Thursday, June 14, 2007

Diner de Reve for the American Friends of Versailles

Dinner at the Molyneux's Diner de Reve. Photo: JH.
Thunder and heavy rains late yesterday afternoon in Paris. There was some kind of a strike so no newspapers were distributed for the day except for Le Monde. And since I have not read French since college, I was out of luck.

So it was not until today that I learned that Baron Guy de Rothschild died on Tuesday. He was 98. JH  photographed him and his female companion three years ago at Versailles when we were here covering the last “celebration” of the American Friends of Versailles. I can still recall his presence as JH was taking the picture. It was a chiseled, handsome face even in his tenth decade, albeit an old one of course, with a full head of white hair, and a ducal attitude. He was very short in stature with the extra girth that the years add, giving the illusion (or suggestion) that he had somehow shrunk with age. His expression at being photographed was one of tolerance of the photographer and the process, but not one of interest in having his picture taken.

The rains had cleared last night when it came time to resume the festivities of the American Friends of Versailles. It was black tie evening  fbeginning with cocktails called for 7 at the Hotel Amelot de Bisseuil/des Ambassadeurs de Hollande, the former home of the late French businessman and aviator Paul-Louis Weiller, a man of many interests who was also a great supporter of the restoration of Versailles. The reception was hosted by his grand-daughter. At 8:30 the guests moved to the Hotel Claude Passart, the 17th century private mansion of Mr. and Mrs. Juan Pablo Molyneux in the Marais for a “Diner de Reve.”

The Molyneux residence is on a very narrow ancient street, and like so many great French houses, completely concealed from the public eye by old and non-descript stone walls. One enters the property through door in a wooden garage-like gate into an outer courtyard surrounded on three sides by a four-story stone house. The American eye is inclined to believe, on first sight, that it must be more than one house, or a house for more than one family. It is, however, one house for one family -- Pilar and Juan Pablo Molyneux. Because Mr. Molyneux is one of the world’s leading interior designers, the interior is both grand and welcoming, sumptuous and comfortable, yet a treasure trove of colors, fabrics, pieces, works of art and imagination.
Roses after the rain in the Molyneux garden
These receptions and dinner parties are quite different from anything you’d find in New York. The elements may be comparable -- the uniformed waiters, the silver trays of drinks, the exquisite little canapes (although these were more exquisite in composition than what we see in New York), the beautiful flower arrangements -- but the atmosphere is far more sophisticated in feeling and attitude.

Guests assembled in the ground floor rooms, informally receeived first by our beautiful hostess, and farther inside, her husband, also very welcoming and friendly. There was a door when was open, revealing a beautiful garden. The house was built between 1618 and 1620 for Claude Passart, the King’s (Louis XIII) secretary and notary. After the Revolution it fell into the hands of mortals of less lofty distinction, members of the masses who made changes to accommodate their needs (larger numbers of inhabitants, families, etc.). The Molyneuxs restored it, and the garden, to its original plans.

