October 28, 2014
When the Ravensbrück concentration camp was liberated in April 1945, one of its emaciated inmates was the glamorous libertine who a decade earlier had enthralled Europe. KATHARINA “TOTO” KOOPMAN (1908–91) lived a life of adventure and scandal. Born in Java to an officer in the Dutch cavalry and a mother of Javanese and Chinese descent, Toto (nicknamed after her father’s favorite steed) had a fearless personality that added to her gamine beauty. While movie star Merle Oberon passed off her Ceylonese mother as her maid, Toto wore her mixed race as a badge of pride. Arriving in Paris at age 19 she worked briefly as a haute couture model (hated Coco Chanel, adored Mainbocher and Marcel Rochas) but her real job seemed to be taking lovers and attending opera openings. She flaunted her bisexuality and bedded anyone she chose. Though her small role was cut from The Private Life of Don Juan, Toto attended the film’s premiere with her lover Tallulah Bankhead. During her tempestuous relationships with newspaper magnate Lord Beaverbrook, his son Max, and Randolph Churchill (son of Winston), Toto may have been gathering information for the Allies. By the end of the 1930s she was almost certainly a spy. In 1941 while helping the Italian Resistance she was arrested. After WWII she returned to London where she met Erica Brausen. The pair set up house in Chelsea while Brausen, with Toto’s help, opened a gallery and launched the career of painter Francis Bacon. They were devoted to each other but Toto never lost her wanderlust or sexual appetites. When Bacon betrayed the gallery, the couple decamped to a small Aeolian island where they hosted artists and friends in grand style. They grew too old to traverse Panarea’s rutted paths and eventually returned to London. After Toto passed away, Brausen locked herself in a room for eight days, ordering fresh flowers each morning, keeping vigil over the body of this dazzling and unconventional woman.
READ MORE about members of the Partisan Generation (1904-13).