Patricia Volk believes that everyone has read a transformative book, usually encountered just before the onset of adolescence.
Hers, she explains in her new memoir, Shocked: My Mother, Schiaparelli, and Me (Knopf, Apr.), was inventive fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli’s 1954 memoir, Shocking Life. Volk, who’s written a first memoir and four works of fiction, proves chatty and open on all subjects, but—like her mother, Audrey—does not reveal her age. Reductively, it could be said that Volk’s 2001 memoir, Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family, was about Volk’s father and Shocked is about her mother, but Shocked, rich with memory and history, is more than just biography. Through the experiences of Volk’s mother and Schiaparelli, Shocked looks at the limited options available to women in the moment before feminism opened the world of opportunity to them.
Volk’s mother was known for her beauty. “Everybody tells me my mother is beautiful,” Volk writes in Shocked. “The butcher tells me. The dentist, the doormen, my teachers, cab drivers gaping at her in the rearview mirror as they worry the wheel. Friends from school, friends from camp, camp counselors, the hostess at Schrafft’s. The cashier at Rappaport’s and the pharmacist at Whelan’s where we get Vicks VapoRub for growing pains. At Indian Walk, the salesman measures my feet for Mary Janes and says, ‘You have a very beautiful mother, little girl. Do you know that?’ ” Audrey, Volk says, had strong ideas about everything from the proper procedure for purchasing a fur coat to the way a pillowcase should be placed. In their Upper West Side apartment, she ruled the roost. As Volk says, “My mother really was a martinet. We lived in a monarchy and she was queen.”
And appearances were everything to Audrey: when she and her two daughters (Volk’s sister, Jo Ann, a marriage and family therapist, lives in Florida) were in a restaurant and conversation lulled, she had them count out loud to pretend they were engaging in scintillating conversation. Volk often rebelled against her mother’s strictures: “I thought some of her ideas were wacky even at 10. Many of them I knew weren’t for me.”
In Shocked, descriptions of Audrey alternate with sections about Schiaparelli. Their lives often overlapped, and Schiaparelli’s perfume in its distinctive bottle was Volk’s mother’s signature scent. In a ritual that Volk says was “like a ballet,” Volk’s father gave her mother a new bottle each year on her birthday. Volk says, “Schiaparelli was so much like my mother but she made choices my mother would never make.”
Schiaparelli palled around with Duchamp, Dalí , and other famous artists, and she incorporated surrealism into her designs. She was behind many of the “modern” ideas of the 20th century—everything from the knitted hat she dubbed a Mad Cap to underwear for women that didn’t require ironing, which she dreamed up while riding a bicycle around Paris during the run-up to WWII. Among the many pieces of art included in the book is a photograph of Schiaparelli’s wartime panties with a double nylon crotch panel; “I did want to have a picture of Mormon underwear in there,” Volk confides.
Volk, who received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2011, did copious research, including traveling to Paris to visit Schiaparelli’s 21 Place Vendôme atelier, which now belongs to Diego della Valle, chairman of Tod’s footwear. The space has been restored, and a Schiaparelli relaunch is in the works. “I want to be buried there,” says Volk. “They have butterflies in glass domes hanging from the ceiling and supported from the floor on invisible string. They have Giacometti coffee tables and Giacometti lamps. They have big black velvet flat boxes with Schiaparelli jewels.” And, she adds, “It’s not frozen as a museum. They let me touch things and feel the seams.”
Volk also reread Schiaparelli’s memoir, and 50-plus years after her first encounter discovered something, well, shocking, that had eluded her the first time around: Schiap, as she was known, was depressed. Volk observes, “Reading it as an adult with a lifetime of experience, I saw the signs of a depressive, a severe case of melancholia.” Volk also notes that Schiaparelli was “the worst mother in the world” to her only child, the daughter known as Gogo. And like Volk’s mother, she could be a harsh judge of beauty, although Schiaparelli, unlike Volk’s mother, could not be called a classic beauty. “She was cruel about the way her daughter looked. She believed you should train your body to fit the clothes, so if somebody came into her atelier she would make them diet and remake them, and for breakfast every morning she had warm water with a slice of lemon.”
Of course, beauty fades, and some of the most touching parts of Shocked regard Audrey in her later years, spent in Florida. “No one ever stopped saying how beautiful she was, even when she got to look like Shirley MacLaine in the movie Bernie,” Volk says. “She was an older woman, but a beautiful older woman. I don’t think she felt that way about herself, though. Her hands changed, and she couldn’t get over that.”
Volk also notes, “My sister nurses a real anger to my mother still. After my mother died, my sister told me not to mention her name again. I call her ‘Bleep.’ She still doesn’t want to talk about her. It took her 45 minutes to drive to my mother’s house in Boca Raton, Fla., from Coral Gables, and she went six days a week. Sometimes she’d get there and my mother would say, ‘Can you get me my peignoir out of the closet?’ My sister would say, ‘Yes,’ and she’d say, ‘That’s all I needed.’ My sister always wanted to please her, and the more she wanted to please her, the more my mother bruised her. I watched with sadness and distance.”
This anecdote is a good example of the rigorous (though never gratuitous or malicious) honesty that Volk displays both in person and in her writing. Stuffed and Shocked share an unsentimental tone—not one word feels dubious or coy. How have family members reacted to that forthrightness? “No one’s read this book,” says Volk of Shocked. “I read the part about my sister’s facelift in Stuffed to my sister, and she said, ‘Oh, it’s hilarious.’ When the book came out, my mother said, ‘How could you do that?’ No matter what you write, people are going to take issue with it. You just have to write. My first novel had a tribe of Israeli dwarves, a true form of dwarfism that only exists in Israel. One day in the elevator, a woman turned to me and said, ‘I read your book and I know who those people are. The leader is Mr. Bergman in 15B.’ When you write fiction people assume it’s true, and when you write memoir people assume you made it up.”
In any case, Volk says, “I don’t know that niceness ever counts. But good manners matter, and my mother and Schiap had that in common. They both knew how to behave well, except with their daughters.”
Natalie Danford, longtime PW contributor, is the author of Inheritance, a novel, and the writer and translator of several cookbooks.