An Inspirational Story of Reformation and Introspection . . .
By Shannon Schuhmann
Who was it that said there are no second acts in American lives? Ultra Violet: painter; muse; musician and actress proves the lie in that observation. Her story — filled with glamorous rogues and angelic endings — is a true reflection of the opportunity life gives us to begin again. It illustrates the ways that one intriguing woman has made the most of her journey. Her transition, from thoughtless youth to thoughtful woman, is the story of a true survivor.
Born the daughter of a wealthy French glove merchant, Isabelle Collin Dufresne, aka Ultra Violet, grew up on an estate overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, built on twelve miles of coast by her maternal grandfather Marcel Collin Dufresne. After an idyllic childhood interrupted by the intrusion of World War II, Isabelle became a boarder at convent school. She considered this period the beginning of her rebellion: feeling unloved and abandoned away at school, she learned to act out as a way of receiving the attention she did not receive from her absent father, a prisoner of war in the German camps.
After a string of strict Catholic schools, and because of a particularly precocious bout of childish exploits —including her first experimentation with the sensational effects of make-up, and an illicit escape to the nearest town — the scandalized nuns and her horrified parents agreed that the freer climate of America would be a suitable solution for the young woman’s inquisitive and rebellious nature. Isabelle moved to America to live with her older sister, Catherine, who was attending Sacred Heart finishing school on Fifth Avenue in New York City.
Isabelle took New York City by storm in the sixties. The beautiful seventeen year old quickly made a name for herself in the city’s burgeoning art scene. Always one to make a splash, Isabelle’s flair for originality, as executed through her spectacular outfits, caught the attention of photographers and artists. Her best evening dress “was a marked-down floor length nightgown with spaghetti straps and a huge silk flower.”
Her eccentric elegance at this time, recorded in the pages of Town and Country and The New York Times, was the beginning of her legacy. The charming young society belle was accorded unprecedented access to the best New York has to offer.
As an avid student and lover of art, Isabelle haunted museums and gallery openings. She began collecting and dealing art, a pleasurable supplement to her inheritance that she “practices to this day in an offhand way — buying and selling paintings that please me, that bring me joy while they are on my walls, and profit when they move to someone else’s,” she says.
Her vivacious nature and witty repartee gave the teenager her entrée to New York’s inner circle. Some of the many artists she met in those years included Andrew Wyeth, Willem de Kooning, Miro’, Dubuffet, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Max Ernst, Chagall, Robert Rauschenberg and Louise Nevelson.
Soon she began to realize her dream of being a painter, rather than simply a painter’s muse. Through a former lady-in-waiting to the Queen of Egypt, Isabelle met Salvador Dali. After she told him she “too, paints a little, a very little,” he invited her to study with him. From Dali, Isabelle learned her confident brushwork. His surrealistic influence on Isabel’s painting is evident.
Although Isabelle called art “my form of worship at this point in my life,” Dali introduced her to an even more insidious master: fame. When out with the flamboyant surrealist, photographers constantly took her picture. She was finally getting the recognition she craved. He encouraged her elaborate dress, had camellia crowns made for her trademark corkscrew curls and purchased knee-high custom silver boots from Roger Vivier, which she wore with her all-silver ensembles.
“Why? You might ask,” says Isabelle in her autobiography. “In part, it’s the giddiness of youth. In part, it’s the ambience I’m caught up in — you can’t be drab and mousy and spend your days and nights with Dali. Perhaps it’s because I have not yet developed any inner strength, and to make up for the vacuum inside I must plaster the outside with ornament upon ornament. It will be a long time before I reach my introspective days.”
It was also through Dali that Isabelle launched into her second act: The Warhol Years. At tea at the St. Regis, a near albino in his shaggy wig approached her and Dali introduced them. Andy Warhol, that curious pale figure, told her what later she learned he told everyone: “Oh you’re so beautiful,” he said, “you should be on film. Can we do a movie together?” The next day she went to the Factory and a Superstar was born.
Isabelle began the decade as a student and muse to Salvador Dali. Five years later, she made her name as one of Andy Warhol’s accomplices in original underground moviemaking, but not before undergoing a radical transformation. Warhol told her that no one would remember the name Isabelle Dufresne, and suggested the monikers Poly Ester or Notre Dame. Instead, Isabelle found the words “ultra violet” in a Time magazine article about space and light. Andy declared her new name an “earcatcher,” and Ultra Violet it was.
To complement her new name, and to ensure she stood even more firmly out in the crowd, Ultra dyed her hair with cranberry juice. She and Andy went to St. Marks Place, in New York’s East Village, where the flower children bought their 30’s and 40’s finery and acquired a resplendent vintage wardrobe for the innovative Ultra. She framed her eyes with four inches of fake lashes, and wore ostrich feathers in her hair.
