"I cannot remember a time,” Rosamond Bernier announces early in this memoir, “when I didn’t know Leopold Stokowski.”
She met Aaron Copland during summer holidays after her sophomore year at Sarah Lawrence—and through him, the young Leonard Bernstein as well. She often visited Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Mexico City. She met Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in fashion designer Pierre Balmain’s Paris salon, where she had arranged a photography session with Horst for Vogue. The famous image resulting from this session featured Gertrude and her poodle, Basket, watching a woman model a gown. Rosamond appears in the background. Picasso, Calder, Matisse, Miró, Henry Moore, Philip Johnson, Louise Bourgeois, Jerome Robbins, David Hockney—she knew them all. Indeed, Rosamond Bernier’s acquaintances were the crème de la crème of the 20th-century arts scene; if you were not listed, you were probably skimmed milk. Some of My Lives was published on the occasion of her 95th birthday
Bernier is best known for her career as a lecturer on 20th-century art, a chapter that began in her early fifties when she reinvented herself after a divorce: “In my new persona as a professional talker I roamed far, if not wide. This phase started in Paris in 1970, when I was invited to give four lectures at the Grand Palais—on Matisse, Picasso, Miró, Max Ernst—in French.” But her fame as a lecturer is really only the topper to decades of astonishing interaction with people who fascinated her. She was a player rather than an observer, which meant that she wanted to know people who intrigued her, not simply know about them. “With art, you need some connection,” she writes. “If you are intelligently interested and sincere, people will talk to you.”
Born in Philadelphia to an English mother and American father, she grew up surrounded by the arts. Her lawyer-father was a major supporter of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and famous musical figures were familiar household visitors as she grew up. She also seems to have had an exquisite sense of timing: Her friend Francine du Plessix Gray has said that Bernier has “charisma, intelligence, sex appeal,” an “amazing ability to draw people out, and brilliant mastery of the art of conversation.” And du Plessix Gray’s stepfather was Alexander Liberman, the legendary art director of Vogue who, when he met Bernier in Mexico in 1945, instantly hired her as a fashion editor. In 1947, she became the first European Features editor for Vogue, living in Paris at the Hotel de Crillon and dividing her time between studios and dinners at the Rothschilds’.
It was in these years that Bernier’s sense of style came to the forefront. The painter Alex Katz has said that “it’s in the way she looks, the way she lives, the way she talks. She’d never settle for anything pedestrian.” Befriended by couturiers, she began wearing the high-fashion clothes that established her as a lifetime member of the International Best-Dressed List: For a Vogue photo session on Miró she wore Schiaparelli; for Matisse, she wore Balenciaga.
In 1955 she founded L’OEIL, a magazine backed by some of the artists she had befriended—Picasso, Braque, Léger, among others—and her idea was to offer something unavailable in 1950s Paris: an art publication at an affordable price. She decided to use her contacts in an effort that combined her interests in photography, good design, and
My aim was to produce a lively publication with . . . readable texts by experts who did not pontificate, something of top quality that young people on a tight budget could buy.
One of the most enjoyable chapters in the Bernier scrapbook features “My Friend Miró.” She met Joan Miró while she was preparing the first issue of L’OEIL and he was visiting Paris to work with his graphic artists. He soon invited her to visit his studio in Barcelona, where he “led me up and down and all around the town” and showed her “the art that means the most to me.” As with anyone who captured her attention, Bernier worked her magic on this “most reserved and silent of artists.” When he tackled a new métier, ceramics, he confided to her why it attracted him: “It is the unpredictability that excites me. The accidents in the kiln. You paint a piece red, and it comes out chocolate brown. You never know what will happen.”
Bernier’s ties to the 20th-century art world illuminated a sphere that was remarkably connected: Miró talks about how Calder showed him around New York in the late 1940s, how Picasso visited his studio to see his work, and later how he came to know Klee and Kandinsky. Add a soupçon of Braque, a dash of Léger, a healthy helping of Matisse, and for Bernier life offered an endlessly replenished movable feast.
After her divorce in France, Bernier searched for a new life, and her career as a “professional talker” happened by accident. She was sunbathing with an art professor-friend on the Lido in Venice when he asked her to explain first Cubism, then Surrealism (to an academic, this seems to constitute small talk). Afterwards, he told her that “if you can talk like that off the top of your head, you should be lecturing,” and she was soon launched on a lecture circuit that took her to major museums and “rural ones tucked away” across the United States. But it was her lectures for the Metropolitan Museum of Art that made her reputation, lectures that were performance pieces in themselves. She always wore fabulous gowns because “[t]hrough the clothes, you could tell the story of the people, the times, of what was going on in theater, and the music being played.” Speaking without notes, she would float onstage and hold audiences enthralled. For one reviewer, Bernier revolutionized “the art of the art lecture. . . . Her glittering speaking style, the immediacy of her delivery and the fact that she had known many of the famous artists in Paris in the ’40s turned her lectures into the hottest ticket in New York.”
She also found happiness in these years, marrying the art critic John Russell in 1975. Their wedding was true to form: Staged in Philip Johnson’s Glass House in Connecticut, it was orchestrated by Johnson, with Aaron Copland giving the bride away, Leonard Bernstein standing up for the groom, and Pierre Matisse (Henri’s art-dealer son) serving as best man. “John [Russell] used to say,” she says, “that you can make the history of art into the history of everything, and that you should just amuse yourself.”
Amy Henderson is a cultural historian and curator in Washington.