It was a flu winter in Paris, windswept with a chilling damp that came over down from Flanders and the North Sea. And Zizi Jeanmaire and her husband Roland Petit were staging a new ballet, the costumes and sets designed by Yves Saint Laurent. Some chic and worthy charity was benefitting from the affair and the black-tie gala had drawn le tout Paris.
When my wife and I arrived at the theater, a sort of elegant chaos had spilled out onto the cobbled street where, with driven rain and sleet alternating, men and women in evening dress milled about, apparently unable to gain entree. It was quickly apparent just why: a lobby also clogged with the most fashionable people in town. Something, or someone, had screwed up the tickets, so that one's seat assignment did not correspond to the configuration of the theater. It was at this moment, with irritation spilling over into fury (hairdos by Alexandre going limp, mon Dieu!), that Pierre Berge went into action.
Berge, the partner and (at that time) lover of Saint Laurent, bundled into overcoat and scarf against the cold (he had a fever and a sore throat, as well), somehow produced a seating plan for the theater, and ordering us into a variety of queue, he began taking tickets and issuing new seats, scribbling our assignments on the chart, and chivvying people inside to take their places and clear the lobby of congestion. It took nearly an hour but, with theater management fossilized and charity organizers panicked, it was Berge, dictatorial but calm, who got us in out of the sleet so the dancing could begin.
It was a bravura performance. And great fun, besides, more diverting than the damned ballet itself.
And it is this sense of fun that seems to me missing in The New Yorker's recent (Nov. 21) profile by Jane Kramer of Pierre Berge, in which Ms. Kramer concludes, "Berge, at 64...is a little like last year's dress...going out of style."
Jane Kramer knows her Paris, has done her reporting and is certainly more current on French politics than I am. But I've known Pierre Berge, and have written about him, for more than 30 years. And I don't think of him as sad or washed up. He is a man who has invented himself several times in an extraordinary life and I think it not beyond possibility that he will do so again.
He came to Paris out of La Rochelle intent on becoming a painter, recognized early that he lacked the talent, got himself arrested at the Pailais de Chaillot by American MPs during a demo on behalf of "citizen of the world" Garry Davis, which may have certified his lifelong attachment to the Left (the caviar left, says Jane Kramer), and eventually took up with Bernard Buffet who, under Berge's management, became the wealthiest painter in town. When I met Pierre, he'd moved on to Saint Laurent who was just out of the army. I was the Women's Wear Daily man in Paris and the first to report Yves' and Pierre's plans to open a fashion establishment of their own on rue Spontini.
The thing was an immediate and enormous success, Yves the young creative genius, Pierre the homme d'affaires, the businessman. They had an apartment back then on the Left Bank, decorated with narwhal horns, where you might encounter over cocktails Fonteyn and Nureyev. It was one of those evenings that an American garmento inquired of Berge, "Tell me, Monsieur Berge, do you speak English?" and Berge, with a malicious grin, responded, "I...can...COUNT!" By then I was the publisher of WWD, returning to Paris twice a year for the fashion collections, usually accompanied by my boss, John Fairchild.
You remember the little things about extraordinary people. Berge would drive out to Orly to pick us up and then take us on the New Jimmys or Castels to see the latest dances, the new girls, the season's playboys (the "locomotives" that drove Paris by night), to hear the latest gossip. In a couple of hours it was as if John and I had never left Paris; we were back, we were chez nous.
Berge drove well (unlike Saint Laurent who, by his own admission, was "the worst, the very worst driver in France!"), and as a sort of gratuity for his chauffeuring, I'd present him with a blue buttondown shirt from Brooks Bros., something he couldn't find in Paris. Sometimes a book. I gave him "The Great Gatsby" and he promptly declared Gatsby was now his second favorite character in literature, just after the protagonist in Stendhal's "Charterhouse."
He and Yves were getting richer. Pierre now had a Rolls. And a chopper. They bought a palace in Marrakesh with two pools (one restricted to Yves, who hated swimming with others). On the night before the new collection Pierre would smuggle us, with fashion editor June Weir and the great fashion artist Kenneth Paul Block, in for a sneak preview of the clothes, a day before Vogue or the Times or Eugenia Sheppard. If John Fairchild was enthusiastic, clapping and hurrah-ing, Berge, who'd been chewing his nails, would run to all the hangtags to scribble new, and higher, prices on every garment.
We got a promising feud going with Chanel, noting her influence on Yves' designs, and then hurrying to Coco to get her quote, "Monsieur Saint Laurent has excellent taste. And the more he copies me, the better taste he displays."
But it was all in sport. Berge, who loved a good feud, was delighted. Somehow he'd picked up the now-dated expression, "rat fink." He and Mr. Fairchild would swap insults. "You're a rat fink! No, you're the rat fink. No, you are!" It was all sophomoric, the most powerful man in fashion journalism, the smartest (as I thought of him) man in Paris, falling about in laughter at their own silliness.
Berge exposed me to the most obscure bistros and to new wines and painters I'd never heard of and books I would never read. He was a very wealthy man by now, an intimate of President Mitterrand and, eventually, head of the new Bastille Opera where he sacked maestros and prima donnas and had a perfectly wonderful time. I'd left Fairchild for Harper's Bazaar and later the employ of Rupert Murdoch, but we kept in touch. Saint Laurent rarely came to New York but Berge had a suite at (suitably) The Pierre.
A few years ago the laughter stopped between them and John Fairchild. Women's Wear Daily no longer mentioned Saint Laurent (until then its "King of Paris") but now promoted Lacroix who made dresses you couldn't sit down in. Yves, without Fairchild's blessing, celebrated 30 years in business for himself with a gala. Berge turned over the opera house, laid on a symphony orchestra, the hundred top covergirls in Europe, the first lady of France, a sitdown dinner for 2,800, and Catherine Deneuve.
Yves, onstage and bashful, made a little speech, going on so long Berge had to tug him gently into the wings. Yves continued to be a lousy driver, admitted substance abuse, suffered the odd nervous breakdown. "Yves was born with a nervous breakdown," Pierre explained. The two men sold their company. Several times. Made hundreds of millions. There were allegations. Had Mitterrand oiled the way? Yves recovered. His latest collection, a triumph! Berge and he trotted out a new perfume that is selling out. They took over, for a New York cocktail party, the Statue of Liberty.
Could a novelist invent such men?
I don't challenge Jane Kramer's take on all this. Just that she never heard the laughter. Berge going out of style? Not Pierre, who read Stendhal and sacked maestros and loved Brooks Bros. shirts and chewed his fingernails and drove to airports to pick up his pals.