All three women married for money and status, and lived unhappily with neurasthenic mothers, chilly in-laws, unfaithful husbands, disappointing children, loneliness, depression and ennui. But they were brilliant in exploiting the language of fashion. Upper-class Parisiennes changed their clothes seven or eight times a day, so they had many opportunities to model their wardrobes for society photographers like Otto Wegener and Nadar. The beautiful, wasp-waisted Élisabeth showed particular genius in “le shopping poétique”: “I believe there is no ecstasy in the world,” she wrote, “that can compare to the ecstasy of a woman who feels she is the object of every gaze, and draws nourishment and joy from the crowd.” In her lavish accessories and spectacular gowns by Worth and Fortuny, she courted admiration, celebrity and copious fan mail.
Laure, Comtesse de Chevigné, cultivated her persona as a sophisticated intellectual and swaggering rebel. At the Bal des Bêtes in 1885, when 1,700 guests came costumed as insects, vermin, crustaceans and big-game animals, she appeared as a white snowy owl, symbol of Minerva, goddess of wisdom. In 1891, at the fashionable Black and White Ball, she defied the invitation by dressing as an androgynous harlequin in yellow and blue.
Geneviève had connections to Bohemia and the artistic world through her first marriage to Georges Bizet. They established a salon in their Montmartre home, attended by Turgenev, Berlioz, Jules Massenet, Charles Gounod, Gustave Moreau and Gustave Doré, and led a summer artists’ colony in Bougival. After her second marriage, to the lawyer Georges Straus, Geneviève began a new salon that became the center for the pro-Dreyfusards. As the daughter of Fromantel Halévy, the composer of “The Jewess” (1835) and “The Wandering Jew” (1852), she was active in protesting the vicious anti-Semitism of the 1880s and 1890s.
But over all, the grandes dames were uninterested in politics, public affairs or feminism. As Caroline Kaufmann, the leader of the militant women’s rights group Solidarité des Femmes, wrote: “They are and want to remain the phoenix, the rare bird, the priceless object. They don’t care at all about women’s emancipation, and for good reason — they wouldn’t stand to gain anything from it.” Although Élisabeth longed to be a writer, and labored on a secret autobiographical novel for 20 years, she never published it. She lived to be seen, not read.
Weber, a professor of French and comparative literature at Barnard College, is an erudite literary historian as well as a fashion connoisseur, and she spent years of archival research amassing the sumptuous details, apt and amusing illustrations, lengthy endnotes, huge bibliography and three appendixes of this engrossing story. She describes not only the three women, but an enormous cast of the dandies, decadents, artists, writers, musicians and financiers of the fin de siècle. Clearly Weber loves this period; while the book is long and weighty, it is never dull. Still, I wish she had gone even longer through the Dreyfus affair, which marked a tragic turn in what she calls “a soon-to-be-extinct society.” Geneviève Straus, for example, was shunned by many of her noble guests, who no longer saw her as a glamorous hostess but “as a troublemaking Jew.”
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