The Not-Quite-True Story Of Valentina Russian immigrant Valentina Sanina Schlee moved to the United States in the 1920s to live the American dream. She made a name for herself by designing clothes for Hollywood legends, but the story of her life has always been somewhat of a mystery. And not without reason — she often didn't tell the truth.

The Not-Quite-True Story Of Valentina

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Greta Garbo and Katharine Hepburn had a style. It's admired and imitated to this day on catwalks from Paris to Milan to Sydney. Behind that style was a fashion pioneer, a woman who came to the United States in the 1920s. Her name was Valentina Sanina Schlee. She called herself just Valentina.

Kohle Yohannan joins us here in the studio. His new book, "Valentina: American Couture and the Cult of Celebrity," is just out. Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. KOHLE YOHANNAN (Author, "Valentina: American Couture and the Cult of Celebrity"): I'm delighted to be here, Scott.

SIMON: And what a first sentence of your book. I'm going to share it with the class and get you to go on from there. You write, exotically beautiful, menacingly talented and hypnotically elegant in her every gesture, Valentina lied about nearly everything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YOHANNAN: Therein lies the thesis. The thing about the fashion designers, to create - Valentina created not only her clothing but herself.

SIMON: This must be difficult when you're writing a book about her.

Mr. YOHANNAN: It was not only difficult, it was tantalizing. Because first, to understand her methodology, and then to understand why she created it, was a challenge. So, I found myself at odds at trying to debunk what she said. And then finally having to just yield to it and say, okay, let's buy it all, hook, line and sinker. What's the message?

And the message was self-creation, and I think that's the ultimate form of fashion design - making something of the self, the material of a self, for others to see. Valentina used mythology as much as she did clothing to make that image.

SIMON: Can you lay the narrative side-by-side and tell us where they depart, what she said, what happened?

Mr. YOHANNAN: Well, it's a pretty classic early American immigrant story. She comes here in the '20s, and as a Russian, she rides in on the wave of exoticism, the Ballets Russes, the fascination with foreignness in general. But typical to that era, with the long cigarette holder and the grandiose clothing, was the idea that perhaps she might be a titled aristocrat. Well, she certainly wasn't, but she had no intentions of letting anyone know that.

So, Valentina creates this mythology of having been a titled aristocrat, a convent-raised, from a good family - a lot of things that just looked good on paper. She played the role impeccably. She was a trained actress.

SIMON: But of course, it's irresistible to note other Russian immigrants -let's say, Irving Berlin, Aaron Copeland - also, as did Valentina, told Americans that they didn't have to look to Europe for clues to success, that they had their own, native genius here that could be developed.

Mr. YOHANNAN: I think it's an irony that America needs to be told what's great about it by foreigners. And I think that that really celebrates the fact that we all come from somewhere else. And arriving here and seeing this incredible, independent society, Valentina identified that very independence as what America's strength was. So, she taught American women not to look to Paris, to look right here, that the American way of life informed what should be the American look.

SIMON: Now, how did she come to design for Greta Garbo and Katharine Hepburn?

Mr. YOHANNAN: Valentina started on the stage. And in similar parallel to Greta Garbo, she started as a model first, went on to become an actress. But Valentina couldn't deliver a convincing performance in English. So, Leon Bakst, with whom she interacted in Paris…

SIMON: I should interject, some people thought Garbo couldn't, either. But in any event…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YOHANNAN: Therein lies the draw. They both, for fear of looking less intelligent than they were for their language, created persona. Valentina's was the grand dame couturier with the long cigarette holder, and Greta Garbo was the reclusive, interview-dodging recluse. And in that way, they kept the world at bay.

SIMON: So, she began to design for them on the stage.


SIMON: And this eventually moved over into…

Mr. YOHANNAN: Into their private client life. And also that connectivity to performers led from one performer to the next. She arrived to Garbo to Dietrich, Norma Shearer, and right to the A-list of high society. It's an important connection for Valentina because at the time of the '30s, the Hollywood glamour machine, society and performers are lining up, and the status of a performer goes right to the A-list.

Valentina, in some ways, elevated the social status of American fashion designers.

SIMON: Would it be fair to say that Valentina and Garbo had a - would we say a complicated relationship?

Mr. YOHANNAN: I think complicated is - I like to call it an entanglement, a fascination. Absolutely. Here's two women that looked almost identical. People would stop Valentina on the street and ask her for Garbo's autograph, which she gave them. Yet, I think that what's fascinating is that they both recognized in each other a moment of down time, where they didn't have to be a persona. And yet the effect of the two of them together was apparently, just stunning.

SIMON: Yeah. How much of her designs are available today?

Mr. YOHANNAN: Very, very, very few on the market. They're privately held and they're in very select, small, institutional collections. The bulk of Valentina's clothing was worn out. People wore those clothes for 30 and 40 years. She was essentially an antifashion designer. She said things to the effect of fit the century, forget the year.

If you didn't buy a dress to wear it out, you shouldn't have bought it to begin with. She had ideas and philosophies that really resonate. Some of them were quite demanding and funny. One, even ugly women can be glamorous.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YOHANNAN: No one was off the hook. She expected everyone to sit up and sing.

SIMON: I just want the record to show, I don't believe there's such a thing as an ugly woman.

Mr. YOHANNAN: Bravo.

SIMON: Thank you.

Mr. YOHANNAN: If there were, just pass them to Valentina, she'll fix you right up.

SIMON: Do I hear this right? You live in a castle in Yonkers?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YOHANNAN: Do those two words belong in the same sentence?

SIMON: Well, I've been to Yonkers, and I didn't notice the castles.

Mr. YOHANNAN: And you just went right past a castle. I do, in fact, yeah. And that plays into it in some completely ironic way. You can play the creepy music in the background now. Valentina danced in the ballroom of the castle that I ended up moving into and renovating. And in that attic of that house, I actually discovered remnants and scraps of the former owners, who were the Fokines, who directed the Ballets Russes. And there, in the attic, with their papers, was a photograph of Valentina onstage in 1923…

SIMON: Oh, boy.

Mr. YOHANNAN: …in a piece that Fokine had choreographed for her.

SIMON: And you had started to write the book at this point.

Mr. YOHANNAN: I had started and I'd almost given up. And suddenly, I discovered in this trunk some costumes and some clippings. And there was the one lie, quote, unquote, that was true. Everyone had thought since she'd made everything else up about her past, that her connectivity to the Fokines wasn't true.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YOHANNAN: Well, there it was and in some peculiar way, that picture almost just taunted me and said, tell my story.

SIMON: Well, Mr. Yohannan, real pleasure. Thanks so much.

Mr. YOHANNAN: It was a pleasure to be here. Thank you.

SIMON: Kohle Yohannan - his new book is "Valentina: American Couture and the Cult of Celebrity." And if you're in New York City - well, it's always worthwhile to go to New York City anyway - you can see an exhibition featuring Valentina's designs at the Museum of the City of New York until May 17.

And coming up next week, Liane speaks with model Carmen Dell'Orefice. She first appeared on the cover of Vogue magazine at the age of 15, and has appeared five times since. She is now in her 70s, and continues to work in fashion. She'll have some tips on how to dress fashionably in a recession.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.