| From my Social Diary, March 1998:
London. “Went to the theater one
night to see A Letter of Resignation with Edward
Fox as Prime Minister Harold Macmillan during
the Profumo Affair. If you’re under 45, you probably
never heard of it. At the time it was the biggest deal in
the media on both sides of the Atlantic. John Profumo – able,
smart – resigned his cabinet post because he lied to
Commons when he denied he had an affair with a luscious,
leggy 21 year-old strumpet named Christine Keeler.
He’d lied for the same reason most men (and very often
women) lie (as is their right): to protect their mates, their
families, and their own skin. The morning before the performance
we saw, the British papers were blaring the story about Clinton and Monica.
After the play we went to dinner at Mark’s, the very chic, very exclusive
(hip rich/Euro), very intimate (small dining rooms – eight tables,
deep red flock walls, plush red velvet banquettes) private club belonging
to Mark Birley in an old London townhouse. Among the diners
that night were Linda Wachner, the then but now deposed
Warnaco tycooness, Prince Pavlos of Greece, and at the
table next to ours, the Baron Alexis de Rede, who had
also come from the same theater as we.
The baron is the perfect blend of Proust, Balzac and the modern age. He
is one of the great social figures of Paris, and indeed, all of Europe.
I first noticed him taking his seat in the theater that night just before
curtain. He is one of those people who looks like he’s somebody famous.
A man, probably in his 70s, he has a swarthiness from what looked like
a fading tan; jowlish, with heavy-lidded drooping eyes, a high forehead
with a full head of dark brown hair brushed back and a cashmere overcoat
casually slung like a cape over his just slightly stooped shoulders. He
seemed to lead the way through his row, like an unfazed and laconic ram
followed by its entourage. His life has been superficially alluded to many
times in magazines all over the world. He lives in the l’Hotel Lambert
on the Ile St. Louis in Paris, a building he shares with Guy de
Rothschild, in what is reported to be one of the greatest apartments
After dinner, we returned to Claridge’s where we were staying. Just
as I was getting out of my cab, a black Rolls limousine pulled up to the
hotel front, and out came the Baron, who entered the hotel, and then the
lift, at the same time I did -- just the two of us, someone I’d seen
three times in the course of the evening, knew of but didn’t know.
When the lift got to my floor, I, a stranger to him, turned, said goodnight,
and he very politely bid me goodnight.”
July 15th, 2004 - When
I got back to New York from that London trip, in 1998, I
told my friend Johnny Galliher about seeing
de Rede, knowing that if he wished, he could tell me something
about the man that one might not read in the papers or a
glossy style magazine. Indeed, my hunch was right, for John
knew the baron very well and for a long time.
Alexis de Rede, who was a contemporary, a few years younger than Galliher,
was born on February 4, 1922, in Zurich, son of a Jewish banker from Austro-Hungary
named Oscar von Rosenberg who had become a citizen of
Lichtenstein and was one of the last to be given a title, Baron de Rede,
by Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria, shortly before the
monarch’s death (and the end of the Hapsburg empire) in 1916.
Jews possessing titles are not unheard of in European history, although
many, especially the English (who have titled Jews as well) are often skeptical
of their legitimacy. De Rede’s title also did not appear in the Almanach
de Gotha, fueling the skepticism of its validity, and followed young
Alexis Rosenberg throughout his long life.
Although on his mother’s side, he was German-Jewish, the boy was
brought up Protestant, with his mother, a brother and a sister in a large
hotel apartment in Zurich. For some reason, his father did not live with
them, only visiting at times, and living mainly in Vienna.
In 1931, when the boy was nine, his mother, ill with leukemia, traveled
to Vienna to see his father. It was then she learned her husband had a
mistress in Paris. Whether it was the shock of the revelation or her disease,
she died three weeks later.
After the death of the young boy’s mother, he was sent to Le Rosey,
possibly the most famously exclusive boarding school in Europe with its
long alumni roster of sons of royals, celebrities and billionaires, with
a reputation for preparing their students for university.
In 1938, Hitler invaded Austria and the following year,
when Alexis was 17, Oscar von Rosenberg, suffering unbearable
financial reversals, killed himself, leaving his children with a modest
income from a small insurance policy. That same year, a German schoolmate
at Le Rosey informed Alexis that he could no longer speak to him because
he was a Jew. Alexis’ Protestant upbringing could bring nothing to
bear on the private pleasure of bigotry that infests so many of us.
Perhaps it was the early loss of his mother, or the staunch ally of youth,
but all evidence points to the fact that the boy was naturally clever with
a determined consciousness of what he liked and what he dreamed of. He
also had the presence of mind to forsake the dangerous situation looming
in Europe at the end of the 1930s. With his tiny monthly stipend of about
$200 (or about ten times that in today’s currency), he booked passage
on an oceanliner and headed for America to seek his fortune. A few months
in New York, and dreams unrealized, the ambitious young man went west to
Hollywood where he got a job working in an antique shop in the Melrose
district of what is now West Hollywood.
