As the personal collection of 1970s It-couple Betty and François Catroux is put up for sale, we look back at the stylish lives of a woman who reluctantly inspired Yves Saint Laurent’s gender-fluid designs and her interior designer husband
“I never cared about it or understood this fascination with me.” So said Betty Catroux, model, muse, icon, in response to the near-obsession she generated among designers, most particularly Yves Saint Laurent — whose inspiration she was for decades (incidentally, she rejected the word ‘muse’ totally. “I hate the word,” she once said) — but also Tom Ford, who dedicated his first Saint Laurent Rive Gauche collection to her; He di Slimane, who cited Betty when designing menswear; and Anthony Vaccarello, the current creative director of Saint Laurent.
Photographers including Helmut Newton and Irving Penn have repeatedly tried to capture her angular, androgynous beauty on film, and news that the collection belonging to Betty and her husband François, from their Riviera apartment, is to be sold at auction by Sotheby’s on February 24 has excited a whole lot of fuss.
Now in her late 70s, Betty — despite once saying “the French are pretentious and conceited and have the worst character in the world” — has lived most of her life in France, specifically Paris, which she described as “the perfect city for a person who does nothing”. Her mother, Carmen Saint, was married to a Brazilian businessman. Born in Brazil, Betty was Carmen’s only child.
When she was four, her mother divorced, and they moved to Paris. There, Betty was frequently taken to tea at the Ritz by an American friend of her mother’s, a clever and charming diplomat called Elim O’Shaughnessy. It was the resemblance between them — both tall, thin, blond — that finally tipped Betty off and eventually, “I guessed, at 12, that I was, what is the word in English? … No, not bastard. Not that terrible word. I was his illegitimate daughter.”
A few years later, Betty was introduced to Coco Chanel by a friend of Carmen’s and began modelling for her. “Chanel only took on girls who had personality,” she later said. “And they were all beauties: Paule Rizzo, Marie-Hélène Arnaud — they were ravishing girls. Men went crazy; they waited for us in the street outside the door on the Rue Cambon. That was a time when women were fascinating.”
However, dance — particularly jazz — rather than modelling was Betty’s true passion. She later said she found being a model humiliating. After a couple of years with Chanel, she stopped. Instead, she spent her time in nightclubs, in Paris and the Riviera, drinking and taking drugs. “I was a bad girl in the sense of doing everything that was forbidden — drinking and, well, you know the rest of the story…”
It was in a nightclub — Chez Régine on the Boulevard Montparnasse — in 1967 that she met François Catroux, the man who would become her husband. François, who had the air of “a Riviera playboy”, according to one friend, was the grandson of a French general who served with de Gaulle during World War I and joined the Free French with him in World War II.
As a boy, François went to the same Catholic boarding school as Yves Saint Laurent, who later became his close friend. François moved to New York, where he worked first as a journalist for Elle magazine, then turned to interior design. Largely self-taught, he had natural flair and quickly became “interior designer to the uber-rich” according to Vanity Fair, with clients among Europe’s royalty, aristocrats and the super-rich, including fashion maven Diane von Furstenberg, for whom he designed houses in LA and Connecticut, and the interior of her yacht.
His style was a bold mix of old and new — Plexiglas and steel alongside 17th-century tapestries, and paintings by Old Masters juxtaposed with modern designs, often of his own invention.
Together, he and Betty were the golden couple of the 1970s, hanging out with artists such as Andy Warhol and Salvador Dalí, Hollywood celebs such as Audrey Hepburn and Ava Gardner, as well as French icons Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin. Birkin described him as “an immensely talented man with a heart of gold!”
Betty has always insisted she is lazy — “A big project of mine is never to do any work,” she said, and later, “I’m a kept woman since years, and the laziest person you could ever imagine.” Of their busy lifestyle, she always insisted, “It’s all my husband. My biggest ambition in life has always been not to lift a finger.” However, when she met the other great love of her life, Yves Saint Laurent (also in Chez Régine, incidentally), she became involved in a relationship that was highly demanding.
