PARIS — Jacques de Bascher, the decadent dandy who was Karl Lagerfeld’s partner for close to two decades, is the subject of a revealing new book that sheds light on the man at the center of one of fashion’s most famous feuds in the Seventies.
De Bascher was little-known outside industry circles until 2006, when Alicia Drake published “The Beautiful Fall: Fashion, Genius and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris,” focusing on the rivalry between Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent stoked by de Bascher’s involvement with both men.
Lagerfeld famously took Drake to court over the book, but recently agreed to sit down with Marie Ottavi, a journalist at French daily Libération, to share his most intimate memories to date for her tome, “Jacques de Bascher, dandy de l’ombre” (“Jacques de Bascher, shadow dandy,”) published by Editions Séguier.
“Perhaps it was the right time for him,” Ottavi told WWD. “He wanted to correct some of the things that had been written. He didn’t say what, exactly, but he wanted to set the record straight.”
The first-time author also interviewed Kenzo Takada, Betty Catroux, Diane de Beauvau-Craon, Pat Cleveland and other survivors of the excess-fueled Seventies to flesh out the portrait of the troubled de Bascher, who died of AIDS in 1989 at the age of 38.
Lagerfeld portrayed him as cultivated — he was a voracious reader who could quote from Homer’s “Iliad” — and multilingual, with a sharp tongue and a wicked sense of humor. Both men were fascinated by titles and genealogy, with de Bascher fond of emphasizing his aristocratic roots.
The German designer has explained before that they never had sex, despite being together for 18 years. “I infinitely loved that boy but I had no physical contact with him. Of course, I was seduced by his physical charm,” he said of de Bascher, whose wan elegance was immortalized by the British painter David Hockney.
The book’s real revelation is the fact that Lagerfeld — who has always refused to attend funerals — stayed by his partner’s side until the bitter end, sleeping on a cot bed in his hospital room during his final days. He subsequently organized and attended a funeral mass in his honor.
“It’s still a very emotional topic for him, and he opened up as perhaps he has never done before,” Ottavi said. “He watched this man, whom he once admired for his style, allure, spirit and innate sense of beauty, take his last breath and absolutely wither. That’s a terrible ordeal, and the fact that he talked about it was a beautiful thing.”
Pregnant at the time, Ottavi missed her initially planned interview with Lagerfeld in November because she ended up giving birth the day before. She finally saw him in March, 15 days before handing in her manuscript, for two no-holds-barred conversations.
“Obviously, I didn’t want to be obscene, that was not the point, but Karl Lagerfeld did not flinch from any of my questions,” she said. “It was very emotional, very powerful. I was moved because he was talking about that one person that you miss, and I think this man is the person that Karl Lagerfeld misses in his life.”
Ottavi said she was initially drawn to her subject by the omertà surrounding de Bascher, known for his sophisticated style, promiscuous parties and unbridled use of drugs and alcohol — and little else, since he refused to work and never fulfilled his fantasy of writing a book.
“He was shrouded in mystery and everyone kept saying that nobody would talk to me,” she said. “It became a challenge and stoked my curiosity.”
The first person to share his recollections with Ottavi was Philippe Heurtault, who met de Bascher while serving in the navy and later became his man servant and personal photographer in Paris.
In addition to providing insight into de Bascher’s life before fashion, he supplied several images used in the book, including a shot of the man-about-town with Saint Laurent’s former partner, Pierre Bergé, taken in February 1974.
Around that time, de Bascher embarked on a clandestine affair with Saint Laurent, whom he would lock in a closet as part of their BDSM sex games.
When Bergé found out, he severed ties with Lagerfeld, blaming his camp for precipitating the downfall of Saint Laurent at a time when the couturier’s addictions were spiraling out of control.
While Bergé declined to speak to Ottavi, she credits her journalistic approach with helping her gain the trust of de Bascher’s family and other participants. “I didn’t want to be judgmental. I didn’t want to paint him as the embodiment of evil, as he has been portrayed in films, where he is reduced to a caricature,” she said.
Lagerfeld bankrolled some of the era’s most notorious parties, including the S&M-themed “Moratoire Noir(e)” bash organized by de Bascher and his friend Xavier de Castella, which Ottavi describes in graphic detail.
But he was more voyeur than participant, avoiding alcohol and drugs and maintaining a rigorous work ethic.
“I’m a total puritan, but I found Jacques’ adventures amusing. We couldn’t be further apart. I am a Calvinist toward myself, and totally indulgent toward others,” Lagerfeld said in the book.
“Of course I knew about the affair with Saint Laurent. I had been close friends with Yves for more than 20 years. We used to go out in the early days with Anne-Marie Munoz and Victoire Doutreleau. Pierre smashed that to bits. He said I engineered their liaison to destabilize the house of Saint Laurent,” he added.
Lagerfeld was lucid about his partner’s perverse tendencies and wild adventures, but turned a blind eye to many of his excesses.
“I didn’t hold him accountable. I only wanted to see the bright side of Jacques. I was unaware of what he kept in the shadows. He would tell me about what he did when I wasn’t around, but I didn’t ask questions,” Lagerfeld said.
Although she was wary of empathizing with her subject, Ottavi admitted that she admired people like de Bascher and Catroux for their uncompromising character.
“It’s the biting bon mots, their jaded outlook. It’s being fully aware of who you are, the cliché you represent. I find that quite fascinating, and it was interesting how comfortable he was with his lack of ambition and his homosexuality, which he never hid,” she said. “There was just no survival instinct. Today, there is perhaps too much survival instinct, which makes things a little more dull.”
Though de Bascher was part of a long list of people who fell victim to AIDS in the Eighties — alongside Robert Mapplethorpe, Bruce Chatwin, Alvin Ailey and Steve Rubell — the author believes he was fated to die young.
“He could not have grown older because he would have turned pathetic, I think. It’s like a big arc, this rise and fall, and here the fall was illness and death, but it could have been falling out of fashion, being irrelevant, no longer belonging to the in-crowd, gently fading away,” she said.
Though she questioned whether he could have existed in the age of reality TV, Ottavi said de Bascher was a precursor of insta-celebrity in some ways.
“He even had T-shirts printed with his name. This was in the early Seventies. Who did that at the time? Nowadays, it would be no big deal, but I thought it was crazy that this guy was doing that at the time. It’s a detail, but it tells you a lot. If he were alive today, maybe he would be an influencer,” she said.