Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Catharine and David Hamilton

Our host and hostess on last week’s trip to Paris and Versailles were two Texas natives – Catharine and David Hamilton who now make their home in Chicago, as well as New York, Paris and Normandy. Mrs. Hamilton is from old Amarillo oil money. When they married, Mr. Hamilton’s asset was almost solely his intelligence (according to friends he often reads a book a night, and has total recall of whatever he devours), and so it transpired over the years he’s used his head to make a fortune in several businesses including trucking, real estate and food services.

Mrs. Hamilton long had an interest in France although her husband had no interest in traveling to Europe. When they acquired the old Wrigley apartment in Chicago – one of the city’s largest, Catharine, who through her interest in decorating, had developed an expertise in French symmetry and scale, replaced the apartment’s old English paneling (which was donated to a Chicago museum) with her first love - French.

When she finally persuaded her husband to visit France, it took him no time to develop an enduring interest: they bought a beautiful chateau in Normandy that had belonged to Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan (the former Duchess of Marlborough) before the Second World War, and a large apartment in the 8th arrondissement (her only request to her husband – a purely American one – was that it have a pool. It does).

It was David Hamilton’s personal interest in art of gardening in France that led one day in the early 1990s to a tour that Olivier, the Vicomte de Rohan gave him of some of the gardens of Versailles that led to the plot that was the ruin of the Trois Fontaines Bosquet (the three fountains) that Le Notre, Louis XIV’s garden architect, had built in the late 1670s. The topic of restoring those fountains was broached by Rohan.

As he recounted it, a few days later David Hamilton returned with his wife to look at the mound that once had been one of Le Notre’s gems three centuries before. He showed them the area and outlined the history of its construction, subsequent ruin, attempted restoration after Napoleon and subsequent abandonment, suggesting to the Hamiltons that it would be a great gift to see a complete restoration. He recalled how Catharine Hamilton listened and looked around carefully but indicated no apparent interest, leading him to assume that it was not to be. Then, much to his surprise, just a few days later he heard from her: she would take it on, she would see to the restoration of the Trois Fontaines.

All told, it was about a seven-year project. Catharine Hamilton came back to America and began her odyssey of raising the millions to restore the fountains. There were several major fundraising events at Versailles designed around this fundraising, the last being the one this June 2004 when more than 400 Americans, among others, donors, volunteers, media, family and friends attended the dedication of the restored fountains.

Mrs. Hamilton is an exceedingly generous and kind hostess. I was struck by the many many times she thanked everyone for their participation, their donations, their volunteering, their assistance is getting this project done. It was beyond courtesy; it was an extending of the self, a sharing, an inclusiveness. The result was a sense for everyone of belonging to the massive cultural undertaking involving both the United States and France. The Hamiltons brought that famous Texas warmth and hospitality along with the famous American can-do to everything including their parties and receptions at Versailles and in Paris. There were lots of friends and family including her mother, Mrs. Tennessee McNaughton, her sister Mrs. Marsh, whose husband owns the famous Cadillac sculptures ranch in Texas and her daughters Elizabeth and Tennessee.

Many wondered what the Hamiltons will do after the years spent so intensely on this project. They may have no idea themselves but no doubt they will move right along doing constructive interesting things for themselves, their family and friends and even their countries.