THE RINGMASTER OF FRENCH CULTURE : At the Arm of Yves St. Laurent and the Knee of Francois Mitterrand, Pierre Berge Presides as Fashion Displaces Art and Business Becomes the New Muse of Paris

Jonathan Kandell, a former Paris-based correspondent for the New York Times, frequently writes on international art and politics

The facade of the elegant Paris townhouse that serves as headquarters for Yves Saint Laurent's fashion empire is decked out with bunting and evergreen wreaths. But inside, Pierre Berge, who runs the business for his designer-partner, is oblivious to the holiday cheer. He is lamenting the decline of French culture over the past 12 years. And he finds enough blemishes to spoil anybody's Christmas mood. * "Good writers have vanished," says Berge, who once counted Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus among his friends. "In cinema, it's the same thing--a few talented directors, and they are aging." Contemporary French painters also get short shrift from Berge, whose joint collection with Saint Laurent is one of the finest private art holdings in the country. And the stage is boring, adds the man who once owned a leading Paris theater. * He's built up a full head of steam by now and is ready to assault that final bastion of French culture--the intellectuals. "They were deeply mistaken," says Berge. "Many of them embraced Marxism and defended the Soviet Union. So it shouldn't be surprising that nobody listens to them anymore." * But who, then, can the French turn to for cultural leadership? "To entrepreneurs, because they have money !" he says in a voice rising with impatience at having to state the obvious. "Today, you are respected because you are rich and perceived as being powerful. I may not like it. But I've come to terms with this reality. And so I've decided, since people respect money and power, I'll say and do whatever I want." * Imperious, controversial, egotistical, Pierre Berge has elbowed his way into the limelight as perhaps the most arresting personality in French culture. In a country where politics and culture are entwined, he has parlayed his personal friendship with President Francois Mitterrand into an appointment as boss of the Paris opera houses. And with Mitterrand's Socialists almost certain to be chased from government in the March elections, Berge is maneuvering, quite deftly by some accounts, to remain as opera czar even if the conservatives take power. * Berge is very much a part of the ultimate transformation of French culture from a cradle of the avant-garde into a carnival for the most entertainment that money can buy. "There are so many spectacles, so many outlets for audiences," says Yvonne Baby, former culture editor of the leading daily, Le Monde. "But in terms of creativity, we are experiencing a period of depression, a sort of great sleep." Adds Bernard-Henri Levy, a leading philosopher: "Nobody believes anymore in the notion of progress in art and culture."

Paris has more cinemas, theaters, opera and dance performances, concerts and art-exhibition spaces than ever before. But the desire to shock and confront society--as did Matisse and Picasso in painting, Sartre and Camus in philosophy and literature, Godard and Resnais in cinema--has disappeared. Instead, the French public is infatuated with the cultural impresario, the man who can best weave together entrepreneurial skills, political connections and the arts.

By these measures, Pierre Berge is without peer. A master of the business deal, he recently engineered the sale of the Saint Laurent empire at more than 30% above its market value while retaining control of the haute couture house for Saint Laurent and himself. The capital from such coups has allowed him to bankroll the arts and back worthy causes, like the battles against racism and AIDS, in a country without a tradition of private philanthropy.

Success has also left him free to break ranks with the business community and support the Socialists in ways that reach beyond campaign contributions: He has helped make left-wing politicians feel comfortable with capitalism. If Socialist government officials speak convincingly about the need for lower taxes and less inflation, if they dress for success, if they and their spouses are seen at haute couture collections and Right Bank dinner parties, Berge can claim a bit of credit.

And in keeping with France's current preference for spectacle over art, Berge as a cultural figure is more P.T. Barnum than Arturo Toscanini. Taking over as president of the new Bastille Opera four years ago, Berge scandalized the music world by firing the renowned pianist-conductor Daniel Barenboim as music and artistic director. Since then, Berge concedes that his opera house has staged few memorable productions. But, he points out with glee, the controversies swirling around his tenure have boosted attendance to near capacity.

"People are curious about this building which is so talked about," he says. "Half of them never set foot in an opera before. Yet suddenly, the opera has become the heart of French cultural and political life. It's laughable."

