- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 6, 2009

By Chris Greenhalgh
Riverhead, $15, 336 pages

When two stars of artistic genius such as Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky collide in early-20th century France, there’s bound to be drama and romance, although their affair was a sordid and adulterous one.

It’s the forbidden love between the feisty fashion designer and the soulful composer that makes this union so irresistible for a historical novel, and author Chris Greenhalgh has delivered it in “Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinksy,” published for the first time in the United States this week. It is the basis for the film version due out in January.

In the novel, Chanel is first exposed to Stravinsky in the spring of 1913 when she is in the audience for a performance of his “The Rite of Spring” at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris, causing the City of Light to erupt in riots due to the ballet’s power, unconventional style and provocative themes.

They do not meet on that night, but are at similar points in their early thirties and about to set the world alight in what will become legendary careers.

She has just achieved her first whiff of fame after designing hats for French aristocrats, lifting her from a childhood mired in abandonment and poverty.

As for Stravinsky, he has already composed “Petrushka” and “Firebird,” and won the praise and friendship of the likes of Debussy and Ravel, but by 1917 will be exiled from his home country of Russia thanks to the Revolution.

The two are not properly introduced until 1920 by their mutual friend Sergei Diaghilev, the well-known arts critic and patron.

“I see your name everywhere,” Stravinsky tells his new acquaintance.

“And I never stop hearing yours,” she purrs back.

At the time of their fated meeting, Chanel is a woman swimming in money and luxury, an independent spirit far ahead of her time.

While Stravinsky is equally talented, he is financially strapped with children and Catherine, his sick and feeble wife, clinging to him.

“Coco realizes his dandyism is an act. It masks a deep sense of insecurity and a profound sense of loss. Loss of state and selfhood. The man is clinging on, she thinks.”

Stravinsky is instantly smitten. “The clay was warm the day God made her,” he reports to Diaghilev.

Seeing something of herself in the young composer and sensing their animal attraction, Chanel, ever the cunning huntress, invites Stravinsky and his family to stay, rent free, in her lair, a new villa she has purchased as a holiday place in Garches, called Bel Respiro.

Once Coco and Stravinsky are under the same roof, they can barely keep their lust contained. Mr. Greenhalgh’s expert story telling and imagination make the reader feel as if he is a fly on the wall witnessing firsthand their physical chemistry.

For example, while their friendship is building into a passionate fury, Chanel helps Stravinsky sew a button back on his shirt. She pricks her finger with the needle, allowing Mr. Greenhalgh’s artful use of metaphor to shine.

“An attraction flashed between them. Unspoken and remote, perhaps, but as real and clear as the button she sews back on to his shirt. An undertow of longing pulls at him. The sting of the needle in her finger has quickened the heat in his blood.”

Soon the couple acquiesces to their yearning, and tryst all over Bel Respiro, much to the chagrin of Chanel’s household staff, and Stravinsky’s wife, who, although grateful for Chanel’s generosity, sees her as a noveau riche upstart.

Catherine’s confirmation of their affair leads to confrontations with Stravinsky and her ultimate decision to leave Bel Respiro with the children.

For her part, knowing that Stravinsky will never leave his wife for her, Chanel soon takes another Russian lover, Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovitch, whom Stravinsky loathes.

The two men wrangle, leaving Stravinksy with cracked eyeglasses.

The novel ends with the two lovers parting woefully, but peacefully, Stravinsky leaving behind his piano, which he would never return to reclaim.

In the book, Chanel’s last thoughts on her deathbed are of her beloved Igor, whose gift of a religious icon she keeps nearby.

Chanel died in January 1971. Stravinsky would follow her that spring.

They both were named by Time Magazine in the top 100 most influential figures of the 20th century.

Aside from the richly woven prose and heightened sense of romance and intrigue, readers will find this novel entertaining, especially if they are admirers of Chanel and Stravinsky and their searing contributions to the fields of fashion and music.

The book implies that Chanel’s affair with Stravinsky is the inspiration behind her iconic fragrance, Chanel Number Five, perhaps the most famous perfume ever created.

“It appeals to the senses in the same way music does; and he’s prepared to concede it needs artistry, genius even, to create it,” the book has Stravinsky thinking after Chanel tests samples with him.

“You know something? I never told you. You smell marvelous,” he reveals during their final embrace.

As for music lovers, they will gain new insights into Stravinsky’s tortuous personal life that informed his compositions.

In the book, Chanel finances his revival of “The Rite of Spring,” his magnum opus known to popular audiences not least because of its inclusion in the animated Disney hit “Fantasia.”

The novel leads the reader to believe that they are each other’s muses, despite not ending up together.

“Don’t think I regret it. Any of it,” he tells her.

Mr. Greenhalgh relied heavily on biographies of Chanel and Stravinsky to sew together his fictionalized account of their affair.

At the back of the book, he provides a useful chronology of events that the history buff will appreciate, including the fact that Karl Lagerfeld used “The Rite of Spring” as background music for his 1989 Chanel fashion show.

Stephanie Green is a reporter and columnist for The Washington Times.

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