LONDON — Nearly 40 years after William Styron published his novel “Sophie’s Choice,” about a Polish Catholic forced to decide the fate of her two small children at Auschwitz, the British writer Anne Sebba has embraced a similar theme for her latest book that deals with the everyday heartache French women — and others — faced as they tried to survive and protect their families in Nazi-occupied Paris.
“Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in 1940s,” (Orion Books) is the story of the famous and glamorous: Coco Chanel, jewelry designer Suzanne Belperron, novelist Irène Némirovsky, actress Simone Signoret and the daughters of the Dior, Van Cleef & Arpels, and de Rothschild families.
The book, which will be published in mid-October in the U.S. also features a cast of ordinary women — Ravensbrück survivors, Resistance fighters and collaborators — doing their best to muddle through, keep up their physical appearances and their famous French allure during the country’s darkest of days.
Sebba, who argues her book is all about the choices, large and small, said that women had to make until the moment they died, said the essence of the Parisienne was the woman who, instead of eating the ounce or so of fat she was given as part of the daily rationing, “massaged it into her hands after concluding that these needed preserving more than her stomach.”
The book, hard to put down, yet difficult to read in parts, is also the story of a city at its most vulnerable, and intriguing insight into the importance of fashion to national self-esteem – from the legions of haute couture seamstresses who worked throughout the war, to the role of fine jewelry as a morale-booster, to the clever ways women kept up their looks despite all the poverty and deprivation – and the way they sometimes work their appearances to obtain favors.
Quick-thinking French designers rapidly transformed skirts into roomy culottes to accommodate all the females on bicycles (petrol was diverted to the occupying German forces); while women used leg paint to simulate seamed stockings, and hid their unwashed hair in turbans. For the rich, Jeanne Lanvin invented a new accessory — an elegant cylindrical box with a strap for holding a gas mask in the days before the German invasion.
Sebba writes: “Fashion was, for the French, even after four years of occupation, anything but trivial. For them, remaining stylish provided a beacon of hope for the future. It was a matter of pride to dress from old curtains if they could, or to adapt a man’s suit if the man wasn’t coming home.”
In the book, she quotes a letter to American Vogue from Lucien Lelong, the couturier who was then president of the Chambre Syndicale, defending the extravagance of the first fashion shows post-Liberation. In it, he calls haute couture “a Parisian industry of prime importance,” and “a means of avoiding unemployment for workers and consequent forced labor in Germany.”
In an interview with WWD, Sebba argued that Lelong was keen to fly the Paris haute couture flag as extravagantly as possible in those post-war years. “He wasn’t going to let the comfortable, casual American designers stake a claim to being world leaders in fashion.”
While the Americans accused the Parisians of frivolity and others saw their focus on fashion as outright collusion with the Germans, Sebba believes that looking good for a Parisian was all about maintaining self-esteem.
“It was a measure of resisting, as they weren’t going to be downtrodden or humiliated. It is fascinating to see how they decided fashion was a measure of survival,” she said.
Sebba, a Londoner whose husband Mark Sebba was the longtime chief executive officer of Net-a-porter before its merger with Yoox Group, drew a striking contrast with English women.
“The attitude would be, if the men are suffering, the women must suffer too. ‘I must wear dowdy clothes and khaki because it’s not right if my husband or boyfriend is at the front suffering and I’m leading a life of luxury.’ But French women thought quite the reverse.”
In the book, Sebba also addresses the importance of fine jewelry in wartime. “The couture houses depended on the jewelry, and the film industry helped the couture industry. They all fed on each other,” she said, adding that jewelry always had an edge on art.
“It’s transportable, small and can be altered. Art can’t be altered; you can steal a painting but then what do you do with it?” (In the case of the Nazis in Paris, pick the Jewish art galleries and dealers clean, catalogue the work, and send it back to Germany). “Jewelry, you can’t trace,” said Sebba.
She also described women gathering up their bits and pieces of silver tableware and cutlery and asking the folks at Boucheron to melt it down into evening bags.
“They were really modern, up to the minute, the latest sort of clutch bags — and quite shocking. They had separate compartments for lipstick, cigarettes and powder in them. For a woman to makeup in public was still actually a little bit shocking,” said Sebba.
Sebba, who began her career as a Reuters foreign correspondent, has written a number of books — most recently biographies of Jennie Churchill, Winston’s American mother, and Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor — but this particular one had been brewing for a while.
She’d studied France in the Thirties while at university, and was more recently intrigued by the fate of Rachel Van Cleef of Van Cleef & Arpels, “the Jewish rival to Cartier” in the pre-World War II years.
She later visited the Holocaust museum in Paris, “and I saw a name on the wall — Anna Rubinstein — it could have been me, and I asked myself if my grandparents had ended up in Paris instead of London, how would I have survived?” she said, adding that women’s voices during that period in Paris had not been well-heard.
Researching the book was a challenge: “It has to be said you can’t find collaborators. Anyone who works in this field — professors, historians — will tell you the same. You won’t find anyone who will tell you ‘Actually my family worked for the Germans because they thought they’d win.’ Of course nobody is going to admit to that, and many of them were executed.”
Some women talked for the first time. “There was a sense that if they were now telling their story, it was like a dam being unleashed. It was a question of not dying and taking their story to the grave.”