In Conversation

ROSAMOND BERNIER with Phong Bui

On the occasion of her 95th birthday and the publication of her memoir Some of My Lives (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Rosamond Bernier, founder/editor of L’OEIL magazine (1955–1971) and lecturer extraordinaire, welcomed publisher Phong Bui to her Upper East Side home to talk about her life and work.

Portrait of the Rosamond Bernier. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Phong Bui (Rail): L’OEIL, fortunately, has been compiled into the Selective Eye anthologies. I remember how brilliant and charming Alfred H. Barr Jr.’s introduction to the first Selective Eye volume was. I still treasure having that issue, along with the complete set of Selective Eye in my library.

Rosamond Bernier: I only knew Barr slightly from New York, but the magazine was not yet known in the U.S. I simply sent him an issue with a note saying, “Would you consider writing something for the magazine?” He liked the issue so much that he endorsed it with that wonderful introduction. At that point, Barr was at the top of the heap. So it was the most wonderful send-off for a new magazine into the world.

Rail: I like his recounting of an incident with the great Kaiser Museum director, Hugo von Tschudi. When asked, “Why do we like El Greco so much?” he answered, “It’s because he reminds us of Cézanne.” That remark got him fired from his post. Barr went on to say that the Kaiser was right, because in 1900, any appreciation shown to the works of Cézanne or El Greco represented a threat to the security of respectable conventions. Barr also said that every mature civilization is concerned with two categories of art: its own and that of earlier periods, which is seen through an eye that is both excited by modern art and seeking a fresh past not yet worn thin and dull. And L’OEIL is such an eye.

Bernier: You can imagine it was all true since the legitimacy of modern art was just barely gained after WWII.

Rail: Right. And do you think your deep appreciation for past and present culture may have had its root in early family life? I mean your father, Samuel Rosenbaum, a prominent lawyer and the head of the board of directors of the Philadelphia Orchestra, was a lover of old and new classical music, from late Beethoven quartets to Stravinsky, de Falla, as well as Aaron Copland.

Bernier: Yes, absolutely. His was not a visual sense, but he was deeply musical. Even though my father was a lawyer his real love was music. And when my mother died when I was only 8, while keeping up his work at the office, he very much centered our home life with his immense record collection of classical recordings, which he played every evening. So I grew up hearing all kinds of music. Of course he also took me every Saturday night to the Philadelphia Orchestra, and I’d put on my best silk dress. We often went to New York to hear the Metropolitan Opera.

Rail: Reading your reminiscence of Eugene Ormandy was quite funny.

Bernier: Yes, in those days, there was no air conditioning, and Philadelphia heat in summer was appalling, so while we were away in the mountains, my father one summer lent his screened-in sleeping porch to Gene, as we called him, and Gene, who was known to have perfect pitch, simply couldn’t stand it. He said to us, “Those goddamned birds all sing out of tune.” So he gave up sleeping on the porch and went indoors. [Laughs.] Unlike Messiaen who made a whole career out of birdsongs.

Rail: Your background was, to put it mildly, musical. So how did the visual get developed?

Bernier: For some reason, I was drawn to images. In fact, when I was at Sarah Lawrence, every time I came to the city for my weekly music lesson, I would go to the few galleries on 57th Street to look at art, particularly the Pierre Matisse Gallery.

Rail: How was your experience at Sarah Lawrence?

Bernier: I had wonderful teachers; I was closer to them than to any of the students. Jacques Barzun, who will be 103 at the end of November, was absolutely supportive all the time. Irma Brandeis, the Dante scholar, was my brilliant Italian literature teacher. Actually, only a decade or more ago did I learn that she was the great inspiration and love of the poet Eugenio Montale. Apparently, he gave her the name Clizia. One time I came back to New York from Mexico and there were no hotels available because the war was on. Irma took me in and I lived at her apartment for a short while. Max Geismar introduced me to American literature. I was brought up more with English and French writing but I didn’t know much about American literature. I was introduced to Proust, which was to be a lifelong interest. I also took courses in philosophy and political history from Rousseau’s Social Contract and Karl Marx’s Critique of Political Economy.

Rail: Was Marguerite Yourcenar there?

Bernier: She came right after I left, but I met her later in Paris.

Rail: Were there any other reasons why you left Sarah Lawrence in your third year other than your marriage to a man named Lewis Riley?

