A Tribute to Pierre Bergé

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Pierre Bergé, who died September 8 at age 86, spent his life watching over his dead. Jean Giono. Jean Cocteau, whose moral heir he was. Emile Zola, whose home in the Parisian suburb of Médan he saved, creating a museum to Alfred Dreyfus on its grounds. Of course, Yves Saint Laurent, whom he immortalized through the twin tomb of plants (the Majorelle Garden in Marrakesh) and words (Lettres à Yves) that he left in his memory. And so many others, less famous, over whose memory he watched with the same care. How strange it is now for his friends to have to watch over him. “The dead, the poor dead, suffer great pains.” He loved that line of Charles Baudelaire’s. In it he truly heard the voices of the dead pining for kindred souls. I never imagined that one day it might apply to him.

Much has been said about money in the tributes paid to Pierre Bergé—and that was inevitable. But one of the things of which not enough has been said is the lofty disdain in which he held it. I am not talking about his generosity here. Or his nearly insane extravagance. Or his inability to say no to the requests for support or sponsorship that rained down on his foundations. No. I believe that he truly disdained money. At the very least, he was indifferent to it. That is, he was equally free of the overweening pride that can cause a person to put vast wealth at the summit of the scale of vanities and of the sense of unworthiness that can stigmatize it. Max Stirner, the German philosopher and Bergé’s mentor in the anarchist realm, understood this. As did Charles Fourier, whom Bergé also admired. As did the “good woman of Szechuan,” Bertolt Brecht’s character who so amused Pierre: she would disguise herself as a ferocious businessman during the day and become a spendthrift as soon as the sun set! I admired in Pierre this atheism about money. I admired the fact that, in his eyes, money—as harsh taskmaster and loyal servant—was worth making only for the power it gave him to support the work of his artist friends and the work of art that was, in a way, his own life.

Seven years ago, bonds of friendship drew me into the adventure of producing Grand Amour, the least known but most insightful of the films emerging from the Saint Laurent saga. The double thread of the documentary consisted of Pierre’s 50-year love affair with Yves and the deaccessioning of the first of his collections of artworks, rare books, and precious objects. At one point in the filmmaking process, something suddenly became clear to me. Kings used to have themselves buried with their secrets and their sacred objects. Their distant descendants have tended to imitate them—witness the Japanese billionaire who wanted to be cremated with his Van Gogh twenty years ago. Well, Pierre did the opposite. He distributed before disappearing. He maintained that he was merely the custodian of his treasures, which he now wanted to liberate. He devoted as much talent to dispossessing himself as he had to inventing one of the truly great lives of our era. During this time, I remember him in one of the houses that he had decided to open to the public. With his partner, Madison Cox, he had withdrawn into a tiny apartment, no more than a few rooms along a corridor, above the little café that had been installed for tourists at the end of the garden. And that new simplicity, which evoked the asceticism of Costals, Henry de Montherant’s protagonist at the end of The Girls, in the Moroccan desert, suited him just as well as had his previous luxuriousness.

It pleased me that Pierre placed nothing above art and, particularly, above literature. Not that he saw them as sacrosanct. As the most atheistic person I have ever known—and therefore the freest—he was incapable of sanctifying anything. But he lived for books. He was on a first-name basis with their authors and carried on an endless and intimate conversation with them, whether they were living or dead. He was the type to tell you, when he was still invincible and full of joy, that death was nothing, that nothing about it should inspire fear—except, perhaps, if it should catch you in the middle of a great novel, just approaching the dénouement. Incidentally, it was this passion for books that was the key to his late-developing friendship with former French president François Mitterrand.

A memory from the last meeting of Mitterrand’s last campaign in 1988: The “king,” catching the whiff of impending victory, is amusing himself at the closing dinner by throwing out snippets of poems, challenging his guests to supply the next line or identify the author. The Socialists in attendance had no trouble with Victor Hugo or André Chénier. Or even with René Char, Paul Éluard, or Louis Aragon. But then out of Mitterrand’s mouth came some lines from the obscure René-Guy Cadou, who was unknown to the faithful in attendance. Pierre alone, after a moment of eerie silence, returned the president’s volley. A man who knows Cadou is a friend for life.

One last word. Pierre was often criticized for his temper. And it is true that this gentle, caring friend was capable of terrible fits of anger—against fools, fiends, and bad poets; against ersatz couturiers (whom he likened to fan painters); against sharks with official titles who understood nothing of history, literature, or causes such as AIDS awareness; against the fake left and the real right; against racists, homophobes, and the indifferent. To me, his anger was one of his virtues. This was a man who did not hold back on the subject of what he hated, and who, with all his strength, hated the conventional (and mindless) idea that anger is a flaw. There was fire in Pierre’s anger. And joy. And nobility. His outbursts were another side of his prodigious freedom. He had the courage of his enthusiasms, of his tastes and distastes, and thus of his furies. For those of us fortunate enough to have been his friends, those furies were and will always remain reliable guides.

Translated from French by Steven B. Kennedy