Not long after Shanghai Girls came out, I got an interesting e-mail from a woman, Trish Stuebing, who asked if the seamstress referred to as Madame Garnet, who makes some of Pearl and May’s clothes in the novel, could possibly be the Eleanora Garnett (with two Ts), who was a dressmaker in Shanghai in those years, because if she were that Eleanora Garnett, then she was Trish’s mother-in-law. Yes, I wrote back, she was indeed the same Madame Garnett. And of course I apologized for inadvertently dropping the T. Trish and I then began a lively correspondence about her mother-in-law, who was a truly remarkable and inspiring woman. Trish also sent some fun photographs. Then Larry Sells put all that information together, which is below. Enjoy!
Eleanora Garnett was born in Estonia. Her mother died when she was very young, and she was sent to live with an aunt, leaving her sister with their father. At 15 she met Richard Garnett, the head of the Tsar’s household guard, and fell in love with him. Her family reluctantly agreed to the couple’s marriage because the Russian Revolution was under way and they thought her future would be secured.
At times she traveled on the Tsar’s boat from port to port. One evening the Bolsheviks attacked while they were on shore for dinner, and her baby daughter Svetlana was killed before her eyes. She escaped to the yacht, and they returned to Garnett’s estate, where she gave birth to a son.
When the Revolution expanded, they escaped to Shanghai, as many others did. They had a few jewels to sell to live, but their money ran out. Her husband Richard, unable to deal with their circumstances, committed suicide, leaving her in the poor Chinese quarter with an infant son and no money. Her son died of pneumonia, and she was left alone.
She started working for a dressmaker, picking up pins, and worked her way up. She went to Paris, where she was given a chance to work under the Paris designer Edward Molyneux. She was asked to travel with Maurice Chevalier as his dancing partner but decided that designing was her future, returning to Shanghai where she became a huge success. She married wealthy entrepreneur Luciano Riggio, but they had no children.
Eleanora’s sister Helma, a prima ballerina, moved to China where she married Italian diplomat Mario Cunietti. Their son Tino was adopted by Eleanora and Luciano after Helmi died suddenly of leukemia.
Because of influential contacts, they were able to immigrate to the U.S. in 1949, their experiences somewhat similar to those Pearl and May experienced in Shanghai Girls. Eleanora was very successful as a designer in New York and Italy. One of her dresses was commissioned by Post cereal heiress Marjorie Meriweather Post for her to wear on the occasion of her award of the French Legion of Honor Medal on October 31, 1957.
There’s a pleasing irony in the fact that Sasson House is about to open as a 5 star Fairmont hotel.