Bernier: No. It all started in the summer that followed the end of my sophomore year, during which I went down to Mexico. That’s when I met, through the conductor Carlos Chávez, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Much later I got to know others, including Malcolm Lowry and Paul Bowles. And then I met Lew Riley, who was a young man with independent means. He spoke Spanish, and was involved in land development. He tried to persuade me to marry him. At first I said no, and I went back to college. But when he drove up in his beautiful new car and stayed around, I finally said yes. So we were married in my father’s garden. Aaron Copland came up and brought me a piece from the Second Hurricane, his opera for high school kids, orchestrated for harp and guitar, as his wedding present, because I played the harp and Lew played the guitar.

Rail: You studied harp with Carlos Salzedo?

Bernier: I studied with him privately, and in the summer I also went to study with him in Camden, Maine.

Rail: Which is only a few miles from Lincolnville, where Alex and Ada Katz have spent their summers ever since the late ’50s. They were the subject of the last chapter of your memoir.

Bernier: Exactly. John Russell and I stayed at their home one summer, but that was much later. We’re both fond of Alex and Ada. In fact, Alex brought John and me together in a painting, which he donated to the Met. That long-ago summer, the hot new thing was radio in cars. Salzedo, being fascinated by the idea of new technology, would come by and pick us up at our boarding houses on Mountain Street with his old-fashioned car, then drive us to the cemetery because that’s where the best radio reception was. And we would sit in the back of his car listening to the Greig concerto or something that he never would have listened to under normal circumstances.

Rail: So after you married Lewis Riley you moved to Mexico.

The cover of the first L’OEIL, a detail of Léger’s La Grande Parade. Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Bernier: We moved to Acapulco. At that time there weren’t any foreigners in Acapulco so we built a house with a beautiful garden. Under my tutelage, our cook learned to entertain so well that our home became a fixture for many visiting artists, writers, and even Hollywood folks. Errol Flynn, for example, would come from his yacht for his morning cocktail. During that time, it was a moment of national reawakening. There was much interest in architecture and Mexican folk art. Roberto Montenegro, who had been in Paris, and knew Picasso, Braque, and Cocteau, was a great promoter of folk art. There was a whole link between the intellectuals and folk art. It was rediscovering Mexico, mexicanidad.

Rail: Did you get to know or meet René d’Harnoncourt, who was probably working with Frederick W. Davis, one of the most important folk art and antiquities dealers in Mexico City? This was before d’Harnoncort became the Director of MoMA.

Bernier: René was not my professor, but he taught at Sarah Lawrence. I didn’t meet him then. But on my first trip to Mexico with two other girls from school, René and his wife were our chaperones. We soon became great friends. Even when he was busy being the head of MoMA, he always made time to see me. He was always great fun.

Rail: At some point in 1945 you met Nada Patcevitch, the wife of Iva Patcevitch, the guiding spirit of Condé Nast, in Mexico, then later when you came to visit New York— —

Bernier: I went to New York for a two week visit. During that time, I met Alexander Liberman and his wife Tatiana and Iva Patcevitch, who took me to the birthday party for Edna Chase, Vogue’s editor-in-chief (1914–1952). That was when Mrs. Chase offered me a job as a fashion editor for Vogue. At that time I was free and independent. I wasn’t at all looking for a job. But to my astonishment, three different people at Vogue offered me jobs in different departments in the first week. As the war had just ended, the idea of being sent back to Europe by Vogue was very appealing to me. But when Patcevitch offered me the usual starting salary, which was $45 a week, I burst out laughing! I said, “Mr. Patcevitch, my ignorance is worth more than that.” He was so startled that he offered me $75 instead.

Rail: Was that enough to live on in those days?

Bernier: Just say it was manageable. Anyway, it was quite soon that they sent me to Europe to cover the first collections.

Rail: Your chapter on Coco Chanel is riveting! You painted a picture of such a complex human being. I got goosebumps while reading it!

Bernier: She never stopped talking. Even though I came with many prepared questions, I didn’t get to say anything. She just kept talking for nearly two hours on how women should dress or behave a certain way and so on.

Rail: Then by 1947 you became the European features editor. In addition to meeting Nadia Boulanger, Copland’s composition teacher, you finally met Picasso through the legendary publisher Albert Skira, and your Mexican-accented Spanish delighted Picasso.

