass of champagne and he drinks it. Then she takes the glass from him, breaks it, cuts his throat with it…
“This goes on and on. I hadn’t moved an inch. At some point I moved my hand…to here…where it stayed for the rest of the movie. I was spellbound because the mood was so sustained. I was sucked in, seduced by this thing of the desert, seduced by the Queen of the Lost Continent, the wickedest woman who had ever lived…and her cheetahs!
The essence of movie-ism.
“Then…the lights went on, and I felt a slight movement under my hand. I looked down – and it was a cheetah! And beside the cheetah was Josephine Baker!”
Meanwhile, back to our story:
Diana Vreeland was chatting with Josephine Baker in the balcony of a hot theater, looking at a cheetah.
Diana says to Josephine:
“‘Oh,” I said, ‘you’ve brought your cheetah to see the cheetahs!’
“Yes,” she said,’ that’s exactly what I did.’
“She was alone with the cheetah on a lead. She was so beautifully dressed. She was wearing a marvelous little short black skirt and a little Vionnet shirt – no sleeves, no back, no front, just crossed bars on the bias. Don’t forget how hot it was, and, of course, the great thing was to get out of this theatre we were in. The cheetah, naturally, took the lead, and Josephine, with those long black legs, was dragged down three flights of stairs as fast as she could go, and that’s fast.
“Out in the street there was an enormous white-and-silver Rolls-Royce waiting for her. The driver opened the door; she let go of the lead; the cheetah whooped, took one leap into the back of the Rolls, with Josephine right behind; the door closed…and they were off!
…Ah! Style was a great thing in those days.” (1)
Comparing Josephine Baker to a beautiful Egyptian queen, artist Pablo Picasso dubbed her “the Nefertiti of Now.” She posed for him in all her glory: “tall, coffee skin, ebony eyes, legs of paradise, a smile to end all smiles.” (2)
(1)Vreeland, Diana. D.V. New York: Da Capo Press, 1984
(2) Picasso quote