BERGE IS A MAN OF SLIGHT BUILD, WITH A PREFERENCE for conservative, exquisitely tailored suits and oval glasses that give him an owlish look. At 62, he is nimble enough to sit in his easy chair with a foot on the cushion and his chin propped on his knee. He speaks in slow, measured cadences, savoring each phrase like a sommelier tasting a vintage Bordeaux. He is invariably accompanied by his terrier, Ficelle, whom he rewards with biscuits even after she shreds her blanket on the office rug.

"I think of him as a great Hollywood producer from the golden era," says Philippe Collin, a film director and critic who's known Berge for 30 years. And like the lore surrounding a Goldwyn or a Selznick, tales of Berge's generosity are as legion as stories about his acts of gratuitous offense. A Russian woman speaks movingly of his aid in arranging her immigration to France. But an employee at the Bastille Opera talks about Berge's "reign of terror," which has led to the resignations of much of the senior staff. In the House of Saint Laurent, a seamstress recounts Berge's unstinting financial help to terminally ill colleagues, but another woman employed there calls him a "misogynist" who promotes only men to the higher rungs.

Whether in personal affairs, professional matters or intellectual debates, Berge is a man of temper tantrums and strong convictions, say the people who have known him longest. "When he was young, he was angrier and more convinced that he was always right," recalls Carole Weisweiller, a documentary filmmaker. "Today, he's like a roiling sea temporarily at rest. But the tide can always rise because he's very moody."

Berge was born on the tiny Ile d'Oleron off the Atlantic coast of France, son of a minor government official and a teacher. As a teen-ager, Berge moved to Paris, intent on becoming a journalist. Arrested during a political demonstration, he spent the night in jail with Albert Camus and then joined the famous existentialist writer for coffee when they were released the following morning. "What others would not have given for that experience!" says Berge, still looking back with wonder at his good luck.

Soon afterward, the 19-year-old Berge became publisher-editor of a left-wing magazine whose contributors included Camus and Sartre. The publication didn't last long, but it helped launch the energetic young man into the orbit of cultural megastars like playwright Jean Cocteau, novelist Jean Giono and fashion designer Christian Dior.

In the 1950s, Berge moved in with artist Bernard Buffet; he became Buffet's publicist and business manager and helped the artist achieve celebrity--roles that Berge would assume even more successfully with Yves Saint Laurent. In 1958, the relationship ended in abrupt anger when Buffet decided to marry, and for years afterward, Berge forbade his friends to even mention the artist's name.

The great defining moment in Berge's life, as he himself concedes, was meeting Saint Laurent in 1959. The intense, introverted, Algerian-born Frenchman was already, at 23, a highly touted designer in the House of Dior. "I instantly recognized his genius," says Berge, who was 29 at the time. The two men became companions. With Berge as his manager and partner, Saint Laurent exhibited his first collection in 1962. By the '70s, he'd brought street fashion and military wear to haute couture with pea jackets, motorcycle jackets, Russian Cossack coats and Ballets Russes gowns. He was heralded as the most influential designer of his generation.

For his part, Berge demonstrated a business creativity that the fashion world had never seen before. In the 1960s, he extended Saint Laurent from haute couture into the far more profitable ready-to-wear trade with boutiques in Paris, New York and other cities across the globe. When the haute couture operations needed capital in 1971, Berge sold the ready-to-wear division to the Squibb Corp. and then bought it back two years later. In 1986, he arranged the sale of 25% of Saint Laurent to Carlo de Benedetti, the Italian magnate, and used the money for a leveraged buyout of Charles of the Ritz, which owned a number of designer perfumes, including several Saint Laurent fragrances.

Then in 1989, under Berge's guidance, the Yves Saint Laurent Groupe became the first French design house to be listed on the Paris Bourse. Investor reaction was sensational. Trading had to be halted during the first two days because there were 28 buy offers for each of the 400,000 shares initially put up for sale. By 1990, the YSL Groupe was ringing up $500 million in annual sales, and Berge and Saint Laurent were each reportedly worth about $200 million.

