Review: The Many Lives of Miss K: Toto Koopman - Model, Muse, Spy

Title:  The Many Lives of Miss K: Toto Koopman - Model, Muse, Spy

Author:  Jean-Noel Liaut, Denise Raab Jacobs (Translator)

Publisher:  Rizzoli Books
Pub Date:   9/3/2013
Pages:  244
How Acquired:  ARC through Edelweiss

From the back cover:   A life of glamour and tragedy, set against the watershed cultural and political movements of twentieth-century Europe. "Toto" Koopman (1908–1991) is a new addition to the set of iconoclastic women whose biographies intrigue and inspire modern-day readers. Like her contemporaries Lee Miller or Vita Sackville-West, Toto lived with an independent spirit more typical of the men of her generation, moving in the worlds of fashion, society, art, and politics with an insouciant ease that would stir both admiration and envy even today. Sphinxlike and tantalizing, Toto conducted her life as a game, driven by audacity and style. Jean-Noël Liaut chases his enigmatic subject through the many roles and lives she inhabited, both happy and tragic. Though her beauty, charisma, and taste for the extraordinary made her an exuberant fixture of Paris fashion and café society, her intelligence and steely sense of self drove her toward bigger things, culminating in espionage during WWII, for which she was imprisoned by the Nazis in Ravensbruck. After the horrors of the camp, she found solace in Erica Brausen, the German art dealer who launched the career of Francis Bacon, and the two women lived out their lives together surrounded by cultural luminaries like Edmonde Charles-Roux and Luchino Visconti. But even in her later decades, Toto remained impossible for anyone to possess. The Many Lives of Miss K explores the allure of a freethinking and courageous woman who, fiercely protective of her independence, was sought after by so many but ultimately known by very few.

Meet the Author:   Jean-Noël Liaut is a French writer and translator. His books include biographies of Givenchy and Karen Blixen and translations of works by Colin Clark, Nancy Mitford, Deborah Devonshire, and Agatha Christie.

My thoughts:  I’m always excited when I discover a new Scandalous Woman that I can share with my readers.  So when I saw this book featured on Edelweiss, I knew I had to read it.  It just sounded too intriguing to pass up.  Unfortunately the book doesn’t necessarily live up to the hype of the back cover which is a shame because Toto Koopman is one fascinating woman, more than worthy of being featured here on the blog.
Toto was born Catharina Koopman in October of 1908.  Her father was a military officer and her mother was part Dutch, part Javanese.  Despite the rather dim view the Dutch took of interracial marriages and the children born of these unions, Toto’s childhood seems to have been rather uneventful and happy.  Despite her parents’ disapproval, she left her fancy finishing school and headed off to Paris and adventure becoming a fashion model who worked for Chanel among other fashion houses.  She also appeared regularly in French Vogue, which was highly unusual at the time.  Fashion magazines weren’t exactly inclusive back then, so to have a Eurasian model not just on the cover but in the magazine must have been highly scandalous.   When she wasn’t working, Toto seems to have spent her time hobnobbing with everyone there was to no in Paris.   She moves to London to appear in a movie produced by Alexander Korda, but all her scenes are cut out.  No matter, Toto meets Tallulah Bankhead and they have a brief affair.  She then meets Lord Beaverbrook and not only has an affair with him but also his son (as well as Randolph Churchill). 

The author makes much of the fact that Toto’s sexuality was extremely fluid.  I have no idea where she would sit on the Kinsey scale.  She also seemed to have suffered no jealously or guilt over her actions.  For Toto, life does seem to have been a ‘Cabaret, old chum.’  The book catalogs all of her early life and her madcap adventures in Paris and London in about 77 pages.   There’s no in-depth look at how a woman who took money from her lover’s father not to marry him, then turned around and became a spy for the British during World War II working with the Italian resistance.  Toto was arrested in Italy, escaped, was arrested again, and then send to Ravensbruck.  How did she make that change, risking her life and why?  What were her ideals?  Was this just another adventure for her?  The author can’t really explain it.  Toto did have the skills for a spy, she spoke at least 5 languages and she was incredibly enigmatic. Also the details of this period of her life seem hidden behind a wall of gauze.

After the war, Toto meets Erica Brausen who becomes her life partner.  Brausen runs an art gallery, and is responsible for discovering Francis Bacon.  Toto helps Erica run the gallery but she also for a certain point turns her hand to archeology.  All of this is very exciting but again the author is unable to animate Toto from the page.  She remains as unknowable at the end of the book as she does at the beginning.  Life at this point seems to be filled with art openings, traveling, affairs (many on Toto’s part), and building their dream house on an island of the coast of Sicily which they turn into a sort of artists’ colony.  The saddest part of the book is the end of Toto’s life, when Brausen seems to have gone a little off the rails.

The book is incredibly slight (244 pages) for a woman who led such a fascinating life.  Part of the problem is that Toto left no letters or journals, nor did she ever write her autobiography which would have given a biographer material to work with.  Liaut has to piece together her life from the recollections of the few people who knew her that are still alive during his research, and from brief mentions in the biographies of more well-known personalities of the period.  It is a shame that the book is not able to go deeper.
Verdict:  An exuberant but slight account of a truely remarkable woman.


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