In all the retrospective accounts of 2009 and the great and good who weren’t as fortunate as we to be around for its conclusion, one name probably eluded your attention: Paulette Howard-Johnston. While scarcely famous in her own right, through family connections and extraordinary longevity she represented the 21st century’s last personal link with the greatest writers and artists of the Belle Époque.
Born Paulette Helleu in 1904, she was the daughter of French artist Paul-César Helleu, known particularly for his portraits of women as well as for the magnificent astronomical ceiling of New York’s Grand Central Station. Helleu was well connected in society and acclaimed as an artist; the same year Paulette was born he received the Légion d’honneur award.
Helleu was a good friend of Marcel Proust, who immortalised him (along with a whit of Whistler) under the name Elstir in À la recherche du temps perdu. Proust was fascinated by the then-novel all white interior of the Helleus’ home, and it was there that the young Paulette met the author; other visitors included the artist Boldini, Robert de Montesquiou and aristocratic bon vivant Boni de Castellane. At her father’s side Paulette visited Claude Monet at his famous Giverny estate in 1924, timidly engaging him in conversation about his inspirations, the aged, near-blind artist confessing to her that Velasquez’s Las Meninas had moved him to tears.
With her marriage to a Rear-Admiral in 1955 Paulette became Mrs Howard-Johnston. Towards the end of her long life she devoted herself to preserving her father’s legacy and his depictions of the Belle Époque, of which, she said, “I may well be the only survivor”. That was in 2001; in 2009, there was no longer any doubt.
Read more about Howard-Johnston in this obituary from the Telegraph (and say what you will, they do a great obituary, perhaps because “dead” is pretty much their demographic).