Book Review: ‘Paradise Now: The Extraordinary Life of Karl Lagerfeld,’ by William Middleton

Karl was born in Hamburg, the mentally and physically well-nourished only son of a father who had prospered in the evaporated-milk business and a strict mother with a feminist bent. In manner she reminded one family friend, a princess, of an “ice pick,” but she impressed upon Karl the importance of languages and literature: Goethe, Eduard von Keyserling and the polymathic diplomat Count Harry Graf Kessler. His parents did, grimace emoji, join the Nazi Party — but, it seems, more out of expediency than enthusiasm.

Lagerfeld may have changed his birth date from 1933 to 1938 not from vanity so much as a desire to distance himself from the time of Hitler’s rise, and he claimed an affinity for “cosmopolitan” Jewish culture. His first memory was of tulle curtains billowing at the windows, as if foreshadowing one of his lucrative perfume commercials, and at school he sketched like a maniac.

Lagerfeld was 16 when he saw the traveling show of Christian Dior’s revolutionarily lavish postwar New Look, and nearly 19 when he moved to Paris: indulging in cafes and cinema and prophetically attending Coco Chanel’s comeback collection in 1954. He took a few classes at an obscure school called the Cours Norero before entering a competition that would become known as the Woolmark Prize, winning first place in the coat category.

Saint Laurent, three years his junior — a brighter light that would flame out faster — won in the dress division. And the rest is hiss-story.

The tension between the two, who clashed not only professionally but over a young aristocratic dandy named Jacques de Bascher, the love of Lagerfeld’s life though their relationship was probably chaste, has been oft-told, most hypnotically by the writer Alicia Drake in her own 2006 book “The Beautiful Fall,” over which Lagerfeld sued unsuccessfully.

Middleton, who was by contrast welcomed into his subject’s many inner sanctums covering him for Harper’s Bazaar and other publications, adds fresh layers, like the snapshot of a Deauville vacation from which Lagerfeld, then working for Balmain, had Saint Laurent, his onetime chum, airbrushed out, leaving “nothing but a mound of sand.”

The degree of coziness can startle. Middleton noticed that a mover helping the designer set up a German villa was “particularly hot” and “absurdly attractive,” and was rewarded with a photo sent by Lagerfeld of the worker in his underwear. “A flex on his part,” the author decided. (Later hired as a bodyguard and chauffeur, the mover, Sébastien Jondeau, also became a generous source for Middleton.)

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