Who exactly was Catherine Dior? It’s a question that plagued me throughout the research for The Paris Secret and eventually became a quest that would take me across the globe – from Melbourne, to Paris and finally the Dior family home in Normandy.
I first read about Catherine Dior in Anne Sebba’s book Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s. My interest my was immediately piqued – how was it that I knew so much about the famous couturier, Christian Dior, and so little about his younger sister, Catherine? At that point, I knew her only as the inspiration the house’s foundation fragrance, Miss Dior, and had no idea of her incredible act of service in the French resistance during WWII – an act that would in fact lead to her capture in 1944 by the Nazis and deportation to the infamous women’s slave labour camp at Ravensbruck.
Once I had these nuggets of information, I knew I had to write about this incredible woman. I also needed to know much, much more about her. The first stop in my research journey was the National Gallery of Victoria (Melbourne) which held a fantastic Dior retrospective in 2017. While the exhibition provided wonderful material for establishing the connection between Australia and the famous couture house, it offered little in the way of information about Catherine.
Undeterred, I headed overseas, this time to Paris and The Musée des Arts Décoratifs for another wonderful Dior exhibition – Couturier du rêve (Couturier of Dreams) – again, a fabulous display of Dior gowns but almost nothing about the heroic Catherine, apart from a letter from Christian to his father confirming Catherine’s release from the Nazis.
From Paris, I travelled to the Dior family home in Granville, Normandy. Touring the rooms of the gorgeous pink home, Villa Les Rhumbs, I had small breakthroughs in terms of finding photographs of a young, Catherine, plus an account of her early life.
While these were important insights into the young Catherine, so many questions remained – what had she experienced at Ravensbruck and how exactly had she managed escaped the grasp of the Nazis?
Christian’s Dior autobiography, Dior by Dior, provided some assistance in confirming the factual details of Catherine’s work for F2, the British supported Resistance organisation that primarily worked out of southern France and occasionally used Christian’s Paris apartment as a meeting point.
Catherine had been recruited into the service by her lover Herve Papillaut and was eventually awarded the Croix de guerre and the Legion d’honneur by the French, and the King’s Media for Courage in the Cause of Freedom by the British. Neither Catherine nor Christian ever spoke at length about her war-time experiences. She was arrested by the Nazis in July 1944 and by the time Christian was reunited with his sister in April 1945 she was barely alive – terribly emaciated and suffering from dysentery and pneumonia.
With these bare details, I resorted to my imagination to fill in the gaps and The Paris Secret is the result of these artistic wanderings. Later this year, Justine Picardie – editor in chief of Harper’s Bazaar, UK – will release a new biography titled Miss Dior and has already published an insightful article in March 2019 in which she outlines the details of Catherine’s escape from the Nazis while on a death march from Markkleeberg in April 1945. I cannot wait to read the book.
In my opinion, this renewed interest in the lesser known Dior is long overdue. This is a woman who was prepared to sacrifice her life in the cause of freedom. While Catherine was always content to live in the shadow of her older brother, my hope is that The Paris Secret shines a gentle light on this brave and resilient woman.