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ERTÉ, MARION DAVIES, AND WILLIAM RANDOLPH HEARST

A COIN TOSS linked Art Deco artist Erté with publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst. One result of the coin toss was a movie, The Restless Sex, all but forgotten—and for good reason. Another was Erté’s career in theater arts design that extended into the 1970s. Here are Erté tidbits gleaned from Set and Costume Designs for Ballet and Theatre: The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, by Alexander Schouvaloff, Sotheby’s Publications, 1987, together with my usual Internet sleuthing.

Romain de Tirtoff, né Roman Petrovich Tyrtov, 1892–1990, Russian-born French artist and designer in the fields of fashion, jewelry, graphic arts, costume, and set design. Image from artandcrafter.com

Wise Parents. Romain was born into a distinguished family with roots tracing back to a mid-1500s’ Tartar khan. His father Pyotr Ivanovich Tyrtov, was the Director of the Naval Engineering School in Kronstad; many ancestors had had naval careers. Hence, it was assumed young Romain would follow them.

Erté (his chosen pseudonym, French for his “RT” initials) later said, “When other boys of my age were playing with their wooden soldiers, I was busy fabricating characters for imaginary ballets out of my mother’s empty perfume bottles.” Wisely, the family agreed to let him have his way and sent him to Paris in 1912. “To supplement his income there,” Schouvaloff wrote, “Erté made an arrangement with a Russian fashion magazine Damski Mir (Ladies’ World) to contribute drawings of the latest Paris fashions.” 

The Erté Style. Schouvaloff notes, “Erté makes no concessions to the three-dimensional figure; his designs are almost always two-dimensional and yet his figures all appear to have solidity and movement.

A design for Ralph Kellard’s costume as the Caliph during “The Ball of the Gods” sequence in the 1920 film The Restless Sex. This and other images from Set and Costume Designs for Ballet and Theatre.

Erté was influenced by the art of Indian and Persian miniatures. He noted that, “Contrary to what many critics later maintained, it was they, rather than the work of Aubrey Beardsley, that profoundly influenced my ultimate style.” 

Schouvaloff wrote, “His early training in fashion drawing… gave him an exact understanding of how different materials drape and hang and how they follow the contours of a body. He uses no shading to indicate the fullness or bulk of the cloth: folds and pleats are drawn with the finest lines.”

On Reproducing Folds and Pleats. Erté’s supervision was important in translating his designs into reality. “On one occasion, however,” Schouvaloff related, “Erté sent some designs abroad and the costumes had to be made without his supervision. The lines which Erté had drawn to indicate folds in the skirt were constructed in wire and then embroidered on the chiffon. The design had been reproduced exactly but it was impossible to move in it.”

The Coin Toss. In 1914, Erté thought to contribute designs to an American magazine. Schouvaloff described,  “… and a toss of a coin decided he should send his drawings to Harper’s Bazar and not to Vogue.” His first cover appeared in January 1915, and before long William Randolph Hearst offered him the first of three ten-year exclusive contracts. Erté terminated the third in 1937 when a new editor began to interfere by making suggestions. 

During his Harper’s Bazar career, Erté contributed to 264 issues, designed 240 covers, and made more than 2500 drawings. 

Costumes for Film. Erté’s first film costume commission was for The Prodigal Son, a Cecil B. DeMille project that was never completed. At the same time, Hearst became obsessed with making his chorus-girl mistress Marion Davies into a film star. 

Marion Davies, née Marion Douras, 1897–1961, American actress, producer, screen writer, philanthropist, and Hearst mistress for three decades. Tidbit: She was the aunt of Orson Welles’ first wife’s second husband.

It was Erté’s responsibility to design what Schouvaloff called “particularly spectacular and sumptuous costumes” for “The Ball of the Gods” sequence in The Restless Sex. This 1920 silent flick starred Marion Davies as a restless and adventurous young woman (talk about type casting!) torn between two men, her childhood sweetheart portrayed by Ralph Kellard and a handsome art student played by Carlyle Blackwell. 

Schouvaloff commented, “Although the film broke the box office records for the first few weeks after its release it was unfortunately not distinguished in any other way. ‘The restlessness noticed yesterday was felt by those spectators who like more life and less length than the picture has. Miss Davies does little in the way of acting, and Ralph Kellard and Carlyle Blackwell, as her heroes, do too much.’ ” 

Erté’s Career. Erté quit the film game for five years, but returned with costume design for such epics as MGM’s Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ, 1925. His theater arts career extended into the 1970s with “hundreds of sets and thousands of costumes for revues in Paris, New York, London, and Blackpool,” Schouvaloff noted.

Les Princesses de Légends, one of the numbers in a revue La Grande Folie at the Folies-Bergère, Paris 1928. Sets and costumes by Erté.

“With Erté,” Schouvaloff concluded, “both nothing and everything is left to the imagination.” ds    

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021 

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