Maxime de la Falaise is dead.
You may not have absorbed the full impact of that yet. When I read on Tuesday that Maxime de la Falaise had died, I felt empty – after all, I’d never heard of her, so it didn’t have much of an emotional punch. But as I sat in the cafe, sipping my latte and reading her obituary in The Age, I was deeply saddened. Partly because the world is a less interesting place without her – partly because I will never have the chance to meet her – and mostly because I will never get to be her.
And it really is a most arresting obituary. A real-life mix of Holly Golightly and Forest Gump, Maxime de la Falaise connects a startling number of people and places that should never appear in the same sentence. To give you an idea, this is taken from a paragraph near the end: “When her second husband died in 1975, de la Falaise briefly dated John Paul Getty III, whose ear had been cut off by kidnappers in 1973.”
Let’s look at that again, shall we? She “dated John Paul Getty III, whose ear had been cut off by kidnappers in 1973“. I’m fairly certain that should I ever have a fling with a monaural heir to an oil-fortune, on my death the newspapers will say “One-Eared Millionaire’s Bit Of Crumpet Dies – Seriously, It Was Cut Off By Kidnappers“. But de la Falaise‘s life is so interesting that a mutilated billionaire barely makes it as a footnote.
Even if we distilled her life to just her romantic partners – which would be horribly sexist so we’d never dream of it – we’d see that “she began an affair with a Russian photographer working for Vogue before marrying Count Alain de la Falaise“, had “a string of affairs” including “a scandalous liaison with an Italian playboy“, “romanced the film director Louis Malle, and moved to Provence to live with an American artist”, “struck up a “strange, erotic” relationship with the surrealist painter Max Ernst” and “married John McKendry, curator of prints and photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art“. Honestly, where did she find the time?
Her work was even more surprising – check this out for a sentence: “Cecil Beaton reportedly called her the only truly chic Englishwoman of her generation, and she modelled for Yves Saint Laurent and the Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli before designing clothes for the French ready-to-wear designer Gerard Pipart. When she moved to New York, Vogue magazine hired her as a food columnist and she appeared in Warhol‘s 1974 underground film Andy Warhol’s Dracula.”
It was still tempting to dismiss her – after all, she was born into wealth, and worked in the shallow world of fashion – yet it appears she really did have a talent both for writing and for food. As well as her work for Vogue she wrote a book entitled Seven Centuries of English Cooking (first published in 1973), which included recipes dating back to the Middle Ages. She also designed the menu for the “Andymat“, an unrealised dream of Andy Warhol‘s to open a fast food restaurant where food and drink were served by coin-vending machines in a room of solitary booths.
Describing the Andymat in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again) Warhol said “I really like to eat alone. I want to start a chain of restaurants for other people who are like me called ANDYMATS—’The Restaurant for the Lonely Person’. You get your food and then you take your tray into a booth and watch television”. According to The Age, “De la Falaise‘s menu included onion tarts, shepherd’s pie, fish cakes, Irish lamb stew and a ‘nursery cocktail’ consisting of milk on the rocks”.
So, she was a model, designer and food-writer/historian who hung out with Andy Warhol, Louis Malle and millionaires who would never enjoy stereo. “So what?” I hear you say. “It’s not like she fought the Nazis“.
That’s where you’re wrong. SHE DID.
In World War II she worked at Bletchley Park, the top-secret military base responsible for breaking the codes of the Nazi’s Enigma machines. Alan Turing was one of the many mathematicians and cryptanalysts working at Bletchley, creating mechanical devices to aid the decoding of secret messages, which helped shorten the second world war and gave Bletchley the claim of “birthplace of the modern computer”. Security was paramount at Bletchley – decades later many people were still unaware their spouses had worked there, and the work only became generally known to the public after the BBC documentary series Station X in 1999. The base was also the subject of the movie Enigma (starring Kate Winslet), the novel Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson, and that other Doctor Who story about space vampires.
So how did de la Falaise help the fight against Hitler at Bletchley? Well, she was sent there because she could speak French, but mostly she had a breakdown due to stress and became a kleptomaniac, stealing anything shiny. “My friends realised that I’d gone a bit mad,” she recalled, “and they would look in my bag and fish out anything that was theirs.” Still, it’s more interesting than working in a bank. And who hasn’t come back from a party with their handbag full of cutlery?
De la Falaise also taught screen-printing, delivered her own sandwiches to nightclubs and designed for Yves Saint Laurent. She’s like a one-woman version of that game on Good News Week – “your clues were an Enigma machine, Louis Malle and 17th century English cooking – who am I?”.
Maxime de la Falaise, you were crazy in the right way. You will be missed.
You can read the whole obituary here, but there’s really not much I’ve left out. And you can buy these exciting things, which will help the Institute continue its war on culture:
From Amazon UK:
- Seven Centuries of English Cooking
- The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again
- Station X: The Code Breakers of Bletchley Park (book)
- Doctor Who – The Curse of Fenric
- The Louis Malle Collection – Vol. 1