Countess of the Cliff
I don’t know why the death of Yves Saint Laurent’s muse Loulou de la Falaise last week has me ruminating so much. I barely knew her, met her maybe twice very quickly. Her mother, Maxime, on the other hand, I knew very well. The relatively short time I spent with her was both intense and, because I was a teenager, seemed longer than it actually was in the greater scheme of a modern lifespan.
Maxime was in her late fifties when I first met her. I was sixteen. By that time she was already winding down a rather dramatic and eccentric career as a designer, artist, and chef. Wikipedia has a pretty good condensation of her life. The daughter of a royal portrait artist, she was a model for a while, then married Count Alain de la Falaise (which means “of the cliff,” in case you’re wondering why this post is so haphazardly titled), then became Andy Warhol’s ‘Factory mother.’ She was sort of to Warhol what her daughter Loulou was to Yves Saint Laurent, but that may be stretching the muse comparison too far: Warhol had a muse every fifteen minutes, but Yves had only Loulou. Maxime divorced her second husband, John McKendry, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum, after he had an affair with Robert Mapplethorpe, whom she had introduced into New York society to begin with. All very bohemian.
Maxime was one of many dark, twisted Aunties Mame in my life, the first being my grandmother, whom Maxime resembled somewhat. It’s one of the first things I said to Maxime when I met her: “You look a bit like my grandmother.” She didn’t like that all, despite the fact she really was a grandmother, and I had quickly explained that my grandmother was once one of the more beautiful women in Australia, which probably only added fuel to the fire with a British aristocrat. Much more so than my grandmother, Maxime was something of a dragon.
We met in a rather strange way, but one that, on reading Maxime’s Wikipedia entry, was entirely appropriate for her life and the people with whom she surrounded herself.
Just after my family moved back to New York from Italy, I was having a considerable amount of trouble adjusting and fitting in, normal teen-in-a-new-city stuff, but it was compounded by the fact there were vast cultural differences, which of course I made even vaster because I was a melodramatic young Ghey who wanted to be an actor.
My mother called me from a party one night at the house of a New York heiress friend of hers, whose most marked characteristic was she chain smoked pot all day long, and therefore had for a long time become somewhat pleasantly unanchored from communal reality. I loved this heiress because of that very same cloudy way she had about her; she was the light and fluffy sort of Auntie Mame, a real one, just like the character in the book and films and play.
“Dahling,” my mother said. “You must come here immediately. I’ve met the most wonderful man: he’s an actor and he’s Italian!” I’m sure by then my mother had had enough putting up with all my sulking and Hamlet-ish brooding about how much I missed my friends in Rome, and how the Americans were boorish and only spoke one language, how the food here was shit, and nobody had any style… etcetera after adolescent etcetera. Why she thought a man closer to her own age would appeal to me as a friend is still something of a mystery.
I don’t remember the details, but I suppose my mother must have paid for the taxi to the heiress’s house because my parents had stopped giving me pocket money at that point. Or maybe I walked there. We were living on Gracie Square next to people like Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper (I didn’t know him, though), and I was going to the oldest school in the new world, and I had no money. After all of those years in dolce vita Rome, I had zero work ethic, so the decision was taken that I should get a part-time job while in high school to teach me the American Way, and “the value of money,” which is still a concept so abstract it eludes me. It was a Mexican standoff between me and my parents: I refused to get a job when a) I was in school, and b) it was embarrassing from an Italian perspective for someone of my background to work at all, even later in life. But they weren’t budging, either. Even Caroline Kennedy worked during the summers, apparently. Awful, dreadful Americans.
The Italian actor was actually more of a performance artist of sorts, and I won’t give his real name; this story is about to get morally dubious. I’ll call him Marcello. He was wearing light-colored trousers tucked into beautiful lace-up riding boots, and was sexy in a way that made my face flush when I met him. My mind swam and thrashed in a confusion of teenaged arousal.
I had been sexually active for a long time by then, even though I was just sixteen. I had started messing around with my classmates and other kids my age from around the age of ten, but had my first encounter with an adult when I was fifteen, a year or so before in Rome. I’d been with about a dozen men after that.
