Saturday, September 5, 1987

Robert DeNiro: Shadow of the Chameleon

Robert De Niro is sitting in a corner of Deauville's Hotel Royal bar, half-hidden by: four bodyguards; Brian De Palma, who directed The Untouchables, the stylish remake of the 1963 TV series set in the Chicago of the Prohibition that's already grossed some $200 million worldwide; Art Linson, the film's producer; two press agents; and Jared Martin, formerly a Dallas featured cast member (he didn't get Sue-Ellen), now an aspiring director in his own right, and part of De Palma's travelling entourage at the Deauville film festival. The time is nine-fifteen p.m. The De Niro party is sitting out The Untouchables 's European premiere, prior to attending a private dinner for De Palma's birthday. Outside the glassed-in bar, in the hotel lobby, pandemonium reigns. Paparazzi, Hotel Royal residents, fans, holidaymakers, festival-goers, even participating lesser movie stars, are glued to the bar's windows, trying to catch a glimpse of the most mysterious screen actor of the day.

The problem is that nobody, not even the most dedicated fans, who've been standing for over an hour pressed against the glass partition, is sure of what De Niro actually looks like. The word is out that he's already shed the two stone he'd gained to play Al Capone - for only ten minutes of actual screen-time, and a reported 2 million dollar-fee. But what about the hair? There isn't a French filmgoer in sight who doesn't know that De Niro went through a harrowing, seven-hour hair-by-hair depilation session with his barber, to exactly reproduce Capone's depleted, receding hairline. So the question goes, has it grown back? Could it be long again, the way De Niro wore it in The Mission and Angel Heart? Is the man bearded? Bespectacled? Tall? Short? At one stage, when Art Linson (6'3", longish hair, greying beard) got up to get another drink, there was a lot of craning and pushing and shoving behind the glass: was he the goods? The real McCoy? De Niro himself? The best film actor of his generation (with two Oscars behind his belt, for The Godfather, Part II and Raging Bull) is at last in town - and no-one even knows how to recognise him.

"Would you like some more Perrier?" De Niro asks in his soft, low voice. Robert De Niro, at 44, looks almost ten years younger. He is of average height and build, with a shock of dark, short, unruly hair; greenish-brown eyes that crinkle at the corners when he smiles, which is often - an unsure, hesitant, never-finished smile. This evening, he's wearing a wrinkled suit in dark-blue linen, a narrow tie, a white shirt and a lizard-skin belt. He's hardly said a word for the past half-hour - sitting back quietly while De Palma dissects Alfred Hitchcock classics and Linson mulls over the seven interviews he's given in the afternoon. When drawn into the conversation, De Niro usually nods in ready agreement: "Yeah... yeah, sure...", he says to Linson, apropos the enthusiastic reception the film's crowd just received in the Casino screening room. But mostly, he just sits there, watching, listening, observing - like some kind of negative presence, a mesmerizing shadow on the leather banquette.

"Mr De Niro?" A young man has hesitantly made his way from the other end of the bar to the "Untouchables" party, the bodyguards around us suddenly alert. It's Lou Diamond Phillips, the 22-year-old star of the rock hit La Bamba, come to plug his film at Deauville. "Mr De Niro, don't you remember me? I'm the bellhop who brought you champagne earlier. At your hotel." Two hours ago, Robert De Niro, holed up in the Presidential Suite of the Normandy hotel, opened the door to a bellhop in a gold-braided red uniform and cap, carrying a bottle of Bollinger champagne and two glasses on a salver. The bellhop uncorked the bottle, had De Niro sign a receipt, pocketed a tip and went off without a word. It was the only way, Diamond Phillips explains now, he could meet the actor he admires most, so he'd borrowed the uniform from one of the hotel's bellboys and bought the champagne himself. De Niro smiles: "That's a good one... that was real good, you did it real good..." he tells Diamond Phillips, who's still shaking from the experience. De Niro's voice is very soft, the tone almost unsure. And still, there's no mistaking it - it still echoes with Al Capone's nasal inflexions, those same flat vowels that ring in one of the film's unforgettably brutal scenes, as Capone shouts to his goons: "I want you to find that nancy boy Eliot Ness, I want him dead, I want his family dead, I want his house burnt to the ground, I want to go there in the middle of the night, I want to piss on the ashes!"

