Early Life and Marriage

Born in 1904 in the Kiev region of Russia, Valentina escaped the revolution in the late teens with her new husband and soon-to-be business manager, George Schlée, arriving in America in 1923 after several years spent in Paris, Athens, and various other European cities. Much like the French designer Coco Chanel, who offered as many versions of her colorful past as her admirers cared to indulge, Valentina was prone to invent and embroider her early life as it suited her. As a result, Valentina's origins are shrouded in mystery. But as one delves further, it becomes increasingly clear that this mystery is largely of her own making.

While U.S. immigration records indicate that she and her husband were affiliated with a traveling dance troupe known as the Revue Russe, Valentina was not above stretching that period to "her time in Paris with [dance impresario] Diaghilev." One account of her life after escaping Russia finds her dancing as part of a cabaret act with the Chauve Souris theater group in Paris. And while the Chauve Souris and the Revue Russe were hardly Diaghilev, one thing is certain: Valentina's early training as a performing artist played a critical role in the forma tion of her talent for costuming actors as well as her uniquely dramatic personal style. Graced with an undeniably compelling natural beauty, and enhanced by a theatrical presence, Valentina became as famous for the disciplined elegance and reductive simplicity of her clothing as she was for her meticulously crafted public persona. Self-created in virtually every aspect of her existence, Valentina offered an exotic beauty and charmingly mangled English that played to her favor in America, adding a veil of dazzlingly misleading allure to an already intriguing personality.

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