People

The Courageous Life of Catherine Dior

Most people think of flowers when they smell Miss Dior, but there is more to it than that

In his 1951 autobiography, Christian Dior wrote: “What I remember the most about the women who were part of my childhood was their perfume; perfume lasts much longer than the moment.” Guests at the launch in 1947 of his first perfume, Miss Dior, never forgot the olfactory aspect of the occasion as assistants sprayed more than a liter of the scent around the showroom.

As anyone reasonably well-versed in fashion history knows, Miss Dior was named in honor of the couturier’s younger sister, Catherine. On hearing his muse and advisor Mitzah Bricard greet Catherine Dior’s arrival at her brother’s studio with the words “Voilà, Miss Dior!”, Monsieur Dior was apparently heard to remark: “Miss Dior… Now there’s a name for my perfume.” A year before her June 2008 death, Catherine Dior confirmed the story at a French Resistance memorial service.

Although fiercely proud and defensive of her brother Christian and his legacy, Catherine Dior was not what you might describe as a fashion person. Nor, on the other hand, was she by any means conventional. As well as being a highly decorated French Resistance veteran and a survivor of the Nazi gulag, she was one of the few women ever granted a government license to act as a Mandataire en fleurs coupées or “cut-flowers broker.”

This hard-earned status accorded Caro––as her family and friends called her––the right to trade internationally in cut flowers from France and its colonies. From the late 1940s throughout the 1950s, Caro was a familiar sight at the Les Halles market in central Paris, often arriving at 4 a.m. with her companion and former Resistance comrade Hervé Papillault des Charbonneries to begin brokering deals with florists around the world.

Market people who remembered Caro from this time spoke not only of her drive but also of her utmost honesty and probity, a rarely accorded compliment in French business circles at the best of times, especially in the case of women daring to penetrate the glass ceiling that still covers France to this day. Caro also dealt in flowers grown on her property Les Naÿsses in Callian, a few miles to the west of Grasse, where Parisian perfume houses have sourced the flowers for their scents over the past few centuries.

Caro inherited her love of flowers from her mother, Madelaine, remembered for her management of the gardens at the family home, Villa Les Rhumbs, in Normandy. The Dior family came from Granville, a fairly posh resort town on the western Norman seaboard at the foot of the Cherbourg peninsula where the English Channel meets the Atlantic Ocean. Caro’s father, Maurice, was a successful fertilizer producer and the family was wealthy. By the time Catherine was born in 1917, the Diors had moved to Paris but had kept Les Rhumbs as their family seat and so, Caro was born in Granville.

Widowed in 1931, Maurice Dior then suffered financial ruin as a consequence of the 1929 Crash and moved the family to the South of France where property was cheaper and he was able to buy Les Naÿsses. As for Villa Les Rhumbs, the town of Granville purchased the clifftop villa and its grounds in the 1930s, intending to demolish it. Fortunately, the property was turned into a public park instead and in the 1990s was transformed into the Musée Christian Dior, with Catherine Dior as its Honorary President until her death in 2008.

As soon as Caro was old enough, she would visit her brother Christian in Paris. By 1937, Christian Dior was working for the avant-garde couturier Robert Piguet alongside other future luminaries like Pierre Balmain and Marc Bohan. This interlude ended when Christian Dior was called up after the declaration of war in September 1939. He had previously completed his year of military service in 1927 and 1928 with the Fifth Engineer Regiment in Versailles, conveniently close to Paris.

Fortunately for him, Christian Dior’s unit was not in the path of the German advance in May and June 1940 and he and his comrades were demobilized relatively soon after the Franco-German armistice on June 22nd, 1940 instead of being sent off to prisoner of war camps in Germany for two or three years. Dior did not return to Paris until the end of 1941 but stayed in the Unoccupied Zone of France where he often stayed at the family home in Callian.

On a shopping trip to Cannes in November 1941, Caro went into a radio shop run by one Georges Papillault, known to his friends as “Hervé/” It was, as Caro sometimes recalled, love at first sight for the two of them. George Papillault, Baron des Charbonneries, was married with three young children but he and his wife, Lucie, seem to have had something of an open marriage. Indeed, the Baroness was said to be “intimate” with the wife of her cousin, the actor Hubert de Lapparent.