Robert De Niro is definitely the only Hollywood star to be able, as he actually did last year on Broadway, to walk through a crowd of autograph-hunters that have been waiting for him for over three hours, without anyone recognising him. "Where is De Niro? When's De Niro coming out?" eager New York fans once shouted at Ralph Di Macchio, the former Karate Kid, who co-starred as the drug-dealer De Niro's son in the play Cuba and His Teddy Bear. "He's just behind," Di Macchio would say, and the fans obediently turned away from the young actor and his anonymous, plaid-shirted companion - De Niro himself. There have been times when this versatility has proved hasardous to De Niro - such as the day, back in 1981, in Rome, when he and Keith Carradine, the actor, were arrested as terrorists by carabinieri whom paparazzi, enraged at De Niro's refusal to cooperate with them, had tipped off. It took De Niro over an hour in the police station to be able to prove his identity - this barely one month before he was to receive his second Academy Award for his startling portrayal of the boxer Jake La Motta in his friend Martin Scorcese's Raging Bull. There are many stories like these revolving round the secretive De Niro's legend, and most of them are true. "Why didn't you said hello when I came to your class at the Actor's Studio?" De Niro once reproached his long-time friend Shelley Winters. "I would have, except I didn't see you - you're the invisible man!" Winters shot back. "Well, then, have you seen me in [Alan Parker's] Angel Heart?" "Not yet but-" Winters begins, as De Niro, furious, hangs up on her.

"Bobby only exists when he's in someone else's skin," the director Paul Schrader (who wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver) once said. De Niro's oldest friends remember the bulging closets taking up most of a room in his dingy West 14th Street New York apartment back in the 60s, full of disguises and costumes he'd put together, to come out dressed as a subway conductor, as a Wall Street type, as a university professor complete with small round spectacles, as a hard-hatted labourer. At the time, De Niro, the high-school dropout only son of two painters, Robert De Niro Sr. and Virginia Admiral (they divorced when he was 2) was desperately trying to break into the New York theatre world, auditioning for off-off-off Broadway plays, experimental shows, anything. "At first," he says, "being a star was a big part of it. When I got into it, it became more complicated. To totally submerge into another character and experience life through him, without having to risk the real life consequences - well, it's a cheap way to do things you would never dare to do yourself."

What does Robert De Niro know of real life these days? His asking price has gone up to $5 million per film. He is insulated from the press as well as from most of his acquaintances by a barrage of secretaries who pick up the telephone wherever he is - even in his own flat, a large TriBeCa loft in New York. His friends swear he hasn't lost contact - that he is capable of real warmth. He did come to Deauville (he hadn't at Venice) because it was Brian De Palma's birthday, and De Palma and him go back a long way. De Palma gave him his first screen parts in three low-budget films, The Wedding Party (1966), Greetings (1968) and Hi Mom! (1970), and even though De Niro left midway through the private dinner party given after the Untouchables screening, to fly back to London (where he'd registered at Blake's Hotel under an alias) he had made the trip especially. He also made a point of attending the spring wedding of his friend Michelle Halberstadt, the editor of "Premiere" magazine. He regularly sees both his parents, each of whom he presented with a large loft in Manhattan. (When the struggling De Niro used to go to casting calls back in the early Sixties, he would always take a portfolio and slides of his father's paintings, showing them to anyone he could persuade to look.) He'll spend whole week-ends talking with his friend Martin Scorcese, who grew up in the same Manhattan Lower East Side neighbourhood, and who directed him in five of his best films (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, New York, New York, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy.) "Martin and Bobby will spend half an hour just discussing the way a character knots his tie," the writer Julia Cameron, Scorcese's former wife, once said with some pique.

Robert De Niro has been living for the past few years with Toukie Smith, a beautiful black New Yorker who owns her own catering company, and is the sister of the late designer Willi Smith. (Smith died of AIDS earlier this year, and De Niro made a point of attending the funeral.) He has two children: Raphael, 10, by the black actress Diahanne Abbott - to whom he remains legally married - and Nina-Nadjea, 5, by the black singer Helena Springs. (He invested in a sizeable trust fund for Helena Springs.) The pattern holds: he has also been rumoured to date the equally black singer Whitney Houston.