But profits and share prices plunged during the next two years, and Berge cut an extremely advantageous deal for Saint Laurent and himself by selling the YSL Groupe for $655 million to Elf-Sanofi SA, the French pharmaceutical giant. Under an accord signed in January, Sanofi will pay the equivalent of about $158 a share for YSL--well above the $118 at which the stock was last traded. By virtue of their 43.7% holding in YSL, Berge and Saint Laurent will share $286 million. And in what amounts to a management contract, they will continue to control YSL's haute couture operations at least until 2001.

Berge and Saint Laurent have always enjoyed a sumptuous lifestyle. They filled their grand Paris apartment with antique furniture and covered its walls with Impressionist, Cubist and more contemporary paintings. They flew guests by helicopter to their chateau in Normandy. In Marrakech, they opened one of their villa's buildings as a museum of Islamic art. And in Manhattan, they decorated their Pierre Hotel apartment with 19th-Century Americana.

Though his clients were rich and conservative, Berge in private life sought out a more eclectic crowd. "He could bring together a French communist writer, a Russian exile and Andy Warhol for a dinner party--and it worked," says filmmaker Collin. Berge bought the Athenee Theater in Paris and invited young directors to stage plays. On Monday nights, when theaters are traditionally closed, the premises were turned over to chamber music and recitals by opera stars such as Placido Domingo and Joan Sutherland.

It was only in the 1980s that Berge, who had always portrayed himself as an eminence grise , began to step out of Saint Laurent's shadow. According to Berge, the victory of Mitterrand's Socialists in 1981, after 23 years of conservative Gaullist governments, allowed him to raise his profile. "I was always a man of the Left--though never a Marxist," he says. "And I decided politics was interesting again."

But strains in his relationship with Saint Laurent were also leading Berge to cut a more public figure. Always timid, Saint Laurent became almost a recluse. In interviews, he has spoken about his struggles with alcoholism, addiction to cocaine and nervous breakdowns. His slow, disjointed movements and occasionally slurred speech sparked rumors--strongly denied by Berge--that he had suffered a stroke.

About seven years ago, Berge moved into his own Paris apartment. He also bought his own country home in the south of France. He and Saint Laurent continue to share ownership of the earlier residences and the art collection. "They speak to each other by phone every day," says a Saint Laurent executive. But the same person admits that hanging around Saint Laurent for too long can weary Berge, who always insists on being at the designer's side in public appearances. Recently, Berge dissuaded Saint Laurent from making a promotional trip to the United States. "He told us he didn't want to play nanny 24 hours a day," says the company official.

Saint Laurent's apparent fragility begs the question: How active does he remain as a designer? One gathers that he still does all the sketches, but if he's not up to doing the fittings, others will help him out. He was particularly diligent in putting together his most recent ready-to-wear show last October, and his spring couture collection in January dazzled most critics, inspiring one to claim, "He has re-established himself today as the king of couture."

WHILE HIS PARTNER'S ENERGIES HAVE SEEMED TO ebb and flow, Berge has displayed enormous dynamism. He founded the Guild for Haute Couture and Ready-to-Wear Designers, or Chambre Syndicale, and made it a powerful instrument to promote the fashion industry (he left the organization early this month, forming a rival guild with Karl Lagerfeld). He was also the founding president of the French Fashion Institute and a co-founder of the Museum of Fashion Arts. Turning couture into an instrument of diplomacy, Berge has staged Saint Laurent expositions in Moscow and Beijing.

With xenophobia and anti-Semitism rising in France, Berge opened his coffers to S.O.S. Racisme, the country's most active defender of minorities, and funded its radio station. In the wake of the AIDS epidemic, he helped organize outpatient care and became president of ARCAT-SIDA, which finances AIDS research and education. Also a publisher, Berge has used his magazine, Globe, to push his favorite political, cultural and social causes, often contributing his own mordant and occasionally outrageous columns.

"I believe that the protagonists of economic life should engage themselves in social and humanitarian issues," says Berge. "But when I began to speak out, I was viewed as a kind of leper."