After the drinks we were given our placement cards. Tables were set up in several rooms on the first (second to Americans) floor in the style of the French aristocrats who eschewed formal dining rooms and ate wherever they wished. I was seated at a table in what looks like a dining room, at a table for ten.
Traveling Opera singers entertaining at the Diner de Reve
During the serving of the first course, a man and a woman in what looked like staff uniforms entered the room and suddenly there was the sound of a piano (which must have been piped into the room). The woman (in a black maid’s uniform and white organdy apron) began to sing the Habanera from Bizet’s “Carmen. Aside from the surprise, the voices were wonderful. We were not only her audience but because of the intimacy of the room, part of her stage. Music completed, applause, the singers departed as quickly as they had entered. This surprise was repeated three more times in the course of the dinner, topped off with a baritone singing “My Way” which was originally a French tune  called “Comme d’habitude” written by Claude Francois and Gilles Thibaut. Paul  Anka wrote the American lyrics made famous by Sinatra. I later learned that the singer had difficult learning the American lyrics and needed to have them in front of him when he sang it. I was surprised and charmed by the rendition which had a decidedly French chanteur quality to it. The deep baritone voice also harkened up memories of Elvis’ version (and I found myself listening to that in my head for a few hours afterwards).
Katie Stapleton and Patrick Coulson
Maggie Daley, Shirley Ryan, Marlene Phillips, Alice Skilling, and Olivier de Rohan
Wilbur and Hilary Ross
Juan Pablo Molyneux and Catharine Hamilton
Meeting and greeting in the garden Jim and Jane Driscoll (left)
Scenes from the garden
Jean de Yturbe
Jon Marder, Sabine de La Rochefoucauld, Jay Krehbiel, and Elizabeth and Henry Segerstrom
Helene de Mortemart and Maurice Tobin
The entree
Dinner in La Salle de Chasse
The grand finale
The guests mingling after dinner
Jay Krehbiel escorting his mom down the stairs
Dinner in the library
Dinner in the Chinese lacquer hall.
John and Alexandra Nichols chatting with Maggie Daley in the living room after dinner.
And then, after dessert was served, a waiter distributed masks. As he left the room, the lights dimmed to total candlelight and everyone donned their mask. A great touch. Very funny to see how the mask of completely changed the identity of each of us, which both delighted and intrigued. One had the  feeling of being transported back to another time, as you can see by the picture. My imagination took me back to a time in France, a time before the Revolution when the aristocrats were devoted to amusement. A moment of Les Liaisons Dangereuses passing through our consciousness. Indeed, the atmosphere evoked passing conversation about those times, and there was at least one guest at the table who recalled the grim endings of her ancestors at the hands of those who led The Terror. However, the historical memories were dissolved by the laughter of seeing ourselves with identities replaced by the masks.
The Donning of the masks
Pilar Molyneux takes on a new identity with Monsieur de Ganay and
Clockwise from top left: The Levy sisters with an unsuspecting pirate; Sandy Yturbe and Michele Fieschi-Fouan; Sabine de La Rochefoucauld masked and unmasked.
This is the week of the American Friends of Versailles, as NYSD readers already know. The Molyneuxs Diner de Reve paid tribute to the spirit of this American project created by the indefatigable and passionately committed American Catharine Hamilton.

The party broke up about midnight and the guests departed strolling down the long dark lane -- probably not much wider than it was in the time of the last days of Versailles -- into the Paris night in search of their coaches to take them back to their hotels.
The obit of Baron Guy de Rothschild in the Telegraph of London yesterday reveals a long and fascinating life. Born into great wealth, provided with all its luxury and comforts including a good education (he learned to speak English before he learned to speak French (his mother told him "when an Englishman is good, he is better than anyone else"); he was imbued with the gift of strong family connections, as well as the profoundly sobering and horrifying experiences of the Second World War including the first hand and always threatening spector of anti-Semitism. Stripped of their nationality, their property and their self-respect in the community, the Rothschilds fled Paris to escape the Nazis who put a spin on the escape by announcing that they had "abandoned French soil." The baron later put the true face on it, writing that they were guilty of "fleeing from the German army instead of volunteering for cremation."

The Balladurs with Guy de Rothschild
On the outbreak of the War, Guy de Rothschild joined the 3rd Light Mechanised Division and became a company commander. After a battle at Carvin, however, with only three out of the 27 officers remaining, he was evacuated at Dunkirk. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre for his conduct on the beaches.

He later traveled to America to join his mother and father but found in its haven "a band of squabbling Frenchmen." As things grew worse in Europe, the baron returned to Europe (having survived the torpedoing of the ship he was on), and to England, serving with the Free French. He later expressed some bitterness that he was not selected for the Bureau central de renseignments et d'action, an organisation which had contacts with the Resistance. "My name had been the obstacle," he considered. "To the Right wing, a Jew; to the Leftists, a capitalist."

He returned to Paris with the Liberation in 1944 and revived his then wobbling business interests, developing the bank over the next three decades into an enormously prosperous enterprise. When Francois Mitterand nationalized the banks in the early 80s, the baron and his wife Marie-Helene quit France once again, disgusted by the government's edict, and moved to New York. "A Jew under Petain, a pariah under Mitterrand," he wrote in a letter to Le Monde. "For me, it's enough. To rebuild on ruins twice in a lifetime is too much."

While the Rothschilds were welcomed into society in New York, they soon grew wary of the way of life of their American social peers which was almost provincial to that of the French beau monde, and when the opportunity arose to return to his banking interests, the baron seized upon it and returned to Paris and its far more glamorous, worldly and luxe lifestyle. His wife Marie-Helene passed away after a long struggle with cancer, passed away in 1996. Their famous house the L'Hotel Lambert on the Ile St. Louis was reportedly recently sold to a Saudi for more than 80 million euros.

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