Thursday, March 7, 2013

Pass the passementarie

Private conversation. 1:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Thursday, March 7, 2013. Cold with snow/rain forecast.

Pass the passementarie, company’s coming ... Last night I went to a book party hosted by Christy Ferer, Barbara Liberman and Christiane Amanpour for their friend Cecile David-Weill who has just published her third novel “The Suitors” here in America. The book was first published in France and is the second of her books to be published in the United States. It was also chosen for the recommended reading list of Oprah magazine.

Cecile is a daughter of a very famous and socially prominent French banking family. As a novelist her subjects have included stories of such families — fictional of course. But the reader naturally thinks “fictional — wink wink.” And why not.

Cecile David-Weill holding a copy of her book, The Suitors. Click to order.
“The Suitors” is the second of David-Weill’s novels to draw controversy in France. Scandale and all that. Because she says it like it is. Rich people at love and play — a situation a lot of us poor slobs wouldn’t mind considering as our dilemma.

This one is about the Old Money families and their way of life. It is a sore subject in France. Unlike our culture where a great number of rich people practically take out ads and hire public relations flacks to get the word out, in France the word is always Non.

The French — I mean the very rich ones who live like kings and duchesses in their impeccable chateaux and les hotels particuliars — I’ve been told, never speak of money, never utter the word, let alone describe the loot acquired with it. Jamais jamais! It’s not only considered tres gauche but also politically dangereuses, liaisons aside. Like such talk might just evoke itchy thoughts among les peuples, about M. Guillot and his famously efficient execution device.

The author and I are acquaintances through mutual friends. She has a quiet personality, although neither diffident nor shy. She loves New York and chooses to live here in a convenient and comfortable yet somewhat "funkier" part of town versus Park or Fifth Avenues.  (She also recently became a grandmother for the first time although she doesn’t look old enough.)

Many of these book parties are staged simply to sell books (get it while you can). This one was a celebration set by friends. There were about thirty guests when I arrived an hour into the party (7 p.m.) Several waiters were passing delicious hors d’oeuvres for us compulsive obsessive party-gnoshers. Christy Ferer’s apartment is in one of those big old Fifth Avenue co-ops with the high ceilings and the baronial atmosphere.

A Chinese art piece featuring Audrey Hepburn.
After I was home and at my desk, aware that I couldn’t read this book before the evening was finished, or even in the next few days, I opened it up at The Prologue just to see what.

It starts with the (fictional) family’s summer house. Called L’Acapanthe. I don’t know where exactly but could imagine it might, like the author’s family property, be in the South of France, maybe by the sea.

David-Weill got me right away with her description of the house in the lives of its owners. I’m taking the liberty of re-printing a few opening paragraphs because they explain the setting of with such a sense of perfection that you know there will be trouble ahead. There just has to be. After all, it’s French, and they’re rich — which allows for any number of things along the path of luxury, disillusion, deception, sensuality, carnal knowledge, and all things that money can’t buy, or protect the Self from.

In the prologue, she writes in detail of the life of that house and what it entailed — its raison d’etre — and what it provided for its proud possessors.

Now remember this is fiction but built entirely on the rock of unadorned reality — the house:

... Because for us, L’Agapanthe was a haven of happiness.

Sheltered from time, it was a world of its own, one of luxury and lighthearted enjoyment. We spoke of it with pride, the way other people talk about the family eccentric or some colorful character they feel privileged to know. L’Agapanthe was not the ordinary summerhouse of rose-colored childhood, conjuring nostalgia and memories .... No. During  the summer months, just like an ocean liner, the house required birds of passage and a large staff. In short, it was what is properly referred to as a “bonne maison.”

This shameless, snobbish understatement referred to the handful of houses around the world on that same grand scale, combining luxury, perfect taste, and a refined way of life. In the same way they would have said “grandes familles’ or “grands hotels,” the servants in such houses referred to them as “grandes maisons” and without describing them or defining what they had in common, these experts could have rattled off a list on Corsica, in Mexico, in Tuscany, or on Corfu, an inventory far more private than the host of palatial European hotels touted everywhere in travel guides and magazines.

These houses always had:

Walk-in cold rooms
Bellboards for the upstairs rooms
Vans for grocery shopping
Cupboards for breakfast trays
A kitchen (for the cooks)
 A pantry (for the butlers)
 A laundry room with linen closets
 A room with a copper sink for arranging flowers and storing vases
And extensive servants quarters

From these houses were banished all dishwashers, microwave ovens, televisions lounges, TV dinners, easygoing informality, and any form of casual attire.

One of the chief criteria of “a good house” was the beauty of the place, from which the patina of time must have effaced all triviality, a requirement that disqualified even the grandest of modern houses. Not even historical monuments were allowed into the fold, those stately homes whose owners, rarely wealthy, often found themselves the guardians of traditions it was their duty to uphold, even at the cost of bankruptcy. For unlike a chatelain, the master of a “good house” devoted his culture, his fortune, and his savoir vivre to the pleasure he offered his guests. His objective? To make them forget all material cares and thus freely enjoy the beauty of his house, his works of art, his bountiful table, and sprightly conversation in good company.

