I have always been fascinated by people who are able to use influence and contacts to operate with panache within the flimflam world of celebrity. Such a person was Charlotte Chandler, whose book, The Ultimate Seduction, Quartet published in 1986.
Charlotte Chandler was a mysteriously influential American lady whom I met in London through the public-relations office of the Savoy Hotel. She was born in California, an only child, and used to write short stories. That was the total extent of her printed biography, and it was as much as she considered anyone needed to know about her. No one knew her age. She once said she stopped counting when she reached nineteen. Her background was no less obscure: it was shrouded in mystery. In Hollywood she had somehow got to know most of the stars and celebrities, from Charlie Chaplin to Douglas Fairbanks, and had interviewed many of them. Fairbanks used to address her as ‘Cha Cha’ when he wrote to her, to distinguish her from Chaplin, whom he called ‘Ch Ch’. With her engaging manner and bouffant style of piled-up curls, she listened to them all and gathered anecdotes wherever she went. Mae West told her, ‘You know, honey, I see something men must like about you – you’re a brilliant listener.’ All the time Charlotte was interviewing Miss West, she was aware of a sound like small birds rustling their wings. It turned out to be caused by Miss West fluttering her false eyelashes.
Having gained access to the notoriously difficult-to-interview Groucho Marx for Playboy, she then wrote a book about him called Hello, I Must Be Going. Now, in May 1986, Quartet were publishing her latest book, The Ultimate Seduction. All those she had known were in its pages, including the famous film directors Billy Wilder and Federico Fellini. With Fellini she had a particular friendship and a drawing he did of her was on the jacket. Picasso also drew her but signed it ‘Pica’, saying it was only half a Picasso since she had declined to disrobe completely. Marc Chagall told her how fame was a ghetto when she called on him with a picture painted by Groucho that friends told him was ‘very Chagall’. Chagall then reciprocated with a book that he signed ‘Very Chagall’. Over teacakes from Fortnum & Mason, Henry Moore told her how his mother used to watch him sculpt, shaking her head and saying, ‘And you could have been a teacher.’ Tennessee Williams, with whom she stayed many times, remarked, ‘Nobody who knew my day-to-day life would envy me at all.’
The title of the book came from a quote by Picasso: ‘It is your work in life that is the ultimate seduction.’ Charlotte explained the reason for her book of conversational interviews, which was like no other in existence:
The ultimate seduction is not about sex, but about passion. It is the thrill that cannot be surpassed. For the people in this book, that passion is their work. Sex is the ultimate distraction, work the ultimate satisfaction. They all followed strong drives towards goals not always known, and found – themselves. All were able to work at what they wanted to do and do it successfully. All were willing to risk everything when the chances of success seemed small. All gave everything to their work and received everything from it. All began by defining their work, and then were defined by it.
Besides celebrities from the world of show business, she included in her collection the president of Hermès in Paris. Charlotte never took no for an answer and was full of surprises. She had arrived at teatime in Madrid to visit Isabelita and Juan Perón in exile, to find the late Eva Perón being attended in her coffin by her consultant embalmer, Dr Ara, who was carefully combing her hair. Perón had particularly wanted her to come on that day and pay her respects to Evita.
I don’t know if I thought Eva Perón would look like a body or a mannequin or a wax doll or something else. She looked like all of those or none of those. She was wearing a white dress which had acquired a shroud-like appearance. But her face was even whiter. Perón said to me, ‘She was fair, like you.’
Dr Ara was offered some tea as well, but declined. He was too absorbed in his work of preserving the hair, tufts of which kept falling on to the polished parquet flooring. ‘There was only one crack in her,’ said Isabelita. ‘But it was a shame about the hairpins. They rusted in her hair.’
Charlotte befriended academics and rogues and knew the true value of working the circuit. In New York she was a regular attender at the grandest social functions and always seemed on intimate terms with those who wielded power in publishing and the artistic world. Famous restaurants in New York accorded her special treatment and she was often seen being ceremoniously ushered to her favourite table. No one could fathom the secret of her influence or how she achieved it all on an income that was modest by the standards of those with whom she kept company. She lived at the right address and had neighbours, such as Pavarotti, with whom she was on the friendliest of terms. The way she operated and how well informed she always was could only be marvelled at. Over the years she and I have become good friends, meeting regularly in New York and London.
The Ultimate Seduction is full of revelations and it packs a punch without being threatening. Her interviewees became her close friends and each relationship is unique in its own way. She keeps her manner very low key and her voice at the same low register. She is a slow eater and a sympathetic listener. To engage in conversation with Charlotte is to find time irrelevant, her languid attitude being perhaps her greatest strength. She is seductive without being aware of it and quick to make anyone feel at ease without any visible effort on her part.
The book launch for The Ultimate Seduction was held in the Beaufort Room at the Savoy Hotel, where Martin, the fifth-floor waiter who usually served Charlotte and other illustrious visitors, was this time on the guest list with his wife Teresa. Show-business luminaries who were there included Robert Morley, Adolph Green, Emlyn Williams and the widows of Sean O’Casey and Jack Hawkins. The Beaufort Room was decorated with pink balloons and large colour blow-ups of Charlotte with some of the people from her book, such as Henry Fonda, Bette Davis, Tennessee Williams and Fellini. The Fortnum & Mason pastry chef created the cake in the shape of a large book that looked as if you could actually turn the pages and recreated the jacket with Fellini’s drawing. At the end of it all, half the cake remained uneaten and was donated to an orphanage.