The many lives and loves of Toto Koopman
While many of us are just happy to live one life, Toto Koopman lived several: as a model, a spy, a socialite, and an art-lover. She also loved whoever she wanted, both men and women.
More importantly, she lived her life without a care about what other people thought. In her own way, she stood up against racism, fascism, and sexual discrimination.
Toto Koopman, the model
Catharina Koopman was born in Java in 1908, the daughter of a Dutch cavalry officer and a Dutch-Indonesian mother. Though she named after her mother, she got the nickname “Toto” after her father’s favorite horse.
Toto faced discrimination with her family being shunned for being “green Dutchmen” (or mixed-race). But she was proud of her ethnicity, relating her part-Chinese grandmother was supposedly part of a harem of the Sultan of Solo.
She attended a boarding school in the Netherlands and became fluent in several languages. After taking a year at an English finishing school, she worked as a model in Paris– which was unusual, given her mixed-blood and the discrimination prevalent in polite society.
In what is now considered an iconic photograph, the image of Toto taken by George Hoyningen-Huene for Vogue’s September 1933 issue features her in a backless black and white gown by Augusta Bernard.
Toto Koopman, the socialite
Toto had several lovers and flings, and she didn’t care who saw them. She once attended the premiere of a movie in London together with Tallulah Bankhead in 1934
She also had a relationship with the powerful media publisher Lord Beaverbrook, who was 55 to her 25 years of age. Because she loved opera, she traveled across Europe to watch performances courtesy of Lord Beaverbrook.
When Lord Beaverbrook found out that Toto was also in a relationship with his son, Max Aitken, he had his newspapers run scandalous articles about her and made her an outcast of London society.
Though Aitken was madly in love with her, Toto refused to marry him because she had been given a lifetime pension by Beaverbrook in exchange.
Toto Koopman, the spy
Toto moved to Italy in 1939 and found love with an Italian resistance leader against the Nazis. Because of her fluency in languages and her international contacts, she became a spy for them during World War 2.
She gave everything to the effort: she sold her furs and jewelry to fund the resistance, and she infiltrated German groups and hotels where high-level German soldiers met. She also went to jail for them.
She was imprisoned and escaped twice, before being captured again and sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp. There, she was tortured and starved. But she was later released with other prisoners before the camp was liberated in 1945.
(According to reports, 132,000 women were imprisoned in Ravensbruck between 1938 and 1945. Of that number, 90,000 were killed.)
Toto Koopman, the lover
Toto was fetched from prison by one of her former boyfriends, Randolph Churchill (the son of Winston Churchill). Aside from money, clothes, and a new passport, Randolph brought a wig for her shaved head.
But while Toto was recovering at the shores of Lake Maggiore in Ascona, she met a Erica Brausen, a German art dealer who worked at London’s Redfern Gallery.
Because Erica wanted to open her own gallery, Toto supported her. Together, they opened the Hanover Gallery, which featured Lucian Freud, Henry Moore, Marcel Duchamp, and Francis Bacon.
Though their gallery had a lot of visitors, many also came to see the “unusual lesbian couple” that owned gallery. This was a time when homosexuality was still considered a criminal offence.
“Toto was aware of it but pretended not to notice. I don’t think it even bothered her. Toto never really cared about how others saw her,” said a friend of hers, Malitte Matta.
Though the Toto and Erica stayed together for years, Toto still had her flings– one of them with a young Italian carabiniere. Erica had her own share, one with a banker’s wife, but not as much as Toto.
Toto died in 1991 at the age of 82. Erica locked herself in a room with Toto’s body for eight days, coming out only to buy fresh roses for her lover. She followed Toto in death 18 months later.