Talking about a minor having sex with an adult is a difficult subject in the wake of the Sandusky scandal, but let me just say that it is something that I wanted and actively sought out; I was never molested or coerced. I never had a growth spurt, I’ve always been tall, so I looked like I was in my late teens/early twenties even at fifteen, or certainly like I was above the age of consent, if any Italian was aware of such a thing. Very often I didn’t reveal my age until after the act, just to see the effect on the guy’s face, which was rather cruel in retrospect, but from my point of view I liked the fact everyone thought I was older than my age, which was a pretty normal teen thing to want.
Sandusky is another matter. Ten years old is very different from fifteen. You barely understand the concept of sex at ten. At fifteen, it’s all you can think about; the wind blows the wrong direction, you get a hard-on. If these had been the Dark Ages, by then I would have been married to a girl shortly after she’d had her period, probably with our first child on the way.
Towards the end of the party, Marcello said in Italian, “You are the most beautiful boy I have ever seen,” and gave me his card. Typical Italian seduction overstatement though it was, I almost combusted from lust when he said it, right there in the living room of some townhouse on the upper east side with my mother just a few people away. I had never met such a sensual, sexy man. I called him a few days later and he invited me to lunch with his friend, Maxime, at her loft on Fifth Avenue and 19th Street.
At that point, the war over pocket money was nearing an end, and I was losing. All I had was my bus pass, issued by Trinity School, which allowed me to take any bus I wanted in New York, even on a Saturday. Pondering my luckless, penurious circumstances, and how on earth I was going to stomach packing groceries at the local supermarket, I took the bus down Fifth Avenue, which stopped right outside Gucci.
I know them, I thought to myself. So I hopped off the bus and went in to apply for a job.
I had little work experience for the application, most of it faked, but I did need an extra page for the references—Patricia Gucci was a good friend of mine in school, plus I knew other family members and their affiliates socially—so I was given a job on the spot, no doubt by a terrified HR woman who probably feared for her own job if she didn’t give me one: when she turned eighteen, the New York Times declared Patricia, Aldo Gucci’s sole heir, “the most eligible girl in the world.” I wasn’t just made a salesperson, I was an executive salesperson; all I had to do was stand around the store and speak Italian in a loud voice, and take purchases to be gift-wrapped in the back and escort customers out the door in the front. We could be as rude as we wanted because that was what was expected of us by the customers themselves. The rudeness of the salespeople at Gucci in New York was a sort of tourist attraction.
Getting a weekend job in a luxury goods store made me late for lunch, and in those days there were no cell phones to call to say you’re running late, so Maxime was furious by the time I showed up with no decent excuse because my Italian-ness wouldn’t allow me to admit I was applying for a job, much less taking the bus. I had no idea who she was, and I’d never been in a loft before, much less one like this, so I was a bit like Alice stumbling into Wonderland.
In researching photographs for this article, I came upon a quotation from a longtime friend of hers: “Maxime made Cruella de Ville seem like a pussycat.” Indeed, she was the most fearsome character I’d met until that point in my life. Had I not been raised in a semi-Australian household, where the women are caustic and the men keep their balls protected at all times, I’m not sure I would have survived the lunch, especially after not only being late, but telling my hostess she reminded me of my grandmother.
Marcello was there, but it’s as if he hadn’t been; he sort of faded into the background once dragon Maxime spread her wings and breathed fire at me. Indeed, it only took me a few minutes to get my balance in these bizarre, un-bourgeois surroundings before Maxime and I started sparring verbally.
Maxime’s bed was enormous and occupied the far end of the loft, raised on a dais and Moroccanized with drapes, throw pillows, clashing prints. I know I remarked on that first because it was very cool. Some of the paintings I recognized because the American ambassador to Rome’s wife had hung “that awful Andy Warhol,” as my mother called him, all over the Villa Taverna, the ambassador’s residence, behind which we lived. The ambassador’s son, Tony, was my age and we went to school together every morning; I would cycle my bike around to the Villa Taverna, hop in his chauffeur-driven bullet-proof Lincoln town car, and off we’d go. I was there almost more often than I was in my family’s smaller villa behind Tony’s, so I knew what a Warhol looked like.
“Andy pays me in paintings,” Maxime explained breezily when I commented on the quantity of his silk screens everywhere. I had no idea what he was paying her for, but didn’t want to pry; Wikipedia tells me it must have been for small roles in movies and various projects they developed together. There were plenty of other works of art she’d collected, tiled and stacked like a stall in a souk, including a few portraits done by her father.