Bernier: He was amused. It was at 7 Rue des Grands-Augustins that I visited him. He was unbelievably generous. When I started L’OEIL, he sent a message telling me that he was sending un regalo, a present. The present was to go to his sister Lola’s home in Barcelona and be shown all these works that had never been published. It was a goldmine! I wrote the account of the visit along with many images of works that had not yet been reproduced before, along with photographs of the family. Because of that piece in L’OEIL, both Time and Life magazines ran articles about my piece. For an unknown magazine, suddenly, to have nationwide publicity was invaluable, all thanks to Picasso. He also did something amusing—he sent us a photograph of just his eyes. Naturally, we used it for our advertisement with the text, “Faite comme li, ouvré l’oeil.” Do as he does, open your eye.

Rail: That’s perfect. Would it be difficult to say that your affinity with Picasso was less than with Matisse or vice versa?

Bernier: They were so different. I couldn’t compare my feelings about them, mostly because Picasso was, as you know, an extraordinary character, colorful, forceful, and amazing, while Matisse was a distinguished old gentleman. I remember the first time I went to see Matisse, I brought with me a big album full of reproductions of his work which had just come out, and I said, “Would you sign it for me?” He said, “Leave it with me and come back tomorrow.” And when I came back he’d made a little self-portrait drawing. It’s extraordinarily nice for an old great master to be so generous to a totally unknown person. He also gave me un regalo later. He gave me the first story about his plans for the Vence Chapel. I literally was the first person in the world who wrote about the Vence Chapel.

Rail: You also seem to have had a great affection for Miró.

Bernier: Oh, a great affection for Miró. We remained friends until he died in 1983. He was very silent most of the time, but you always felt there were all kinds of turbulent things going on inside. And by the way, he refused to speak Spanish with me because he so hated the central Franco government. He said, “Je suis Catalán,with that Catalan accent. Even when I was no longer running L’OEIL, I would fly from Paris to Palma to come and see him. His wife, Pilar, in the last decade of his life, was very protective of his privacy, but I was counted among the few whom Miró wanted to see.

Rail: I thought your insight into the use of eyes in Miró’s work was very useful to my own reading. You wrote of eyes appearing on the wings of seraphim angels in the apocalypse, which he saw in Catalan frescoes when he was a child. The images would later reappear in his works, especially in his “Constellation” series where eyes mingle with the stars in the sky.

Bernier: It’s a miraculous image. Everything he did seems to have a direct link to his early life. Miró said that when he left Catalonia for Paris he took with him grasses from his family farm in Montroig. And when the grasses got dried up he would go to the Bois de Boulogne for fresh ones.

Rail: You feel that deep affection in his landmark painting, “The Farm (La Ferme)” (1921–22), which Ernest Hemingway bought.

Bernier: Which he and the family gave to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Rail: Yes. How did you meet Georges Bernier, your second husband and co-founder of L’OEIL?

Picasso reading L’OEIL with his wife, Jacqueline, looking over his shoulder. Photo credit: Roland Penrose. Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Bernier: At the time I was living in the Pont Royal and the bar was a congenial meeting place for both artists and writers because the great publishing house of Gallimard was just down the street. A number of Gallimard authors whom I knew would meet in the bar. I met Georges with Jacques Lacan, who was a friend of his, as well as of Balthus.

Rail: Balthus’s name is barely mentioned in your memoir—you don’t show him much affection!

Bernier: You remember that great song, “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone?”

Rail: I’m learning [laughs]. So you met Bernier in that bar. What was he doing at the time?

Bernier: He was a journalist. He had been writing about the international meetings in San Francisco for the French press. He had been in the war so he had not had time to have a career. But he spoke good English. So, at the end of the war, to earn a living, he became a foreign correspondent. But what really interested me was his link with the French intellectual world. We got married in order to open a French bank account for the magazine. He oversaw the managerial side, and I the editorial. He was not easy with people, so he stayed in the office. I like people, so I was out almost every day. Except when I was writing.

Rail: Was it difficult in the beginning to get it launched?

Bernier: Well, I didn’t have time to think it was difficult. We had no preparation, no pre-publicity, nothing. It just came out one day. Fernand Léger came into town, because he was living in the country by then, and told me that he’d gone to 11 different newsstands asking for it and none of them had it. So he said to them, “Get it, I’ll be back.” And then later when he came to see me at my office, he said, “I’m creating demand,” which was rather amusing for a communist.