He has apparently recovered from the difficult period that started with his friend John Belushi's death, of an overdose of heroin and cocaine, at the Chateau Marmont hotel in Hollywood in 1982. (De Niro was staying in the next room and had seen Belushi the night before he died. Bob Woodward, the Washington Post reporter of Watergate fame, wrote a detailed biography of Belushi, Wired, chronicling his drug-taking, and alleging that De Niro had shared in Belushi's drug-taking. De Niro - who never talked to Woodward and was allowed to give his testimony for the inquest on the telephone - never sued. ) But even two years later, he still indulged in wild parties - such as the ones that got him thrown out of the Carlton Hotel during the Cannes film festival in 1984, when he took to relieving himself in the Carlton's corridors. (De Niro, who was at Cannes promoting The King of Comedy, moved on to the Hotel du Cap ten miles away.) There is a dark side to De Niro - which, at 22, sent him to an analyst's couch where he says he found no answers; and which will make him say flippantly "If I hadn't been an actor, I would have been a psychotic or a murderer."

It took Robert de Niro exactly a decade to become the most talked- about actor of the day, an actor whose amazing dedication makes him merge into, and be engulfed by, the characters he plays - to an extent where his own personality, during and after shooting any particular film, is altered by his current part. To play the young Brando in The Godfather, Part II - in which he says only eight words in English - he took daily lessons in Sicilian dialect, spent six weeks in Sicily to work on the part, and studied Brando's performance in the initial film frame by frame. "I didn't want to do an imitation of Brando, but I wanted to make it believable that I could be him as a young man," De Niro said. "I would see some little movements that he would do and try to link them with my performance. it was like a mathematical problem - having a result and figuring out how to make the beginning fit."

To become Travis Bickle, the misfit Vietnam veteran in Taxi Driver, De Niro drove a beat-up cab in New York for several weeks. He learned Latin to be the priest in True Confessions; he trained as a boxer for Raging Bull - building up a magnificent physique and training until, in Jake La Motta's own estimate, he was "among the twenty best heavyweights in the world today," then demolishing all by gorging up in French and Italian restaurants for three months, to gain the fifty-five pounds that would, in his mind, make his ageing, over-the-hill character believable. "A really heavy man doesn't move in the same way," he explained. "He'll walk differently, he'll breathe differently, he won't even speak in the same voice." To play Mendoza, the slave trader turned Jesuit in Roland Joffe's The Mission, De Niro spent six months in the Columbian jungle, bearing up under incredibly tough conditions - mosquitoes, torrential rains, dysentery - as if, like his character, he were doing penance. He actually learnt to play the saxophone for New York, New York.

More than once, De Niro's "instructors" have found it difficult to cope with the magnetic presence of "the goddamn chameleon", as De Palma nicknamed him - the actor-spy who watches and watches and almost seems to want their souls. "My lips were aching and still he was playing," the jazz saxophonist Georgie Auld, who worked with him for New York, New York, said. "Bobby De Niro is as boring as the 'flu!" Jake La Motta's former wife accused him of having caused the breakup of her marriage: "He moved into our house and never left Jake alone, day or night, until my husband lost track of reality, started reliving his whole life of a quarter century ago, and left me. Mr De Niro is a pest!"

The object of those conflicting opinions is still quietly sitting on the banquette of the Royal bar, while snatches of conversation pass over his head: the Untouchables' amazing box-office success (it has passed Beverly Hills Cop 2 on the weekly Variety charts in the U.S.); the profusion of film festivals in France, a country which De Niro loves (he used to live in a Paris bed-sitter 22 years ago, and was given his first screen part ever here, as an extra on film veteran Marcel Carné's Trois Chambres A Manhattan.) A commotion in the lobby signals that the screening is over. The bodyguards then start negotiating our difficult progression across the packed 70-odd yards between the bar and the private dining-room where De Palma's birthday party is to be given. As the crowd presses on all sides, the most striking feature of De Niro's face is that it is totally expressionless. He still smiles his little half-smile, his neck somewhat hunched in his shoulders, while Paramount Pictures security guards make a way for him, and finally show him to his table.

Most of the dinner guests are wary of staring too hard, and only a few dare to walk up to the star and talk to him. (A typical exchange: "The movie is wonderful. " "Thank you." "You really were an unforgettable Capone." "Thank you very much.") De Niro left even before the huge birthday cake was wheeled in, surrounded by bodyguards, a Paramount executive, and the chauffeur. "Is the plane ready to take off?" he asked, still with Al Capone's uncongruous vowels for such an innocuous question. He was told it was. He and his entourage were subsequently swept away, creating a kind of re-pressurisation in the room - everyone's conversation went up several decibels, as if some window had been closed against a cold draft.

