“Think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy” in Granville, a story inspired by Christian Dior and Miss Dior perfume from Philippa Grantham, a finalist in our 2014 Writing Competion
“Tian, Tian,” whispers a serious little girl to herself as she runs across the soft lawns at Villa Les Rhumbs, her family’s summer home. When she nears the pink and grey house she stops to look up at an open window, smiling with the confidence of a child who knows she will always be cherished.
He has watched her hurried journey, stocky legs almost tripping in a blur of Broderie anglaise lace as she rushed to find her favourite brother.
They talk. Pleased to have an excuse to break off from his studies, Christian tidies away his papers, dries his fountain pen and quickly leaves the elegant room to join Catherine in the garden.
Taking his precious sister’s hand he listens to her chatter and adds his own voice. The clouds have lifted, pushed away by a warm sea breeze. The heat of the sun has released the scent of a thousand flowers into the air, far below them an azure sea beckon.
In their memories the sun will always be shining at the villa.
By the time France is at war the villa and the scented gardens have been sold as the family fortune fades. Christian is demobbed in 1942 and finds work in Paris. He and Catherine share an apartment on Rue Royal but while Christian dresses the rich and successful, Catherine is a committed member of the Resistance, gathering and transmitting intelligence on German troop movements.
In June 1944 Catherine’s luck runs out, she is arrested by the Gestapo and tortured, but does not give away her secrets. All summer Christian makes frantic but tragically unsuccessful attempts to have his sister released. None of the well-connected visitors to the couture house of Lucien Lelong where he works are willing to help a young woman convicted of treason by the occupying forces.
On a baking August day Catherine is one of more than 2000 men and women from the prisons of La Santé, Fresnes and le Cherche-Midi who are taken to the Gare de Pantin and crammed into cattle wagons bound for Buckenwald and Ravensbruck. The journey is painfully slow as the train stops frequently to let German supply trains pass by on their way to the front, and allied aircraft threaten overhead.
For a year there is no news of Catherine. The only respite Christian has from constant anxiety is from a clairvoyant who assures him Catherine will return.
Joy and sadness
Then miraculously on 27th May 1945 he receives a phone call; Catherine is on a refugee train, arriving the following morning at the Gare de l’Est, Paris.
Catherine has spent many months working in atrocious conditions at the Ravensbruck camp, then the notorious explosives plant at Torgau, a potassium mine in Prussia and an aviation factory in Leipzig. In under a year she has aged a decade. Emaciated and exhausted, Catherine returns with Christian to 10 Rue Royale. Not realising how months of starvation would have damaged her, Christian has carefully sourced rare war time ingredients and prepared her favourite meal, a cheese soufflé that she cannot eat. It would be some months before she could eat food so rich. Away from her eyes, he weeps.
The history of Miss Dior Perfume
“Think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy.” (Anne Frank)
With the horrors of the war finally over, Catherine is not unique in craving beauty and is her brother’s greatest advocate as he creates unashamedly feminine luxury using yards of fabric and embroidery. The ‘New Look’ designs of 1947 create a sensation across the world.
The siblings admiration is mutual. In 1947 Christian commissions his first perfume with the instructions to Jean Charles and Paul Vacher to “create a fragrance that is like love” and names it for Catherine, his sister’. The scent is created from notes of gardenia, galbanum and bergamot; carnation, iris, jasmine, lily-of-the-valley, rose and narcissus – a fitting tribute to Catherine and Christian’s memories of a flower garden in Granville.
The perfume is sprinkled daily at the new House on Avenue Montaigne and becomes the scent of haute couture.
In time Catherine moved away from Paris, dedicating her time to creating the perfect garden at her new home in Callian, Provence. After her brother’s untimely death at 52, Catherine proudly helps to establish the museum at Villa Les Rhumbs with the donation of a beautiful gown that belonged to their mother and she becomes the museum’s much respected patron. Of course Catherine’s war time bravery was recognised with rare Croix de Guerre; the Combatant Volunteer Cross of the Resistance; the Combatant Cross; the King’s Medal for Courage in the Cause of Freedom (from Britain); and she was named a chevalière of the Légion d’Honneur.
Catherine ‘Miss Dior’ died in 2008.
Pippa Grantham divides her time between the UK and Honfleur, Normandy and blogs at www.normandythenandnow.com
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