Plainly put, in a “good house,” chambermaids unpacked and repacked – with a great flurry of tissue paper – the suitcases of guests, who found their rooms provided with pretty sheets, mineral water, fruit, flowers, and a safe, as well as matches, pencils, and writing paper all embossed with the name of the house. But most important, the guests were not obliged to do anything – not to play sports, or go sightseeing, even though all that and more was available and easily arranged, should anyone wish it. The only compulsory ritual was mealtime, like prayers at a lay convent where one’s thoughts were otherwise free to roam at will.

And L’Agapanthe curiously fit this long and curious definition of a “good house,” so handsomely did this magical place succeed in halting the passage of time, which hung suspended in a bygone age of breathtaking yet unpretentious luxury.
A few of the guests at the party.
Yes, all that and more ... those luxurious lives with all the trimmings; good, very good, bad, very bad.

The French, right now, if you’ve been reading the papers, are in a bad way financially. They are not alone in the world and the complaints are coming from every direction. Most notably to the American reader, the French who are rich are about to be taxed at a rate that has led many to apply for citizenship outside their Dear Old France. Many are leaving. This isn’t the first time something like this has happened, When Francois Mitterand became President and took over the private banks (buying them), there were many, including Guy de Rothschild who moved to New York. Briefly. Eventually he returned to France and was evidently very happy to be back.

“The rich are different from us,” an observation said to have been made by F. Scott Fitzgerald to Ernest Hemingway. Mr. Hemingway, inclined to have the last word replied: “Yes they have money.” Meaning, to this writer’s way of thinking, Money makes you different, in the eyes of everybody, most especially The Self. Swathed in the faux confidence of luxury and service.
And while we're over there — Last week in Paris, designer John Galliano showed his Femme Autumn/Winter 2013-14 collection at La Centorial, 18 Rue Du Quatre Septembre. M. Galliano is in the news in New York also where he has signed as a design consultant for the fashion house of Oscar de la Renta.
We are re-publishing this wonderful dog story which ran in the Daily Mail in 2008 titled 'Meet Jasmine, the Rescue Dog Who Has Become a Surrogate Mother for the 50th Time.' Sadly, Jasmine passed away in 2011, but her story of tolerance and acceptance and love is a valuable lesson for us all ...

In 2003 in Warwickshire, England, the police opened a garden shed and found a whimpering, cowering dog. The dog had been locked in the shed and abandoned. It was dirty and malnourished, and had quite clearly been abused. In an act of kindness, the police took the dog, which was a female greyhound, to the Nuneaton Warwickshire Wildlife Sanctuary, which is run by a man named Geoff Grewcock, and known as a haven for animals abandoned, orphaned, or otherwise in need.

Geoff and the other sanctuary staff went to work with two aims: to restore the dog to full health, and to win her trust. It took several weeks, but eventually both goals were achieved. They named her Jasmine, and they started to think about finding her an adoptive home.

"They are inseparable," says Geoff. "Bramble walks between her legs, and they keep kissing each other. They walk together round the sanctuary. It's a real treat to see them."
Jasmine, however, had other ideas. No one quite remembers how it came about, but Jasmine started welcoming all animal arrivals at the sanctuary. It would not matter if it were a puppy, a fox cub, a rabbit, or any other lost or hurting animal.

Jasmine would just peer into the box or cage, and when and where possible, deliver a welcoming lick.

Geoff relates one of the early incidents. "We had two puppies that had been abandoned by a nearby railway line. One was a Lakeland Terrier cross and another was a Jack Russell Doberman cross. They were tiny when they arrived at the centre, and Jasmine approached them and grabbed one by the scruff of the neck in her mouth and put him on the settee. Then she fetched the other one and sat down with them, cuddling them.

"But she is like that with all of our animals, even the rabbits. She takes all the stress out of them, and it helps them to not only feel close to her, but to settle into their new surroundings. She has done the same with the fox and badger cubs, she licks the rabbits and guinea pigs, and even lets the birds perch on the bridge of her nose."

Jasmine, the timid, abused, deserted waif, became the animal sanctuary's resident surrogate mother, a role for which she might have been born. The list of orphaned and abandoned youngsters she has cared for comprises five fox cubs, four badger cubs, fifteen chicks, eight guinea pigs, two stray puppies and fifteen rabbits — and one roe deer fawn. Tiny Bramble, eleven weeks old, was found semi-conscious in a field. Upon arrival at the sanctuary, Jasmine cuddled up to her to keep her warm, and then went into the full foster-mum role.

Jasmine the greyhound showers Bramble the roe deer with affection, and makes sure nothing is matted.

Jasmine will continue to care for Bramble until she is old enough to be returned to woodland life. When that happens, Jasmine will not be lonely. She will be too busy showering love and affection on the next orphan or victim of abuse.

Pictured from the left are: "Toby", a stray Lakeland dog; Bramble", orphaned roe deer; "Buster", a stray Jack Russell; a dumped rabbit; "Sky", an injured barn owl; and "Jasmine", with a mother's heart doing best what a caring mother would do ... and such is the order for God's creation.

Contact DPC here.