But what really caught my eye as we were standing in the kitchen area was a Tic Tac stand. I knew that there weren’t Tic Tacs in America yet, much less ones displayed like this, Italian style, sort of like a plastic Christmas tree of little colored boxes jutting upwards. I felt like I was near a piece of home, my real home, Rome, not this strange city I was born in.
“A Tic Tac stand?” I asked.
“I consider it an objet d’art,” she said, and that impressed the fuck out of me, much more so than the Warhols-as-currency or anything else in her cluttered menagerie of exotica.
Lunch was okay. She made tortellini soup and some other Italian dish, which I suppose was quite good considering she was an Englishwoman living in New York without recourse to the same ingredients she might have in Italy, but I wasn’t impressed. I had been told by Maxime herself that she authored cook books, so I was doubly not impressed. Afterwards, we went to Barneys, which in those days was located on 18th and 7th Avenue, and was exclusively a men’s store, the only one in New York that sold decent European clothing.
Just after we walked in, Maxime turned around to me and said, “Marcello and I are going shopping. What are you doing?” Shit, she’s telling me to fuck off, I thought, dazed by ferocity of her rudeness. So I stammered something, maybe a “thanks for lunch,” and beat a hasty retreat home. Back then, I just assumed Countess Cruella de la Falaise didn’t like me. The middle-aged man I am now sees that she was just being a jealous bitch tired of the lusty teen hanging around. But the sensitive homo Holden Caulfield I was then was hurt and confused because, more than looking for a job, I had been daydreaming about having sex with Marcello on the bus all the way down Fifth.
Now that I think about it, there was nothing for Maxime to buy for herself at Barneys. Again, it was exclusively a men’s store. Marcello was a performance artist, completely and perpetually broke, and all jealousies aside there was no way she was going to let someone see her buying clothes for him. For it soon turned out that Marcello was a kept man, a character straight out of Breakfast at Tiffanys; that’s why he was at the divorced heiress friend of my mother’s that night, I guess: scoping a prospective patroness. He more or less confessed as much when I was alone with him a few weeks later in his own loft in Soho: Maxime paid for the loft.
The whole thing confused me as I sat there in his Zen-like space, once again shaking with lust, my heart pounding. But now I was beginning to understand that this was a bona fide gigolo, someone who, from his conversation, was just wild about women, all women. What did he want with me? Why was I here?
“Spogliati,” he said to me gently. “Strip.” So I went where he indicated in the middle of the loft, took my clothes off and stood there, naked. He didn’t do anything but sit on his sofa and look at me. After a while he told me to get dressed again. And that was the extent of it.
After that night, I slipped into my world of intensive acting classes and working on the weekends at Gucci, where I fell in with a bunch of Italian homos in their early twenties, who became my first mentors in the Way of Ghey. I heard from Marcello from time to time, but after that unconsummated, weirdo living naked statue evening in his loft, I soon lost interest. New York pre-AIDS was a distracting smorgasbord of sex, relentless, everywhere. What use did I have for the kept man of a nasty aging eccentric British aristocrat?
However, it wasn’t over between me and Maxime. A year or so later, whenever she had problems with Marcello (he was a chronic womanizer, spent his entire day picking up young nubile women, especially dancers he could include in his performance art troupe), Maxime would call me. I was still in high school, and she had moved from the palatial penthouse on Fifth to another, smaller loft overlooking Madison Square Park. Times were tough for her and getting tougher. She was doing dribs and drabs of design work for Yves Saint Laurent, tidbits Loulou would throw to her, and she was trying to get TV cooking shows off the ground, books published, a hustle I understand very well now, but which made little sense to me then. (The problem with being a mean old witch is only psychopaths would want to watch you cook.)
“You know what drives me crazy about you?” I said to her one day. “You never say good-bye when you hang up the phone.”
“No. You just hang up without warning when I’m mid-sentence…” Click.
