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Recalling Charles James: Elizabeth Strong-Cuevas

Elizabeth Strong-Cuevas was Charles James's close friend and one of his loyal supporters in the 1970s, his final years. She had also known James when she was a young girl in the early 1940s. Strong-Cuevas shares stories of their friendship and speaks about his personality quirks and vast interests.

Ms. Strong-Cuevas is a sculptor.

This interview is one of seven comprising Recalling Charles James, an oral history of the legendary couturier in which James's former clients, assistants, muses, and friends share their stories with fashion journalist and editor Alina Cho. Produced in conjunction with the exhibition Charles James: Beyond Fashion, on view from May 8 through August 10, 2014.

Alina Cho: Elizabeth Strong-Cuevas became close friends with Charles James in the 1970s, during his final years, and was among the last of his loyal supporters.

Elizabeth Strong-Cuevas: It's really towards the end of his life that he called me, I guess, and we got on. We had dinner many times. We went to that place downtown, that bar, Cedar Bar or something. We—I walked around with him a tremendous lot.

Alina Cho: And what were her deepest impressions of James?

Elizabeth Strong-Cuevas: First of all, he was very funny. He was brilliant, I guess. He was passionate, he was jealous, and he adopted, probably, somebody like Millicent Rogers, and I think then he sort of adopted me, as sort of friend and, imagine, you know, more than that, which of course it isn't, slightly a patron or somebody who helped him occasionally.

He was very literary. He made me read a whole lot of things that I would have never known without him. He made me read a fascinating book by Eça de Queirós called The Relic, which is a Portuguese book; and he had funny stories about Mary Baker Eddy. But anyway, we talked and talked and talked and had a good time. And he liked to gossip, you know, he liked stories. And he liked to go back to the 1800s. So I remember saying one day, "What do you think, Charlie, is the average age of the people we've been talking about?" And it turned out to be 110, you see, because we went back to the 1850s, sixties, whatever he could remember.

Alina Cho: Although it was only later in life that Strong-Cuevas connected with James, they first met when she was just a teenager. She recalls one night when she witnessed a stunning display of his designs.

Elizabeth Strong-Cuevas: But there was a big party, charity of some kind. And maybe it was at the Plaza Hotel. Anyway, what I remember is there was a stage. And the entertainment of the evening—he also, as you know, dressed Gypsy Rose Lee—so she was there that night. And this is one of the most spectacular things I've ever seen, because the entertainment was, Gypsy Rose Lee came on the stage—tall, statuesque, elegant—dressed completely to the neck, with a beautiful evening dress, all black. And then four other women, in descending size, came in behind her. And in her very stately way, she threw off a top jacket, and it went, perhaps, to the furthest woman, who was tiny, who put it on. It became a cocktail dress, and so on, she flung. She ended up with a décolleté evening dress, magnificent, and the other four were dressed, as well. That is an amazing performance. She was wearing every bit of Charles James. And he had designed a spectacle where she would fling off one piece after another, which became another dress. That was a beauty.

Alina Cho: A well-known sculptor herself, Strong-Cuevas appreciated how James played with shape and structure in his garments.

Elizabeth Strong-Cuevas: Well, he was basically a sculptor, probably. You see what I mean? It's as if he were confined to this form of creation, by what—the gods, whatever. But basically, he was an extraordinary artist so he had studied everything, and if you make things with S curves on bias that fit the body perfectly, that's a marvel.

Alina Cho: She was neither a client nor a muse, but did serve occasionally as a de facto fit model, sometimes at the most inopportune moments.

Elizabeth Strong-Cuevas: He came out to the country again once. And Lee Krasner was dressed by Charles James when she went to Paris to represent her husband at his death or whatever. Therefore, she knew him, naturally. And she was a funny lady. So I remember her coming to dinner. And Charles was there and wanted to show off. We were in the middle of summer. And he had a green bra, and nothing was made for me, but he insisted on showing this off. I was cooking dinner. And he was pinning, in the kitchen, a green bra, a green satin bra, on me, made for somebody like Gina Lollobrigida. I mean, enormous. And he was clumsy with his fingers. Whenever he pinned anything, it was clumsy. So I would go, "Ouch, Charlie, be careful!" And there he was, trying. So Lee Krasner said to me later, "I dined out on that for one year. Because there you were, holding up the plate of fish or whatever, he's following, trying to pin and…"

Alina Cho: What did she think at the time?

Elizabeth Strong-Cuevas: I'm used to him! Nothing! That's Charlie James.

Alina Cho: Charlie James had all the quirks one would expect an artist to have. In many ways, he was a mad genius.

Elizabeth Strong-Cuevas: One of the things I admire Charles most for is his absolute aesthetic integrity. But, of course, it's too absolute. It doesn't work in the business world. But, of course, these are the people that I personally like and admire, the absolute ones.

Alina Cho: But talent would only go so far. James listened to no one, not clients, not retailers. He would not take advice and his business ultimately failed.

Elizabeth Strong-Cuevas: My position with him was a friend. And towards the end of his life, when he was down and out and nobody was lifting a finger—even though I went around and asked, nobody did—at that point, I helped a bit. And the fantastic thing is that, to my surprise, I had these few clothes, that are now worth something. You see, he returned what I did threefold.

Alina Cho: Strong-Cuevas joins the chorus of others who say James would have been thrilled by the attention he's getting today.

Elizabeth Strong-Cuevas: Well, he'd be pleased, poor thing. It's sad that people have to die before they are really, you know, it's—that is sad. He knew who he was. A passionate artist. Aesthetically true.

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