The act of becoming Ultra Violet was liberating to the young woman in a somewhat still conservative early sixties New York. She was provocative and exhibitionistic. Her new mood fit perfectly with Warhol’s brand of cinema verite’. Warhol’s intention was to show on-screen the lives of his entourage exactly as they occurred. He directed his young cast to “work for no meaning.” Ultra was behind the scenes at some of his most well-received films, including “Chelsea Girls,” and “Sleep.” She starred in “I, a Man,” and “Girl Talk,” and was featured in the Hollywood film “Midnight Cowboy” with Dustin Hoffman.
The Factory, Andy Warhol’s famously silver loft-studio in the East Forties, was where Ultra was able to explore her fascination with Pop Art. She and Andy collaborated on one of his large flower paintings. Hers has a violet flower as homage to her Ultra Violet personality, and a complementary flower in an orange of Ultra’s choosing.
Warhol continued Ultra’s tradition of obsession with fame. “Fame is when you market your aura,” was his mantra. Ultra went out every evening to the hippest, most happening events where photographers captured her every move. Unfortunately, the realities of her hedonistic lifestyle began to emerge. New York in the sixties was rampant with drug use, as documented by the Beatles in their song “Dr. Roberts.” Inevitably, some of the crowd became casualties of this lifestyle. When fellow “Poor Little Rich Girl” Edie Sedgwick perished, Ultra began to have terrible nightmares. Haunted by the tragic endings of Edie and others in her crowd, Ultra reconsidered her existence. Her horror, compounded when Valerie Solanos shot Andy Warhol in 1968, became too much for her to ignore.
This reevaluation led Ultra to investigate many disciplines and religious texts.
She ended her relationship with California artist, Ed Ruscha, who caused her great pain.
I reviewed my life, screening it like a motion picture. I envisioned the homes I had broken up, my lies . . . my recklessness, my sins. I read the Bible. I realized with horror that I’d broken every one of the Ten Commandments. I thought of the psychological and sociological devastation that we who proudly labeled ourselves the avant-garde had caused. I was overcome with guilt, with remorse.
“I suppose some would say I experienced a nervous breakdown,” says Ultra, “brought on by my agonizing break with the love of my life.” It was after this breakdown, however, that the indomitable spirit that was essentially Isabelle Dufresne, would prove itself in the late seventies and years beyond.
“I decided to heal myself. I consciously chose to investigate alternative medicine. I dove deeply into the literature of healing, nutrition, positive thinking, acupuncture, and color therapy. I studied books on rebuilding physical and emotional health,” she said. “I discovered Chinese medicine and its process of regeneration. I changed my whole style of living, thinking, eating.”
In 1989, her memoir “Famous for Fifteen Minutes: My Years With Andy Warhol” is out-of-print, but available at the Andy Warhol Foundation Museum shop, and its reissue is underway. In it, she expresses her wish that readers learn from her mistakes and tell the kids of today, ‘Don’t do it. It’s not worth it.’ However, her refreshingly honest approach makes her message realistic and accessible rather than didactic and unapproachable. This exploration of Ultra’s journey is considered a classic and has been translated into fourteen languages worldwide. May 2001 Vogue’s “People are Talking About” column recommended the book for perfectly curated libraries. It is being adapted for a feature film.
The modern Ultra Violet now expresses what she considers her rebirth through her art. Her message of hope and forgiveness resonates throughout her work. For example, through her brush Mickey Mouse becomes Michelangelo, with wings and stars in his eyes. Thomas Schumacher, the head of Disney/Hyperion/Buena Vista received this token from Ultra at the Save Venice Regatta earlier this year. Her experiments with light, and her strong belief in symbols sent to comfort us by a higher power, combine in her rainbow paintings and sculptures.
Her angels, meant to be encouraging signs of reassurance for a world struggling with its entry into the new millennium, are on display in her studio in Nice, France. They are also available throughout France and in galleries in New York City and Philadelphia. In response to the events of September 11, 2001, she is collecting the images as a book of “Ultra Violet’s Angels,” with a percentage of the profits going to help families of the victims of this tragedy. It is her hope that her art can offer some small element of healing to those affected in her adopted hometown, New York City.
Ultra’s love of anything new has led her to exuberantly embrace the Internet. She travels everywhere with her laptop computer, and generously corresponds with fans via e-mail. Her website, www.ultraviolet.web.com , receives many new visitors weekly —people who have encountered her mythic magic through fashion, film and music, and wish to learn more about the woman who added color to the once invisible spectrum of light, Ultra Violet. A true survivor and ageless beauty, Ultra’s story of reformation and introspection is inspirational for all who encounter it.
For more information, please contact The Marianne Strong Management Group, 65 East 96th Street, New York, New York 10128. Phone (212) 249-1000, or you may e-mail email@example.com
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