Rosamond Bernier

updated 06/13/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/13/1983 01:00AM

The cultured-looking man in the lobby of Manhattan's Metropolitan Museum of Art looked troubled. "What about the horse?" he whispered to his wife. For an hour in the Rogers Auditorium they had listened as art lecturer Rosamond Bernier dazzled the audience with anecdotes about Catherine the Great's oddball life-style and insights about the Russian Empress' treasures—but not one word on the famous schoolyard legend about Catherine's sex life. Why not?

"Because it's absolutely untrue," Bernier said later. Though Catherine the Great did, in fact, have many bizarre lovers, all were human. "I have no idea where that story came from," she said, "but everyone asks me about it." The question, after all, follows logically from Bernier's technique of mingling culture and gossip—a style popular with people who otherwise might never have become interested in art. "She's not liked by art historians because of her flashy, showy quality," says Rosemarie Haag Bletter, a New York art historian. "But she performs a real service by introducing lay people to art. Some serious lecturers would thoroughly bore the general public."

Bernier has a vast knowledge of not only painting, sculpture and architecture, but also the peccadilloes of famous collectors and modern artists, including Picasso, Braque and Matisse, who were all her friends. She likes to tell audiences, for example, about spending a day at the beach in the south of France with Picasso, his young girlfriend and the painter's aging first wife, whom Picasso viciously called "my mother-in-law."

A glamorous eccentric in Paris gowns and fake diamond earrings that dust her collar bones when she moves, Bernier is adored in such diverse places as Palm Beach, Dallas and Cleveland. Typically she speaks about 40 times a year, and she has been invited to nearly every city that has a museum and can afford her fee—now $3,500. That includes Paris, where she spoke at the Grand Palais in 1972 on French art, and Yakima, Wash., where in 1975 she was met by an enormous sign in red lights: WELCOME TO YAKIMA, ROSAMOND BERNIER.

But she is best loved in New York, where she has long been a cult figure to art lovers such as Jackie Onassis, Diana Vreeland and Leonard Bernstein. Bernier's Met lectures are sold out four months in advance. On the nights she performs the house is likely to be packed with the beautiful, the rich and the famous: Princess Margaret, Louise Nevelson and Lee Radziwill have been among the ticketholders. Outside, fans wait on Fifth Avenue near snaking lines of stretch limos, hoping for last-minute cancellations.

With their musical introductions, sexy stories and colorful slides on two giant screens, Bernier's talks seem more theater than lecture. She begins her talk on Francois I of France, for example, by saying, "This lecture is about a very good-looking man with rather thin legs who was born just under 500 years ago and who had ideas about hospitality which most of us would find hard to put into practice. 'When I invite someone to my house,' he said, 'it's not enough to give him a very good meal; I like to give him a very beautiful woman and a beautiful horse and a beautiful greyhound. Then I can think that with one or another of them, or possibly all three, he's going to have a really good time.' "

Her most popular series, on contemporary art, combines Bernier's personal reminiscences of Picasso, Matisse, Miró, Ernst, etc., with a slide presentation of about 150 images projected by twos. Of Matisse's female portraits, for example, she says, "When he was in love with a woman, they looked like bliss. When he was out of love, they looked like wild beasts." She shows photos not only of paintings but also of a letter written, say, by Miró, or of a photo that Picasso took of an art dealer. This gives her talks an intimate, "and so Picasso said to me" quality. Martin Filler, an editor at House & Garden and Bletter's husband, describes the essence of Rosamond's appeal: "She dishes out little canapés of information that people can pass out at cocktail parties to make them seem informed. It's a successful approach."

But hardly scholarly. "Most of what happens in art isn't simple," says Filler. "But Bernier seeks to tie up everything in a neat package and then put a cherry on top. People like that because it's symmetrical. Yet it doesn't provoke a lot of deep questioning."

Just as well. Often her audience is too busy thinking about Bernier to think about art. After one lecture at the Met, she heard a woman in the audience say to another, "Well, she's obviously slept with Léger. I wonder what she'll have to say next week about Braque." During a recent talk in Boston, a woman in the audience said to her husband, "She's certainly no academic in a turtleneck. How do you suppose she got so close to Picasso?" He answered, "She's a pushy, aggressive woman, that's how."

With her cultured voice, wry wit and glorious gowns—Mary McFadden and Oscar de la Renta are favorite designers—Bernier at times is definitely more interesting than her slides. "If she spoke on 'The Life of the Thumbtack,' " rhapsodized Brooke Astor, "I'd be hypnotized."

There is something about her. Part of it is her look, and part of it is her history. Born Rosamond Margaret Rosenbaum, she was called Peggy until she married her third husband, New York Times art critic John Russell, in 1975. "John dislikes 'Peggy,' " she says. "In fact, he's always saying to my old friends, 'Would you mind calling her Rosamond?' " Although Bernier(who is in her mid-60s—she won't give her exact age) loathes her ex-husband, she kept his name "because Rosamond Russell sounds too much like Rosalind Russell."

Like a good politician, Bernier can instantly appraise the needs of her audience. Thus, she plays the exotic cosmopolite for one group and the patrician dowager for another. "Rosamond is an astute promoter and a fast take on the social requirements of the occasion at hand," says one observer. "That's why she's so popular with those ladies' clubs in the Midwest. She always offers to pour the tea."

Her social ease stems in part from an eclectic upbringing. The daughter of an Englishwoman and a Philadelphia lawyer, she was born in America but grew up mostly in Europe. "I was a difficult, gloomy child," she says. Her only brother died of an infection when she was 6, and two years later her mother died of cancer. (Her sister lives in London.) "Even as a child, I was interested in visual things," Bernier recalls. She saw the Louvre for the first time at 8 and thought, "This is a wonderful world. This is something I'll someday know more about."

