Wednesday, May 10, 2023. A sunny day but a little cooler in New York yesterday, (high 60s), and New Yorkers taking in the good weather, and hoping for more to keep our heads up.
Every spring in New York City, Barbara de Portago, President of The Versailles-Giverny Foundation, holds its annual fundraiser in a private club.
It is a three-day affair starting out with a lunch for the out of town patrons in the exquisite French home of Gillian Spreckels Fuller. The following day is the black tie dinner replete with Military Cadet panache. And on the third day, Barbara hosts a small dinner for the generous top tier donors at a private residence.
Barbara loves to say she is in the Royal Import business having first devised the format for this event in 1994. It is black tie formal, and graced by her Royal or Imperial guests from a former monarchy in Europe. They are the guest speakers led in by the Color Guard and trumpets at the beginning of the dinner.
Barbara is all business in her approach to things — right down to the last detail. The reason for the fundraising is where the fun is. The result is the glamour and the royal guests speaking about their country, and of course the myriad dreams and daydreams that motivate millions of people every year to visit Versailles and Giverny.
Many people associated with Barbara and her Versailles-Giverny Foundation are also collectors or history buffs or those of us who are out to learn. Because Versailles is what it is — one of the great wonders of the world — it attracts a wide array of fascinating, fascinated and often wealthy people who have the means to help the restoration.
The Foundation continues the important mission of Barbara’s mother and stepfather, Florence and Gerald Van der Kemp, for The Chateau de Versailles and the Home and Gardens of Claude Monet at Giverny.
This year’s Gala dinner was held last Thursday evening, May 4th, and the special guests were their Royal Highnesses, Crown Prince Mohamed Ali of Egypt, who’s grandfather Farouk was the last King of Egypt, and Her Royal Highness The Princess Noal Zaher of Afghanistan.
They are a young, attractive and hard working pair in today’s world; and very interesting.
After the cocktail reception of Taittinger Comtes de Champagne (its most exclusive and premium — and irresistible— cuvée), Their Royal Highnesses came to the podium where the Crown Prince greeted his host and then relayed a message to the guests, now left a bit nonplussed, about how the American Civil War was a boon for Egypt.
In 1861, the United States was the major exporter of cotton in the world. With the onset of the Civil War, the American harbors were closed off leading to a global shortage of cotton. That is when Egyptian cotton producers took over. In 1861, Egypt had only exported 600,000 cantars of cotton, but by 1863 it had more than doubled their production; and it was their new, booming cotton industry that afforded the construction of the Suez Canal in 1863.
The Canal took “pharaonic years” to build under the management of the French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps, and on November 17th, 1869 the yacht l’Aigle (“The Eagle”) — of the beautiful Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III — was the first ship to navigate the Suez Canal.
During its construction, a plan inspired by the Lighthouse of Alexandria was hatched to build a gigantic 45-meter-tall statue at the entrance of the Suez Canal. A “fella” — an Egyptian peasant woman, with her head covered by a veil — would be designed by the French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi.
With the Civil War having ended, the cotton trade returned back to the United States and Egypt’s economy suffered so that they could not afford to finance the colossal statue.
However, Bartholdi’s project was not forgotten. Another Frenchman, Edouard de Laboulaye, President of The Franco American Union Committee, saw an opportunity to commemorate the Centennial of American Independence. He successfully gathered the funds, got Bartholdi to modify the Egyptian statue’s veil to a crown of rays, and here she still stands on Liberty Island since 1886!
Princess Noal then spoke about the forty Golden Years of peace that Afghanistan knew during the reign of her grandfather, the last King of Afghanistan, Mohammad Zahir Shah, who was crowned King in 1933 at the age of 19.
In 1964 he changed his absolute monarchy to a Constitutional one. This new Constitution promoted freedom of the press and political freedoms. Afghan women were fully part of society. The veil was never imposed but was a personal choice. Women were now members of Parliament, doctors, nurses, teachers, and were given the right to vote — even before women could in Switzerland!
The Princess closed her speech by sharing with us that “No matter how long, no matter how dark the night, the sun shall rise again on Afghanistan.”
Well, the sun has started to rise again for Their Royal Highnessess. After decades of living in exile for both their parents and them in Switzerland and France, Egypt has invited Their Royal Highnesses and their children back. They will be returning in July.