L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Friday, November 23, 2012

"L'ai-je bien descendu?!"

Several years ago, not long before Gigi and I found each other, I stumbled upon an overly-efficient but, to my mind, rather elegant method of racking up credit card debt.  Bidding on Ebay for vintage postcards and cartes de visite of mid-nineteenth to early-twentieth century European royalty.  (I now own a quite impressive collection - two volumes full - and, yes, the cards are paid off.  And, yes, I hardly ever even remember that I own them.)  I suppose I was lonely, bored.  The best, most fertile condition for reckless, not-very-useful-or-ever-will-be expenditure.  In my bidding and buying frenzy, I only managed to veer off-topic twice:  I have a small cabinet card from 1902 of a young Austrian military cadet; I suppose his lyrical beauty is sufficient explanation for the departure.  And the other  - the cabinet card pictured above - I have no explanation for whatsoever.

The image is of a young Cécile Sorel, the famous French actress.  She's obviously in costume for a play, but I don't know which.  Other than her name, I knew nothing of her before the purchase, and only a little more now:

Born Cécile Émilie Seurre in 1873, she made an early start in the theatre and by 1901 had been admitted to the Comédie-Française.  She had a long and successful career there; her most celebrated role was Molière's Célimène.  Internationally known, she was charming and vivacious, and held the friendship of many a "great man".  As was common with popular actresses of the day, her photograph - in costume or in the latest fashion - was in every journal or newspaper, and her lifestyle was as commented on as her acting. 

Her beautiful apartment on the Quai Voltaire was famous for its elegant, but daring décor and perfect taste; Cecil Beaton in his "The Glass of Fashion" devotes several pages to describing it, all but foaming over in nostalgic rapture:

 "...The fine boiseries were of eggshell blue and gold.  Against a magnificent Coromandel screen she placed a couple of Jacob fauteuils in lobster-scarlet velvet.  [...]  The floor, of white and pigeons'-blood marble squares, was spread with leopard skins, while the walls, of an eggshell brown, were hung with medallions of carved stone.  The dining table of marble was copied from one at Versailles and was covered with a cloth of gold tissue.  For her dinner parties huge garlands of scarlet poppies... were stretched in festoons the length of the table...."

Two of Beaton's drawings which were included in the book.

Apparently she was long engaged to wealthy American architect Whitney Warren, but in 1926, at the age of 52, she married the much younger Guillaume-Henri-Robert, comte de Ségur-Lamoignon who, an actor himself, went by the stage name of Guillame de Sax.  Not a successful union - they separated but never divorced - the chief benefit of this marriage was that she was able to spend the rest of her days happily employing the glamorous appellation, la comtesse de Ségur.

She retired from the Comédie-Française in 1933, and at the age of sixty, made nearly unrecognizable by a radical face-lift (see more below), she completely reinvented herself as an improbable star of the music hall.  At her first appearance in this new sphere, after making her long descent of the escalier Dorian at the Casino de Paris, she paused at the foot of the stairs and uttered one of the most famous phrases in all of music hall history:  "L'ai-je bien descendu?!"  ("I came down well?")


I'm pretty sure that the bared breast in the center image above is only a product of artistic license; Sorel was in her sixties at 
this point, after all.  The costume design in the sketch by Drian, above right, is shown as worn in the photograph above.

In 1937, in a role that suggested typecasting, she played an aging courtesan in Sasha Guitry's Les Perles de la couronne.  She continued working in the theatre during and through the end of WWII.  Even as her career inevitably waned, she was still to be seen everywhere - with other celebrities, in the newspapers; always très à la mode - until, it seems, she thought perhaps the time had come for one last transformation.

Being glamorous and dramatic about town.  (On the left, in 1947, with Jean Marais and Edwige Feuillère.)

Like so many grand ladies with a perhaps too glamorous past, in her old age she rediscovered God.  And in 1950 the comtesse de Ségur decided to retire from life and took vows of the Third Order of Saint Francis of Assisi.  Until her death, she wore the "sackcloth" habit of the order - though her habit was white and red, rather than the regulation brown, and was made up for her by leading couturiers.  She died in 1966 at the age of 93.

The year before her death, resplendent in her religious robes, reminiscing about 
her former glories.  Still the actress.  Et encore très animée et charmante.


In her memoirs, Mes cahiers bleus (My blue notebooks), famous courtesan Liane de Pougy speaks often of Sorel.  (De Pougy and Sorel had similar trajectories; both married a much younger, low-rent aristocrat, whom they later separated from but never divorced, thus keeping an attractive title - Liane became Princess Ghika in 1920 - and both spent their waning days as part of a religious order.)  Reading between the lines, de Pougy sounds a bit jealous of Sorel, and in describing the effect of the latter's cosmetic surgery she doesn't temper her frankness:

[In 1933, after seeing her photograph in a newspaper]  "Sorel has had her nose done and her face lifted so often that she has ended with a different face.  She is still pretty through it all, but one wonders who it is."

[And the next year]  "I saw Cécile close up at Armenonville in July.  [...]  She is fairly frightening, her body delicate, supple, quite fashionable, her face tortured, the eyes sunken and too wide open.  They say that she has had her eyelids lifted and that now it's impossible for her to shut them completely...."

And this was in 1934.  The technology of rejuvenation has certainly advanced since then, and its results are usually much less crude.  But in her quest for the permanent bloom of youth, for reasons both personal and professional, the comtesse de Ségur was certainly a woman ahead of her time.

The "new and improved" Cécile Sorel.  In the photograph on the right, Sorel is
made ready by the writer Colette, who briefly had her own cosmetics business.
With Willy Michel, photographed in his Photomaton in 1939.  Visible here, as
proof of the drastic face-lift, is the rather alarming recession of her hairline.


  1. Mon dieu, quelle histoire! A beautiful portrait and hommage to a fantastic creature. She was a living work of art. Thank you for sharing her with us!

  2. I could just die & go to heaven after digesting this post.

    I had not an inkling of your collection. As a gatherer of early photography myself, I appreciate the madness that it entails to pursue the passion.

    I didn't understand that I could actually love you more.

    1. Ah, mon vieux, toi et moi? Les deux sont complètement fous! Et je t'adore aussi.

  3. What an admirable article. Et comme vous faites bien de secouer la cendre encore chaude de cette epoque si flamboyante. Wonderful Sorel, Wonderful era wonderful you. Merci merci.

    1. Merci pour vos mots gentils, Eryk! I'm so glad you found and enjoyed my post. : )