The Mystery of Valentina

It was rumored Valentina was a Russian spy. Some believed she was a convent-raised aristocrat, others that she was a ballerina and had danced and worked with Fokine and Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes.

And if that weren't tantalizing enough, there were the rumors and whispers about love affair with screen goddess Greta Garbo.

Exotically beautiful, menacingly talented, and hypnotically elegant in her every gesture — I found Valentina lied about nearly everything.

In fact, after years of research and trying to wrestle Valentina's story free from the effects of her powerful potions and elixirs, only one thing seemed to emerge as irrefutably true: By all accounts, and wherever she really came from, long before her rise to fame and fortune Valentina always and undeniably had about her the presence and bearing of being someone.

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  • Portrait of Kohle Yohannan.
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    Portrait of Kohle Yohannan.
    Photo by Liz Von Hoene
  • Modern Valentina in a white rough silk coat and black linen trousers.
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    Modern Valentina in a white rough silk coat and black linen trousers.
    Photo by George Hoyningen-Huene/Harper's Bazaar, July 1940
  • "Mink is for football!"
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    "Mink is for football!"
    Photo by John Rawlings
  • "I am theater."
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    "I am theater."
    Photo by George Platt-Lynnes
  • With her austere grooming and luminously pale skin, Valentina projected a Madonna-like serenity--merely one facet of a highly theatrical and cultivated persona.
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    With her austere grooming and luminously pale skin, Valentina projected a Madonna-like serenity—merely one facet of a highly theatrical and cultivated persona.
    Photo from a private collection, Milwaukee
  • Valentina, posing for a Vogue editorial shot by Horst, wearing a bias-cut, wrap-and-tie jersey evening dress. Frequently compared to the French couturiere Madeleine Vionnet, Valentina - though a capable draper - is perhaps best understood as a stylist more than a hands-on technician or couturiere in the strictest sense of the word.
    Hide caption
    Valentina, posing for a Vogue editorial shot by Horst, wearing a bias-cut, wrap-and-tie jersey evening dress. Frequently compared to the French couturiere Madeleine Vionnet, Valentina - though a capable draper - is perhaps best understood as a stylist more than a hands-on technician or couturiere in the strictest sense of the word.
    Photo by Horst, March 1941
  • Monastic simplicity: Valentina in the early 1940s, wearing a simple cotton smocked-neck dress and matching headdress, dyed-to-match leather belt, and black suede accessories of her own design.
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    Monastic simplicity: Valentina in the early 1940s, wearing a simple cotton smocked-neck dress and matching headdress, dyed-to-match leather belt, and black suede accessories of her own design.
    Photo courtesy of Nina Frantzen
  • A decidedly dressed-down wartime Valentina in her signature headscarf, wearing a wool wraparound skirt, jersey tip, and kneesocks.
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    A decidedly dressed-down wartime Valentina in her signature headscarf, wearing a wool wraparound skirt, jersey tip, and kneesocks.
    Photo by George Hoyningen-Huene/Harper's Bazaar, February 1941; Courtesy of Nina Frantzen
  • Valentina and George Schlee making their entrance at the Metropolitan Opera opening of Lohengrin, November 27, 1945.
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    Valentina and George Schlee making their entrance at the Metropolitan Opera opening of Lohengrin, November 27, 1945.
    Photo by Wallace; Courtesy of Nina Frantzen
  • "Even ugly women can be glamorous."
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    "Even ugly women can be glamorous."
    Photo by Horst; Courtesy of Vogue and Conde Nast Publications
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But that's hard to hang a book on. At one point, Valentina nearly escaped from my clutches. After much research, finding so little to go on, I nearly threw in the towel. Then, in 2001, I acquired a run-down rock pile of a stone castle just outside of New York City that had been the former home of Ballets Russes' choreographer Michel Fokine and his wife, the prima ballerina Vera Fokine. Still in the attic were traveling trunks and costumes, stage props and ephemera, personal papers and a few crumbling newspaper articles and theater programs. One, a program dating from 1923, had a picture and a name I recognized. Defiantly peering out at me, in my very own home, was Valentina as a young performer, her name and image on the page, in the most profound, almost ghostly appeal that seemed to speak to me from the yellowing newsprint, "Don't give up on me...Tell my story..."

Valentina had danced for Fokine.

On that day, in a dark, dusty attic alight with the excitement of the wings of a theater, I made a promise to a newspaper clipping. I spent the next 8 years making good on that promise. Valentina: American Couture and The Cult of Celebrity is my best effort at unraveling the seductive and carefully orchestrated mysteries of the woman in my attic, the resident Sphinx of American couture, Valentina.

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