Borderland of Bohemia

Monday, Nov. 9, 1953

MISIA AND THE MUSES (212 pp.)—Misia Serf—John Day ($3.50).

Old Franz Liszt sighed as Misia Sert played the piano, "Ah, if only I could still play like that." Grieg asked her to play the Peer Gynt Suite with him. Ibsen presented her with his autographed portrait. Mallarme wrote poems to her. Verlaine read her his verse and wept. Toulouse Lautrec painted her picture, then tickled the soles of her feet with his brush. Bonnard did murals for her salon. Picasso made her godmother to his first child. Proust called her beautiful. Maillol asked her to pose for sculpture. "In you the image of immortality seems achieved," he wrote her. "There is nothing left but to copy it." Renoir painted seven portraits of her, often pleaded that she open her dress more. "Lower, lower," he begged. "Why, in heaven's name, don't you let me see your breasts? It is truly a sin."

Whatever it is in a woman that sends poets, artists and commonplace millionaires into a swirl, Misia Sert had. She was a Polish beauty who was born in Russia, chose to live in France, and found the great love of her life with a Spaniard. Then, to make her Spaniard happy, she gave him up to a younger woman. Misia's memoirs are written in low key. sometimes with the flatness of a diary. But despite her flaws as a writer, her story gives a revealing account of life on the borderland of Bohemia in a bygone Europe, and an engrossing picture of Misia herself. It might make a movie, a French movie.

Kiss for the Mirror. Misia made her bow in society at 15, when she was invited to a ball at the Belgian court. She wore a pale blue tulle dress with a wide sash and was staggered upon seeing herself in the huge mirror at the palace entrance: "When I realized it was really me, I rushed to the mirror and passionately kissed my own reflection in front of an army of astonished flunkeys."

Misia was not the only one who was impressed with Misia. Before she was 16, she was married to a young Parisian man of affairs, Thadee Natanson, whom she met one evening while out with Alfred Nobel, the dynamite manufacturer, and his American mistress. After blithely spending her dowry of 300,000 francs (then $60,000) on a trousseau, Misia settled in Paris, and while Thadee concerned himself with business, she diverted herself by building homes on the Riviera, helping imprisoned anarchists and bewitching the first of a long succession of assorted geniuses.

Soon another Frenchman, the multimillionaire proprietor of Le Matin, Alfred Edwards, fell in love with her. The day Misia lunched at his home he left the table too distraught to eat. Edwards' wife berated Misia for upsetting the great man; rather than distress him, Mme. Edwards told her, Misia should become his mistress. Misia was indignant, but Edwards was persistent. For all the world like the heavy in a French melodrama, he lured Thadee Natanson into a disastrous business scheme, then offered to save him in exchange for Misia. The bargain was struck, Misia finally agreed, and after rapid divorces she married Edwards.

A Dazzled Heart. Misia's new husband owned an immense castle with towers and battlements, but castles were not to Misia's taste. "Why should I limit myself to two or three hundred acres, when I can revel in the whole world?" she demanded. Edwards promptly sold his castle and built Misia a 100-ft. yacht. Caruso acclaimed the yacht's acoustics perfect, and tirelessly sang Neapolitan songs whenever he was a guest. "Enough!" Misia finally cried. "I can't bear that any more!" Eyes popping, Caruso exploded in dismay: "I, Caruso, the great, the incomparable Caruso! I! Princes have knelt before me, begging me to open my mouth, and you ask me to shut it!" But he shut it.

Then Edwards fell in love with an actress, and just when Misia was feeling most deeply forsaken, Jose Maria Sert, the Spanish painter, walked into her apartment wearing a sombrero and Spanish cape. Before leaving, he asked her to go to Rome with him for a few weeks. Amused, irritated and taken aback, she heard herself say she would be delighted. With Sert she "knew what it was to have a dazzled heart," and for the first time had the "calm and frightening feeling of something final."

Their few weeks together stretched into a couple of decades during which Misia continued to charm such people as Diaghilev, Clemenceau and Debussy, and Sert won an international reputation as a mural painter, plus a fortune in commissions. All was idyllic until Sert met Roussadana Mdivani, a Georgian princess young enough to be his and Misia's daughter. It was a strange triangle, with Sert torn between Roussadana and Misia. each of whom loved and consoled the other at every turn of Sert's affection. Misia let him have a divorce. "The poor girl was not responsible for the feeling she had for you." she wrote Sert. "I found it very natural that she should adore you." There was never anybody else for Misia after that. When Sert died in 1945, Misia felt there was no longer any reason to exist. But there was a reason after all: she lived four years more, long enough to complete her memoirs.

Copyright © 2006 Time Inc. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.
Privacy Policy