Later that night, when the dinner was over, I walked back to the Normandy, and, on the spur of the moment, decided to ask the night concierge to show me the suite De Niro had occupied for a few hours next to my room, on the first floor. It hadn't been cleaned yet, and I hoped to find some sign, some clue, a trace of De Niro's - the chameleon's, the Invisible Man's - passage. There were half a dozen messages slipped under room136's door - letters from fans addressed to De Niro that he had neither opened nor even picked up. But the rest of the suite, under the harsh light of the ceiling fixture, was empty. There were no crumbled papers in the waste basket, not even the imprint of his body on the turned-down bedspread. The basket of fresh fruit from the hotel management were still wrapped in cellophane. The room was vacant - waiting. Like its temporary tenant - between parts.

© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 1987.

Tuesday, May 12, 1987

Of Russia, spies and old friends: Graham Greene at 82

Graham Greene tells Anne-Elisabeth of his Moscow reunion with his old friend Kim Philby, 25 years on

On the bamboo coffee-table in Graham Greene's modern one-bedroom flat at Antibes lies a dog-eared Penguin copy of Our Man in Havana. The book's cover has been crudely repaired with opaque brown Sellotape by Greene himself. "I'm afraid I've rather made a mess of it," he says apologetically. The book, he explains, was a present from a Russian cosmonaut he met in Moscow last September, when he returned to the Soviet Union for the first time since 1961, invited by the Union of Writers. (Since then Greene returned briefly to attend last February's massively publicised Peace Forum.) On the flyleaf is an inscription written in English by the cosmonaut.

"He took it with him in space," Greene says, sitting in a wicker chair in his small, unstylish book-lined sitting-room overlooking the noisy Antibes harbour. "It was the mission that broke the record for the longest time in space, five men out there for over five months. They were only allowed three books each."

The inscription reads: "There are books which you forget as soon as you've read them, there are some which make you read them a second and a third time; and as to this one, I've been re-reading it all my life, both on Earth and in Space. I've learnt it by heart; while in Havana, I specially visited all the places described here. This is the most valuable thing of mine, and I give it back to you with gratitude."

Greene only remembers the first name of the cosmonaut - "Yorgi - it's the equivalent of George, in Russian..." - but he values the book and shows you underlined words in the text - places in Havana: the President's Palace, the Chacha Club; colloquial expressions. "He used it to learn English, you see," Greene says, apparently pleased.

Today most of Graham Greene's books, including The Power and The Glory, Monsignor Quixote, and even The Human Factor, are all in print in the Soviet Union; but for over ten years he'd forbidden his work to be published in Russia, following the internment in a labour camp of the dissidents, Siniavski and Daniel, in the late Sixties.

In his usual fashion, Greene made that decision public by writing to the Times: in his letter he also said he wouldn't set foot in the USSR as long, he wrote, "as new conditions are not brought about". A few weks after its publication, he received a Moscow-stamped letter from his old friend and wartime colleague, Kim Philby, breaking a silence of seven years since his defection in 1963.

Philby wrote he approved of Greene's decision - and hoped that "the conditions" in the USSR might change, "not only because what you did is just and honourable, but also because it might result for us in some unexpected gratification, some meal together, for instance, when we could talk like in old times..."

A correspondence ensued, "largely on private matters," Greene insists: "Well, if there was anything political in it, I knew that Kim would know that I would pass it on to Maurice Oldfield, so it was either information or disinformation...", he says, letting his voice trail off.

In a span of some fiteen years, Philby wrote seven or eight times. Greene sent him all his books, as well as the manuscript of The Human Factor - a novel about an Intelligence Service agent who defects to Moscow - for comment. (Philby answered that the flat assigned to Greene's hero in Moscow was too drab and that he'd been much better treated; but Greene stuck to his description, which he'd based on Eleanor Philby's account of her life in Moscow.) And so, as Greene finally visited Gorbachev's glasnost-tempered Russia twice in the past six months, he did have his long-awaited reunion with Kim Philby.

"I don't say anything about that," he says, when first asked. And again, as you insist; "I don't give any answer to that." But to a point-blank question he will not lie - honesty has been an habit with him for so long. "Well, actually yes, I met him both times."

