Guest post from Sierra Holt:
Early in the semester I bought The Many Lives of Miss K. by Jean-Noel Liaut, a biography about Toto Koopman. This is the first book written about Toto, who is mostly known as one of the first women of color to work in high fashion. The life of Toto Koopman challenges many feminine ideals that were placed on women during the early to mid-twentieth century. She lived a life that was both glamorous and utterly devastating; she ignored her harshest critics and lived her life on her own terms.
Born to a Dutch father and Indonesian-Chinese mother in 1908, Toto grew up on the small island of Java. After receiving a formal education throughout Europe she moved to Paris. This led to her career in modeling. Due to her unique looks and slender frame, she found work with fashion houses like Chanel and Vogue magazine. Toto’s image is still remembered today in a series of photos shot by iconic photographer George Hoyningen-Huené that are still seen in advertisements for American Vogue. Toto’s modeling career allowed her to meet celebrities and artists, some of which became her lovers. Tallulah Bankhead, Lord Beaverbrook, and his son Max Aitken were famously her lovers. During a time of when homosexuality was both a jailable offense and taboo, Toto was unapologetic. Neither her mixed heritage, career, or her sexuality hindered her confidence.
During World War Two Toto’s glamorous life changed. In Italy, Toto was arrested by Mussolini’s Blackshirts. She was under arrest for her involvement as an intelligence agent for both the Italian and British Resistance. After being sent to various prisons, Toto was transferred to the Ravensbruck concentration camp in Germany.
Toto’s life in the camp was terrible. For seven months, Toto tried everything to survive. She lied to doctors, saying that she was a nurse, which gave her a higher chance of surviving. She saw unworldly things and was unfortunately experimented on by the Nazi doctors. In April 1945 Toto was released and sent to Sweden to recover.
Toto lived a much quieter life after the War but it was not without accomplishment. In 1946 Toto met Erica Brausen, an art dealer and owner of the famous Hanover Gallery. After meeting, Toto and Erica became life partners. Together they are credited with starting the career of artist Francis Bacon who became one of the most well-known contemporary artists in the twentieth century. Outside of the gallery, Toto studied and worked as an archaeologist. Toto spoke multiple languages and worked at numerous dig sites. Toto continued her later life working and traveling with Erica. Although no longer the glamorous Vogue model, Toto was very well-respected in both the art and societal world. In 1991 Toto passed away. For a woman who experienced so many things in her life, Toto lived well into age.
As Liaut’s title suggests, Toto did have many lives. She never hid her identity, and luckily, it allowed her to succeed. As a woman, Toto did not allow social constraints to rule her life. She loved who she loved and went after her dreams. Even today, Toto’s life can be seen as inspirational. No matter the obstacle, owning who you is always best.
The Many Lives of Miss K. by Jean-Noel Liaut
Photos by George Hoyningen-Huené via http://www.condenaststore.com