Marisa Berenson

Fashion visionaries have been romancing the ‘70s with their collections these past few seasons, celebrating a long-gone era of innocence and optimism, when we all believed anything was possible, and dressed like we were ready for it. The iconic girl in the eye of that ‘70s style storm—“The Girl of the Seventies”, as Yves St. Laurent called her—was Marisa Berenson, a talented model and actress that was considered one of the world’s greatest beauties. The daughter of an American diplomat-turned-shipping exec, and the granddaughter of legendary French designer Elsa Schiaparelli, Berenson began modeling at the age of 16, and was one of the few models to make a successful transition into acting. In 1971, she starred in Luchino Visconti’s ‘Death in Venice’. The next year, she appeared in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret. And in 1975, she played opposite Ryan O’Neal in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Barry Lyndon’. Since then, Berenson’s done a number of small films and TV movies, the most recent being last year’s ‘I Am Love’. She also continues to dabble in the cosmetics industry, and a few years ago, personally presented me with a magic beauty potion she concocted and dubbed “Fabuleuse”, made from fig oil—something she told me her famous grandmother used religiously. It was one of the best beauty products I’d ever come across.

I often have the pleasure of running into Berenson at fashion shows in both New York and Paris, where, at 64, she still manages to play muse to some of the world’s great designers. Besides her stellar style sense and exquisite beauty, she’s a woman’s woman—one of the most amazing ladies I’ve ever met. She radiates light, and I never fail to be inspired by our in-depth conversations about art and life. Berenson has had her share of trials: She lost her only sister, model/actress/photographer Berry Berenson, in one of the planes that hit the World Trade Centre on 9/11. Yet despite the tragedy, Marisa Berenson remains positive, and in a very good, productive space. She’s been working on another film, and is preparing to launch a book with Rizzoli next month, based on some of the memorable photographs from her extraordinary life. I caught up with Marisa Berenson in Paris recently, on the grounds of the Musee Rodin, where we chatted about her past, her view of the world, and her hopes for the future.

Jeanne: Why did you think this was a good time to do something like this monumental book?

Marisa: It’s been on my mind for so long and it’s an homage to all these great people that I’ve worked with over the years. It all came together with Rizzoli and Steven Meisel, who is art directing the book. When things come together like that, it’s the right time. So I have all of my life in pictures basically—through all those wonderful periods with wonderful people and all the great photographers I worked with… and film people, film directors, and my life, my family, the people I’ve known. It’s a fun book.

Jeanne: You’re not one to dwell in the past but you can get nostalgic like the best of us, looking back at some of those incredible moments in life.

Marisa: You’re right I don’t live in the past at all. Other people live more in my past more than I do, but doing this book was really going down memory lane. Especially as so many of the people that I worked with are gone. And there have been such incredible talents that I was lucky enough in to work with: great masters, and artists, and great photographers…

Jeanne: It’s an homage to a whole era really.

Marisa: And everybody’s dreaming about that era now—the 70’s—which for us was really special: We were so young and everything was so creative and so new and so incredibly fun and free. So the book reflects a lot of that, too.

Jeanne: I guess because of your grandmother, Elsa Schiaparelli, this was a world that you felt quite intimate with from the get go. You started modeling professionally with when you were sixteen?

Marisa: Yes, very young.

Jeanne: And you got into acting as well. Do you ever feel that you maybe lost part of your childhood? Do you ever lament the fact that you didn’t have more of an ‘ordinary’ growing up?

Marisa: No, I didn’t want to be a child actually. I didn’t like being a child, although I was very very young and brought up in a very strict and protected way. My grandmother wasn’t too happy when I spread my wings and went off and did that. But I was happy. I’d been dreaming about it since I was in school. All I wanted to do was escape and go live on my own and have a career. And so it was a dream come true and when I was able to do it, thanks to Diana Vreeland. I had the opportunity of working with all these great photographers… gave me the opportunity to work and all these great photographers. It was a dream come true. It was so much fun too. And I was happy and free. (laughs)

Jeanne: You must have learned so much from some of these people too. What did you learn from Diana Vreeland about the world of fashion or style in general?

Marisa: She taught me so much. She was a mentor to me, and she was like my godmother. I’d known her when I was very little, and I use to have lunch with her once a week, and dinner with her all the time. She took me under her wing, and gave me advice, and taught me about discipline. She always encouraged me. I learned so much from her because she was such an incredibly creative visionary—supportive, extravagant, extraordinary. She could make the most banal thing sound like the most fascinating. And I was always fascinated by her. I adored her. She was so wonderful to me. She believed in me and was always there to put me forward and help me. It was great.

Jeanne: When things started to take off for you, you were considered a real “It Girl”. What did that mean to you? Or were you even aware of that kind of status?

Marisa: I wasn’t actually. I look at all these things now that were written back then, and I really wasn’t aware of any of it. I just kind of lived it. Also, I didn’t have this huge awareness or confidence in myself. I learned to accept myself through “le regarde des autres”—the way others viewed me. That’s how I learned to appreciate myself, and now, years later, I realized the luck I had. I was having this wonderful time, doing everything I loved, and that I was passionate about. And being close to all kinds of people from Andy Warhol and Richard Avedon to Visconti and Kubrick. I mean, you look back and think, “Gosh, I was such a lucky person, to be so blessed!” Not everybody has that in their life, and they can’t say they had such great teachers.

Jeanne: But it’s a very symbiotic thing. You were an incredible muse to so many, and still continue to be. How does that mantle suit you? How do you feel when people cite you as a muse?

Marisa: Gosh… (Laughs) Thank you. But I don’t think of myself like that, you know. I just live my life. And I’m very appreciative to people who appreciate me, and are so nice and so enthusiastic. It warms ones heart and it’s nice to have that kind of support in life and to be appreciated.

