The Amazing Story of Eileen Gray

As one of her chairs sells for €22m, the amazing story of Eileen Gray

She loved Paris, silk underwear – and a singer who was never without her pet panther

Published in Irish Daily Mail, Friday, February 27, 2009

DRESSED immaculately in a tailored trouser suit, silk blouse and floppy bow-tie, her hair fashionably cut in her signature bob, a striking woman in her 40s parked her car close to the little railway station at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin on the Côte d’Azur and climbed down through the bushes until she reached a small terrace.

To the west she could see Monte Carlo – everywhere else there was only sea. It was the summer of 1925 and Eileen Gray, set to become one of the most innovative designers of the 20th century, had been up and down this French coastline for weeks in search of the perfect place to build a house.

Not just any house, however, for this was the house that would become known the world over as E1027, its enigmatic name combining yet concealing the identities of the formidable Miss Gray and her much younger, Romanian lover. Now, looking out over the Mediterranean, she knew she had found the perfect location. And yes, she built her perfect house. But Eileen Gray – independently wealthy, Irish, bisexual and utterly fearless – never found lasting, personal happiness.

Born Kathleen Eileen Moray Smith in Brownswood Manor, Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford on August 9, 1878, she was the youngest of five children. The family changed their name in 1893, after her mother inherited a peerage and claimed her title, Baroness Gray. Her father, James MacLaren Smith, was a Scottish landscape painter.

She was to have two great love affairs in her life – one with Marisa Damia, a French night-club singer known as much for the pet panther that accompanied her everywhere as for her talent as a chanteuse; and the other with the city of Paris, Eileen Gray’s home for almost all her adult life and the place where she died just two years short of her 100th birthday.

Eileen-GrayEileen first visited the French capital for the L’Exposition Universelle in 1901. A few years later, she returned to make her home there in a four-room apartment in a gracious mansion at No. 21 Rue Bonaparte in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. She hired Heloise Dany, the maid who remained with her for more than six decades. Once settled, she shingled her hair, did away with her Edwardian clothes and ordered modern outfits from the top couturiers. Her nails were manicured and she wore only silk underwear – hand-made.

With her ‘cut-glass voice’ and her Anglo-Irish hauteur, she was a woman with presence but was also intensely private. Her mother never knew about Eileen’s lesbian affairs. Before she died, she destroyed many personal documents and effects. But she was nonetheless fearless and determined in the realisation of her goals. As a child, she made a toboggan out of an invalid carriage and, with no thought for safety, went hurtling down the hillside towards the river Slaney at the back of the house in Wexford.

She was one of first women to get a driving licence in Paris and drove her Chenard Walker roadster around the city – and an ambulance during World War I. She had her ‘baptême de l’air’, as she called it, when she went ballooning with Charles Rolls (of Rolls-Royce fame) and later fulfilled her wish of learning to fly. At the age of 80, she was hell-bent on buying a Vespa scooter. But it was for her exquisite furniture that she was to become famous – in particular, for her use of the lacquering technique.

It was while on a visit to her mother in London, that she came across a lacquer studio in Soho and was so intrigued by the process that she became an apprentice. On her return to Paris, she persuaded Seizo Sugawara, a Japanese expert in lacquering, to take her on as a student.

SHE took her work seriously – drying pieces in the humid atmosphere of her bathroom, sometimes despairing of the 20 to 40 coats required and the interminable rubbing-down with a skim of charcoal on the palm of her hand. Her first piece, Le Destin, was bought by couturier Jacques Doucet and he persuaded her to sign it.

Eileen’s aristocratic title – which she never used – design talent, aura of quiet glamour and adventurous spirit were the talk of the beau monde. The private commissions that followed included chairs, lacquer panels and tables.

Her first apartment interior was for Madame Mathieu Levy, a wealthy boutique owner and milliner. She created an atmospheric muted colour scheme and a sculptural use of space filled with screens of lacquered brick, the serpent chair, the large sausage-like Bibendum chairs and the Pirogue day bed, resembling a seashell as much as a recliner. A 1920 issue of Harper’s Bazaar describes the apartment as ‘thoroughly modern although there is much feeling for the antique’.

DamiaThough she had other affairs, the great love of her life was unquestionably Damia, the daughter of a gendarme and a nightclub singer. In her company, Gray displayed an uncharacteristic expansiveness: driving up and down the boulevards with Damia’s pet panther on the back seat of her roadster; attending night clubs for which she had a wardrobe of clothes especially designed by Poiret, and making extravagant gifts to her lover. Eventually, they had a falling out and though they lived close to each other in Paris for the next 40 years, they never spoke again.

Gray adored Paris but also dreamed of designing a home in the south of France that would ‘create dramatic dialogue between house and site’. At the time, she was in a relationship with Jean Badovici, a Romanian architect ten years her junior who was director of the prestigious Architecture Vivante. The site she chose was on the cliffs at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin and when construction began in 1926, it took three years to complete.

Naming the house E1027, (E for Eileen, 10 for Jean – J being the tenth letter of the alphabet – 2 for Badovici and the 7 for Gray) it was fitting somehow, that in acknowledging her relationship with her Romanian lover, she managed to conceal it in code.

Dressed in trousers suits, silk blouses and driving her roadster along the mountain roads of the Côte d’Azur, she oversaw every aspect of building and fitments.

Her modernistic furniture designs for the house include the famous Transat chair and a telescopic table named after the house. The plans of the house can be read as the intertwining of Gray and Badovici’s bodies.

They spent happy times there both on their own and with friends. Eileen left in 1932 never to return after what has become known as the ‘Fresco Episode’ when Le Corbusier, one of the best-known architects of the time, drew a series of sexually explicit murals. She was outraged and demanded they be removed; he refused and went as far as writing a magazine piece claiming his murals enhanced her dull walls. Reputedly, Eileen was amused when, during World War II, German soldiers used the murals for target practice.

IT WAS the Paris auction in 1972 of Jacques Doucet’s estate, including Le Destin, which sold to French designer Yves St Laurent for an unprecedented $36,000 for a ‘modern’ antique, that gave true momentum to the revival of interest in Gray’s career. The first retrospective of her work was held in London at the RIBA’s Heinz Gallery and in Dublin in 1973. The Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland marked the occasion by awarding her honorary fellowship when she was 95 years of age. In the National Museum of Ireland in Collins Barracks, Dublin 7, there is a permanent exhibition of selected aspects and pieces her work.

Just before Christmas last year, after giving a talk on Gray’s life in the Princess Grace Irish Library in Monaco, I took a stroll around her famous house, E1027.

Currently undergoing an €850,000 refurbishment, E1027 is now in the care of the Conservatoire du Littoral, a French organisation dedicated to the protection of valuable resources – in this case, Le Corbusier’s murals more than Gray’s design. If only the Government had seen fit to purchase this house and honour this remarkable woman.

When Eileen Gray died on the Sunday morning of October 31, 1976, she left behind nine buildings, more than 45 projects, a stray cat called Abelard – an her loyal maid, Heloise, who found her when she had collapsed after a fall a few days previously. She was 98 years of age and her death was announced on French radio that evening. A few days later, Eileen Gray was laid to rest in Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris but because of her family’s omission to pay the licence fee, her grave is not identifiable.

A sad end to an extraordinary life.

Time & Destiny, Patricia O’Reilly’s novel based on Eileen Gray, is published by Hodder.