There were three meetings in September, when Greene had come from France with a woman friend of 25 years; then a quiet dinner in Philby's flat, cooked by Philby's wife, in February, when the two men swapped stories of their wartime years in SIS - where Philby was Greene's immediate superior - over Russian wine and vodka. Greene will gladly tell you that Philby's Russian mother-in-law fussed about his coming and helped prepare the dinner, but he remains vague about the conversation itself. Philby, unlike Burgess - whom he dismisses as "drunk and homosexual - I didn't like him very much" - remains a friend. (Even before receiving Philby's first letter from Moscow, Greene had agreed to write an introduction to his autobiography.)

Greene is uneasy talking about these meetings - when asked a precise question he will answer with an abrupt non-sequitur, either veering the conversation on Gorbachev, whom he met in February and admires very much ("His speech at the Peace Forum was almost unanswerable - moderate, non agressive... I wish there was a similar character in Washington...") or on his most recent trip to Nicaragua, two weeks ago, when he visited the Sandinista government, whom he has been supporting wholeheartedly since president Somoza's overthrow in 1979.

"Well," he finally answers, "when I went to meet Kim the first time, he said: 'No questions, Graham.' I said 'I've only got one question: how is your Russian?' And we drank and conversed about the past..."

At 82, Graham Greene, possibly the greatest living English writer - and a long-time contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature - has not much changed from his photographs of the Fifities, when he used to live at the Albany in London. He is very tall, with only a hint of a stoop, white hair, and slightly protruding, very clear blue eyes. He pays little attention to his clothes - on the coldish day we met last week, he wore a short-sleeved light blue shirt, shapeless beige trousers, and an uncongruous solid gold Rolex watch with a simple black leather strap.

The watch has a story. Greene explained it was a present from President Paredes of Panama, the man who succeeded his friend General Omar Torrijos when Torrijos died in a plane crash in 1982. "Paredes asked me to go and see Castro in Cuba and assure him that Panama's intentions towards Cuba remained the same. So I went off, and told Fidel, 'Fidel, I'm not the messenger, I'm the message.' Fidel knew how much Omar and I were close, you see." On his return Greene was presented with the watch, and promptly got rid of its flashy solid gold strap.

Politics and travel still take a great deal of Greene's time these days. He is just back from two weeks in Nicaragua. He is furious that the Times wouldn't publish a letter of his about Contra atrocities - "the Sandinistas may have shot by mistake some innocents in the course of a war, but there's no such thing as shooting by mistake an innocent baby, which the Contras do routinely," he says. He is planning to spend August in Siberia, where he's been invited to visit.(To the question "won't you be - well, haunted, by the ghosts of the people who've died there?" he answers "I daresay I will, but it will be purely tourism. And it is a new place to discover.")

There hasn't been a book since Monsignor Quixote, although he is working with difficulty on a novel started 15 years ago, abandoned, then picked up and left off once more five years ago. He doesn't know, he says, "whether I'll have time to finish it," and doesn't talk about it either, except to deny that it's about his recent Central American travels.

"I find that when I talk about a novel, it's dead. But I recently found an old unfinished play of mine in a drawer, that I'd abandoned ten years ago because I couldn't see how it would end. I reread it and rather liked it, and I saw quite clearly what the third act would be, so I wrote it. It's now with my agent."

The play, called The House of Reputation, takes place in Central America.

"In a brothel," Greene says with relish. "It has a rather good song in it. The girls sing it: 'I was born in a dive on Geronimo Street, Between one strip-tease and another, A man at the bar heard a baby bleat, And there I was with my mother, More naked than the law allows...' ...and each verse ends like that, 'More naked than the law allows...' ...and then there's this awful sentimental young man who's the son of the minister of the Interior, and falls in love with one of the girls. So to take her out he has the House of Reputation smashed up... But he doesn't get her all the same."

The "awful, sentimental young man" bears a more than passing resemblance with Ernie Pyle, the Quiet American, Greene's prophetic novel of American involvement in Vietnam; and Greene remains more than ever wary of what he calls "the dangers of innocence."

"You know, there are some people who'll tell you 'some of my best friends are Jews;' well... some of my best friends are American," he says. "There's an awful kind of innocence even behind the lies and stupidity of Reagan." He doesn't hide his dislike of America, which contrasts strongly with his respect of Gorbachev, and even of Andropov, whom he saw as a reformer. "Any change in the Soviet Union will have to come from the KGB," he says. "Because they take the youngest and the brightest and they train them and they send them abroad, where they learn about the world. Whereas the army are really a bunch of Napoleonic old men."

