Friday, January 21, 2011

Book: In My Own Fashion, by Oleg Cassini (1987)

You never know where a mentor will come from.

Oleg Cassini led an extraordinary life. Born in Paris of Italian and Russian lineage, he was a fashion designer, the husband of Gene Tierney, the fiancé of Grace Kelly, the personal couturier to Jacqueline Kennedy, and an impresario of ski lodges, discotheques and licensing arrangements. Above all, he was a bon vivant.

Cassini wrote his autobiography in 1987. It is now one of the great books of my life. I intend to pattern my remaining days on its teachings.

It’s the memoir of a fearless man, which is my way of saying there’s dirt galore. Oleg not only tells you who he slept with during his years in Hollywood – Marilyn Monroe, Lana Turner, Anita Ekberg – but how he wooed them, because to Oleg “the art of the seduction was always more fascinating than the ultimate result.”

Cassini moved through a fascinating world. One where he spent his childhood attending fashion shows with the children of Venezuela’s dictator, where he knows more than one person named Bunny, where his first wife hires a woman to throw herself at him so photographers can catch them in flagrante. All of it described in a fabulous voice.

I was well schooled in the traditions and alleged prerogatives of European aristocracy - and one of the more hallowed, if questionable, traditions was the surreptitious utilization of servants - ancillary love. In short, I developed a mild crush on one of the maids.

Prior to reading this book, I had no idea that dueling died out because it was so bloody expensive. You had to buy splendid gifts for your seconds because they were risking arrest, and you also had to pay the doctor handsomely. And I didn’t realize that, as Oleg’s mother taught him, “With a tennis racquet and a dinner jacket, you’ll be able to go anywhere in life.”

Cassini blended Old and New World sensibilities. He was determined to make something of himself – his brother Igor also came to America and became a powerful gossip columnist – but enjoy life at the same time. That latter attitude manifested itself in terms of personal style first and foremost. Cassini knew he had to leave Italy when under Mussolini “even the idea of wearing a dinner jacket had become ... a vaguely unpatriotic act.” The Russian officer who served as his tutor in the gentlemanly arts (just think about that for a minute) stressed the importance of clothes in creating bearing and confidence. It’s an approach that’s sorely missed.

But Cassini’s real secret was his deep shallowness. “My goal was ... to pursue the good life.” He established a deep bond with JFK because he was “not afraid to be silly.” In taking frivolity seriously, he accomplished a great deal. And looked good while doing it.

I checked Oleg’s book out of the library. As soon as I finished it, I tracked down a copy online. It sits on my bookshelf with the author’s rakish photo facing me to serve as inspiration. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to price ascots.