Perhaps never more so than when he offended the spouses of Saint Laurent clients by soliciting funds from them for the reelection of President Mitterrand in 1988. The Gaullist candidate, Jacques Chirac, denounced Berge as the "foremost representative of the caviar Left." And Jacques Calvet, the head of Peugeot, publicly urged a boycott of Saint Laurent products. The call went unheeded by society wives, however, who seemed to know better than Calvet where to draw the line between politics and basic necessities.

No doubt Berge impressed Mitterrand with his campaign contributions. But by all accounts, the two men have grown quite close for reasons less crass than money. Their strong friendship began in 1986, when the president was in Strasbourg at a campaign dinner attended by Berge. Mitterrand, in a buoyant mood, recited a few verses by Rene-Guy Cadou, a minor French poet unknown to the other politicians at the meal. As the president sat down, Berge rose from the other end of the table to finish the poem. A cultural bonding had just taken place. Soon after, Berge became a regular companion to Mitterrand on the president's famous walks in the woods near his country home.

When Mitterrand first assumed the presidency in 1981, he seemed to embody the left-wing ideal of the intellectuel engage-- the intellectual willing to battle for political beliefs. Artists were expected to demonstrate and sign petitions. There was a link, it was asserted, between the creative mind and political commitment.

But even with one of their own in power, French intellectuals and artists were having a tough time staying engage . Marxism became a spent force, leaving them without a moral compass. And a newer generation of gurus was spreading the heretical notion that artistic creativity had nothing to do with political commitment. "Quite the contrary," asserts Bernard-Henri Levy, a philosopher-novelist-playwright, a current cultural superstar and a good friend of Berge. "Generally speaking, the periods of greatest political commitment for a writer or artist or intellectual are their periods of least creative output. Because, quite simply, causes take up time."

In the late 1970s, Levy was one of a group of young philosophers, known as "Les Nouveaux Philosophes," who briefly captured the cultural center stage by declaring Marxism a barbaric ideology. Like an oldtime intellectuel engage , he has championed the downtrodden in Africa, the Middle East and, most recently, Bosnia.

But Levy grates on other intellectuals because of his flagrant displays of vanity and affluence. The same week he was interviewed on ethnocide in Bosnia, he appeared with his wife in the pages of Paris Match in their splendid Left Bank apartment. For several years, Levy has sat on the board of directors of the Yves Saint Laurent Groupe. And while his presence hasn't necessarily raised the cultural level of board meetings, it has improved the quality of his wardrobe.

"I find all that so shocking," says Yvonne Baby, the former culture editor of Le Monde. "In earlier times, there was not such a huge gap between the way an intellectual lived and the causes he espoused."

Levy appears for a recent interview at a Left Bank cafe with a two-day Hollywood stubble and an unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth. "The '80s until now represent the end of the mania for the new," he says. "That's why in culture these are the Yves Saint Laurent years. Because Saint Laurent is someone who doesn't believe that every year should bring something new. So he escapes neo-mania and becomes a classic."

Thanks to Berge and Saint Laurent, he adds, fashion has finally become accepted as art. "The couture of Saint Laurent--and I've published an essay on this very subject--occupies the same space as Proust and Matisse," says this worldly philosopher.

Berge, who knows the business somewhat better than Levy, doesn't place it on such an exalted plane. "Yes, I've defended fashion as art," says the entrepreneur. "I did so because so many people dismissed couture as just pieces of cloth. But you can't compare a dress to a painting by Picasso or Goya." And while it's true, he adds, that great couturiers like Saint Laurent have drawn upon art, "fashion has only brought negative things to art. Too much of art is a la mode nowadays. It's accepted too quickly, and that's a quality inherited from the world of fashion."

Artists, or anyone deemed creative, have become more fashionable than ever. And the government has midwived this trend by showering enormous amounts of money and official recognition on the arts. Mitterrand often invites writers and other intellectuals to meals at the presidential palace. Culture Minister Jack Lang organizes extravagant music, dance and theater festivals.