The three of them––Hervé, Lucie, and Caro––would also serve with the same Resistance group during the War: the British-sponsored Franco-Polish intelligence network known initially as the Famille and then F2. Records show Hervé as a member of F2 from December 1st, 1942. His wife Lucie is listed as joining on May 1st, 1943 and Caro a couple of months later on July 1st, 1943. However, Hervé Papillault was already a resistant when he met Catherine Dior and lost no time in recruiting her.

Caro is sometimes described as having served with the Massif Central network as a courier and intelligence-gatherer. This work was extremely dangerous because the Vichy regime’s security services were every bit as dedicated, efficient, and savage as their German counterparts. The transfer to F2 of agents like Caro after the Germans entered the Unoccupied Zone in November 1942 and severely curtailed the power of Marshall Pétain’s Vichy regime was logical, F2 being solely concerned with espionage and intelligence.

Set up in the summer of 1940 by Polish military intelligence officers in exile in France and Britain in collaboration with their British counterparts in London and French patriots, was the first functioning French Resistance intelligence-gathering network. By November 1941, just 40 of F2’s 250 agents were Polish. By the time France was liberated in the autumn of 1944, that number had swollen to 2,513, but few Poles remained in the network’s ranks. Eighty-five F2 agents had been killed and 151 deported, including Catherine Dior.

By the summer of 1944, German and Vichy security forces had successfully infiltrated networks like F2 in Southern France, where the spy game was growing in intensity and barbarity in anticipation of the expected Allied invasion of Provence. In June 1944, Caro went to Paris where she stayed in her brother Christian’s apartment on the Rue Royale. Some say that she received F2 contacts there, but this is unlikely for a number of reasons, one being that the French-staffed Gestapo unit that captured Caro on July 6, 1944 ignored her brother.

While films often refer to German and collaborationist security services as “the Gestapo,” an abbreviation of Geheime Staatspolizei, the Gestapo’s activities were largely limited to German soil. The internal security of the Greater German Reich was assured by the Sicherheits-Dienst or Security Service, a sub-division of the SS. However, the French referred to French SD and Police Allemande men by the pejorative diminutive gestapistes.

The Paris SD unit whose agents arrested Catherine Dior consisted of 44 gestapistes of various ethnicities commanded by a German French Foreign Legion veteran named Friedrich Berger, accorded the rank of SS-Hauptsturmführer or Captain. Berger’s unit is sometimes called the “Carlingue” although this nickname is also used for another French SD unit in Paris, which was the subject of the 2004 film 93 Rue Lauriston.

Berger’s SD unit set up shop at 180 rue de la Pompe, a few minutes’ walk from the Avenue Foch in the wealthy 16th arrondissement on April 17th, 1944. In the four months before they fled Paris on August 17th, 1944, heading east toward Germany, they inflicted serious damage on the Resistance, arresting over 300 agents. One hundred and sixty-three were deported to Nazi concentration camps and 110 died in various ways, including 60 who were shot to death. Berger and his henchmen were either very efficient counter-insurgency operatives or very well-informed by traitors.

F2 suffered badly at the hands of the “Gestapistes de la rue de la Pompe,” who arrested 26 of its agents at the beginning of July, 1944. Jean Cocteau’s friend and lover Jean Desbordes, alias Duroc, was picked up on July 5th and endured four days of bestial torture before the gestapistes tore his eyes out, beat him to death, and dumped his body in a suburban graveyard. During World War II, Allied secret services reckoned that even the toughest of agents would break after 24 hours of German-style interrogation.

F2 suffered badly at the hands of the “Gestapistes de la rue de la Pompe,” who arrested 26 of its agents at the beginning of July 1944. One of them was Jean Cocteau’s friend and lover the poet and writer Jean Desbordes, alias Duroc. Desbordes was picked up on July 5th and endured four days of bestial torture before the gestapistes tore his eyes out, beat him to death, and dumped his body in a suburban graveyard. During World War II, Allied secret services reckoned that most agents would break after 24 hours of German-style interrogation.

The French SD men tended if anything to be crueler than their German colleagues and softening-up treatment often began with savage beatings and other forms of assault regardless of the age and gender of their victims before the professional interrogators started asking questions. Other prisoners said that Desbordes did not break. Nor did Catherine Dior.

Caro had arrived at the Place du Trocadero on July 6th to meet another female F2 agent and found two of Hauptsturmführer Berger’s French gestapistes waiting for her. They bundled her into a car and took her to 180 rue de la Pompe. Once Berger’s thugs had finished with her, she was transferred to prison to await deportation to the Nazi gulag. Berger’s unit needed the space. Had Caro been arrested a month later, she might well have been killed by Berger’s men, who would shoot 44 prisoners to death in the Bois de Boulogne the day before fleeing Paris on August 17th.

