A Lady Worth Interviewing

A remark that Irish designer and architect Eileen Gray had been interviewed by Bruce Chatwin for the Sunday Times in 1972 had me scrolling through microfiches in the National Library. I couldn’t find the piece; the Sunday Times couldn’t help and as far as his wife knew he hadn’t written up his interview notes. When I found a letter dated from 1972 thanking Gray for a “most enjoyable Sunday afternoon”, I had the hook for the book that is The Interview.

The lacquer screen, Le Destin, first brought Gray fame in 1913 and again in 1972 when it sold for $36,000, then the highest price paid at auction for a modern antique. At the age of 94, the spotlight of the international media was on her, but she refused all interviews.

Throughout the 1920s her reputation had grown with her refurbishment of the Levys rue Lota apartment — a showcase for her lacquer block screens, Dragons Armchair and the Pirogue Sofa where the media-savy Madame Levy was photographed. The publicity drew commissions.

When she became interested in architecture, she dreamt of designing and building a house on the Côte d’Azur. This was realised with E.1027, one of the most iconic houses of the 20th century.

At the time she was involved with Jean Badovicci, a penniless Romanian architect. Eileen was bisexual but discreet in her liaisons. The exception was Marie Louise Damien, better known as Damia, a nightclub singer who took Paris then Hollywood by storm. During their short relationship they were a familiar sight driving along with Damia’s pet panther sitting in the back.

Eileen was born in 1878 into an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family who lived at Brownswood, Enniscorthv, Co Wexford. Her mother Eveleen was the daughter of Lady Jane Stuart and her Scottish father, James McLaren Smith, was a landscape painter.

Eileen, the youngest of five children had a lonely childhood that frequently had her sleeping on the floor outside her parents’ bedroom. When she was 11 her father left his marriage and returned to Italy to paint. Eileen was devastated.

A few years later, her sister’s husband ordered a ‘renovation’ of the house that turned out to be a demolition. Eileen and her mother moved to their London townhouse, and Eileen attended the Slade School of Fine Art.

She declined to be presented at Court or even discuss the prospect of marrying well. When her mother inherited the title of baroness, despite the cachet a title would give her business, she never used “the honourable”.

Eileen Gray dressed as a peacock, National Museum of IrelandFrom 1907 Eileen lived in Paris. As well as being an architect and designer she was a painter, a skilled photographer and had a passion for working with new materials. She was a woman ahead of her time with her bobbed hair, designer clothes and manicured nails. But with her failing eyesight in the 1930s, her star descended and she became reclusive, though never stopped designing. She was proud of being Irish but grieved at being unknown in her own country. In 1973 when she was elected an honorary member of the Royal Institute of Irish Architects and the Royal Institute of British Architects held a retrospective exhibition of her works, she was pleased but considered the honour too late.

Before her death in 1976, she destroyed personal papers and photographs but left a detailed account of her projects: more than half a dozen houses and interiors, examples of furniture (some 70 pieces were shown at the Eileen Gray Exhibition in Paris) and a raft of projects at planning stage.

Outside work her passions were cars and flying machines. She had a Chenard Walker, was one of the first women in Paris to get a driving licence and drove an ambulance in World War One. Her baptême de l’air was ballooning with Charles Rolls (of Rolls Royce) and she was a competent aviatrix.

A few weeks after the sale of Le Destin, Bruce Chatwin, rising star of Fleet Street, arrived in Paris to interview her. Somehow he gained access and they spent two hours together. What happened between them remains unknown. But she willed him a gouache she’d painted of Patagonia. His travel book In Patagonia later changed the face of travel writing. Bruce Chatwin died in 1989 and Eileen Gray in 1976, both taking their conversation of that afternoon to their graves.

The Interview by Patricia O’Reilly is published by New Island Books