VIEWPOINT;LEARNING THE WILES OF FASHION OVER GITANES AND SCOTCH

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A frequent condition of parole from American prisons is that the parolee not consort with known criminals. Which means, presumably, that if Gotti were let out tomorrow he couldn't resume hanging around at the old Bergin Hunt & Fish Club with former buddy, and later stool pigeon, "Sammy the Bull" Gravano.

So it ought to be with journalists. Or so it is firmly believed by media mentors I have known.

When I arrived in Paris the first of September 1960 to succeed John Fairchild as Paris bureau chief for his family's Fairchild Publications and its powerful flagship trade paper, Women's Wear Daily, I not only spoke very little French but I had seen one fashion show in my life. And that in London, which hardly counts.

John was returning to the States to become publisher of WWD and at a final meeting I tried to elicit a few magic words that might make my daunting task easier. What fashion designers can I trust? What sources can I believe?

John waved a dismissive hand and replied, airily, "You'll find out. I did." And promptly left with his wife and children to holiday on Italian beaches before taking ship back to America and fame.

Earlier, however, John had warned me against the Crillon Bar. That was where the foreign correspondents, especially the Fleet Street boys and people who worked on the Paris Herald Trib, hung out, and the place was to be avoided like the leper colonies of Molokai. "They're all drunks and they hang around telling war stories and interviewing each other."

Far from being frightened off, I rather liked what John told me of the Crillon, and instantly assigned it a high priority on my list of places not to be missed. For here, at least, I had an advantage over the otherwise more experienced Fairchild. In a previous life as a Washington correspondent I'd been a dues-paying member of the National Press Club and spent many a worthwhile hour at the club bar listening to the war stories of great men and to Pulitzer laureates interviewing each other over the gin: Reston and Alsop, Krock and Trussell. More recently, during two years in London, I'd been exposed to the Connaught Bar, another splendid watering hole where the better class of correspondent drank.

And so, in all these places, I encountered dreadful older men who smoked and drank too much and chased women and wore slouch hats and benchmade shoes and met dubious companions and padded their swindle sheets and were in various other ways admirable role models for the young and impressionable.

Art Buchwald has a grand new book out about his adventures and romance and marriage in postwar Paris, a book that was excerpted in a recent travel section of The New York Times. Art and I overlapped only briefly before he returned to the States and wealth in Washington. But there remained echoes. Especially at the Traveler's Club on the Champs-Elysees where someone claimed Art had been put up for membership and been blackballed.

It was staggering to think of being sufficiently celebrated to be blackballed by the best men's club in Paris! Not in my wildest imaginings could I even dream of such an exultant moment. After all, anyone can get into a damned club; but to be blackballed by the Traveler's? Wow! I was actually only there once, as a luncheon guest, and saw John O'Hara plump in a leather chair by the roaring fire with glass in hand. And heard wild tales of Hemingway, "a man barely under control."

But such dramatic moments would come later.

In that first week of my four-year tour in Paris, my parameters were infinitely more modest. How to start learning about fashion and meeting the designers and cabling my first stories back to New York? A friendly PR person, perhaps?

If there was one institution that John Fairchild held in even greater contempt than boozy correspondents at the Crillon Bar, it was flacks. So it was out of sheer desperation that I took Marjorie Dunton, the attache du presse of the French couture, to lunch at the Ritz. Madame Dunton might be a press agent but being a Canadian, by the great God Jehovah! she spoke English of a sort. Halfway through lunch (and a good deal of wine), Marjorie Dunton leaned conspiratorially toward me and, in a whisper, advised me to be extremely prudent in my sexual liaisons while in Paris.

Her good counsel had nothing to do with the pox and everything to do with one's reputation. The fashion designers were compulsive gossips who loved nothing better than a good natter and I must be careful. Of course, of course, I said, at Fairchild Publications chastity was a given. Then Madame Dunton dropped her little bombshell:

"Mind you, I don't believe it for a moment. But they say that when Mr. Fairchild was here, he had affairs with animals."

When I had the opportunity to ask, John assured me, "Not even a mouse."

But by then I'd fallen in with Coco Chanel who had me to lunch at her place and as we sat drinking scotch late into the dusk, Coco lectured me about fashion, informing me about life....

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