André Leon Talley is such a unique figure in fashion. Traumatised by sex as a child and largely avoiding it as an adult, he danced his way through the 70s (with Diana Vreeland AND Diana Ross), which probably helped him survive the AIDS years when so many others fell. He was usually the only black face in the glamorous jet-set fashion world of Lagerfeld, St. Laurent and all the super-rich they catered to. He would take the occasional snort of blow with Halson but still made it to church every Sunday. He nonetheless committed the biggest sin in fashion: he got fat. But he overcame that by turning caftans into a statement. He made a career out of being himself, which in almost in context outside of fashion would have relegated him to the margins. How does someone from a small town in the Jim Crow south end up working for Warhol at Interview, WWD, Ebony, Vanity Fair and himself become a fashion icon at Vogue? André Leon Talley tells it with great flair in THE CHIFFON TRENCHES, a fabulous name for a very enjoyable book.
In La Violetera (Luis Cesar Amadori, 1958) Sara Montiel’s rich aristocratic lover (Ralf Vallone) leaves her when after the death of his brother he inherits lands and title, must protect the family name, and can no longer afford to be seen with a lowly seller of violets/ music hall singer. She runs off and of course ends up triumphing in all the great capitals of Europe. The film offers a montage of her singing different songs across different capitals and in Paris the song she offers is ‘Mon homme’, which she begins singing in Spanish and then switches to French to flatter her audience.
Watching her sing the song made me wonder if there is an international repertoire that gay divas have in common. The song was introduced by Mistinguette in 1920. Arletty, the glorious gay diva who, after being tried as a collaborator for having a Nazi lover during the occupation famously retorted, ‘My heart is French but my ass is international,’ also covered it. The song is basically sets to music the indelible character in Marcel Carné’s Hôtél du Nord minus the ‘atmosphere, atmosphere!’: ‘on the ground we argue, she says in the film, but in bed we communicate, and on the pillow we understand each other’ (see excerpt below):
If you understand French, it’s worth listening to the two French versions side by side.
The song was made famous in America by Fanny Brice in 1921 and was such a hit she even starred in a film by that name in 1928. It was famously revived for Funny Girl by Gay Diva extraordinaire Barbra Streisand below. Again it’s worth comparing Brice’s version to Streisand’s (below):
Another such comparison is that of the Billie Holiday and Diana Ross versions. Diana, or Miss Ross to you, had famously played Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues. And Holiday’s great version of the song, had been a big hit in the thirties without quite eclipsing Brice’s version in the culture at large. It’s again instructive to look at these two versions together. Ross looks completely glam, interacts with the audience, says how hard the song is for her to sing. She takes the audience through the mechanics of the song. Her voice is unique, instantly recognisable, one of the great glories of American pop. But I don’t believe a word she says; and neither does she. ‘I hate that line’ she says after singing ‘He Beats Me too’. Compare it to Holiday’s version below. It brings up all kinds of feelings, confused and contradictory ones, about a person and a way of life that can’t be contained by camp. The hurt bursts through.
Now let me take you to what started this off in the first place, Sara Montiel’s version. As you can see below, if it was difficult to believe what Ross was singing in the clip from Vegas above. Montiel doesn’t even try to communicate what the song is saying. Her number is so far removed from what Billie Holiday is conveying that it’s as if from a parallel universe. With Montiel, it’s all about the dress, the hairstyle, the gestures; it’s all about her; and about inciting audience adoration. It’s all artifice, exaggeration, style, decorative beauty. Camp. ‘My job is not to be a good singer or a good dancer or a good actress. My job is to be a star’. And as you can see, the clip below puts you in no doubt of that fact. There’s nothing there about a woman who loves a man so she’s willing to share him, or get beaten up by him. He wouldn’t dare. That downtrodden woman in the song is transformed into an object of admiration and worship. She glistens, she beckons, she offers looks. It has nothing to do with the truth of the song. Montiel transcends hurt and oppression with gorgeous gowns and glamour. Glitter eclipses hurt.