Back before his talents were known, Francis Bacon was taken to a famous model’s birthday party in Paris. She was a Vogue cover girl called Toto Koopman, part of a fast-living gang of jet-set Parisians that included Russian princes and American heiresses. They wore Schiaparelli, accessorised their outfits with live parrots and monkeys, and all slept with each other. Bacon was entranced.
He met her again 15 years later, in 1946, in London. By then she had lived all over Europe, been mistress to the press baron Lord Beaverbrook and Winston Churchill’s son, Randolph, spied for the Italian resistance and almost died in the concentration camp at Ravensbruck. Bacon was still a nobody, though that was about to change thanks to Koopman’s girlfriend, the art gallerist Erica Brausen, who launched him onto the London scene (almost bankrupting herself in the process).
Koopman is the subject of Jean-Noel Liaut’s extraordinary new book, The Many Lives of Miss K. It’s the first biography of Koopman, which is odd given that the photograph (taken by George Hoyningen-Huene for Vogue’s September 1933 issue) taken of her in a backless black and white gown (Augusta Bernard) has become one of the era’s most iconic fashion photographs.
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. After the war she surrounded herself with 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.
The many Lives of Miss K is available from Booktopia for $29.50