Greene watches little television apart from the news, hates book programmes ("There's no use doing them if you're bad, and if you're good they turn you into a television star. John Betjeman became a television star and it didn't do his poetry any good") and sees much less films than during his London and Paris days. He spent a very long time fighting a complicated custody battle for a goddaughter of his who had a messy divorce from a young Nice hoodlum, and although the case was finally won in appeal, he still has scathing words for the judges and the Mayor of Nice. He still gets up in the morning to write, and rewrite, and rewrite, in his spindly handwriting, some 300 words that will get typed and rewritten some more. What he enjoys most these days, he says, is "the company of a friend."

© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 1987

Friday, May 1, 1987

Shooting Paloma Picasso

Anne-Elisabeth Moutet watches the artists's daughter model Yves Saint Laurent and Chanel for Cosmo's photographer.

There comes a moment in everyone's life when one's cup runneth over. Mine overflew on the afternoon Princess Ira of Furstenberg, with an extremely elegant young man dancing attendance, waltzed into our lavish Hôtel Royal Monceau suite in Paris, in the middle of the shooting session for the Paloma Picasso pictures you see here.

Now, in case you think one photographs Paloma the way the Press Association pool designate does Fergie & Andy on the steps of Buck House ("Give us a smile, Fergie... click-clack. Could you kiss her, sir? Click-clack. The ring! Show us the ring! Click-clack. That's enough now. Click-clack. Thank you"), let me tell you there were fifteen people in that suite already, discounting the odd white-jacketed waiter wheeling in at regular intervals what looked like half the Czarist Russian Court silver laden with triple-layered club sandwiches, seven deep. We'd been at it since morning.

There was Paloma, of course, padding barefooted about the suite in a big white Royal Monceau terrycloth robe, in between her top-to-toe Alaia-, Chanel- and Saint-Laurent-sheathed apparitions for the shots, looking just as cool and composed as if the surrounding madness was a perfectly normal occurrence, which to her it was, and had been for years. And then, among the cameras, pancake make-up, rouge pots, arc lights, nine huge silver pots of coffee, clothes, Manolo Blahnik shoes, red-and-black Paloma Picasso scent press kits, petits fours on paper lace napkins, hair rollers, little heaps of casually discarded jewelry on the side tables, Louis Vuitton suitcases, quilted leather Chanel handbags, and little complimentary Royal Monceau sewing kits, there were:

The photographer, Richard Horton; Richard's assistant; Cosmo's art director, Denise Barnes; Deborah Bennett, the English PR for Paloma's new scent; Isabelle, the hairdresser from Carita's; one make-up girl also from Carita's; Paloma's high-powered French PR, Francoise Dumas, a charming, understated woman who can throw a ball at Versailles as easily as you organise a spag. bol. dinner-party for five in Fulham; an assistant of Dumas' laden with Saint Laurent boxes; another assistant equally laden with Chanel boxes, who manned the suite's telephones relaying Paloma's questions like "Ask Karl [as in Lagerfeld] whether he'll be in New York on Monday"; Paloma's chauffeur; an executive from l'Oréal, the French cosmetics conglomerate who produce and distribute the scent; someone from the hotel's staff; Paloma's husband, the exiled Argentine playwright Rafael Lopez Sanchez; and myself.

Wait, wait, wait, there was also Paloma's 7-year-old English bulldog Martha, distinguishing herself by being the only living creature in the suite not on a diet, and who binged on the sandwich mountain we'd been practically tying our hands behind our backs not to touch. The famous line "you can never be too rich or too thin," variously attributed (like all good quotes) to jet-set heroines from the Duchess of Windsor to Jackie O. may not be in the line of what Paloma Picasso would say; but she's certainly having a good shot at living by it. And - are you ready for this - she doen't even look like she's trying. Trying hard, anyway.

The first thing to know about Paloma Picasso is that she's extremely nice. At 35 (which she has been looking for the past ten years, and will go on looking for the next twenty,) weighing all of 7 1/2 stone for her 5 ft. 5, with her dark eyes, beautiful wide mouth, Velasquez infanta-white skin, and queenly posture, she looks striking, and could get away with quite a lot, even discounting her parentage, money, talent. She however remains unfailingly soft-spoken, with a nice, soft sense of humour; obviously well-balanced - no mean feat for the illegitimate daughter of the century's greatest painter, who couldn't legally bear her genius father's name until she was 11, but spent all her summers at his house in Mougins, among family friends called Jacques Prevert and Marcel Carné and Simone Signoret and André Malraux; pursued by photographers and autograph hunters everytime they ventured out for coffee; and whose special case (and her brother Claude's) prompted a major 1960 French law reform granting illegitimate children the same rights (name, inheritance, etc.) as legitimate ones.

