In 1947, Paris was still in difficulty after World War II and the city lacked beauty. And a 41-year-old designer named Christian Dior provided it with his first fashion collection.
As the elegant Dior models strolled through her living room dressed in extravagant skirts and impossible wasp-waisted jackets, they left in their wake a heady scent of rose and jasmine.
This perfume was the first fragrance from the designer, Miss Dior – named after her little sister, Catherine, who sat in the audience that day. Yet the real Miss Dior was no fashionista. A discreet and independent woman, she was happier walking around her garden in casual pants and a button-down shirt than attending fashion shows in glamorous dresses.
But a new book, “Miss Dior: A Story of Courage and Couture” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), released on November 9, reveals that the mysterious Catherine had a pretty sensational life. A member of the Resistance during World War II, Catherine was arrested by the Nazis, tortured and sent to various concentration camps before her release by Soviet soldiers. When she finally returned to Paris – nearly a year after her capture – the 27-year-old was so emaciated that her brother didn’t even recognize her.
Even more remarkable: Catherine ended up rebuilding her life. She moved in with her married lover, started a cut flower business, and grew flowers for her brother’s perfumes until his death in 2008 at the age of 90. The Croix de Guerre she received for her bravery during the war praised her “great worth and admirable spirit.”
“She didn’t want to have pity,” one of her friends told author Justine Picardie. “She was the captain of her own soul.”
Ginette Marie Catherine Dior was born in 1917, the youngest of five children from a prosperous Norman family. Yet by the time Catherine was a teenager, their father Maurice, a fertilizer manufacturer who had made bad real estate investments, had gone through hard times. A few months after her mother died from sepsis, 18-year-old Catherine moved with Maurice and her former housekeeper, Marthe, to a dilapidated farmhouse in a remote region of Provence until her older brother , Christian – who had started selling fashion illustrations – sent to come and live with him in his Paris apartment.
Catherine was 12 years younger than Christian, but the two were soul mates. Christian used his connections to find his little sister a job as a glove saleswoman in a trendy store, and in their spare time Catherine served as a model for her first sewing projects.
“My brother loved designing costumes,” Catherine told Dior biographer Marie-France Pochna of those early years in Paris. “I remember a Neptune costume he made for me, with a raffia skirt covered in seashells, and another skirt painted in a tartan pattern.”
After the war broke out, Catherine returned to her father’s in Provence, which at the time was safer than Paris, and she made a living selling the vegetables she grew in their vegetable garden in Cannes. It was there that in 1941, she met Hervé des Charbonneries by buying a radio to listen to the banned broadcasts of General de Galle in exile on the BBC.
It was love at first sight, or as the French called it, “a thunderbolt“, a thunderbolt.
Hervé was a member of the F2 Resistance Network, one of the largest resistance groups in Europe, and he quickly enlisted Catherine to join their cause.
She cycled the coasts of southern France collecting and providing intelligence on German troop movements to other F2 agents. She drew maps with details of German infrastructure and landmines and typed up reports to send to British agents. Although Hervé is married and father of three children, they start an affair: Catherine even works with his mother and his wife Lucie in the Resistance. (According to Picardie, after Hervé’s meeting with Catherine, “his separation from Lucie was’in good agreement, ‘in other words: cordial’, although the Catholic couple never officially divorced.)
In 1944, Catherine returned to Paris and continued her Resistance activities there. She stayed with her brother and hid her friends in her attic, making fashionable Dior acquaintances nervous. Musician Henri Sauguet “was disturbed” to see Catherine and other resistance fighters entering and leaving Dior’s apartment, wrote Picardie. “He then admitted in his memoirs that he was anxious as to how he might explain this to the Gestapo, if they ever questioned him. ”
In Paris, Catherine helped provide intelligence for the planned Allied invasion of France, or D-Day. But then, on the afternoon of July 6, 1944, a group of four approached her in the street, took her bicycle and purse and drove her blindfolded to rue de la Pompe, where French police working with the Nazis questioned her, gave her punched, kicked and slapped her. When she did not want to speak, they undressed her, tied her hands, and repeatedly dipped her in ice water. At one point, she came close to drowning.
“I lied to them as much as I could,” Catherine told war crimes investigators.
The authorities finally sent her to the infamous Ravensbruck women’s concentration camp, just 10 days before the liberation of Paris.
Catherine was then transferred to three labor camps, where prisoners worked shifts longer than 12 hours dipping crates of shells in acid trays or assembling aircraft engine parts. (Catherine and her compatriots deliberately made mistakes to get the machines to break down.) As the Allies closed in, the prisoners were sent on a grueling death march – and anyone who fell behind or tried to escape was beaten up. or shot. Catherine walked in bloody clogs for a week before Soviet troops freed her in Dresden on April 21.
Catherine’s family and friends hadn’t heard a word about her since August 1944, and many believed she was probably dead, especially after reports of the camps began to appear in early 1945.
“We thought she would never come back, remembers Hervé’s son. “The family haven’t heard from her for nine months.”
Catherine Dior finally arrived in Paris in May, along with hundreds of other French women released from the camps, but when Dior went to meet her at the station, he walked past her. Her 27-year-old sister looked like an emaciated old woman.
Eventually, Dior found his sister and took her to his apartment, “where he lovingly prepared a festive dinner for her, but she was too sick to eat it.”
She does not stay long in Paris, and in the summer she is back in Provence, recovering with the help of Marthe and Hervé, who rush to Maurice Dior’s farmhouse as soon as he learns of her arrival.
He then told his son that Catherine was “unrecognizable” when he first saw her and cried as he spoke of their reunion. However, in July, Catherine wrote in a letter that she “benefited from the sun and the calm of this beautiful region” where she and Hervé spent their time gardening and talking politics.
The two never married or had children – the torture she endured during the war left her barren, according to her godson – but he never left her again.
Catherine rarely spoke of her stay in Germany and the horrors she endured there. (Her godson told Picardy that Catherine had revealed one thing about Ravensbruck: “that she would never fall to the ground to pick up a piece of food that an SS guard threw in. She said if you did that. , then your life was over. ”) She suffered from insomnia, nightmares, memory loss, anxiety, depression and PTSD. “She couldn’t stand hearing German voices, and even the sight of cars with German license plates on the roads of France would make her angry and upset,” Picardie writes.
Yet Catherine did not let her experience of war shatter her. In the fall of 1945, she obtained a license to sell cut flowers in Parisian markets, peddling flowers that she and Hervé grew in Provence. In 1946, when he was preparing to launch his own fashion brand, Dior began to develop a perfume that “smelled of love”. He and a friend were discussing a name for him when Catherine walked into the room: “That’s it: Miss Dior! his friend exclaimed. It was perfect: a perfume that smelled of love dedicated to the person he loved most in the world.
Catherine then inspired several other creations by her brother, including the iconic “Miss Dior” dress, a strapless dress embroidered with more than 1,000 silk flowers. When Dior died of a heart attack in 1957, at the age of 52, Catherine abandoned her cut flower business in Paris and settled permanently in the countryside with Hervé, where both spent the rest of their lives cultivating. roses and jasmines for Parfum Miss Dior.
Hervé died in 1989, but Catherine continued to work daily in her garden until her death.
Towards the end of her life, a young veteran who saw her speak at a memorial for members of the Resistance approached her and asked for her advice.
“Love lifeShe said to him: Love life.