December 31, 2013

The girl from Java - Toto Koopman

When I first read a synopsis of the book entitled The Many Lives of Miss K: Toto Koopman – Model, Muse, Spy I was most intrigued as stories about women who defy what society expects and live according to their own rules always fascinate me, and I was surprised that I had never heard of Miss K. before.

Born in 1908 and raised in what used to be the Dutch East Indies she bust loose into European cafe society in the 1920s. As the first bi-racial model she was unique. Unlike her contemporary, Merle Oberon, who was reputed to force her Indian mother to play the part of her maid so that her racial origins would be kept hidden, Toto never let other people’s prejudices trouble her unduly. She became a cover girl for Vogue and lived the high life in Paris and later in London. She dabbled in movies and politics and embarked on a string of love affairs with people of both sexes from Tallulah Bankhead to Lord Beaverbrook – even two-timing him with his own son, Max Aitken.

Toto’s war experiences are the best and most interesting part of this book, her work with the resistance, her arrest by the Germans and how she managed to deal with and eventually survive the horrors of Ravensbruck concentration camp, although there is a frustrating vagueness about it all. The author himself admits that he had to rely on what other people told him rather than Toto’s experiences in her own words, and you are left with questions and contradictions.

After the war, Toto took up with art dealer Erica Brausen (best known for founding the Hanover Gallery and her discovery of Francis Bacon) and continued to experiment with life. She became an archaeologist for a while, then established a home for Erica and herself on the island of Panarea where it became an escape nest for the multitude of artistic, gay, avant-garde, and other assorted beautiful people who flocked and fluttered about the couple.

The latter half of the book is a disappointment. It is an endless drip of “names” and it seems Toto’s behaviour didn’t change with the years. I kept hoping after what she had experienced during the war, she would either find some kind of spirituality or use her contacts and influence to do something generous for others, but it never happened. She liked to shock, but never revealed her true nature to anyone, and seemed all take and not much give.

Erica rescued Toto when she would have been suffering shock and trauma after Ravensbruck, yet seems to have been rewarded with little in return. Toto continued to flaunt herself, have affairs with men and women and spend Erica’s money that leaves the sad impression she remained shallow to the end. It’s no wonder she was forgotten. My sympathy lies with Erica who was obviously driven crazy by the relationship and perhaps another author will give us her side of the story some day.

A detailed review of the book can be read here.

3 stars
The cover to the Dutch edition gives a hint as to character

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