Susan Train, who was sent to Paris in 1951 by Vogue, and became the magazine’s Paris Bureau Chief, as well as its “living history and an unwilling legend,” died in Paris this week. In her honor we are republishing Joan Juliet Buck’s 2007 profile of this indomitable fashion force.
“Special Envoy,” by Joan Juliet Buck, including a portrait by François Halard, was first published in the August 2007 issue of Vogue. It has been edited for the web.
“Arrive in Eski Khata at 4:00 p.m. and start to negotiate for the mules,” Susan Train noted in 1966 in her Turkish report to Diana Vreeland. “About 5:30 p.m. we hoist ourselves into the wooden saddles, hung about with various bundles, legs in a position resembling an attempt at the splits, feet hanging (no stirrups), and little hands clutching the hump of the saddle (no reins) amidst piercing shrieks from Antonia, who has only once been on a horse in her life (not that what we were doing in any way resembled riding), we start off for Nemrut Dagh . . .” Her location trips with Henry Clarke for Vogue—to India, Syria, Turkey, Jordan—were adventuresome expeditions into wild territory. The resulting photos of a composed Veruschka, Wilhelmina, Antonia, or Editha seated on a roof, a dome, or the top of a statue, imperiously staring off into the desert in full evening dress, defined that era’s exotic fantasies.
For 56 years Susan Train has been representing American Vogue in Paris with glamorous allure and the kind of methodical common sense that can wrestle bureaucrats to the ground, soothe the most baroque dramas, and keep models pristine on safari. If the catchphrase in Funny Face was Think pink!” Susan Train’s motto is more “Never mind the poetry and frills; just give me the facts.”
She’s tall, stately, slim instantly recognizable. Always in immaculately cut pantsuits, she wears her clothes according to the norms of haute couture: the collar of her shirt turned up, her jacket pulled back a little to expose her neck. Her blonde hair has been cut short in the same style for as long as anyone can remember. She was sent to Paris in 1951 by Edna Woolman Chase (the editor in chief from 1914 until 1952), who told her, “I want you to be an island of Americanism in a sea of French.” As Paris Editor, Bureau Chief, and now eminence blonde, she’s Vogue’s living history and an unwilling legend.
Hubert de Givenchy has known her since she first arrived. “Saint Susan!” he exclaims. “She’s exceptional in everything—work, friendship, discretion, intelligence. She’s always been true to herself, and her style is part of her personality. She’s always had the same chic, the same walk, the same presence. If you stick to your own style, you never grow old.” She will be 80 in November.
By the time I met her, in her tall office in an 18th-century mansion in the Place du Palais Bourbon, I knew that Susan Train had exacting standards that added up to true-blue class. I didn’t know that she would, as a matter of course, introduce me to princes, dispatch her driver on location to teach me how to shift gears on a rented car, lend me her ear, her clothes, and even her apartment. In the land of c’est impossible, she made the impossible happen every day.
A turquoise-and-green couch made the formal room bright; there was always a thermos of cool water next to an ashtray on top of her desk, and a small long-haired dachshund underneath. The dogs—Nicely (named after the marathon eater from Guys and Dolls), from 1977, and Gogo, from 1992, successors to Kniphofia (named after the flower aka Red Hot Poker), from 1962—went everywhere with her, under her arm to lunch at Caviar Kaspia, to dinner at Le Voltaire or Chez Georges, and out to Blérancourt, the chateau whose gardens she helped restore as a member of the Colonial Dames, an organization with a longer pedigree than the DAR. A Democrat, she subscribes to The Nation.
In the dining room of her apartment, Train holds one of a pair of long Turkish mirrors against the red paisley wallpaper. Together here, or apart by the window? They were left to her by Lesley Blanch, the author of The Wilder Shores of Love, who died this spring at the age of 102. They had met on a Vogue trip to Syria and shared a passion for good writing and distant adventures. In other rooms there are more gifts from Lesley Blanch, Persian miniatures, and a drawing of Mecca.
In the bedroom are fashion drawings that René Gruau and Eric did of her in the ’50s and ’60s: Susan in sweaters, Susan in a Jacques Fath dress, Susan hand on hip and hat on head, in a Balenciaga suit. Givenchy singles out “her wonderful voice and the expressions she uses.” It’s husky and low, and in French it sounds British rather than American. She talks a little like a character in a ’30s comedy, with tra-la used as a noun.
“I think I’m drawable because I’ve got the proportions,” she says. “I don’t think I am photogenic.”
A sketch of her in a Jacques Fath dress with a skirt of pale-brown tiers makes her laugh. “It’s part of a Celanese campaign—Diana Vreeland called it Chell-a-neesey. My friend Bettina McNulty worked for a PR company that handled Cognac, as well as Celanese, a synthetic fabric. Did they not have all this god-awful Cognac-colored fabric made, which they flogged to every designer in Paris!”