Christian Dior made strenuous attempts to secure his sister’s release but none of his well-connected friends and clients were prepared to risk helping him. Dior was working for Lucien Lelong, Robert Piguet having been unable to find room for him when he returned to Paris at the end of 1941. Christian Dior is sometimes described as having “dressed Nazi wives” during the Occupation and it would be a shame to ignore this chance to examine the facts.

Along with Pierre Balmain, Dior worked for Lelong who can fairly be credited with saving Parisian couture from the Nazi regime, which planned at one point to move all of the major Paris couture houses to Berlin. Officially, France and Germany were allies under the terms of the June 1940 armistice and therefore partners in the “New Europe.” Thwarted by the lobbying of Lelong, who was supported by powerful officials in the Vichy government who were not at all pro-German, the Germans then tried to close couture houses down no fewer than 14 times.

In the case of Maison Balenciaga, the Germans succeeded because the house had exceeded its quotas. Strict controls on materials of all kinds had been imposed because of wartime shortages. No fashion house was permitted to produce more than 75 outfits each season and each outfit was further controlled in terms of the amount of materials used in its construction. Despite these constraints and German harassment, couture sales rose by 400% in 1941 and 1942.

How many “Nazi wives” did Christian Dior dress at Lelong while his little sister was risking her life in the Resistance? To gain access to fashion shows in Paris at the time, guests needed a pass issued by the Couture Création group. Of 20,000 such passes in 1942, a mere two-hundred were given to the wives of German officers. These women were usually from German high society and had probably spent as much time in France before the war as their native Germany and Austria.

In other words, they were all paid-up members of the wider European Establishment and would have been on the invitation lists of other society women like the French wife of the German Ambassador to Vichy, Otto Abetz, a keen Francophile who was said to have saved many French people from deportation or worse. Except for Jews, of course, and “terrorists” like Catherine Dior and her comrades.

As American and Free French forces closed in on Paris in August 1944, the ever-efficient Germans speeded up deportations of undesirables to Germany and further east, ably assisted by their French colleagues. On the evening of August 14th, French prison guards rousted Catherine Dior and other prisoners from their cells and handed them over to French policemen who drove them to the railway marshaling yards in the northeastern Paris suburb of Pantin, the departure point for countless Jews and other unfortunates from the notorious concentration camp at Drancy.

Caro was one of 593 women amongst the 2,197 deportees brought to Pantin that morning from the Paris prisons of Fresnes, Le Cherche-Midi and La Santé by the French police. Just 838 of those men and women would return after the German surrender in May 1945. It was one of the hottest Augusts on record and conditions in cattle wagons into which the policeman and railway employees crammed the prisoners were atrocious. This train is sometimes described as le dernier convoi––the last such trainload of deportees sent east––but it was, in fact, one of several prison trains to leave Paris in the final days of German rule.

In Paris, a frantic Christian Dior had finally found someone brave enough to help by contacting the Swedish Consul Raoul Nordling. Nordling, who would persuade the German military governor of Paris to disobey Adolf Hitler’s directive to destroy the city, had managed to make a deal with the German High Command permitting all political prisoners, including those marked for deportation, to be placed under Swedish protection.

The train’s progress was excruciatingly slow because of the priority given to German troop and supply train movements. Allied air attacks were also an ever-present danger. The Resistance had tried unsuccessfully to stop the train at Dormans on August 17th. In other words, it had taken almost two days to cover just 60 miles. In the sweltering heat, the combined smells of human misery, overflowing latrine buckets, and death were so overpowering that the SS guards sitting on the wagons were complaining.

A few miles further down the line at Revigny, the stationmaster and representatives of the International Red Cross tried to persuade the SS officer commanding the train to release his prisoners but he refused and the train rolled on, reaching Bar-le-Duc that night, halfway to the German border. The next morning, Nordling succeeded in obtaining a promise from the Germans that he could have Catherine Dior as long as he telephoned Bar-le-Duc and spoke with the train commander before 2: 45 p.m. when the train was scheduled to leave. Nordling’s contact, a Major Huhm, would expect a call from the train commander for confirmation.

Given the chaos, Nordling was unable to obtain a line to Bar-le-Duc in time and the train left. The dutiful train commander had ignored pleas by telephone from no less a personage than Pierre Laval, head of the Vichy government, to turn all of the prisoners over to the Red Cross. There again, Nordling’s efforts might have borne fruit because Red Cross officials had managed to persuade the train commander to release three women and a Catholic priest who was very ill.