Maybe it was one of those amusing British eccentric foibles for Maxime to have a high-school student at her table from time to time. Even though her dinner guests were always interesting and often notable, I hated going to Maxime’s for parties. It wasn’t just because the food was so-so, it’s because her fucking mongrel dogs bit me the minute I walked in. Like, lunged at my side and left a bruise on my ribcage I had to contend with all night. Again, she was British, and nasty dogs which they love beyond reason are the hallmark of their aristocracy, from the Queen’s corgis on down.
Marcello was never at these dinners. She was developing a relationship of her own with me, which I now find flattering; despite her Cruella persona, for a woman like Maxime to befriend a teenager is something I should consider to have been an honor, maybe a favorable comment on my character, but which of course I took for granted at the time.
I dropped out of Wesleyan University after my freshman year and moved to Paris, where I became a fashion photographer’s assistant. After a stint renting an absurdly fancy apartment from a crazy French movie star on the Place des Vosges, I moved to a great, funky little duplex on the Île Saint Louis, which I rented from an even crazier South African bombshell model.
One day, Marcello called me from Italy and said he would be coming to Paris for a very exciting, top-secret project, and asked if he could stay with me. My sofa was something of a Grand Central Station, anyway, so I agreed to let him stay for a week or so, however long it took to get the deal done.
The exciting, top-secret project turned out to be the attempted sale of badly faked Etruscan vases, which Marcello was going to fob off on no less than the head of YSL, Pierre Bergé, obviously using his connection with Loulou and Maxime to get in. The minute he unpacked these hoaxes in my living room, I lost respect for Marcello once and for all. I just couldn’t believe he was going through with this. That Loulou and Maxime were sanctioning it made even less sense. I wanted him out of my life. I knew nothing about antiquities and didn’t care to—too much ancient Rome in my childhood—but these were more glaringly faux than the kouros statue sold to the Getty a few years ago. I don’t know how he hoped to fool Pierre Bergé much less whoever his art consultant was.
Needless to say, the sale didn’t go through, but this incident had apparently caused a bit of a scandal in the house of Saint Laurent; indeed, neither Loulou nor Maxime appeared to have been aware of what Marcello was doing.
Next thing I knew, Maxime swept into Paris, demanding to know the full details, blow by blow. Once she realized I wasn’t at all complicit in this attempted fraud, tempers settled and we spent the better part of the week together, going to exhibitions, the theater, dinner with her friends. This was a different Maxime, a French Maxime, and I really enjoyed those few days together. No junk yard dogs lunging at me, for a start.
Over dinner one night, a friend asked her how she knew me. After all, I was still only nineteen, even though it seemed as if I’d known her for much longer than just three years.
“Il était amoureux de mon Jules,” she stated. “He was in love with my boyfriend.” I will never forget that sentence because it took me aback that she thought that, both of me and of him. He was clearly her gigolo. If she was under the impression there was any affection from him for her, that he was her ‘boyfriend,’ she was delusional: it was as faked as those Etruscan vases. As for me, I was never in love with him, it was pure lust that was extinguished the night I stood naked in the middle of that empty loft while he stared like a connoisseur at an exhibit.e
Shortly after Maxime’s visit to Paris, I fell into adventure in Australia and other places, ending up back in New York to participate in and help create my own era, the late 80s, which have themselves slipped into the lore of the City, just like Warhol’s Factory years, which Maxime ruled over as den mother. I never saw her again, never had her hang up the phone on me abruptly once more for old time’s sake. But we were never more than a couple of degrees apart socially via the demi-monde river whose current runs strong through Manhattan, era after era, so I was fully apprised of the gossip about her when I met Marcello on the street a decade later. His once luxuriant, 20s-movie-star wavy black hair was almost fully grey, his sex appeal utterly dissipated.
“Have you heard from Maxime?” I asked him.
“Not in years.”
I quickly filled him in. “Apparently she slipped on the sidewalk outside her building, broke her hip, but managed to drag herself into the lobby. Then she successfully sued the building, bought a house with the money in the south of France where she’s now living with her lesbian lover.”
“That sounds like Maxime,” he said. It was a rapid New York street exchange in between scurrying off to something else. I have never heard from him since, either.
I note from Wikipedia that my gossip is somewhat true: Maxime died in the south of France in 2009 at the age of eighty-six, survived by her “female companion,” Sarah St. George. I love that she became a lesbian in her seventies. Or maybe she was that the whole time and, like the Tic Tac stand, I just couldn’t see her for what she really was.