Befuddled oracle

Page 13 [August] 1931 Barbara Ker-Seymer 1905-1994 Presented by Barbara Ker-Sermer's partner Barbara Roett (born 1927) in 1997. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/archive/TGA-974-5-2-15

Page 13 [August] 1931 Barbara Ker-Seymer 1905-1994 Presented by Barbara Ker-Seymer’s partner Barbara Roett (born 1927) in 1997. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/archive/TGA-974-5-2-15

Sketched by Augustus John, photographed by Berenice Abbott, fictionalised by Marcel Proust, befriended by Barbette, dressed by Coco Chanel, vilified by Jean Cocteau and related by marriage to Raymond Roussel: Strange Flowers couldn’t love Princess Violette Murat more if she came back to life and vacuumed behind our sofa.

Which, as it happens, would not be entirely out of character. “If she arrived to stay at the Ritz she would tie her hair up in a scarf, ask room service to send up a pail and some brushes and start scrubbing the bathroom,” writes Sebastian Faulks in The Fatal Englishman. Even the revivification might be considered appropriate for a woman who was often accompanied by a white rat who, she claimed, had been reincarnated.

So who was this strange, compulsive yet well-connected individual?

She was born Violette Ney d’Elchingen on this day in 1878, the issue of one illustrious Napoleonic line who would later marry into another. Despite these august familial bonds, her later life comes down to us not as a grand narrative but rather a series of provocative vignettes. Her real habitat appears to be the memoirs of the age. She inevitably appears as one of a conga line of names, all attendees of some between-the-wars boho blowout or other, her rotund form slipping away before the reader gets to know her. We find her, for instance, snubbing Proust before the famous 1922 dinner at which he met Joyce. The princess was apparently pained by an unflattering caricature of her as a tightwad in À la recherche du temps perdu, but it is typical of Murat’s arm’s-length relations with posterity that no-one seems sure which character is meant to be her.

In 1930 Janet Flanner informs her New Yorker readers of Murat’s attendance at a party thrown by Élisabeth de Gramont at which she “led in a Harlem wedding party as mother of the bride”. This is the very party, no less, where Dolly Wilde dragged up as her famous uncle. Murat was a subject of some of Dolly’s few published words. They record another encounter between the two women; their shared pharmacological and sexual tastes account for the voluptuous fug of the recollection:

…’Madame la princesse’ – legend, tradition, the great name … The next meeting in her hotel, in the anonymous sitting-room, people, opium, drinks, the stimulant of artificiality leading to flirtations, exaggerations, the target of our wit, of our inner eye being the monstrous creature on the sofa who, through the haze of her smoke and drink, still retained a startling lucidity: the befuddled oracle, the unfallible débauchée with blind eyes and shapeless mouth – a presence rather than a human being. Her magnetism, defending the insolent ravages of time, consoled her vanity … Initiated into opium smoking … I found myself alone for the first time with this telepathic presence. Bemused with illusory happiness, affection became electrical between us. But her élans towards me … met with an unconscious drawing back, and her flattery met only with the impertinence of surprise. Night succeeded night, her magnetism crystallizing slowly – I was confused, my mind enthralled, my senses subordinated to my vision.

This is a rare glimpse into Murat’s inner life; a rumoured affair with Marie Laurencin is one of the few other indications that she might actually have maintained an existence away from the revelry. That the princess was addicted to opium was, however, widely acknowledged. Her most magnificent appearance in the anecdotes of the era finds her sharing a pipe with René Crevel in a decommissioned submarine she kept for the purpose in Toulon. Photographer Barbara Ker-Seymer captured the princess in the port town, even there a marginal figure (Ker-Seymer’s happy snaps preserved in the Tate Archive are well worth a look; her subjects include Brian Howard, Frederick Ashton and a young, galactically camp Bunny Roger).

The physical descriptions of Murat are rarely complimentary: French art dealer René Gimpel compared her hair to “a roof of well-twisted thatch…horizontal curls resembling miniature stove pipes.” For model Bettina Bergery, she was something out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, “The Princess who changed into a Frog”. Nina Hamnett‘s biographer Denise Hooker describes her a “an enormous mountain of a woman”.

But exploring the Hamnett connection reveals another Murat, one generous not just in form but in nature as well. Hamnett and Murat mixed in similar circles, crossing paths in Le Boeuf sur le Toit (“What didn’t she know of the ins and outs of Paris?” said Augustus John admiringly of the princess). Murat, contrary to her tightfisted reputation, supported the perpetually penniless Hamnett for years, who repaid her loyalty by accompanying her to rehab (although she would toss the Vichy water away when no-one was looking). Yet another of those glittering mosaic pieces finds the two women at dinner with Nancy Cunard and Ronald Firbank to which the latter – disastrously – turned up sober, his habitual hysteria replaced by excruciating silence.

Violette Murat died in 1936, and whatever else there is to learn about her beyond these walk-on parts is captive in unpublished diaries and letters, awaiting the attention of a sensitive biographer.

God speed.

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12 comments

  1. sunilbadami

    Great to see you’re back James! Great post! Hope you’re well!

    S x Sunil Badami bon vivant raconteur flâneur P: P O Box 1085 ROZELLE NSW 2039 AUSTRALIA E: sunil@sunilbadami.com | http://www.sunilbadami.com M: +61 (0)402 240 226 | T: Badami_Sunil | S: murdamirama Sunil Badami t/a Murdamirama ABN: 22 811 558 407

  2. A sparkling glimpse at the gilded “grape,” as I believe she was once labeled. And those scrapbooks! Swoon. Glad as ever to see you back.

  3. Four. Eyes

    Love this site for required reading. Today’s nonentities captured by the term ” celebrities” seem pale by comparison. Please continue to educate, inform and entertain Mr Conway…

  4. Anna V. Karras

    Check out the Palais Massena in Nice and the family murals: a haughty Violette with a young thing hanging on her shoulder. Your blog piqued my curiosity, so I found another blog by Tish Farrell, laying the whole clan out for our delectation.

  5. Bernard Barcy

    As always, the best blog on the net with greatly informative and amusing posts. Violette Murat keeps propping in different biographies and memoirs of her contemporaries – too bad she has thus far escaped from having a biography dedicated to her. But comes out of many of these accounts is that she had a great malicious wit – a “langue de vipère”, as one says in French. She must have been fascinating company, much like Daisy Fellowes.

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