This afternoon, she is polite to waiter, photographer and L'Oréal big shot alike; apologises to Patricia, the make-up girl, for having done most of her work already (Patricia prononces the job almost perfect, and does little more than dab a little powder here, a little shadow there, accentuating but not changing Paloma's expert handiwork) and to us all for being two hours late this morning. She was at Saint-Laurent's, she says, trying on every dress they'd prepared for the session.

Which leads us to the second thing to know about Paloma (it helps explain the first.) She is a perfectionist. Having signed a very fat licensing scent contract with L'Oréal, for what is usually referred to, in respectful terms as "a major undisclosed sum" (meaning seven figures at least,) she could have done a Sophia Loren. (Remember "Sophia", the scent of the year before last? No? Don't worry, neither does anyone else.) A few afternoons of autograph-signing on Selfridge's ground floor, two and a half minutes of Breakfast TV, cash in your check and addio.

Not so Paloma. If her name was to be on the bottle, what was in it had better be top-rate. It did take her quite a bit of very quiet fighting and striving to become Paloma first, Picasso next. The last thing she'd want is compromise that hard-gained, carefully composed image. She once told me how she had discovered the particular shade of the red lipstick she always uses, with the kind of earnestness one associates with major ethical choices, and at the time, it seemed a pretty frivolous concern for that obviously intelligent, cultured woman. Buch such single-mindedness bears fruit: in none of her activities of the last ten years - theatre costume designing, jewelry designing (for Tiffany's, the New York jewellers, who are opening a Bond Street boutique, featuring her range, this summer), patronage of the arts, and even, nay, especially her jet-set, fire-and-ice, style-icon modelling stints - did she ever smack of spoilt amateurism. No swim-suit designing, Vanity Fair cover girl, one-time-lucky pop singer Princess Stephanie she.

She was therefore very much involved in the creation of the scent, and drew the bottle herself, after a design she once used for pieces of jewelry from her Tiffany collection. She and her husband carefully checked the advertising, the pictures, the interview schedule, the promotion tours - there were lots of promotion tours, of the "if-it's-Tuesday-it-must-be-Saks- Fifth-Avenue, Albuquerque, New Mexico" type - everything down to the typeface on the invitations for the Paris launch party.

"I'm sure the L'Oréal people didn't expect me to be so demanding, so finicky," she says with a smile. The L'Oréal exec and hubby Rafael both react to this with soft noises and gentle babble, to the effect that she isn't finicky, nott-at-t-tall, she just likes a job well done. A little while later, while Paloma is back in the suite's drawing room being photographed in the red Saint Laurent dress, someone mentions to Rafael a request for an interview and a picture session for a new American magazine. "What do they mean, a collective cover shot?" he asks. "Paloma and three other women together? No, no, no, no, no. That won't do at all. And the circulation is not good either. Let them ask again when they are well established. I mean, how many first pictures, how many first issues can you agree to do? It's all very well to help struggling friends, but one's got to draw the line somewhere."

Although Rafael Lopez Sanchez, the 37-year-old Argentine playwright whom Paloma met in 1973, married in 1978, and of whom she says: "he is really the only man who ever mattered in my life," still writes critically well-received plays and articles (always with a friend, co-writer Javier Arroyuelo), he has taken on the full-time management of her "image" and her career as well, advising her with theatrical flair. He is a slight blond man with South American courtliness and an easy smile, impeccably dressed in a beautifully-cut, waist-hugging, non-vented suit that shrieks Cifonelli for miles. Until democracy was restored, he hadn't set foot in Argentina since 1975: he took Paloma there, for the first time, last May.

Their meeting, as she tells it, happened fifteen years ago in the simplest possible way. "I was just out of university and had started doing some theatre costume designing, not a big job, you understand; and I liked his plays. So I asked some theatre people to introduce us. We got along extremely well from that first dinner."