Jeanne: As you say, so many people look back to that era and think “What moment!” And they try to recapture it and replicate it to some degree, certainly in terms of the clothes that we see. But do you feel that maybe that particular kind of romance is just over, and we are entering another era now?

Marisa: Oh definitely. Unfortunately, it’s a very different time. I think there are always incredibly creative, great people around. And actually, I’m very optimistic, whereas a few years ago, I was thinking the world was (doomed). But I see a movement now in the world, which is encouraging. It’s like a great cleaning up of a lot of very negative, very dark energies. The world is going through major turmoil, and major horrendous things everyday. But I do think that through that, you see a generation of young people coming up who that are extremely wonderful—strong, courageous, and brilliant. They’re going to be the generation of this planet who are have an awareness. I think there is a new awareness coming up because it’s so necessary. Values have change, society changed. It’s like an apocalyptic death or rebirth type of thing. And I want to feel positive about the new world that may come out of this. And there’s new creativity and new spiritual awareness. Finally, there’s an interest and awareness in the planet, in eating the right way and using natural products and trying to save the planet and ourselves, because we have to. And because the old values don’t function anymore. There’s a new way of functioning. But I’ve been doing it all my life, this holistic, mind/spirit/body approach.

Jeanne: I’ve always seen you as very open hearted, and generous of spirit, which is unfortunately a little enigmatic in the fashion world I find. People seem to be leading insular lives sometimes. They’ve got walls around them. Maybe that’s because it’s such an image conscious world.

Marisa: Yes, I think that may be a problem with the world today. People are a little bit afraid. They live on their own, they don’t look to each other anymore, they don’t help each other, they’re not generous… they don’t touch, look, or feel… Everything is too automatic, too cold. The Internet has made everything very impersonal. I love people, and the most important thing in life is having that human exchange, because what else is there in life if you don’t have that? You could be all dressed up in pretty clothes, but if you don’t have the warmth of other human beings around you that you’re living with on this planet, well… It’s essential to be in harmony with everything in life. Otherwise you’re isolated. And that’s why people are so alone, and so afraid, and so neurotic. Because they isolate themselves. It’s a scary world out there. I understand. I think these young people that are coming into the world now must be much more prepared than we were because it is a new world. And you have to be very aware and prepared and protective of yourself. But within that, it’s very important to keep the human qualities and values of life. That’s what everybody needs desperately. It’s what people are coming back to because they’re so miserable. The world is miserable really. I mean most human beings are very unhappy. And there is a reason for that.

Jeanne: We’ve talked so many times in the past about the great escapism that fashion offers, and the fantasy element is one of your favourite things about it. Is that ultimately what it does for one? Or does it have other powers?

Marisa: Fashion has become a huge business too. It offers a lot of work to a lot of people. It inspires a lot of people. And it’s a big big business. So like every other business—the movie business for example—it’s also a dream world. I think you have to have both nowadays. And there’s sometimes a lot of pressure on artists and people to be able to have both, and to know how to deal with both because it’s a very different world today. There was at a time when artists were artists and businessmen were businessmen. And today, women also have to be able to do everything. We have to be superwomen. Sometimes people are just not geared for that. But you have to be today. You have to learn how to take care of everything. You have to be a mother, you have to be a wife, you have to be a lover, you have to be a career girl you have to take care of business: You have to know how to do everything.

Jeanne: And you have to look good while you’re doing it! (laughs)

Marisa: And you have to look great! (Laughs) So sometimes it’s a lot. But one has to take one day at a time, not get caught up too much in the whole whirlwind of things. And it’s important to take time to live and appreciate the good things, the simple things, the nice people, the nice moments in life because it goes too fast. Everything goes too fast nowadays.

Jeanne: And how have you come to terms with aging because you’re doing it so beautifully! Actually, that becomes a funny kind of word in your presence because you seem to be above it all. But so many women our age do get hung up by that kind of thing.

Marisa: The secret is to not get hung up. But apart from that, it’s part of the holistic lifestyle I’ve been practicing for so many years. You have to work on yourself inside as well as out, and try to find your peace and your light and all of that. Then, for the outside, take care of yourself—eat the right things. You know, I have a little beauty line of natural products. I really believe in nature, and well-being, and all of the things that go along with that. It’s a whole story, and you can’t really separate one from the another. Everybody’s got to age, so it’s just a question of doing it gracefully and pushing it and just embracing that fact that its there. So you have a few more wrinkles! It’s not easy, especially when you’re under scrutiny all the time. But in this world, everybody’s is under scrutiny, everybody wants to look perfect. It’s not exactly easy, and I don’t think one can look perfect. So you just have to do your best. (laughs)

Jeanne: (laughs) But life isn’t perfect.

Marisa: Nothing’s perfect!

Jeanne: Even though fashion sometimes has that illusion to it. Getting back to your book… What did you learn about yourself when you started going over all the images, putting them together?

Marisa: I think the enormous change, the evolution in myself. I can see it internally as well. Even in the pictures. when I’m very young, I can see where I was at within myself, within my soul. And I see the evolution of that. That’s the most interesting part to me, apart from the fact that I like that I can be many people. There are many facets to all people. And it’s fun to go in and out of different characters. That’s why I love being an actress. Every human being has different facets, and they come out in films and photographs. You see a lot of different worlds, and colours. It’s fun to look back. All those wonderful moments that I had working with all those great people come alive the more I look at them, and I remember all that. And it was great.

Jeanne: What a life! I look forward to the next chapter, as I’m sure you do too. Thank you for being such an exquisite person, inside and out.

Marisa: Thank you so much. So are you really.

Jeanne: Well it takes one to know one right?

Jeanne and Marisa: (laugh, hug and embrace).