French intellectuals and artists, who used to ridicule Weimar Germany's fetish for medals and official awards, now seem just as obsessed with similar honors. "It's become a mania," says Brigitte Rouan, an actress who last year was made a coveted Knight of Arts and Letters for directing her first film. "Think of it: For making just one film I'm a chevalier! I didn't even bother to go pick up the award."

Awards and festivals are the small change of the government's cultural largesse. Real money, power and fame are reserved for the building and administration of gigantic architectural projects in Paris. Former President Georges Pompidou left his mark with the modern art museum that bears his name. His successor, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, built a museum for 19th-Century art in the old Gare d'Orsay train station on the bank of the Seine. But Mitterrand, who has been in office longer than any other French president, has outdone his predecessors by launching seven monumental projects, including a new national library, I.M. Pei's glass pyramid for the Louvre Museum and a new opera house.

Given Berge's good standing with both Mitterrand and the new cultural mandarins, he pretty much had his pick of giant, state-sponsored artistic enterprises. He chose the opera, where his impact was potentially huge: Soon after becoming president, Mitterrand announced plans for a new $350-million opera house, to be built at the Place de la Bastille in time to celebrate the bicentenary of the French Revolution, which began with the storming of the infamous prison in 1789.

Because of the historical significance surrounding the Bastille, Mitterrand also declared the opera house would have to be "populaire"--that is, for the common folk, instead of the usual tuxedo-and-silk crowd. But in 1986, Mitterrand's Socialists were defeated and the new prime minister picked Francois Leotard as minister of culture, with responsibility over the Bastille Opera. Power shifted back to the Socialists in May, 1988, but in his final act as culture minister, Leotard signed a generous contract to keep Daniel Barenboim as artistic and musical director of the Bastille Opera. Barenboim, an Israeli, would not be required to spend more than four months a year at the opera and would receive an annual income of more than $1 million, to be deposited in Switzerland, out of reach of French tax collectors.

Three months later, Berge was named president of the Paris operas.

In retrospect, it seems evident that the strong-willed Berge would want to appoint his own artistic and musical director. But the way he went about firing Barenboim was unusually heavy-handed. Berge questioned Barenboim's operatic talents. He alleged Barenboim was violating the "populaire" guidelines for the Bastille in his choice of operas and in limiting annual performances to fewer than half the 250 originally planned. And he denounced Barenboim's multimillion-dollar contract as a tax-evasion scheme perpetrated with the approval of Leotard.

Four years later, Berge engages in a bit of revisionist history when he discusses the Barenboim affair. Asked what is "populaire" about the Bastille Opera, he now responds: "I have no idea what that means. I didn't invent that slogan. I just had to embrace it." Asked about Barenboim's contract, he now says: "I couldn't care less if he didn't pay taxes in France--I'm not the budget minister." And asked about the goal of 250 opera evenings a year, he now groans about the difficulties of staging even 140 performances.

Berge is enthusiastic about Myung-Whun Chung, the music director he chose as Barenboim's replacement, and the local press has praised the young Korean-born conductor for his handling of the opera's orchestra. But Berge can think of only two or three productions at the Bastille over the past three years that were worth the price of admission. "The rest, for one reason or another, I haven't liked at all," he says.

Neither have the critics. Besides brutal reviews of the performances on stage, hardly a month seems to go by without a minor furor about what's going on behind the scenes: yet another top official resigning in protest over Berge's managerial style; press reports that Chung's contract may be as outrageously generous as Barenboim's; postponements of scheduled operas.

Still, the audiences have come in record numbers, drawn in part by ticket prices as low as $8, and, no doubt, as Berge remarks, by the polemics unleashed by his presidency. "People don't understand that I need time to build up a repertory," he says. "I'd like to stay at least another three years, because it will take that long for me to be able to truly say what I did right and what I did wrong."

At first glance, Berge's chances of staying on seem flimsy. He himself is quick to concede that the Socialists will probably lose the parliamentary elections next March and that President Mitterrand--his powers again sharply curtailed--will be forced to preside over a conservative government. Since the presidency of the opera is a political plum, one might expect Berge to be replaced.