A silver giraffe peers up from under a silver palm tree on the dining-room table, a legacy from her great-grandfather, perhaps one of America’s most eccentric men, George Francis Train. In 1870 he went around the world in 80 days, a feat that inspired Jules Verne’s book. Her father, also named George Francis Train, was in “some sort of Secret Service tra-la” in the war, and moved the family to Peru when she was 18. She persuaded him to take her to Paris in 1947. The banana boat she was on took three weeks from Lima to Liverpool, during which she taught the captain to play gin rummy. In rationed postwar Paris, she was allowed a quarter liter of milk a day because she was only 19. She went to school to learn how to cut patterns, and interned at Madeleine De Rauch. There was no coal and no heating that winter, but she fell in love with the city, and couture.
“Dior had just created the New Look, with big skirts, and everything I possessed was to the knee. I kept saying, ‘Isn’t there a Saks Fifth Avenue somewhere, so I can get a decent skirt?’ I finally made one for myself. Madeleine De Rauch I was a golfer, making clothes ‘dans la note’ but for women who led normal lives. My father bought my first couture suit for me there, that winter of 1947. It was New Look, with a nipped waist and a pleated skirt.”
She went back to America when her mother fell ill and ran the household in New York for her father and younger sister. After her mother died, she went to work at Vogue, first for Alexander Liberman in the Art Department, then for the fashion editor Bettina Ballard. She found her style when she returned to Paris in 1951. Five-foot-eight, skinny, long-legged, and long-necked, with a general’s posture, she looked nothing like the short, curvy Parisiennes.
“I rather quickly decided that I was more Balenciaga than Dior—Dior was made for small women with small waists, pretty bosoms, and real hips. For Dior you had to be pretty; for Balenciaga you had to have style and stand right.”
In Bettina Ballard’s 1960 memoir, In My Fashion, she writes that Susan looked “particularly well in Balenciaga soldes. She looked well in anything, with her model’s figure and her own sense of personal elegance.” Ballard added that “the French office teased her unmercifully for being my sosie [double], for imitating me seriously, not humorously.” In Paris, of course, making fun of someone is acceptable; dressing like them is not.
When Yves Saint Laurent opened his Rive Gauche shop, Train found her perfect fit. Pierre Bergé, who was Saint Laurent’s partner and a supreme, willful force on the Paris scene, says he was always impressed by her “magnificent discretion.” In New York in 1966, she caused a chill when she wore Saint Laurent’s first “Smoking” pantsuit to a benefit. As she saw the looks of horror on the guests’ faces, she realized fashion doesn’t always travel.
Lisa Eisner, who worked in the Paris bureau with her in the ’80s, says, “Susan was loyal to her French fashion gods, and couture. She’d go back to the ateliers to look at the hemlines, the lace, the beading, the interior of the dress.”
“It all started to change,” says Train, “with those huge runway shows. Things were no longer shown walking in front of you in a salon, on a human scale—it became a stage; everything had to be exaggerated.”
The mirrors are put back against the wall, and we head out to dinner. She’s impeccable in beige gabardine trousers, a white shirt, and an Armani jacket with a tiny rosette on its lapel that signals she is an officier des arts et des lettres. There is no calling for the dog, no leash: Gogo died a few months ago. It’s strange for her, she says, to no longer have a small dog under her arm, on her lap, at her feet. It’s strange for everyone who knows her.
“I didn’t want to depend on anyone for anything,” she says over sole meunière in a restaurant near her apartment. She knew every designer but kept a professional distance. “I never wanted to be identified with one clique,” she adds. Nor does she spend much time with other Americans: “My father had taught me that you don’t go away to be with your compatriots. Here I had the freedom to say or do or think what I wanted.”
She said “No thanks” to various men—“It doesn’t mean I can’t devote myself to someone, but I do not want to be coerced.”
There was a serious love affair, late, with an American, and it was complicated, and it went on for a time, and then it didn’t. She still wears the watch he gave her, a pretty oval, and his paintings still hang on her walls. She never wanted to go back to live in America.
On her fingers, among other rings, is a gold snake that Henry Clarke gave her. It was once articulated; worried that the links would wear out, she had them welded together.
At dessert, a waiter comes over, a little embarrassed. “Madame, I am afraid to ask, but how is le petit chien?”
She shakes her head. The waiter looks stricken.
“This keeps happening,” she says. “Maybe I’m going to have to get another dog to cheer all these people up.”
The post Remembering Vogue’s Paris Bureau Chief, Susan Train, “An Island of Americanism in a Sea of French” appeared first on Vogue.
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