Rail: [Laughs.] Well, you did publish a detail of Léger’s “La Grande Parade” on the front cover of the first issue— —

Bernier: True, I did!

Rail: It’s a good issue. James Lord on Giacometti, Bernier interviewing
D. H. Kahnweiler— —

Bernier: Charles Terrasse on the school of Fontainebleau, about which I knew little at the time.

Rail: And a wonderful long essay by Cyril Connolly.

Bernier: On 18th century Bavarian Rococo churches, which were not fashionable at that point at all. Now it’s sort of part of the tourist circuit. I must admit, it was a rich first issue.

Rail: I appreciate the magazine as a lively publication with a handsome layout with readable texts written by experts who don’t make the reader feel inadequate. And most importantly, it was accessible and affordable for young people.

Bernier: Absolutely. My ambition was to see if it would be read in the métro. It actually was. The first issue in American money at that time was 48 cents, and it had eight full pages of color. After publishing it for 16 years, I gave it up, and got a divorce. L’OEIL since then has been bought by a succession of people. And it exists now in a different form, which is as it should be. At its 500th issue, the editor, very gallantly, came to New York to photograph me and interview me about its genesis.

Rail: Was it hard to give it up when you did?

Bernier: I have been very fortunate in my life. This seems always an unbroken thread with whatever I do. As soon as I came back to New York, I immediately started another activity. My friend Michael Mahoney, who was head of the art department at Trinity College, called me up and said, “You’ve got to get up here and speak to my students.” And I objected, “I have never given a talk in my life. I have no slides.” He said, “You have a run of your own magazine. And my students will make your slides.” And he made me get up and talk to them. I thought I’d never do it again, but right after that, Dominique de Menil, who knew me from Paris, asked me to come down to Houston to speak to her students at Rice, which turned out well. Roberto Rossellini, who happened to be staying there at the same time, thought I was a natural. In any case, the Met heard about it. And that’s how my new career at the Met began. I lectured over 250 times there. I’ve also lectured all across the country. Given the French divorce, you can image I really needed the money. So I would go anywhere they’d ask me. It was, needless to say, a way to see different collections in the great museums.

Rail: What was the impetus for putting the Selective Eye anthologies together?

Bernier: Simply practical. Like a French housewife, one would say, “Que’est-ce qu’on va faire avec les restes?” What to do with the leftovers? Since we had a vast archive, I thought why not translate them into English and make something of it?

Rail: How long was the interim between the end of your tenure with L’OEIL and the birth of Selective Eye?

Bernier: Within the first year. I didn’t waste a minute.

Rail: What was the circulation of L’OEIL?

Bernier: Well, it got to be 50,000, but it was as modest as 10 or 15,000 at the beginning.

Rail: How did your marriage to John Russell come about?

Bernier: He had written a number of articles for L’OEIL from England. I was so serious, I was only thinking of the job, but when he came to Paris and he met me, he thought I was the person for him. Fifteen years later, he heard I was divorced and he was also just divorced. And it was at Roland Penrose and Lee Miller’s flat in London, where I was staying, that we finally met again. Very soon after, he said, “Don’t you think we could be married by March?” I said, “Don’t mention marriage to me! My God, I don’t want to hear it!” After having written years and years for the London Sunday Times, he said to me, “I’m a writer, I can make a living anywhere,” so he resigned from his job and came to New York to be with me. And the very first day he came, Hilton Kramer invited him to lunch and asked him to join the New York Times. And that was how John began with the Times. He really liked all of his colleagues there. There was no friction. He was free to do whatever he wanted. He wrote about all kinds of things besides art. The color green, about how “hysteria” rhymes with “wisteria” [laughs].

Alex Katz’s double portrait of John and me, presented to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2010. Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Rail: Yes, he wrote on ideas, literature, people, places, music, theater, and so on. That was evident in his compilation (Reading Russell: Essays, 1941–1988) published in 1989. He was more than just an art critic. He was a cultural critic.

Bernier: I agree. John was also very interested in Russia.

Rail: You can tell by his essays on Pushkin and Rachmaninoff.

