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Text Enrico Remmert

Jerome D. Salinger and Oona O’Neill

New York, summer of 1941. One of the regular patrons at the Stork Club, New York’s ‘in’ night club, is a society beauty whose appeal leaves any man breathless. Her name is Oona O’Neill and she is the sixteen-year-old daughter of the Nobel prize winner Eugene (who abandoned her when she was just three). Gorgeous, intelligent and full of life, Oona spends her time with her best friend, millionairess Gloria Vanderbilt, joking with Truman Capote and is courted by half the city. Oona however has only one person in mind: a lanky twenty-two year old aspiring writer, whom she recently met at a friends’ house. His name is Jerome D. Salinger and he found his way to her heart by writing her long letters every day, accompanying her in and around Manhattan or to Central Park and talking incessantly. Salinger’s final coup is to turn Oona into the main character in one of his stories (The heart of broken story, published in a magazine that same year) in which he calls her Shirley: “The agony of standing over Shirley Lester and not being able to bend down and kiss Shirley’s parted lips! The two soon become an item, Salinger loses his head and ends even frequenting the Stork Club, a place he loathed, given his solitary nature. In the spring of ’42 however, Salinger is conscripted. He is to witness unspeakable atrocities. He lands in Normandy on D-Day, takes part in the battle of the Ardennes and is one of the first to enter the Dachau concentration camp. He comes home, mentally scarred for life, after a spell in a psychiatric ward. Before all this happens, he is writing daily letters to Oona, usually of extreme length. For a while Oona writes back and she tells him she intends to become an actress, towards the end of 1942 moving to Hollywood. Her first screen test is with Charlie Chaplin: she is 17, he is 54. From that moment on, Salinger receives no more replies from Oona and has no idea what is going on. He understands it all when, in the June of 1943, newspapers worldwide publish a scandal entitled: “Charlie Chaplin weds eighteen-year-old”. The rest is history. Oona bore Chaplin eight children and they were together until he died. One of the most successful marriages ever. Salinger meanwhile, was left with nothing but huge rage, terrible letters and a painfully broken heart, which inspired him to write The Catcher in the Rye.

If you want to know more about this story, you can read Manhattan’s Babe by Frédéric Beigbeder (Assouline Publishing). Curiously, Beigbeder has a cat called Kokoschka. I know this thanks to the dedication in his book: “With the same pride with which my cat Kokoschka lays a dismembered bloody yet breathing sparrow on her cushion, I lay this book, together with my wrinkled heart at the feet of Madame Lara Micheli.”  Which brings us to our second story.

Oskar Kokoschka and Alma Mahler

Vienna, 1912. At the center of Viennese social life is a permanent presence who leaves men breathless. Her name is Alma Mahler, and at just over thirty years of age, she is mother to two children and the widow of the famous composer Gustav Mahler. In 1912, Alma is courted by half the city, but she has just one person in her head: a wild-looking twenty-five year old, slightly cross-eyed with a shaved head and large jug ears. His name is Oskar Kokoschka, a talented painter who, with Egon Schiele, will become one of the greatest names in Austrian painting of that period. Alma and Oskar’s affair is a volatile and tumultuous one; two years marked by highs and lows, continual arguments and break-ups—she is the one who flees, exasperated by his possessiveness. Finally, the war puts paid to everything, just as it did for Salinger and Oona O’Neill. Alma declares their affair over and Oskar is called to the front. On his return he is traumatized: the pain caused by his serious head wounds and the memories of what he has seen obsessively alternate with the loss of Alma. This emptiness is filled in a bizarre manner, one that is, however, totally in line with the painter’s character. One day Oskar goes to a doll manufacturer and asks him to make a life-size one identical in every detail to Alma Mahler, following drawings he personally will provide. After a few months, the doll is ready and Oskar is over the moon: he keeps her at home as if she were his wife, he takes her out to all the parties and dances he is invited to and dresses her in expensive clothes. This masquerade does not last long though; returning from a party where he has drunk far too much, Oskar chops the doll up and abandons her in the garden. The next day, the police are at his door, investigating the horribly dismembered bloody woman’s body on his lawn. Oskar explains the situation, shows them the stuffing, indicates the red wine stains that look like blood and the perplexed officers leave. He will never get back together with either the real or fake Alma, but their love is immortalized in the canvas The Bride of the Wind, a masterpiece of Expressionism.

If you want to know more about this story, you can read La creatura del desiderio (The creature of desire) by Andrea Camilleri (Skira). You will find out that, before Mahler, Alma had had an affair with the painter Gustav Klimt, and after Mahler she married first Walter Gropius, the founder of Bauhaus, and then the author and screenwriter Franz Werfel. History in fact describes her as the “widow of the four arts”. But, moving just a little to the northwest, in the same period of time, we find a woman who had nothing to fear from Alma in terms of conquests, given that her lovers included names such as Pablo Picasso, the Duke of Westminster, Dimitri Pavlovich, Jean Cocteau and Igor Stravinsky. And so we come to Coco.

Coco Chanel e Igor Stravinsky

Paris, 1920. At the center of Parisian high society is a female whose name is regularly on everyone’s lips. Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel is an orphan, a former singer at the Rotonde, where she was known by the stage name of Coco, who gave up singing when she realized she sewed ‘like a dream’. Her business now has five workshops and three hundred dressmakers. All of Europe desires Coco’s creations, she is at the peak of her fame and apparently has nothing but good luck. This, however, is not true. The love of her life, Boy Capel, was killed in a road accident the year before and Coco appears inconsolable. Just then however, the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky comes to town, fleeing from the Bolshevik revolution and penniless. They hardly know each other, but seven years previously Coco attended the première of The Rite of Spring at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. Both the music and choreography were too original for the audience, but Coco was enchanted by it. The first time they meet, it is love at first sight. Coco invites Stravinsky and his family to live in her luxurious villa in Garches, just outside Paris, where Igor can compose in peace and quiet. Stravinsky accepts and moves in with his wife Katerina, bedridden with tuberculosis, and their four children. The love affair between the two is short and tumultuous: Coco cannot stand the fact that Igor does not consider her to be an artist and this leads to continual fights. She also thinks she is pregnant but then finds out she is not. Once it is all over, Coco throws herself into the arms of the Duke of Westminster, Igor into those of Vera de Bosset, who will then become his second wife. And so this love story also ends without any offspring. Perhaps, in this case, there was one though: the fragrance Chanel no. 5, created the very year that Coco met the perfumer Ernest Beaux.

If you want to know more about this story, you can read Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky by Chris Greenhalgh. Otherwise you might be satisfied with one more titbit. For most of her life, Coco lived at the Hotel Ritz in Paris, in one room, totally bare and complete white. The only decoration was a Russian icon on the wall, a gift to her from Igor Stravinsky.

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