Circumstances already hinted at what turned out to be a given: he
was homosexual and drawn to men who were older than he. He was also a striver:
in Los Angeles, he soon learned that a European accent gave him a mystique.
It implied sophistication, intellect as well as an attitude about sex far
more “live and let live” than the puritanical American code.
He befriended among others, Elsie de Wolfe, Lady Mendl,
and Salvador Dali, the surrealist.
Life in Los Angeles was nevertheless insufficient for the willowy, good-looking
well-dressed boy who would soon call himself the baron de Rede. He returned
to New York with its growing population of rich Europeans fleeing the Nazis,
and there he remained until after the War ended in Europe.
One night in a restaurant in New York, he was introduced to
a very rich Chilean named Arturo Lopez-Wilshaw. Lopez
Wilshaw lived in Paris where he had a lavishly decorated house in Neuilly,
and was famous for his extravagant costume entertainments. He was married
to a woman, also a cousin, named Patricia Lopez-Huici.
Mme. Lopez-Wilshaw was also the great-niece of the woman who became the
greatest patron of modernism of the 20th Century – a friend of Sargent,
Whistler, Picasso, Cocteau, Diahgilev and Stravinsky,
among others: Eugenia Errazuriz.
The meeting of Lopez-Wilshaw and the young and ambitious de Rede was fortuitous,
made so, ironically by an American – the notorious playboy and heir
to the Woolworth fortune, Jimmy Donohue. Donohue, who
was also the first cousin of Barbara Hutton, and although
he was homosexual and often outrageously so, later gained fame as the “lover” of
the Duchess of Windsor.
Lopez-Wilshaw was also homosexual. This was well-known within his set,
and shortly before his meeting de Rede, he had been keeping a handsome
and willowy young Englishman named Tony Pawson. Pawson
was remarkable for, among other things, his “English complexion,” fair
and pink as a poodle, the result, it was said, of his mother constantly
waxing his face just as puberty was butting in, so that the postpubescent
boy never really had to shave in the morning.
As a protégé of Sr. Lopez-Wilshaw, Mr. Pawson was installed
in a beautiful Paris apartment in a l’hotel particulier full
of 18th-century French furniture worth a king’s ransom, including
a bed that was said to have belonged to Marie Antoinette.
The l’hotel was said to have an ominous history, once having belonged
to a courtier of Louis XVI, and whose head ended up on
one of the spikes of the fence by its front gate.
It was while living there that the fair-faced Pawson met the rebellious
American Donohue who was immediately smitten. Jimmy Donohue, as famously
willful as he was rich, soon persuaded Pawson to dump Lopez-Wilshaw and
move to New York where he’d really show the Englishman a life of
luxury and good times.
When Pawson departed for New York, his
patron, Sr. Lopez-Wilshaw was unaware of his long term future
plans. It wasn’t until he was visiting Pawson in New
York that he learned the truth: Jimmy Donohue had stolen
his boy. It was also on that trip, by stroke of good fortune,
in more ways than one, that Lopez-Wilshaw first met the Baron
de Rede, formerly Alexis Rosenberg.
Infuriated by Pawson’s Donohue-fueled deception, Lopez-Wilshaw returned
to Paris, ordered vans to go around to the ill-fated l’hotel
particulier and empty the ungrateful Pawson’s fabulous apartment
of all the furniture he’d given him. Except for Marie Antoinette’s
bed. By French law, you cannot take the bed.
Meanwhile, back in New York, the naughty fickle fellow Donohue dropped
the milk-skinned Tony Pawson and sent him back to Paris. Pawson arrived
only to discover that he’d been relieved of his life and livelihood.
The shock on his face when he entered his now empty apartment was the talk
of Paris for days afterwards.
At about the same time, Alexis de Rede arrived in Paris in the company
of Lady Mendl, returning from her wartime exile in California to take up
residence once again in her house in Versailles. The days following the
defeat of the Nazis were heady ones in Paris where many Americans and Europeans
returned to the chic social life.
de Rothschild and Baron Alexis de Rede
Lopez-Wilshaw was said to have offered Alexis
de Rede one million dollars to come to Paris. Whether
or not that was true, it is not known, but the two began
a relationship that was to continue for the rest of Lopez-Wilshaw’s
The Lopez-Wilshaws, armed with a great fortune derived from guano – which
is literally nitrogen derived from fermented batshit – mined from
caves the family owned in South America, and turned into fertilizer, lived
like royalty. Young de Rede, not quite acceptable to Paris society at first
became known for his style. He had exceptionally narrow feet, and had his
shoes made for him by a man named Cleverly in London. Soon all of the beau
monde in Paris were going over to London to order shoes from Mr. Cleverly
that looked as sleek and narrow as de Rede’s.
was an age where the wealth of the very rich stretched to
royal proportions in war-torn Europe. The Lopez-Wilshaws
and Alexis de Rede became a familiar trio entertaining at
lavish costume balls in Neuilly, on the Lopez-Wilshaw yacht, La
Gaviota, which was decorated by Geoffrey Geffroy,
cruising for months at a time all over the Mediterranean
and Europe. They were often in Venice at the Grand Hotel,
at the Palace, as well as in residence at various rented
mansions at the famous watering holes of the era.