She studied at Sarah Lawrence, but dropped out at 19 to marry Lewis Riley, a wealthy land developer who later married Dolores Del Rio. Bernier and Riley were divorced in 1943, and in 1947 Bernier moved to Paris, as European features editor for Vogue. Pretty, charming and fanatical about art, she quickly became close friends with important European artists. Then, in 1948, she married art dealer Georges Bernier, and together they founded L'Oeil, the French magazine that became this century's leading art journal.

Because of her close associations with the artists, she obtained a series of journalistic exclusives. Matisse called her to Vence to be the first to see plans for his new chapel. She was also the first to see and to write about Picasso's museum at Antibes.

But in 1969 Bernier's 21-year marriage folded up like an artist's easel. Her husband told her he was leaving her over lunch in a restaurant in New York, where he had sent her to open an office. Stranded in America with no money and no job, Bernier sank into a deep depression. Georges Bernier, who now operates an art gallery in London, disputes his ex-wife's version of their divorce. "Anyone who can carry on vindictiveness for 15 years should have her head examined," he says. But his son, Olivier, a New York writer and art lecturer, sides with Rosamond. "My father is an odious man," he says. "When he left Rosamond, he took all their possessions. But she got all their friends."

That included Michael Mahoney, head of the art department at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. "One day Mahoney telephoned me out of the blue and said, 'We're all so looking forward to your lectures.' And I said, 'What!' with horror. And he said, 'Didn't you get my letter?' And I said, 'No.' He claimed he had written. He had already announced that I was giving a course—14 lectures on the background of 20th-century art. I was absolutely horrified. I tried to get out of it. But it turned out to be wonderful therapy. It got my mind off my troubles."

An invitation to speak at Rice University in Houston followed. Roberto Rossellini, in town visiting friends, was in the audience. He wasn't interested in art, and he couldn't understand English. But he'd gone along to please his hosts. Afterward he went backstage and in animated Italian said to Bernier, "Don't worry about your career. Believe me, you've got it."

Rossellini was the first person to give Bernier confidence about her stage charisma. "Before I started lecturing I had never even made a toast," she confesses. "I was never in amateur theatricals. I never got up and recited in class. Certainly, when I was married to Bernier, I never opened my mouth. If I did, he'd say, 'Don't interrupt!' So you see, the fact that I'm now paid to talk is absolutely hilarious."

An enthusiastic editorial about her in the Houston Post sparked the Met to hire Bernier for four lectures in 1971. "I wasn't known at all to the lecture-going public," she says. "I swear, most of the audience were there because they were going to a party afterward that Leonard Bernstein was giving in my honor. Otherwise, it would have been slim pickings indeed."

Since then her repertoire has grown to about 30 lectures organized by theme, including "Taste at the Top" (about royal collectors), "The Eye of Genius" (about French collectors) and "Art in the Garden" (about gardens designed by painters).

Bernier met her current husband, John Russell, 20 years ago when he was a contributor to L'Oeil. Their union was architect Philip Johnson's idea. "I had bad experiences with marriage," she recalls. "But Philip insisted, 'It's time you two kids got married.' "

Their glittering spring wedding at Johnson's famous glass house in New Canaan, Conn., was a gathering of the music and art establishments. Designer Zandra Rhodes made the bridal gown, and actress Irene Worth read Congreve. Aaron Copland and Pierre Matisse were the best men, and Stephen Spender gave the couple a book of his poems. Among the 200 guests were gallery owner Leo Castelli, composer Virgil Thomson and Leonard Bernstein, who wore a natty beige suit. Andy Warhol went in black.

These days Rosamond and Russell divide their time between a rented cottage in West Redding, Conn. and their art-laden Manhattan apartment. Their treasures include a collapsible. Calder mobile that the artist once mailed to Rosamond in a small envelope, the original cast for a Max Ernst sculpture and a Sèvres vase. A gourmet cook, Rosamond makes shad roe mousse and raspberry-papaya sherbet during weekends in the country. In the city she stirs up new lecture ideas. "What people are most interested in is firsthand experience," she explains. "What fascinates them is to know what Matisse and Picasso were like, how they lived. And that's something I can give that most other people can't."

Bernier's anecdotes are full of telling details—sometimes more revealing of Bernier than of the artists. Such was the tale she told recently at the Boston Athenaeum, one of the nation's oldest libraries, of an interview with Henry Moore on his Rodin collection. When she arrived at Moore's house at the beach town of Forte dei Marmi in Italy, he insisted on showing her around. Hours went by and finally Moore said, "Now it's time for our swim." "The next thing I knew we were bobbing up and down in the ocean," Bernier told her rapt audience. "So I thought I had better do the interview then and there. Henry was knocked over by the breakers and as he came out of the sea, I'd ask, 'Where did you first discover Rodin?' And he'd wipe the foam from his mouth and shout, 'When I was a schoolboy in Leeds.' Then another wave would hit and I'd say, 'Tell me, do you really like those late marbles of Rodin's?' So you see what some people have to do to make their living."

The audience laughed heartily and Bernier exited into the bookstacks in a cloud of hot-pink satin. A few minutes later she was holding court at a cocktail party about Braque, her life in Paris and old times at L'Oeil. Two dowagers, as dusty and faded as old paintings, stood nearby. "I'd read about her, but I had no idea she'd be like this," observed one. Agreed her friend, "I know. Art historians are usually the dullest people in the world."

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