Bernier: John loved music as much as I do, which was a huge interest that we shared. When Jerry (Jerome) Robbins gave us tickets a number of times for the ballet, and John wrote and thanked him, Jerry said, “You know? You could be a dance critic.” He had that kind of sensitivity. We were very happy together. We were each other’s greatest fans. And there was never any question of competition. I used to say, “John, you write and I talk and that’s it.” He would say, “You’re quite wrong, you’ve got your own voice, and you should write.” And I paid no attention while he was alive because I was busy talking professionally. But a year after he died, I thought, “Well, maybe I should do what he said.” So I sat down and, off and on, I did it in a year.

Rail: And the result of that is this memoir.

Bernier: Yes.

Rail: Do you think the fact that when he was a child he had a speech impediment may have prompted him to write as a substitution?

Bernier: Yes, I think that the fact that John was born with a stammer embarrassed him. From early on, he would think out exactly what he wanted to say and he would write it out. And so writing became easier than speaking. This was why he would write with extraordinary ease and flexibility. He never wrote a draft while he was at the Times. John would come in his office with one of his fine striped English shirts and red socks, then just write out his review with the right length, the right time, then dash off to lunch. His colleagues would marvel at that ease and at the breadth of his frame of reference. Whether it was about books, music, theater, or dance, and so on, John was a natural with words and ideas, as well as with people.

Rail: In a different way, of course, but (Vittorio) De Sica, according to how you described in one chapter, had a similar ability to make human contact, which was necessary because he worked with non-professional actors and real locations due to lack of funding.

Bernier: Exactly. He, in fact, made the lead actor who played the father in The Bicycle Thief promise him that after the film he would go back to his normal job. De Sica had another career as an actor. He could sing and dance as well.

Rail: Yes, you can certainly see that in Max Ophüls’s The Earrings of Madame De, where he plays the Italian baron, Fabrizio Donati.

Bernier: The film was made after the novel, Madame De, written by a friend of mine, Louise de Vilmorin, who was a very seductive figure in Paris society. She was one of the many mistresses of Duff Cooper when he was the British Ambassador in Paris after the war.

Rail: Let’s go back to your early experience at Vogue. Did Alexander Liberman allow you the freedom you needed as the European features editor?

Bernier: Yes. Completely. I owe a lot to Alex. Again, it was the French-speaking that connected us from the first meeting. I remember the first time when I was invited out to their home in Stony Brook, Long Island; there was only Russian and French spoken.

Rail: Did you learn French from your childhood?

Bernier: Yes. My father, very intelligently, when my English mother died, instead of getting an English nanny, hired a French governess, Nelly Snowden. My father was a good linguist. He spoke French, Spanish, and German. His French accent may not have been as good as mine, but he was fluent.

Rail: Had you ever visited the Barnes Foundation while you were growing up in Philadelphia?

Bernier: Not until much later did I go to see the collection, mostly because Barnes was a very eccentric person, and he didn’t want any Philadelphians to come and see his collections. It was Pierre Matisse who took me as a visitor from France. [Laughs.] Pierre, later at our wedding, was John’s best man, Aaron gave me away, and Lenny Bernstein was a witness.

Rail: At Philip Johnson’s legendary Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. It was very interesting to find that both Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright didn’t care too much for it.

Bernier: They hated it! Mies because he thought it was too much like Mies, in terms of the use of glass. Lloyd Wright, he hated it too. In fact, it was Philip who said to us, “You kids ought to get married.” And I said, “Kids! We’re a couple of middle-aged birds. We’re in our 50s! This is ridiculous.” But he insisted. He arranged the whole wedding. He made the list, he sent out the invitations, did the whole thing. We were very good friends.

Rail: One last thing, Rosamond. When I went to MoMA recently to see the de Kooning retrospective, I took particular notice of the six-panel José Clemente Orozco fresco “Dive Bomber and Tank,” which has hung prominently on the second floor of the south wall for some time. Weren’t you the one who convinced Nelson Rockefeller to invite Orozco to come to the museum and commission him to execute the fresco in front of a small group of invitees?

Bernier: Yes, it was in 1940. Like others, including Diego and Frida, I also had met Orozco through the architect/painter Juan O’Gorman while I was in Mexico. And since I liked and admired Orozco’s work I thought it was a good idea to introduce his work to a larger audience in New York. Given that the subject of the painting was Orozco’s personal statement against the violence of WWII, I was happy and surprised that Mr. Rockefeller was receptive to my urging.

More Articles by the Author

Phong Bui