at l'Hotel Lambert with Carlton Perrett (his
good friend Laurent Louell is seen in the
This was not quite a relationship of a man keeping a wife as well as a
lover. For although friends like writer Nancy Mitford referred
to de Rede as “La Pompadour de nos jours” and loved calling
into question the legitimacy of his title, and Anglo-American diarist Chips
Channon referred to him as the “Eugene de Rastignac of modern
Paris,” (a reference to the hero in Balzac’s Pere
Goriot ), in a few years, it also became known that Alexis de Rede
had what people were referring to as “The Midas Touch.” He
had become active in the management of the Lopez-Wilshaw fortune, and was
making it even greater than it was when he first crossed the threshold.
This reality drew him far more notice than his narrow shoes by Cleverly
and his sartorial style. It brought him respect, and awe.
In 1949, the twenty-seven year old baron moved into the magnificent
apartment in the l’hotel Lambert on the Ile St. Louis. And although
Lopez-Wilshaw continued to officially maintain his residence with his wife
in Neuilly, he actually lived much of his time with de Rede at the Lambert.
By the early 1950s, Alexis de Rede was an important influence in Paris
society. His luncheons and dinners at the Hotel Lambert were legendary
for their cuisine, luxury and décor. No matter who they were, people
came away raving about them as incomparable to anything they’d experienced
anywhere with anybody. He was also an early booster of Cardin and St.
Laurent, hiring them to create costumes for him for his famous
balls. In 1956 for de Rede’s Bal des Tetes, YSL made many
of the headdresses for the guests, giving his fledgling career an early
and important boost.
In 1969, the baron gave his most spectacular evening, the Oriental
Ball. The grand staircase of his apartment, said by some to be the
grandest ever seen in a private house, was lined with Nubian slaves, scantily
clad men bearing torches, while two turbaned “pashas” were
ensconced on two enormous papier-mâché elephants in the hotel’s
In 1962, Arturo Lopez-Wilshaw died and left his fortune divided
by two – half to his wife Patricia and half to Alexis de Rede. It
was after that that de Rede joined Prince Rupert zu Loewenstein and
others in taking control of the Bank Leopold, Joseph & Sons, where
he served as Deputy Chairman. He and Loewenstein also engaged in managing
the fortune of the Rolling Stones. He also used his connoisseurship in
the founding of Artemis, a business which acquired and exhibited works
of art, with many museums as clients.
It was after the death of his great patron, that Alexis de Rede forged
another great friendship – this time with Marie-Helen de
Rothschild, the glamorous wife of Guy. The two joined forces to
give some of the greatest costume balls of the 1970s at the Rothschilds’ Chateau
de Ferrieres outside Paris. The guest list became more celebrated in terms
of the glitterati with guests such as movie stars Richard Burton
and Elizabeth Taylor, the pop artist Andy Warhol as
well as limousine loads of billionaires, titled European nobility and royalty.
Marie-Helene de Rothschild became ill in the 1980s with cancer, severely
curtailing the glittering social life of her friend the baron, who devotedly
sat vigil through her darkest hours. Although after her death he seemed
to some a lonely figure, and indeed, he appeared so to these unknowing
eyes that night in London seven years ago, he continued his active social
life and entertaining, if indeed on a quieter, less populated scale.
Princess Michael of Kent recalled him visiting London
in July 2000 for her son Frederick Windsor’s 21st
birthday: “The dress code of ‘Fete Champetre’ – I
was copying the Louis XIV scheme of entertaining the court in the month
of June before Versailles was finished, when he gave wonderful outdoor
parties in green, leafy bowers. Perhaps Alexis, who was a great one for
dressing up and had given some of the best fancy dress parties of my life,
was feeling shy or unsure about the English, but he came wearing a magnificent
turban and brooch and a dazzling cloak which he clutched the entire night
at his neck. I thought he had a sore throat, but I discovered he was covering
up his black tie dinner suit. He was so afraid to be seen in a dinner jacket
when every other man was in 18th-century costume.”
Michael also recalled that “When we went to theatre,
he would always take a box on the side, and in later years,
often fall asleep. When the curtain came down, he would recall
the whole play, yet would never admit to having seen it already – or
read it. I never could find out how he did it.”
baron Alexis de Rede, last year at the wedding
of the Catroux daughter in Provence.
In the last few years, the baron had been having pulmonary
problems for which he had been hospitalized. Recently, however, he had
been feeling better. Last week he was in the south of France, visiting
his old friend Carmen Saint, the mother of Betty
Catroux. After Mme. Saint had served her friend a drink, and seeing
that he was comfortably seated, she went to put on some lipstick before
going out. It was just at that moment when she heard the tinkling smash
of glass on the floor where the baron was sitting with his cocktail. She
went in to see what had happened. Still seated upright, the broken glass
at his feet, Alexis de Rede had left us for good.