Source: Diana Vreeland (ed. George Plimpton and Christopher Hemphill), D.V. (New York: Harper Collins, 2011, orig. 1984), pp. 48-50
Text: One night in Paris, after I was married, a friend and I went to a little theatre above Montmartre to see a German movie called L’Atlantide, with a wonderful actress in it called Brigitte Helm, who played the Queen of the Lost Continent. It was the middle of July. It was hot. The only seats in the theatre were the third balcony, under the rafters, where it was even hotter. There were four seats in a row, and we took two.
We sat there, the movie started … and I became totally intoxicated by it. I was mesmerized! I have no idea if I actually saw the movie I thought I was seeing, but I was absorbed by these three lost Foreign Legion soldiers with their camels, their woes … they’re so tired, they’re delirious with dehydration … And then you see the fata morgana. That means if you desire a woman, you see a woman, if you desire water, you see water – everything you dream, you see. But you never reach it. It’s all an illusion.
Then … a sign of an oasis! There’s a palm … and more palms. Then they’re in the oasis, where they see Brigitte Helm, this divine-looking woman seated on a throne – surrounded by cheetahs! The cheetahs bask in the sun. She fixes her eyes on the soldiers. One of them approaches her. She gives him a glass of champagne and he drinks it. Then she takes the glass from him, breaks it, cuts his throat with it…
And et cetera.
This goes on and on, I hadn’t moved an inch. At some point I moved my hand … to here … where it stayed for the rest of the movie. I was spellbound because the mood was so sustained. I was simply sucked in, seduced by this thing of the desert, seduced by the Queen of the Lost Continent, the wickedest woman who ever lived … and her cheetahs! The essence of movie-ism.
Then … the lights went on, and I felt a slight movement under my hand. I looked down — and it was a cheetah! And beside the cheetah was Josephine Baker!
“Oh,” I said, “you’ve brought your cheetah to see the cheetahs!”
“Yes,” she said, “that’s exactly what I did.”
She was alone with the cheetah on a lead. She was so beautifully dressed. She was wearing a marvelous little short black skirt and a little Vionnet shirt — no sleeves, no back, no front, just crossed bars on the bias. Don’t forget how hot it was, and of course the great thing was to get out of the theatre we were in. The cheetah, naturally, took the lead, and Josephine, with those long black legs, was dragged down three flights of stairs as fast as she could go, and that’s fast.
Out in the street there was an enormous white-and-silver Rolls-Royce waiting for her. The driver opened the door; she let go of the lead; the cheetah whooped, took one leap into the back of the Rolls, with Josephine right behind; the door closed … and they were off!
Ah! What a gesture! I’ve never seen anything like it. It was speed at its best, and style. Style was a great thing in those days.
Comments: Diana Vreeland (1903-1989) was a fashion writer who worked for Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, where she was editor-in-chief. Josephine Baker was an African-American dancer who gained great fame in France. Her pet cheetah’s name was Chiquita. L’Atlantide (Germany/France 1932) was directed by G.W. Pabst. My thanks to Artemis Willis from bringing this unique passage to my attention.