“We can’t leave Stravinsky’s work to languish in obscurity. Please use this money to repeat The Rite of Spring.”
Hotel Continental, Paris, 1920. A woman in her late thirties put an envelope on the table. Sergei Diaghilev, the creator of the Ballet Russes, carefully took a check from inside the envelope. 300,000 francs! (Approximately US $300,000 at that time) It took his breath away. This would be enough to guarantee the performance was successful.
In fact, the infamous historical scandal arising from the original showing of the ballet meant that Diaghilev had struggled to get funding for later reprises. The first performance in 1913 had exhibited the experimental choreography and modern music Stravinsky had composed. The audience had rioted in the theater upon seeing this wholly unfamiliar style of performance.
“It has been difficult to find patrons… and now Heaven has brought us this good fortune.”
Diaghilev picked up the check and inhaled deeply. He tried to quiet the thumping of his heart and looked at the woman sitting opposite him. The lady with the black pageboy haircut took a drag from her cigarette, then slowly exhaled the smoke.
“I must make one request. Do not tell anyone about this. That I sponsored you.”
This was Gabrielle Coco Chanel, designer and creator of the world-renowned Chanel brand of fashion. An innovator who shattered stereotypes, she remains an icon of luxury a century later.
So why did she anonymously donate such an astronomical sum of money to an artistic performance that had nothing to do with fashion? Her close friend, the playwright Jean Cocteau, seems to have asked the very same question in a 1925 letter.
“While I know you do not regret giving Diaghilev the money, why didn’t you want any credit for the successful reincarnation of the Ballets Russes in French modernist style?”
Historical records offer a hint. Chanel was rumored to be an art lover. She was in contact with artists from every medium and was close not only to Stravinsky and Diaghilev but also to the painter Picasso, the authors Cocteau and Hemingway, and the poets Reverdy and Radiguet. They congregated at Chanel’s villa to converse and inspire each other. Picasso occasionally stayed at Chanel’s house after parties ended when he preferred not to return home.
Chanel’s love of the arts naturally led to her sponsorship. She provided sets of clothing for Diaghilev and Cocteau’s plays and let Stravinsky and his family stay at her home when they had nowhere else to go. She even paid medical bills for injured authors. Her anonymous donation to The Rite of Spring was another such endeavor—one which she firmly denied when those who had heard the rumor inquired. “I don’t support it at all. Art sponsorship isn’t charity.” This was her own rule. Although she was close to several famous painters, she didn’t own a single one of their works.
The theories of the psychologist Maslow enable us to understand Chanel a little better. He wrote that creative people live in the moment, the here and now, focusing on the present, and that this transcends time, space, society, and history.
When Chanel handed over the donation, she was living in the present. She focused on her happiness at that moment, so much so that she forgot time, space, and even her own needs. She didn’t consider the sum of money, the recognition of others, or the evaluation of the future to matter. Making herself happy was enough. Perhaps she was living only in the moment without thinking about the future—a distant future in which, a century later, you might well give a Chanel product to your girlfriend as a gift.