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 in Paris.
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.
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.
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 courtyard.
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.”
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.