But Berge's friends say he is already negotiating with key conservative politicians in an attempt to keep his post. Chief among them is former Culture Minister Leotard, a rising star in the moderate right who is almost certain to have a strong voice in any future conservative cabinet.

Some months ago, when Leotard became embroiled in a real estate scandal, Berge is said to have personally interceded with Mitterrand on his behalf. And, perhaps by coincidence, the case against the former culture minister has made no headway in the courts and has disappeared from the news.

"It's absolutely true that our relations are better today," says Leotard about Berge. "I am not about to predict whether or not Monsieur Berge will remain in his post. But we should try to overcome the cleavages in French politics and society. If someone is doing a good job, he should not be replaced just because he is linked to the political opposition."

THE POLITICAL CALENDAR may be playing as much a role in Berge's business calculations as it has in his cultural schemes. Elf Sanofi, the new owner of Saint Laurent, is a subsidiary of the huge state-owned petrochemical conglomerate, Elf Aquitaine. Berge may have been eager to cut the deal while the Socialists were still in power. Had he waited until the March elections, he ran the risk that a new conservative government might reject the agreement or demand that Elf Sanofi pay less for Saint Laurent.

Even after the sale to Elf Sanofi, the fashion business will require more of Berge's attention. Perhaps anticipating the day Yves Saint Laurent retires, Berge has tried to promote new talent. His efforts have focused on his young protege and close friend, Robert Merloz, whose dress designs have not been treated kindly by the press. Berge was especially livid over an article by the International Herald Tribune's fashion writer, Suzy Menkes, who quoted disparaging remarks about Merloz by Saint Laurent's mother, Lucienne. As he has done before with other offending journalists, Berge ordered that Menkes never again be invited to cover collections at the House of Saint Laurent. And, as usual, he soon relented.

Asked about the incident, Menkes concedes that "it would have been better for Merloz, as with other young designers, to have had a gentler start rather than being thrown to the critical lions." But, she notes, like other reporters, she was struck by the parallels between Berge's passionate commitment to the young Saint Laurent three decades ago and his current enthusiasm for Merloz. "I suppose we in the press thought the fact that Berge was launching Merloz in such a public way was a statement that we had to take very seriously," says Menkes.

Lately, Berge has also been trying to figure out novel ways to squeeze more profits from his partner's prestigious name. One option might be the new Yves Saint Laurent Institut de Beaute et Boutique d'Accessoires on the Faubourg Saint-Honore. A facial here can set you back $150. Tack on a makeup session, manicure, pedicure and massage, and the price jumps into four digits. If Berge is right, other major cities on both sides of the Atlantic may soon have YSL Instituts with adjoining boutiques.

For the opening of the Institut last December, Berge wheeled out some heavy artillery. Doyennes of Paris society were there. So was Bernard-Henri Levy. But the dozens of press photographers unleashed their longest and brightest barrage when Catherine Deneuve, who will advertise a new line of beauty products for YSL, made her regal entrance.

At 49, the actress has never been more beautiful. As the cameras flashed and the triggermen yelled " Ici , Catherine, ici !" she displayed the uncanny talent of suggesting a smile without actually wrinkling her face.

It turned out that the elusive Yves Saint Laurent was also at the Institut's opening, emerging from the privacy of a second-floor room to greet Deneuve and share in the photo opportunities. He moved stiffly and smiled wordlessly. Berge briskly called an end to the camera work when Saint Laurent began to wilt just 10 minutes later. And he shielded the couturier from fashion journalists' questions.

It was a familiar scene, echoing other press gatherings, especially Saint Laurent's anniversary gala a year ago, when he celebrated 30 years of designing under his own label. Staged at the Bastille Opera, it began with a series of arias. As the orchestra played Berlioz, models sallied forth wearing more than 100 memorable Saint Laurent outfits.

Then, in a much slower gait, Saint Laurent himself moved to center stage, and, with Berge and Deneuve steadying him, he delivered a brief, weepy speech on love and fashion and art. It was left to Berge to bring the retrospective to a close with profuse thanks to the wildly applauding audience.

Media praise was almost unanimous. It may well have been the best evening yet at the Bastille Opera.

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