In 1947, Paris was still struggling after World War II, and the city was starved for beauty. And a 41-year-old designer named Christian Dior provided it, with his first fashion collection.
As Dior’s elegant models strolled through his salon in extravagantly voluminous skirts and impossibly wasp-waisted jackets, they left a heady scent of rose and jasmine in their wake.
That scent was the designer’s debut perfume, Miss Dior — named after his little sister, Catherine, sitting in the audience that day. Yet the real-life Miss Dior was no fashionista. A discreet, independent woman, she was happier mucking about in her garden in casual pants and button-downs than attending fashion shows in glamorous gowns.
But a new book, “Miss Dior: A Story of Courage and Couture” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), out Nov. 9, reveals that the mysterious Catherine had quite a sensational life of her own. A member of the Resistance during World War II, Catherine was arrested by the Nazis, tortured and shipped off to various concentration camps before her liberation by Soviet soldiers. When she finally made it back to Paris — nearly a year after her capture — the 27-year-old was so emaciated that her brother didn’t even recognize her.
Even more remarkable: Catherine ended up rebuilding her life. She moved in with her married lover, started a cut-flower business and cultivated blooms for her brother’s perfumes until she died in 2008, at the age of 90. The Croix de Guerre she received for her bravery during the war praised her “great valour and admirable spirit.”
“She didn’t want to be pitied,” one of her friends told author Justine Picardie. “She was the captain of her own soul.”
Ginette Marie Catherine Dior was born in 1917, the youngest of five children of a prosperous Normandy family. Yet by the time Catherine was a teen, their father Maurice, a fertilizer manufacturer who had made some bad real-estate investments, had fallen on hard times. A few months after the death of her mother from sepsis, an 18-year-old Catherine moved with Maurice and her former governess, Marthe, to a rundown farmhouse in a remote region of Provence until her older brother, Christian — who had started selling fashion illustrations — sent for her to come live with him in his Paris apartment.
Catherine was 12 years younger than Christian, but the two were kindred spirits. Christian used his connections to get his little sister a job selling gloves at a fashionable store, and in their free time Catherine served as a model for his first sewing projects.
“My brother loved designing costumes,” Catherine later told Dior biographer Marie-France Pochna, about these early years in Paris. “I remember a Neptune costume he made for me, with a raffia skirt covered with shells, and another skirt painted with a Scottish motif.”
After the war broke out, Catherine went back to her father’s place in Provence, which at the time was safer than Paris, and she made a meager living selling vegetables she grew in their garden in nearby Cannes. That’s where, in 1941, she met Hervé des Charbonneries while shopping for a radio so she could listen to banned broadcasts from the exiled General de Galle on the BBC.
It was love at first sight, or as the French called it, “un coup de foudre,” a stroke of lightning.
Hervé was a member of the F2 Resistance Network, one of the largest resistance groups in Europe, and he soon enlisted Catherine to join their cause.
She biked up and down the coast of Southern France gathering and delivering intelligence on the movements of German troops to other F2 agents. She drew maps with details of German infrastructure and landmines and typed up reports to send to British operatives. Though Hervé was married with three children, the two began an affair: Catherine even worked with his mother and his wife, Lucie, in the Resistance. (According to Picardie, after Hervé met Catherine, “his separation from Lucie was ‘en bonne entente,’ in other words: cordial,” though the Catholic couple never officially divorced.)
In 1944, Catherine moved back to Paris and continued her Resistance activities there. She stayed with her brother and hid her friends in his attic — making Dior’s fashionable acquaintances nervous. The musician Henri Sauguet “was perturbed” to see Catherine and other members of the Resistance going in and out of Dior’s apartment, Picardie writes. “He subsequently admitted in his memoir that he was beset with anxiety as to how he might explain this to the Gestapo, if they were ever to question him.”
In Paris, Catherine helped provide intelligence for the planned Allied invasion of France, or D-Day. But then, on the afternoon of July 6, 1944, a group of four men approached her on the street, took her bicycle and handbag and drove her blindfolded to Rue de la Pompe, where French police working with the Nazis interrogated her, punched her, kicked her and slapped her. When she wouldn’t talk, they undressed her, bound her hands, and repeatedly plunged her into icy water. At one point she came close to drowning.
“I lied to them as much as I could,” Catherine later told war crimes investigators.
The authorities eventually shipped her off to the notorious women’s concentration camp Ravensbruck — just 10 days before the liberation of Paris.
Catherine was later transferred to three labor camps, where prisoners worked 12-plus-hour shifts dipping shell cases into trays of acid or putting together parts of aircraft engines. (Catherine and her compatriots would deliberately make mistakes so the machinery would break down.) As the Allies got close, the prisoners were sent on a grueling death march — and anyone who fell behind or tried to escape was beaten or shot. Catherine walked in bloodied wooden shoes for a week before Soviet troops liberated her in Dresden on April 21.
Catherine’s family and friends had not heard a word about her since August of 1944, and many thought she had probably died, particularly after reports of the camps began appearing in early 1945.
“We thought she would never come back,” recalled Hervé’s son. “The family heard nothing from her for nine months.”
Catherine Dior finally arrived in Paris that May, along with hundreds of other French women freed from the camps, but when Dior went to meet her at the train station, he walked right by her. His 27-year-old sister looked like an emaciated old woman.
Eventually Dior found his sister and took her to his apartment, “where he had lovingly prepared a celebratory dinner for her, but she was too sick to eat it.”
She did not stay in Paris long, and by the summer she was back in Provence, recovering with the help of Marthe and Hervé, who rushed to Maurice Dior’s farmhouse as soon as he heard of her arrival.
He later told his son that Catherine was “unrecognizable” when he first saw her, and wept when speaking of their reunion. Yet, by July, Catherine wrote in a letter that she was “benefiting from the sun and the calm of this beautiful region” where she and Hervé spent their time gardening and talking politics.
The two never married or had children — the torture she endured during the war left her barren, according to her godson — but he never left her side again.
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Catherine rarely spoke about her time in Germany and the horrors she endured there. (Her godson told Picardie that Catherine revealed one thing about Ravensbruck: “that she would never fall to the ground to pick up a piece of food that an SS guard had thrown there. She said that if you did that, then your life was over.”) She suffered from insomnia, nightmares, memory loss, anxiety, depression and PTSD. “She could not bear to hear German voices, and even the sight of cars bearing German number plates on the roads in France would make her angry and upset,” Picardie writes.
Still, Catherine did not let her war experience break her. In the fall of 1945, she got a license to sell cut flowers at the Paris markets, hawking blooms that she and Hervé grew back in Provence. In 1946, as he was getting ready to launch his own fashion label, Dior began developing a perfume that “smelled of love.” He and a friend were discussing a name for it when Catherine walked into the room: “That’s it: Miss Dior!” his friend exclaimed. It was perfect: a perfume that smelled of love dedicated to the person he loved most in the world.
Catherine went on to inspire several more of her brother’s creations, including the iconic “Miss Dior” gown, a strapless dress embroidered with more than 1,000 silk flowers. When Dior died of a heart attack in 1957, at the age of 52, Catherine gave up her cut flower business in Paris and moved permanently to the country with Hervé, where the two of them spent the rest of their lives cultivating roses and jasmines for Miss Dior perfume.
Hervé died in 1989, but Catherine continued to work in her garden every day until her own passing.
Near the end of her life, a young veteran who saw her speak at a memorial for members of the Resistance approached her and asked for advice.
“Aime la vie,” she told him: Love life.