For Saint Laurent — at the time, the most exciting designer in France, credited with single-handedly raising couture from the ashes and launching the ready-to-wear era with clothes that were elegant, glamorous, but also comfortable — Betty was the perfect expression of his vision. Her effortless, unfussy, angular elegance and androgynous style were so exactly like his own, that “spiritually twinned”, as one friend described the relationship, seems accurate. Her own description was that she was Saint Laurent’s “bipolar double”.
The connection was part of something fundamental that Betty clearly held dear — the idea of what we now call non-binary identity. “In my opinion, the ideal human being transcends the idea of men on one side and women on the other,” she once said. “I don’t feel like a boy or a girl. It’s always been like that.” On another occasion, she quipped, “Why be the worst girl, if you can be the best boy?
That first evening, Saint Laurent spotted Betty at Chez Régine, and it was, she later said, “love at first sight for him, and he flirted with me… Since he was shy, he sent a young man from his table to talk to me. I sat down with Yves, and he gave me the usual compliments… I thought he was incredibly nice, and funny too. It’s true that we resembled each other a bit. He asked me to model for him. I laughed at him, even though all the girls were dreaming of doing just that. He took my number and never let me go.” They even used the same nickname for one another — ‘Pulu’, taken from a comic strip created by Saint Laurent, La Vilaine Lulu.
For the next decades, Betty, along with accessories designer Loulou de la Falaise, was the designer’s constant companion. In the two, he seemed to have found the flip sides of his feminine vision: “To me, Loulou conjured up fantasy, and Betty a bodily rigour,” he said.
Although Betty never formally worked for him — their relationship was “like a fantasy that lasted a lifetime” — they spoke daily, by phone and in person, and met constantly. She travelled to his manor in Normandy, his Moroccan riad, and spent many hours at his glorious duplex apartment on the Rue de Babylone in Paris.
She also seems to have matched the excesses of his lifestyle — “I hate food,” she once said. “It’s dreary, the care to make it and all these people talking about it. I only eat so I can drink” — and even accompanied him to rehab at the American Hospital of Paris in Neuilly-sur-Seine.
“We lived for beauty and amusement,” she later said. “And the first rule was to seduce — seduce everybody and make everybody crazy about us and then never mix with anyone.” She was one of just a handful of close friends present when Yves Saint Laurent died in 2008.
But the seduction and the excitement came with a price. “All that excess and drugs were very important in our lives,” she once recalled, “but we did it very badly, experienced it very badly. [...] That’s why we ended up in the hospital, often together, and in horrendous condition. It was a miracle we survived, with the help of people who loved us. [...] Pierre Bergé [Saint Laurent’s business partner and former boyfriend] and François, my husband, come to mind. They were always there for us. They supported, protected and helped us. Otherwise, we certainly wouldn’t be here any more. They were devastated by what they saw, but they never gave up on us.”
And indeed, through the decades of indulgence, the Catrouxs stayed together and had two daughters. Despite the partying, Betty managed to practise dance for several hours a day, and attend Mass regularly. Brought up a Catholic, the habit stuck with her. Her style remained consistent — Saint Laurent’s
laced-front safari suit, tightly belted trench coats, black jeans and biker jackets, the elegant ambiguity of Le Smoking (Saint Laurent’s iconic women’s tuxedo suit), which Betty always wore “the same way: bare skin under the jacket, no shirt, no jewellery, nothing”.
The couple’s apartment on the Côte D’Azur, overlooking Baie des Anges on the French Riviera at Nice, was, in many ways, the culmination of François’ life’s work. It was designed and curated by him as the place where he and Betty would end their days. It was barely complete when he was diagnosed with cancer, and they spent only a short time together there before he died in November 2020. After he died, it became too painful for Betty to go there, so the family have decided to sell it.
The contents are to be auctioned in one go, as a tribute to the man recognised as one of the most influential designers of the 21st century. Betty’s style, equally, has never gone out of fashion. She is constantly cited as a reference, a muse, most recently in a 2018 ad campaign for Yves Saint Laurent, created around her when she was 75.
And yet, she seems indifferent to the lure of past glories. “I hate nostalgia,” she said, recently. “I never think about the past. It’s the present that interests me. I like the present, in which I feel a thousand times better than 50 years ago. I used to feel uncomfortable with myself, but today I feel completely in tune with our era.”
The François and Betty Catroux collection goes on sale at Sotheby’s, Paris, on February 24