DuJour Navigation

My Mother & Schiaparelli

A new memoir, Shocked, shows us the joyful possibility of picking your own parent

What’s a 10-year-old girl with an impossibly beautiful, uncompromising and explosive mother to do? Get a second one, which is what Patricia Volk, author of the new memoir Shocked, did. In fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, Volk found an inspiring, rule-defying role model. But what makes their relationship—and this book—unusual is that this bond existed only in Volk’s mind and arose after she read Schiap’s biography (titled Shocking Life).

Volk was cursed with a beautiful mother—people always told her how gorgeous her mother, Audrey (pictured at left), was, comparing her to Grace Kelly and Lana Turner. And while Audrey was loving and attentive, she also demanded perfection from herself and her children (Patricia and sister Jo Ann). She placed incredible emphasis on appearances. For example, when Audrey and Patricia were in a restaurant and ran out of things to talk about, Audrey had them count out loud so they’d appear to be engaged in a lively conversation.

But thanks to Schiaparelli, the author writes, “Audrey’s disappointments in me stopped being my disappointments in me. Schiap planted the idea that imagination trumped beauty, that being different might be a virtue. When she was my age, Schiap also performed dismally in school, had a gorgeous older sister, was considered exasperating and yet she managed to live a full-blown life, a life of invention and accomplishment.”

For the reader, the beauty of Shocked lies in the details about the two female forces in Patricia Volk’s life. Audrey worked, unofficially and unpaid, at Morgen’s, the Garment District restaurant, which was owned by the family and the place to dine for designers, models, tycoons and their hangers-on in the 1950s. She dressed meticulously and every day before she left the apartment she scented her handkerchief with a drop of Schiaparelli’s “Shocking” cologne. Cecil, Patricia’s father, would present Audrey with a bottle of this scent every year on her birthday in front of the girls. Audrey would always open it and exclaim, “Your father is the generous man in the world!” He’d always respond by asking, “Isn’t your mother the most beautiful woman in the world?” Every year, he carefully wrapped the bottle of “Shocking” in hundred-dollar bills.

Schiap’s amazing life is also explored in depth. You learn about how, at the age of seven, after learning about Leonardo da Vinci, she jumped off the roof of her home and landed in a pile of manure. How she went to Monte Carlo as a teenager, lost all her money gambling, and was sent home on the train with the note “With the compliments of the casino” hanging around her neck. How she went to New York as a broke 20-year-old and subsisted on oysters and ice cream. And you’ll read about her dizzying designs: the fabric printed to look like human flesh that had been flayed by a lion, cinnamon sticks and licorice used as buttons, the Pencil Hat with a real pencil stuck in the crown for writing down bets at the track.

And just as the author learned how to be a woman from Audrey and Schiap, you can’t help leaving this book without being influenced by them. You’ll stand a bit straighter, be a bit bolder. Or you might go further and think about whom you’d like to appoint as your second mom. On my short list now are Hillary Clinton, Thich Nhat Hanh (why be limited by gender?), Anne of Green Gables and Iris Apfel.