What strikes you most is how undramatical her life seems, quite at variance with her looks, and family history. She reminds you that she's French - never set foot in Franco's Spain - and that her mother, the talented artist Francoise Gilot, left Picasso when Paloma was 4, and went back to Neuilly, Paris's South Kensington, in a house near her very bourgeois parents. (Funnily enough, Emile Gilot, Paloma's grand father, owned a scent manufacturing plant, Les Parfums Gilot.) Every summer Paloma and Claude would travel down to the South of France, at Mougins, then Cannes and finally Vauvenargues. "I first realised my father was different when I was perhaps five, and people would come to him in the streets," she says. "I can't really remember not being the daughter of someone very exceptional. In a way it helps dealing with celebrity if you've started very young." She doesn't remember any awkwardness arising from her illegitimacy at school, but that too may have had to do with her father's fame. In Republican France, where intellectuals and artists are lionised, Picasso's status was roughly equivalent to that of an English Royal Duke.

Until she inherited one of the world's finest collections of Picassos, literally hundreds of pieces, after a protracted, immensely complex legal arrangement between Picasso's children by various mistresses and wives - not to mention the French State, who in lieu of estate duties took all the Picassos now exhibited in Paris's beautiful Picasso Museum in the XVIIIth-century Hotel de Salé - she was not, she says, rich.

"I was brought up normally, with not too much pocket money," she says, "which was a very good thing." On the other hand one should take her notions of normality with a grain of salt. She remembers for instance going at 18 with Manolo Blahnik, an old friend, for a week-end in England to "some friends' place in the country." They were late for lunch, and had to find their way to the dining room. "I thought, well, this is a nice country cottage. Then I noticed visitors and those velvet ropes closing off doorways." The "nice country cottage" was Woburn.

Like all bourgeois French girls, she was sent for "linguistic summers" to England, staying with the Millinaires and the Adeanes, escaping to London and the King's Road and Portobello Road, Sixties havens. (She dressed at the time, she says, "like a hippie," which you find hard to believe.)

It all makes for nice, safe recollections: the Neuilly Lycée, holidays in England, university at Nanterre near Paris (where the May 68 riots started, the year she was there) jewelry design school, a little bit of acting (she was the vampiresque Countess Bathory in Walerian Borowczyk Immoral Tales). It sounds a happy, elegant, untroubled life, and no doubt it was. But then Paloma tells about her drawing. As a child, she says, she spent a lot of time drawing. "My mother said 'well, she can draw, but all children draw. We'll know if she's really interested in drawing when she is 14.' Came my fourteenth birthday and I simply stopped, never picked up a pencil until I was 18." You wait for a comment but none comes.

She lives in New York these days, in a dramatic, splendid Park Avenue duplex penthouse, which she and Rafael devoted months to find, and two years to decorate. The result is splendid, a showcase of a place, with a mixture of Art Deco furniture, Regency looking-glasses, Venetian marble lions, ancient Egyptian and Greek pieces, and of course some splendid Picassos, although their display is by no means ostentatious, some framed drawings just propped up on tables, while two splendid oils dominate the drawing-room and Rafael's library. The colour schemes are bold, in typical Paloma style, yellows and reds and blacks. Right now, she doesn't own a place in Paris. This time, she and Rafael were lent a flat on Place Vendôme for a few days. "It's so lovely, we wanted to buy it, but the owner won't sell," she says. She sighs. You sigh. Fourteen people around you sigh. You wish the flat on Place Vendôme was for sale.

This is when Princess Ira erupts on the scene, mercifully saving it from incipient melancholy. Princess Ira of Furstenberg, once romantically linked to Prince Rainier of Monaco (they both denied the rumours) is an extremely handsome brunette, a tall, sunny woman, whose sunflower yellow silk dress exactly matches her mood. You've got to understand that Princess Ira lives at the Royal Monceau. (Wouldn't you if you could afford the room service?) So of course she had to drop by to say hello to Paloma, and hello to Rafael ("I seem to meet sooooo many Argentine friends these days!" she trills, and you can't help smiling because Princess Ira is an immensely good-natured person), and hello to Francoise Dumas who's also a friend, Francoise would. Princess Ira's beautiful young man politely kisses or shakes hands. Yet another waiter comes in through the open double-doors with coffee for 48. Paloma and Princess Ira talk about their recent stay at Biarritz' Hotel Miramar for the cure. Did we know that Farrah Fawcett, yes, Farrah is staying at the Royal Monceau too? (She's in Paris shooting a miniseries on the life of Beate Klarsfeld, the Nazi hunter, in which she'll play Beate, an inspired piece of casting.) "Farrah'll drop by later," someone says. "With Ryan?" someone else asks. I told you: my cup runneth over.

© Copyright Cosmopolitan (UK) & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 1987