Every day, I watch people reading. They read in parks, on trains, in queues. They crack a book with their coffee in a café or catch up on reading as they smoke in the street. Recently, I watched a pair of little kids navigate the metro’s stairs and tunnels without lifting eyeballs from their comics.

In France reading really matters. At last weekend’s Paris Book Fair, the state announced its annual figures. They were staggering. During 2017, fully 89% of French residents over the age of 15 had read a book – at least one. (Not counted: e-books, reading done for a job or anything read to children).

Forty percent of the population got through between five and nineteen books last year. A quarter of the population gobbled up more than twenty.

This might explain the bookstores in my neighborhood. If I try to count, I stop around twenty-five. After that, you just lose track.

Within a ten-minute walk there are: general bookstores (one that is open till midnight every night), art bookstores, antiquarian bookstores, stores for graphic novels, stores selling manga, foreign-language bookstores, children’s bookstores, medical bookstores, one store of books on heraldry, sci-fi specialists, one devoted just to heraldry and an academic bookstore spread over five locations.

There are stores run by publishers, stores devoted to artists’ books, numerous rare booksellers and two stores filled with publications on photography. Not to mention three stores that stock books in English and secondhand stores of every possible type.

The short version is the French regard reading as sacred. Books are legally classified alongside  bread, water and electricity. All of the, are – legally – life’s “essential commodities”. But you don’t need to know the law. You can just look around.

• This year’s Salon du Livre attracted 162,000 visitors – which was 10,000 more than the year before. Everyone complained about the lack of heating but they went.

• Amazon may dominate the Anglophone world. But, in France, they struggle.  Partly because under 20% of new books sell online; readers prefer to buy them in a physical bookstore.

• French bookstores have their own union, their own annual festival, their own government supports – and a range of publications. French radio follows writing old and new while reading provides TV with primetime shows.


With Hubert de Givenchy, photographed by Nat Farbman in 1952 © all rights reserved

When Hubert de Givenchy died, every obituary mentioned Jackie O and Audrey Hepburn. But neither helped create his couture. Givenchy’s real muse was Simone Micheline Bodin, known to everyone in Paris as Bettina.

Bettina also died in March but two years ago. Givenchy made it to 90; she was 89.

In Givenchy, photographed by Nat Farbman in 1952 © all rights reserved

What a pair of lives they led! Simone was dubbed “Bettina” by her own Svengali, the flamboyant Paris designer Jacques Fath. Under him, she became the face of French fashion.

She came by it honestly. Bettina had been raised by a single mother in Normandy. There, in winter, she and a sister cycled to school “across frozen cabbages”. During World War II, she was sent to stay with her grandmother for safety. Yet Bettina saw her die in a bombing.

The moment the Liberation arrived, she headed for Paris – wanting to design rather than wear dresses. She was 18 years old and stood 5′ 5″: a redhead covered in freckles.

In Jacques Fath, photographed by Willy Maywald, 1950 © all rights reservedWW

Almost within weeks, Bettina conquered Paris. Soon she was the only model French Vogue would use on its cover. From Irving Penn to Henri Cartier-Bresson, everyone shot her. As a mannequin, however, she worked exclusively for Fath.

Until, that is, his former assistant Hubert de Givenchy made her an offer. De Givenchy was starting his own maison and he “wanted her at my side”.

In the Place Vendome, photographed by Jean-Philippe Charbonnier in 1953 © all rights reserved

With Fath’s approval, Bettina went. She became Givenchy’s model and inspiration; his first collection was named after her. But his favourite model was also running the whole couture house. As its directrice, Bettina handled personnel, press relations and many decisions.

Everywhere Givenchy went, she went too. When the pair were in Manhattan, Edward R Murrow tried to poach her. When they went to Hollywood, a writer left his wife to woo her. But although she was surrounded and befriended by stars, Bettina turned down every film offer.

Bettina in Givenchy in 1952, photographed by Nat Farbman © all rights reserved

“She personified youthful chic,” said Givenchy when she died. “Her style was personal, simple… When she came to work, she looked exquisite – but in flat riding shoes, a flannel skirt and cardigan; a shirt with little buttons at the collar. She wore a small handkerchief at her neck and her hair was cropped.”

Over two years of non-stop work and travel, he noted, “She never spoke badly of anyone.”

At Givenchy, photographed by Nat Farbman © all rights reserved

Yet Bettina was hardly a fashion victim. If flowers were named after her, so was the first computer at Shell’s French headquarters.

The model became an author who wrote poems and music. She left her first husband – a photographer – for a publisher. Bettina’s circle included William Faulkner, Jean Genet, and poet Jacques Prévert.

In Dior photographed by George Dambier for Elle, 1953 © all rights reserved

After a dozen years at the top, she left fashion for love. Bettina “retired” for Prince Aly Khan, a former playboy turned UN ambassador.

Their time together lasted just five years. In 1960, both were involved in a tragic car crash. Khan was killed outright. Bettina was barely injured but lost the child they were expecting. The prince would remain her one great amour.

Photographed by Georges Dambier for Elle in 1953 © all rights reserve

She returned to the catwalk only once – in 1967, at the demand of Coco Chanel. But Bettina did go on to manage other houses, including that of Emanuel Ungaro. Until the day she died, Bettina also remained stylish. In addition to Givenchy, she wore Balenciaga, Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent and Azzedine Alaia.

As it bid Givenchy adieu, Paris thought back to that house Bettina built.

• Photos are from the 2014 exposition Bettina”at the Fondation Azzedine Alaia. On show at the Fondation until 10 June is a tribute to the Azzedine Alaia himself.

Bettina and Givenchy at work, photographed by Nat Farbman, 1952 © all rights reserved


Think old portraits are dull? Surprise! Smaller can be better. Currently stashed downstairs at the Fondation Custodia is a truly magnificent show of miniatures. Here, almost every face you see is fascinating. Absolutely no matter the country or century: all of them are characters who leap right out at you.

Some were celebrities. Madame de Pompadour, for instance (at the bottom, looking deceptively docile). Or Caspar David Friedrich – the painter who made landscapes thrilling (below).

But famous or not, their liveliness is startling. Perhaps the most riveting “likeness” is the single eye of one anonymous woman. If it’s not… the guy looking up from his lute. Or the fat and happy couple. Or the elegant man-about-town.

So alive, so alert and – now – so mysterious.

Portraits in Miniature runs until 29 April 2018 at Fondation Custodia