The baron’s balls

Sorry for the longer-than-anticipated pause, but I’m back. And today it’s all about Alexis von Rosenberg, the Baron de Redé, the “best-kept man in Paris” and one of the great entertainers of the 20th century (“entertainers” used here in the Elsa Maxwell rather than the Johnny Mathis sense, you understand). I wrote about his magnificent Parisian home some time ago and promised we would return to talk about the parties he threw there – the kind of thing I often say and usually forget (see also: “I’ll be updating daily”).

But this time I remembered!

The baron, who was born in Zurich in 1922 and died in Paris on this day* in 2004, had no occupation as such, though he claimed “one never has enough time in which to do nothing”. In his case “nothing” included restoring the museum-like Hôtel Lambert, the sumptuous 17th century Paris residence he eventually shared with his friends Guy and Marie-Hélène de Rothschild.

Alexis works the room

Also within the “nothing” remit was Redé’s role as one of the city’s last great hosts, standing in a tradition of party-givers strung across 20th century Paris like fairy lights: Étienne de Beaumont, George de Cuevas, Charles de Beistegui, Marie-Laure de Noailles. Redé was friends with them all, and took notes. The rake-thin, dapper baron, whom Nancy Mitford described as “a tie-pin, thin, stiff & correct with a weeny immovable head on a long stiff neck”, lived in the dying world of the beau monde, and only there. He was little known to the public and when not entertaining he preferred magnificent seclusion to the high profile antics of his famous friends, declaring “publicity is dangerous”.

Much of the baron’s entertaining therefore took place on a relatively modest scale in the Hôtel Lambert’s Hercules Gallery, either at a long table or at smaller individual settings. The auction of his estate in 2005 included elegantly painted diagrams showing the seating arrangements for these occasions. There’s Jeanne Moreau, for instance, opposite Salvador Dalí, bumping elbows with Guy de Rothshild. And if Madame Moreau were to get frisky and throw bread rolls, they would more likely than not have landed on an aristocrat.

Circulate, darling, circulate

But there were two notable larger events, the first in 1956. Extravagant headpieces was the theme of “Le Bal des Têtes”, essentially an Easter Bonnet Parade for people too rich to have ever experienced an Easter Bonnet Parade. Many of the ostentatious titfers were designed by a then-unknown Yves Saint Laurent, and the judges included the Duchess of Windsor (whose occupation really was just going to parties in Paris) and Charles de Beistegui.

And it was Beistegui who, we must presume, provided the inspiration for Redé’s other great ball, “Le Bal Oriental”. The Spanish bon vivant had, after all, hosted an event of the same name in a Venetian palazzo in 1951, often described as one of the great social events of the century, and at which Redé was a guest.

The baron’s blow-out took place on 5 December, 1969. For this highpoint on the Parisian social calendar, the Hôtel Lambert was lavishly decorated in a non-specific Orientalist style. Two enormous papier maché elephants stood in the courtyard as guests made their way to the entrance, where the grand staircase was flanked by black torchbearers (authenticity schmauthenticity, this was a party, not a National Geographic documentary). Alexandre Serebriakoff’s jewel-like watercolours of the event represent a high-water mark in high-society camp, perfectly capturing the gilded collision of Baroque and Bangkok; The Sun King and I, if you will.

Considering the riot of colour around him, the baron was relatively subdued, appearing as a Mogul prince in a deep blue costume designed by Pierre Cardin. Their association dated back 20 years: Cardin was at Christian Dior when Redé first asked him to run up something sensaysh on his Singer for Étienne de Beaumont’s “Bal des Rois”.

All of this was, of course, fabulous and over-the-top and probably a blast if you were there. But if the event had a weak point, it was the guest list. Redé had an old queen’s weakness for a title, perhaps conscious that his own baronetcy, while legitimate, was the subject of malicious gossip. Compare, for example, Truman Capote’s 1966 Black and White Ball, another candidate for the party of the century. Capote put the very famous together with the very, very famous and had them all wear masks – a dash of wit that the baron sorely lacked.

The day after the Oriental Ball the Rolling Stones would play Altamont, an event commonly acknowledged as the end of the 60s; Redé seemed unaware the decade had ever started. Brigitte Bardot was about as swinging as the guest list got, otherwise the turbans generally sat on the same old titled heads.

Once the guests had left and the eastern trappings had been dismantled, the Baron withdrew from large-format entertaining, claiming that “it creates jealousy”. He lived out his days in the Lambert, at once his home and his greatest accomplishment.

* There is an odd lack of consensus over the date of his death; take your pick from 7, 8 or 9 July, 2004.

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11 comments

  1. Terry

    Pleased to have you back blogging again, James. Your description: “…the gilded collision of Baroque and Bangkok; The Sun King and I, if you will” was worth the wait.

  2. John Hastings

    Living well, is the best revenge.
    I cannot imagine how anyone could fall for this fey youth, who in old age looked rather like a giant poached egg.
    His way with a franc or a dollar is impressive, yet his life reads like one epic essay in self-embalming.

  3. I love your blog, just having discovered it-I feel somewhat deprived all of a sudden. Great post here with astonishing photos, pics. I will follow along so as not to miss a thing, Gaye

    • Hi Gaye,
      Thanks for the kind words. I hope to be posting more often – I know it can be a bummer when you get into a blog and find the posts suddenly drop off. James

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  7. inga Kohn

    Would LOVE to see the guest list of that ball!

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