Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Susan Gutfreund

On Monday night, last week (6/14/04) in Paris, Susan Gutfreund gave a small dinner for eight at her hotel particulier off the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Among her guests were a retired insurance executive from Texas and his wife, a Frenchman who divides his time between Paris and New York, a film producer from a prominent South American family; an American woman who represents a French couture house in New York, this writer, and the petite French ballerina who found her fame in America dancing on the screen with Gene Kelly and Fred AstaireLeslie Caron. Mlle. Caron, who lives not far from the Gutfreund Paris residence and also owns an inn in Burgundy, has that rare quality sometimes found in movie stars in that she continues to look exactly like the gamine who won our hearts in An American in Paris, Daddy Long Legs and Gigi more than thirty years ago.

The Gutfreund house, as the NYSD reader could see in our Paris/Versailles coverage, is spectacular, at least to these American eyes. The evening was relaxed and quite conventional – cocktails and canapes impeccably served by two impeccable French waiters in the large white and light salon; dinner in an intimate dining room on the floor below and finally demitasse in the library off the grand salon. Very comme il faut, as the French would say. Very.

Mrs. Gutfreund, an American who hails from here there and everywhere according to the reams of newsprint turned out about her over the years, is very at-ease as a hostess and also very down home, a nice juxtaposition to the fancier-than-most atmosphere. She makes an effort with her guests and from what I’ve seen of her, that effort is her signature – it’s always there.

Twenty years ago or so ago when she first hit the fashion pages in New York with a “splash.” Her imagination and sense of luxury provided gilded fodder for the bonanza days of the 80s and 90s in New York. What comes to mind is the Christmas party she gave in the (now former) Gutfreund apartment in the River House on East 52nd Street where the tree was so big it had to be brought into the apartment through a large window and evidently some of the neighbors complained; tsk-tsk. Later there were the stories that she’d spent something like $20 million with the great French decorator Henri Samuel on a Fifth Avenue duplex with a grand staircase that almost (but not quite) rivals the one in Paris.

The grand staircase of John and Susan Gutfreund's hotel particulier
The lavish lifestyle extended to Paris to which she commuted often by Concorde — one story in the hectically heady 1980s had her booking two seats on the Concorde to fly a cake to her husband's birthday party — to Paris where she entertained the haute monde as well as the international tycoons and their princesses.

She was famous for her extravagant gifts to friends. She once sent the late Liliane (Mme. Elie) de Rothschild, an ardent collector of Marie-Antoinettememorabilia, some letters of the ill-fated French queen worth thousands. Mme. de Rothschild is said to have returned the letters, nevertheless impressed by the gesture.

Suzy Menkes
in a column in the International Herald Tribune, covering a couture show in Paris, reported Mrs. Gutfreund’s suggestion when ordering a couture dress, why not ask for it to be buttonless — that way you can “use your own jewels instead.” Or the famous quote: “It’s very expensive to be rich.” Shades and hues of the famous ill-fated French queen. All this from a little girl from out there who once upon a time worked briefly as an airline stewardess.

Times changed; her husband ran into business reversals that, if nothing else, changed the tone of dinner conversation and gossip items for some time. The Gutfreunds’ marriage, however has been one of the few that survived those cash-cushy days when so many were riding high wide and handsome in Nouvelle Society. In the late 90s, through her friendship with filmmakers Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, she even made a few small appearances in their movies.

With their son growing up, more time was required of them on this side of the Atlantic where she found a weekend getaway for them on one of the last great estates on the Main Line (in Villanova). And, after all those years working and living amongst the work of the great interior designers of the world, she’s taken up the vocation herself.

John and Susan Gutfreund
If you talk to Susan Gutfreund today about anything having to do with design – its history, fabrics, furniture, porcelain, silver, Loire Valley textile houses, woven silks of a Louis XVI pattern used by Marie-Antoinette, she can astound you with her encyclopedic knowledge and know-how. Friends who’ve known her for years say that she is a bit mellower now with all the been-there-done-that now part of her life portfolio.

Curiosity seems to have been Susan Gutfreund’s guide
(and ultimately her real mentor). She’s one of the most interesting women in New York or Paris, as well as the stuff of novels, be it Flaubert or O’Hara. Although they still maintain the Paris residence, because of her business, her son in school and her husband’s businesses, the Gutfreunds spends far less time in Paris these days – maybe two and a half months a year in total. If you run into her on the street, she’s most likely on her way to an appointment looking for something for a client’s house or apartment she’s working on. Working girl makes good.