Books March 2013

Cover to Cover

The Master of Us All
Mary Blume

Cristóbal Balenciaga (1895–1972) was the greatest couturier of the golden age of Paris couture. He was a couturier’s couturier—Christian Dior acknowledged him as “the master of us all”; Coco Chanel said, “Only he is capable of cutting material, assembling a creation and sewing it by hand. The others are simply fashion designers.” Severe, uncompromising, Balenciaga scorned publicity and the social scene; during his 50-year career, he gave no interviews.

So he was always a mystery—in fact, he was at times rumored not to exist. Although a number of books have assessed his body of work (most successfully Marie-Andrée Jouve and Jacqueline Demornex’s Balenciaga), until now he has eluded probing and discerning biographical treatment. Blume, a cultural columnist for the Paris-based International Herald Tribune from the 1960s to 2009, interviewed Balenciaga’s former clients, his fellow designers, and—most important—his chief vendeuse and adviser, Florette Chelot, to reveal the day-to-day workings of his studios and salon as well as the subtle evolution of his lines.

The result is not—given Balenciaga’s lifelong secretiveness and remoteness—a chatty tell-all (although Blume does confirm the open secret of Balenciaga’s homosexuality); rather, this thoughtful and stylishly written book is perhaps the most serious and intelligent biography of a fashion designer ever written.

A Thousand Pardons
Jonathan Dee
Random House

Here, as in his five previous novels—the most recent a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize—Dee continues to establish himself as an ironic observer of contemporary behavior. In this case, his subject is the scorched earth that results when private misdeeds become public. The plot is energetic: the first big event happens in the course of a few pages, and other sudden and dramatic twists follow, giving the certainly false but nevertheless exciting impression that Dee is chasing his story, rather than painstakingly constructing it.

But most compelling is the acuteness of the details. Dee has a precise eye for social distinctions and their attendant emotions—for instance, the schadenfreude of a lawyer who works in a bedroom community outside New York when he witnesses the fall of a fellow lawyer who commutes to a white-shoe firm in the city. Dee’s exactness of tone and economy of language are such that he can convey, say, a woman’s inevitable bewilderment and humiliation as her search for a job after more than a decade of stay-at-home-mom work is met with a “sort of quizzical cock of the head” from an interviewer.

Ultimately, the book seems to be about how the private world has substance, while the public world has only story. If that idea is hardly surprising, it still provides much opportunity for Dee to exercise his sharp yet sympathetic pen.

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