Élan Everlasting

De Ribes

How could I say no? Jacqueline de Ribes had invited me to Paris to meet with her. She was looking for a writer for a book she was working on, and because I had interviewed her several years earlier for a biography I was writing, I was on her list. I knew her world would be the rich and rarified Paris that I had always imagined but never seen.

De Ribes’ name has long been synonymous with high fashion, Parisian elegance, and a glorified social life. From her aristocratic upbringing she rose to become the expressive, broadly influential woman and fashion icon of her time. Married to a French count, she was hailed by social arbiters as the “Queen of Paris” several decades ago. Her career in fashion—from a head-turning trendsetter to esteemed designer and eventual style icon—is about to be celebrated by an exhibition at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in November.

The day I arrived her chauffeur took me to the de Ribes’ family mansion, a three-storied hôtel particulier in the 8th arrondissement. Inside the gate the concierge directed me across the cobblestoned courtyard to a door beneath a protective marquee. A small glass elevator delivered me to the second floor, which on that day was a hive of activity as the Countess’s staff was readying the catalog and account of her life for the upcoming exhibition in New York. Her archivist, Stéphane Goriau, his scarf flowing, was busy at a long table covered with boxes of photos and newspaper clippings in her book-lined office. I looked for a place to put down my purse. Nicolas Pages, a book designer, was working with a myriad of images of de Ribes on his computer from the small adjacent room. Always considered a great natural beauty with her long, elegant line and seductive, intelligent gaze, de Ribes had inspired some of the best photographers of her time—Richard Avedon, Horst P. Horst, Irving Penn, Victor Skrebneski, Cecil Beaton, and Francesco Scavullo, among others—to capture her allure in photos. Those images launched her fast-rising trajectory into a rarified fashion world.

De Ribes was not at the mansion that morning. My meeting with her would occur later, in her apartment. She no longer lives in the residence on Rue de la Bienfaisance, finding the house where she spent her married life with her in-laws too antiquated and stuffy for modern times. She now uses it as the base of her professional operations. Next door to her office on the second floor was a small, charming, shelf-lined kitchen and a narrow table against the wall set with crystal goblets, Haviland plates, and silverware. The archivist, her book designer, her publicist from New York, and Harold Koda, curator of the Met’s Costume Institute, and I sat down together. Linen napkins, hand-embroidered with the de Ribes family crest, were artfully folded at our places. Harold, who has a professional eye for such things, was charmed and fascinated by the way they were folded and asked our server to please show him how to do it. It seemed a trick that only the French could pull off. Lunch, we learned, had been chosen for us by the Countess. After asparagus and giant prawns in a pink sauce followed by salad and éclairs, it was time to begin work. For my jet-lagged self, a nap might have been more in order, but a call from the Countess that she was ready to see us gave me a spurt of adrenaline. The driver downstairs would take Harold, the publicist, and me to de Ribes’ apartment a short ride away on the Parc Monceau.

De Ribes met us in the airy foyer of her classic apartment. Though she is now in her eighties, her long, graceful figure continues to startle with its elegance. A maid in a white apron stood a few feet behind de Ribes. In a fitted ankle-length gray skirt over boots and a turtleneck sweater, de Ribes looked surprisingly modern and professional. She smiled conspiratorially with her guests as she moved deftly through the manners and protocol of her role here. Yes, she was to be called Madame Comtesse in public, but I could refer to her as Jacqueline in private. She was anxious for us to be seated with her at the dining room table under a five-tier crystal chandelier overhead. Blue porcelain chinoiserie sat atop a sideboard and on the mantle of a marble fireplace at the end of the room. It was a bit jarring to see this woman—so associated with historic elegance and European luxury—conducting her business much like the rest of us, in front of large computer screen on a table piled high with notes and photos. Notions of a life of languor were dispelled. Her cellphone rang intermittently. De Ribes is a woman who works and, if she has her way, is likely to do so until her dying day. I had been warned that she prefers working into the night. At three in the afternoon, she was just starting her day.

Her attention shifted deftly from small details and whimsy to larger matters of organizing the record of her life and fashion history. Did I like this photo, she asked, or did it have too much hair in it? This one of her on her elbows like a lioness had been frowned upon by her pristine in-laws, she remembered. A fancy European ball, she reminisced, “awakes the most joyful part of one’s imagination.” By the end of the day she had tirelessly demonstrated for Harold how to fold the napkin he had admired at lunch. Her first try wasn’t perfect; the hems did not line up. “Not right,” she sniffed. “The maid did not iron it properly,” she grinned apologetically. She spoke candidly of aging and proudly said she could wear a bikini until she was 75. Then she became philosophical. “I think of myself as a survivor now,” she confided.

The following day, after lunch, de Ribes was out when I arrived at her apartment for the afternoon. In the living room, where I waited for her, a candle flickered from the shadows and scented the air. From the living room window I watched her walk with her three-legged cane in the park below. Her wonderful, oft-photographed head was ever so slightly bowed under a tan beret and she seemed momentarily lost in thought. Not long after, she arrived before me, standing as perfectly upright as always, dressed in corduroy trousers, a cashmere hoodie, and high-soled pale-pink sequined running shoes. We took our places in the dining room once again and she began to reflect on her life, guided by the photos on her desk. Her well-known style and fashion sense were “achieved,” she says, by her restless, energetic spirit as an antidote to the constrictions of aristocratic French life. “Can you imagine life in a château? What do you do? Play cards? Read in the garden?. . . I had to make life beautiful.” That was her solution. A life of ease and luxury, she insisted, was not for her. “It is just a cage. When I create, I am happiest,” she said.

There was often a disarming flash of steeliness, even dismay, from de Ribes when she spoke of the life she has lived. “I am not a superficial woman!” she asserted. Still, she is the last living icon of a certain generation, of a world of style and fashion that no longer truly exists. Her roles as model, muse, and creator of her own label made her one of the most celebrated—and definitive—fashion figures of her time. Sixty ensembles from her private collection will be displayed in November at the Met. Glancing at the photos and papers piled before her, her eyes twinkled triumphantly. “This keeps me from thinking about death and how much time I have left on earth,” she said, fixing her gaze on her listener. “I go to bed and I get up on the doorstep of eternity.”

Cherie Burns is the author most recently of Searching for Beauty: The Life of Millicent Rogers (St. Martin’s Press). Her next book, Diving for Starfish, a jewelry tale, will also be published by St. Martin’s Press.