Yves Was No Saint

By Walter Armstrong 05/12/11

A new French film reveals the vast art and addictions of Yves Saint Laurent.

True to His Tagline: "Devoted to Life, Addicted to Love" artobserved.com

“When you have a relationship with an alcoholic, a drug user, you are forced to have very difficult relations. What can we do? Nothing. Just to accept the fact. To try to help, yes, which I did, with not many successes. But I did it.” This age-old complaint is familiar to anyone who has loved an addict, but coming from Pierre Bergé—described by the London Times as the “friend, former lover, Pygmalion, heir, and business partner," of the late Yves Saint Laurent, it makes news. In today’s New York Times, Bergé broke his silence, for the first time since YSL’s death from brain cancer in 2008, about the legendary designer’s lifeling addictions and legendary breakdowns—and their supposed cause, manic-depression.

The occasion of Bergé’s stunning confession is the promotion of a new documentary, L’Amour Fou, or Crazy Love, about the 2009 Christie’s auction—dubbed “the sale of the century”—of the 700 pieces of world-class art that the two lovers collected during their 50-year relationship. The film was directed by Pierre Thoretton, the former son-in-law of French film great Catherine Deneuve, who also served as YSL’s trusted arm candy down the decades. Made with Bergé’s participation, Crazy Love dwells predictably more on the art than on the addictions—more on the Old Master drawings, Renaissance bronzes, paintings, sculptures, and antiques that he auctioned off in one fell swoop for $484 million than on the opium, cocaine, heroin, hashish, Valium, whiskey and Coca-Cola that Saint Laurent consumed in massive quantities decade after decade

His wild ways were never exactly a secret, however. If anything, the outsized appetites of the thin, pale designer were, during the ‘60s and ‘70s, fuel for the dazzling YSL brand—cannily managed by Bergé—along with his breakthrough fashions, such as the first pants suit made for women, the perfume called Opium, and the outrageous Paris shows, which featured the first black models on any major runway. But the drug abuse took its inevitable toll, and Saint Laurent’s fall was as dizzying as his rise had been, when at age 21, Christian Dior plucked him from obscurity to take over the House of Dior. In his last decades, the ouptut of this onetime emblem of haute couture glamour was widely derided, leaving Bergé, who had long served as YSL’s gatekeeper, to become the caretaker of both the ailing man and his failing reputation.

In 2009, Tom Ford who did time as creative director for the YSL brand, told the Advocate that Saint Laurent and Bergé “were so difficult and so evil.” Last year, a dishy biography, Saint Laurent: Mauvais Garcons (Bad Boy), hit stores at the same moment that “Yves,” an opulent retrospective of YSL designs, opened in Paris. The dust-up was a dirty one. Although Bergé denounced the tell-all, he didn’t deny the accuracy of its unsparing documentation. In defending his dead lover, Bergé revealed that the Algerian-born designer had had a breakdown after being conscripted into the French army during the Algerian War. He said that Saint Laurent received electroshock at a military hospital and blamed his later addictions on the sedatives he was forced to take there.

Crazy Love, which opens in New York on Friday, paints a decidedly more positive picture of the famously gay couple, focusing on Bergé’s decision to rid himself of their entire vast art collection as the dramatic gesture of broken heart. "He was a manic-depressive, absolutely,” Bergé said. “Even with a wonderful collection, Yves was a very unhappy guy. More than unhappy. Really. I just tried to help him from time to time. I never complained. Never. It’s an illness, nothing else. It is just an illness.” 

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Walter Armstrong is the Medical Editor at  Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness and the former deputy editor of The Fix. You can find him on Linkedin.