A Real Estate Story

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A view from the terrace of mid-Manhattan looking west from the river under a three-quarter moon. The tallest building (on the left) is the 72-story Trump World Tower.

Tuesday, November 8, 2022. Very warm yesterday for mid-autumn in New York (and thereabouts) in the high 70s although dropping to the high 40s at night, possibly ending the unseasonal summer-like temperatures.

Fascination: France and Fouquet. Last week I was sitting in my assigned seat in the main ballroom of the Hotel Pierre. The vast room has been completely redesigned. Everything about it is now totally different — looking like a brand new hotel. The occasion was the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation’s annual fundraising luncheon. The ADDF was created by the Brothers LauderLeonard and Ronald in 1998 — to find a cure for the disease.

Waiting for the event at my assigned seat, taking in the amazing changes of the ballroom, I happened to be sitting next to Susan Gutfreund who pointed out the new chandeliers, which are large and beautiful. Susan said they were hand blown, made in Italy, and are called Le Cont chandeliers. And very special.

The conversation starter in the newly renovated ballroom of the Pierre.

I thought she said “vicomte” like the famous French chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte. Realizing that I did not hear her correctly she repeated it more clearly for these ears. Coincidentally, she added, she also loved Vaux-le-Vicomte.

I told her I was fascinated by Vaux-le-Vicomte. Anyone would be. After all, it’s a magnificent palace surrounded by exquisitely planned landscaping, and one with a story of Grand Irony.

The front entrance of Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte.
View of the garden front.

Susan said she not only felt that way, but in 1979 she rented the dining room in the palace and hosted a dinner for 18 guests to celebrate her husband John’s 50th birthday, celebrated with a Rothschild and an Agnelli among the guests.

One of the ceremonial rooms at Vaux-le-Vicomte set for dinner.

It was the very first time in four generations of the family owned estate that space had been “rented out” for a special occasion. And it so happened that on a Friday night Susan was hosting a dinner for Alexandre de Vogüé, one of three brothers who inherited the estate from their father, who inherited it from their grandfather, who inherited it from their great-grandfather, who purchased the property in the mid-19th century during a difficult economic period. Great-grandfather, whose fortune came from sugar, also acquired many of its valuable pieces of art, furniture and décor.

However, aside from its splendor and antiquity, it is a place with a story that is now legend in France and famous for centuries now.

Ascanio, Jean-Charles, and Alexandre de Vogüé representing the fifth generation of their family to manage the domain.

Vaux-le-Vicomte was the creation of one Nicolas Fouquet an aristocrat like all who served the king. He was known for his intelligence, his boldness, and most of all for his devotion to the monarchy.

Nicolas Fouquet.

He had been hired by Cardinal Mazarin who was the de facto head of the monarchy overseeing the child Louis born in 1638 and five years later inherited the throne.

It was through the Cardinal’s decisions that Nicholas Fouquet was put in charge of the French treasury which had been in serious trouble. Overspending on military and palaces for the rich and titled. And medals for the generals.

He was charged with replenishing the French treasury and worked closely with Mazarin’s private secretary, Jean-Baptist Colbert who was also four years younger than Fouquet in his early 20s.

Jean-Baptiste Colbert.

When Cardinal Mazarin died in 1661, Fouquet would have been next in line to become Chief Minister. But the now 22-year-old Louis XIV, who was old enough to exercise power, decided to abolish the post, giving himself absolute control of the French state at age 22.

Fouquet then in his early 40s, continued to prosper. He was also a rich man who had married a woman from the richest family in France. She died leaving him her fortune; and then he married another girl from his class — also very rich.

In the meantime he had begun to build his palace. He saw its grandeur as an expression of the greatness of France. He was not alone among his contemporaries in power in that way of thinking. That particular way of looking at life can still be found among us, and even in front of us at times.

Jealous of Fouquet’s success, however, Colbert found a way to change the power his rival possessed. He set out early accusing Fouquet of embezzling millions. In reality it was stolen by Mazarin who lived in a splendor that would rival any monarch. He died a very rich man.

However, despite warnings from his friends, Fouquet did not suspect that a plot was brewing.

On the night of August 17, 1661, Nicolas Fouquet opened his new estate to his world and hosted a lavish soirée to honor Louis XIV at Vaux-le-Vicomte.

Unbeknownst to him, just a few days earlier, Louis XIV had, with his “absolute power,” taken up where Colbert was powerless: the King decided to imprison Fouquet.  He attended the dinner given for him, and he took it all in, walking through the gardens, dining, and enjoyed a theatre play followed by enchanting fireworks.

The great author Voltaire would later write, “On August 17, at six in the evening Fouquet was King of France, at two in the morning, he was nobody.”

The formal gardens designed by André Le Nôtre.

Three weeks later, Fouquet was arrested in Nantes by d’Artagnan, captain of the King’s musketeers. The trial seemed endless. Finally the judges voted to have him banished from France.

However, Louis XIV the King had other ideas. He intervened, exercising his prerogative to overrule the judges. Instead, he imposed a sentence of life imprisonment. This was the only time in French history a Monarch used his pardoning power to worsen the sentence. Fouquet was then incarcerated in Pignerol, where he died on March 23, 1680. He was 65 years old.

A century later the great-grandson Louis XVI and his Queen Marie Antoinette were removed by the crowds from the palace that Louis had built for himself — far outclassing, outshining and diminishing his image of the palace that Nicholas Fouquet never got to enjoy beyond the dream itself.

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