15 July 2010

How She Became Therese Bonney ...

A girl from a working class family in upstate New York falls in love with all things French.  As a result she changes her name and when she grows up she changes her life to fit the name. here is how a smart, plucky girl  made from herself a person (a term I borrow from Anzia Yezierska)..
Thérèse Bonney was born Mabel Therese Bonney in Syracuse, N.Y. on July 15, 1894; she died of heart failure at the American Hospital in Paris in 1978.
Bonney‘s family had lived in New York State for several generations. Her mother, Addie Robey, was a bookkeeper and her father, Anthony Leroy Bonney, was an electrician. Her sister Louise was five years older, born in 1889.  The two sisters shared a vision of the importance of design in modern life: Louise became an industrial designer and Therese became a photographer and an interpreter and curator of modern aesthetics.
The Bonney family moved to California  around 1903,  first to Sacramento and then  Oakland. The parents  sacrificed to educate their daughters; Therese also tutored students at her Oakland High school in French and Spanish to earn money.  She graduated from U.C. Berkeley in 1916 and promptly moved back east alone, attending graduate school first at Radcliffe College and then at Columbia University. The attractions of New York City for a francophile were obvious. Along with halving the distance to Paris, Bonney obtained her first position with the Theatre du Vieux Columbier, on tour in North America. When Louise joined her sister, the two opened a French theater bookshop while Therese doubled as the official English translator of Sarah Bernhardt’s repertory.

At the earliest possible moment, just months after war in Europe ended, Bonney was en route to France as a representative of the American Association of Colleges to set up a student exchange program. After earning her doctorate at the Sorbonne (the youngest person and only the fourth woman), Bonney became a correspondent for newspapers in the U.S., Britain, and France, taking up photography to provide her own illustrations. From 1923-1928, she served as Paris fashion editor for the New York Times. The studio apartment of graphic artist Jean Carlu was an early example of her work, displaying her ability to encapsulate several trends in one shot.

Her signature achievement was the creation of the Bonney Service (1923), the first American illustrated press service, specializing in design and architecture, eventually supplying 350+ photos a month for publication in more than 20 countries. When Bonney had to hire additional photographers, rumors began to circulate that she couldn't do her own work. She was also criticized for promoting her own work. “I am not an expatriate; I am the dean of the American press corps in Paris” was how she explained her unprecedented position.

She used that position to disseminate what she considered the best modern design. Consider the architect Robert Mallet-Stevens (1886-1945) whose work was equally influential during the interwar years as that of Le Corbusier. Founder of La gazette des 7 Arts in 1924, his total design work in the rue Mallet-Stevens, including a villa for the design duo of Jan and Joel Martel.compares more than favorably with the bleak urbanism of Le Corbusier. Unfortunately, for his posthumous reputation, Mallet-Stevens ordered that his papers be burned after his death while his rival promoted the myth of Le Corbusier, the prophet of modern design. (That's Joel Martel photographed in front of Villa Martel. The cat remains anonymous.)
In her spare time, Bonney wrote guidebooks to shopping, restaurants, and the decorative arts of Paris, evn beating Julia Child by decades with her book French Cooking for American Kitchens. About her native country, Bonney wrote: “our furniture and our homes are of the past.” She was well-placed to know: Paris in the inter-war years incubated almost every significant design trend of the 20th century.

A tireless promoter of modern design, Bonney arranged an exhibition of Modern French Decorative Art at Lord & Taylor in New York (1928) and several traveling exhibitions that appeared at the Metropolitan Museum and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.

A successful career in New York enabled Louise to bring her widowed mother to the city. Louise became one of a precious few women appointed to the Board of Design for the 1939 World’s Fair. All three Bonney women were involved with planning the fair from 1935 on. Meanwhile, Therese was an official of the 1937 Paris World’s Fair.
In Finland to cover preparations for the 1938 Winter Olympics when the Russians invaded, Bonney stayed on for two years, going on to cover the Nazi invasion and the Battle of France. Her exhibition Those to Whom Wars Are Done appeared at the Library of Congress in 1940, followed by War Comes to the People at the Museum of Modern Art. For her heroic efforts, the French government awarded Bonney the Croix de Guerre and the Legion d’Honneur. Bonney never married and she kept her personal life private.

Image credits: Bonney donated 4,000 photographic prints to the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum in the late 1930s, a unique documentation of a design era. Many prints are also in the collection of the Bancroft Library at the University of California.
The photograph of Therese Bonney was taken by Lee Miller in 1942.
The photographer of Louise Bonney is Therese Bonney.


Rouchswalwe said...

Wow. Who needs fiction? The detail about her cookbook beating Julia Child's made me smile.

Jane said...

The books on shopping, restaurants, and buying furniture all came out in 1929 and were co-authored by Louise Bonney. The cookbook, published in 1930, was also. I would love to get my hands on a copy; the comparison with Childs would reveal a lot about changing tastes, I imagine.

Betsy Marks said...

Hi Jane
This is fascinating. I met Therese Bonney in late 1971 - she was frail and looking for a new home as her building a few streets away from us in Paris had been condemned. My mother told us, when we got home from school one day, that an American lady had visited, and on looking over our apartment (we were looking to rent it out), said it would nicely accommodate her art collection, which, she claimed, included Picassos, Renoirs, etc etc. We were, unsurprisingly, a bit sceptical, but she ended up inviting us to tea and all her claims were true! I visited Therese Bonney a few more times after that and I understand she ended up being housed comfortably by - i think - the town of St Cloud in the suburbs of Paris in exchange fro a donation of some of her vast collection of art works, correspondence, daguerotypes etc.

I've always wanted to write her biography.

I'd love to know where you did your research on her.

Best wishes

Betsy Marks

jane said...

Betsy,how lucky you are to have met Therese Bonney. Other than finding the one book "L'Invention du chic" I did a lot of scrounging for about a year from various sources. I think Cooper-Hewitt and the Bancroft Library have much more than I was able to access online. At the time I lived in Syracuse, NY, where the Bonney family had lived for several generations but that was by chance. It's as though Bonney hadn't lived there. I hope you do write that book. Please keep us updated.