Once in Germany, the male prisoners were diverted to Buchenwald, the clearing center for male prisoners, and the women to Ravensbruck, the clearing center for female prisoners. According to the procedure, Caro was stripped and intimately searched for contraband. After a perfunctory medical examination, she was passed through the communal showers before being shaved and tattooed with her number: 57183RA, the suffix standing for Ravensbruck. As a political prisoner, she wore an inverted red triangle on her prison uniform.

Caro was sent to Torgau––known for its infamous military prison––where she was forced to make explosives under very dangerous conditions. She also served time in Abterode, one of Buchenwald’s satellite camps and on the notorious Anton Kommando in a Prussian salt mine. When the Americans liberated Leipzig on April 4th, 1945, Caro was working in an aircraft parts factory. Like other liberated prisoners, she took to the road. Two weeks later, on April 19th, 1945, she was rescued by American soldiers near Dresden and hospitalized for a month, which gives some idea of her physical condition.

Late in May 1945, Christian Dior received a telephone call informing him that his sister would be arriving at the Gare de l’Est in Paris the following morning. Dior was deeply shocked when he saw his little sister. Severely emaciated after 10 months of starvation rations, Caro would be unable to digest solid food for several months. She was also suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, as we call it today.

 

Christian Dior installed his sister in his apartment at 10 Rue Royale, by the Place Vendôme, where she was joined by Hervé Papillault des Charbonneries and his three children, who would grow to love Caro very deeply over the coming decades and to view her as their mother. For her part. Caro treated Hervé’s children as if they were hers. In time, Caro built herself a new life with Hervé, finding what one friend described as “relative peace”. She tended to avoid limelight and publicity but was always very proud of her famous brother and his achievements.

In November, 1952, Caro was called to testify against 14 former members of the Carlingue before a military tribunal in Paris. Friedrich Berger was not amongst the accused. Although he had been captured by the British in 1945, he had not been handed over to the French despite being on their most wanted list since the conclusions of the first judicial inquest into the “Gestapo of 180 rue de la Pompe” in December, 1944. Berger was employed by the American secret services in the fight against Communism and died of a sudden illness in Munich in 1960. Like some of the French underworld thugs and other sociopaths under his command in 1944, he had been sentenced to death albeit in absentia and had cheated the firing squad in front of which the military tribunal would readily have placed him had the West German authorities sent him to France.

Catherine Dior’s wartime activities and her heroism in not breaking under the torture she endured at the hands of the Gestapo of 180 rue de la Pompe earned her a nomination to the Légion d’Honneur and the Croix de Guerre. Caro was also entitled to the Resistance Medal, instituted in 1943 by General de Gaulle’s Free French government-in-exile in London and the hard-earned French Resistance Volunteer Combatant Cross. The Poles awarded her the Cross of Valor and the British honored her with The King’s Medal for Courage in the Cause of Freedom.

In 1951, Christian Dior bought the Château de la Colle Noire, some three miles from Les Naÿsses, taken over by Caro and Hervé after Maurice Dior’s death in 1946. Some say he bought La Colle Noire to be close to his little sister and they are probably right. Caro sold the estate after her brother’s death in 1957 but LVMH acquired it in 1993 in the name of Parfums Christian Dior.

The estate had been reduced from 125 to 12 acres in the intervening years but the sensitive restoration of the château and its remaining grounds to how they looked in the early 1950s would have been met with Monsieur Dior’s approval. Caro had kept many of her brother’s favorite pieces of art and furniture and was happy to see them returned to La Colle Noire. Caro was also very proud to see Les Rhumbs turned into the only French museum dedicated exclusively to a couturier.

Catherine Dior’s haute bourgeois childhood in Normandy was typically strict according to the social values and mores of the period and her mother was remembered by some as cold and distant. Even so, Caro’s donation to the museum dedicated to her brother of a dress worn by her mother, Madeleine Dior, was an elegant homage to the woman who gave us Christian Dior and who gave Catherine Dior the love of flowers that helped her build a new life with her companion despite what had happened to her.

That is what we should think of when we open a bottle of Miss Dior and breathe in the mixed scents of the flowers: Miss Dior and her brother loved. We should think of love, of liberty and of life and how people like Catherine Dior and her comrades were prepared to die for these ideals.

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