Wednesday, 26 September 2012


 I was in the garden studying a worm with my little son Nicolas when the phone rang. It was my agent with news of a job.
 'I’ve been asked by a publisher to find an author who speaks french fluently and has a knowledge of the fashion world to ghost the couturier Pierre Balmain’s autobiography in English for the American market. You fit the bill perfectly. Can you meet him in Paris next Tuesday for preliminary talks, all expenses paid?.
 I said yes.

 I was met at Orly airport by a chauffeur in a dove grey uniform who drove me in a dove grey limousine to the Pierre Balmain fashion house in Rue François 1er..
 A neat oriental youth greeted me in reception and bid me follow him up majestically curving stairs, into a crowded showroom where mannequins were parading the latest collection and through tall double doors to a Louis XV salon.                           
 Pierre Balmain himself was standing by the window.
 He was a heavily built man, portly, reminding me a little of photographs I had seen of Mussolini, without the lantern jaw. There was power there and expectancy that everyone would bow to his every whim. He was immaculately dressed in a blue suit and perfumed to the back of his ears, presumably with one of his own brands of scent.
 He crossed the room, shook me firmly by the hand and bid me sit down on one of the many fauteuils apparently once owned by Madame de Pompadour. He sat down opposite me.
 After introductory chatter and a discussion on how best we would work, I launched forth with a vital question.
 'I have read a great deal about your professional achievements'  I started 'but know very little about your private life. Are you or were you ever married?  'It was a way I had planned of finding out if he would talk of his homosexuality or want to avoid the subject which in those days was delicate.
 'Mon cher! 'he exclaimed as though outraged, 'I am one of the most renowned perverts in Paris!' he looked me up and down. 'You are clearly quite terrified, so let me put your mind at rest. You are not at all my type. I prefer strong, body building Italian peasants, preferably those who ride motorbikes.'
 'I am relieved,' I said.
he countered, 'don’t try to hide your inner desires from me. We all know that young Englishmen like you who are fascinated by 'le monde de haute couture' and marry models long to come out of their little closets.'
 I smiled resignedly thinking it wise not to contradict him.
 He outlined what he had in mind for the book. I learned about his childhood, his education and rise to fame which. unfortunately, suggested a dull story.
 The outcome of this tête a tête was that he found me intelligent enough to have me ghost his autobiography. He suggested we work together at his retreat on the Island of Elba later in the year. His secretary would contact me to make the necessary arrangements.

 I went home happy, finished my third thriller for Tom Boardman and, in September, flew to Rome, took a train North to the coastal town of Piombino where I boarded a ferry for Portoferraio on the Island where Napoleon had been exiled in 1814.
 I was met by Monsieur Balmain who was waiting for me on the quay side in an open white Cadillac.
 He greeted me warmly and took me for a quick tour of the island before driving up a steep road which led to his most extraordinary residence.. It was a futuristic building, elliptical in shape, a cross between a flying saucer and a giant egg perched on a cliff. He led me past a large oval swimming pool at the centre of a water garden supplied by natural springs. Inside, the villa was similar to a marbled luxury liner with views of the sea from countless windows, every piece of furniture a priceless antique, every objet d’art clearly priceless, a Degas, a  Modigliani, a van Dongen hung on the walls.
 He showed me to my room which had dove grey walls and lemon yellow curtains, 'The colours I am launching for next season’s collection, 'he informed me and, after tea on one of the terraces, served by a local young man to whom he must have given a Harley Davidson, he took me down to a basement where an elderly artisan was delicately tapping paper thin strips of gold onto an elaborate wrought iron frame.
 'As you well know I am Queen Sirikit of Thailand’s couturier,'  Balmain said to me, 'she pays me in gold leaf, and this gentleman is a Florentine goldsmith whom I employ to guild whatever I choose. This is part of a 15th century bed that belonged to one of the Medicis. By the time he has finished, it will be a quite superb piece suitable for my bedroom.
 I spent the week listening to my host, writing passages of the book, swimming in the pool, visiting the museum which had once been Bonaparte’s residence and eating very well.
 The day I was due to leave, Balmain suggested I should delay my return to England and join him on his drive back to Paris in the Cadillac, stopping in Florence on the way. It was of course an exceptional invitation, but I wanted to get back to Eve whose time was getting close.
 Pierre Balmain did not understand me preferring to go home to a domestic scene of childbirth to travelling with him through Italy and France. He was so nettled that he coldly bid me goodbye there and then, told me one of his gardeners would drive me to the ferry and went into his study closing the door. I never saw him again.
 I sent him chapters during the following months. There was a long period of silence then, two years later, his autobiography was published, supposedly translated from the French by an American but bearing some similarity to the work I had done. I had been well rewarded financially and the week of extravagance I experienced on the Island of Elba had been an insight into a world I could never afford, unfortunately it triggered off a desire in me to be more fastidious about my surroundings and be richar than I could ever hope to be in the profession I had chosen. 

Balmain's house in the Island of Elba

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