The Belle Époque, christened in hindsight after the carnage of the First World War, looked back to its own imagined golden ages as much as it looked to the future. Although the French monarchy was never to return, there were followers who viewed it through rose-coloured glasses for both political and aesthetic reasons.
At the dawn of the 20th century, two buildings named Palais Rose were completed within two years of each other – one in Paris and one nearby – both inspired by the Grand Trianon at Versailles, built over two centuries earlier. Each housed an aristocratic figure noted for his elegance and extravagance: Count Robert de Montesquiou and Marquis Boni de Castellane.
Unlike the marquis, Montesquiou did not have his made to order. It was commissioned in 1899 by an engineer named Arthur Schweitzer on a plot of land in Le Vésinet, now an outlying suburb of Paris. Schweitzer never got to live in it and Indian billionaire Ratanji Jamsetji Tata – whose family’s name can still be seen on a bewildering array of vehicles, machinery and products in India – snapped it up when he went broke.
Seen from the road, the Palais Rose appears as an elegant, relatively modest pavilion atop a grassy rise, but the building is more extensive than it seems. Montesquiou first laid eyes on it in 1908 and announced that he would die, die if it were not his the following day. Well, it took two days to secure a sale agreement but the silly old drama queen somehow managed to cling to life. He gave it the name it bears to this day as well as a separate building, “l’Ermitage”, to hold his huge book collection. In the garden, meanwhile, was an even more concrete memento of his nostalgia for the ancien régime: he erected a rotunda to house a large bath once owned by Louis XIV’s mistress, Madame de Montespan (this water feature, which inspired poems by Lucie Delarue-Mardrus and Jean Lorrain, is now back at Versailles).
Like his previous properties – an apartment on the Quai d’Orsay, Pavillon Montesquiou in Versailles, Pavillon des Muses in Neuilly – the interiors of the Palais Rose were a virtuoso expression of the count’s discernment and refinement (all the black and white images here date from Montesquiou’s tenure). Its distance from the city matched the count’s own arm’s-length relations with society, but visitors still made the effort, including Gabriele d’Annunzio, the Marchesa Casati, Colette, Jean Cocteau and Harry Graf Kessler (Marcel Proust once made out for the palace but turned back after an asthma attack). Montesquiou, an arch elitist accustomed to getting his own way, engaged in years of correspondence with the local authorities, complaining about the noise of proletarian merriment coming from the annual municipal fair which took place on a plot next to the Palais Rose. Le Vésinet’s councillors doubtless breathed a sigh of relief when Montesquiou left in 1921, never to return; he died in Menton toward the end of the year.
The next noted resident would be a woman not only well known to the count, and a guest at the palace, as we have seen, but one with whom he had numerous points of intersection: the Marchesa Casati. They had both been painted by Giovanni Boldini (who also painted ibises in the Palais Rose’s garden); Montesquiou enjoyed a fervid bromance with Gabriele d’Annunzio, Casati’s lover; and both count and marchesa had a morbid fascination with the much-photographed Second Empire courtesan Countess de Castiglione.
Casati turned Montesquiou’s library into a portrait gallery, but there was only one sitter: each picture bore the striking features of the Palais Rose’s chatelaine. The extravagance of the gesture was typical. The marchesa had burnt through a huge fortune chasing the dark rush of fleeting aesthetic fulfilment. She had also hosted some of the great parties of the era and in the Palais Rose she set about trying to once more build an event out of the random magic of her life. But her last party would turn out to be a damp disaster and a portent of decline. The theme was “famous couples in history”, with many guests drawing on the same Bourbon nostalgia which had first inspired the Palais Rose. But like the Marquis de Cuevas’s post-war blow-out it was woefully ill-timed, scheduled in the middle of a general strike which had inflamed an already fractious France, leaving it in no mood to indulge dragged-up retro-toffs buzzed on champagne and entitlement. Those same working class neighbours who had disturbed Montesquiou’s repose now peered avidly over the walls under menacing skies as the spectacle came spectacularly undone. The musicians never arrived (most likely on strike). There was no Casati; she was meant to appear as “Eve” but lost her nerve. And her garden was certainly no Eden. In The Twilight Years: Paris in the 1930s, William Wiser describes a scene that could have been directed by Buñuel:
While the assembled guests wandered the gardens like untethered livestock, deprived of an orchestra, no hostess in sight, the crowd on the wall and from upper-storey windows applauded the fiasco as if staged for their benefit.
The folly culminated in a sudden downpour that scattered guests and audience alike, the costumed women lifting the mille-feuilles skirts of their ball gowns as they ran shrieking for the shelter of cars and carriages to end the night’s misbegotten affair.
Next morning a team of bailiffs arrived to confront the absentminded marquise at the behest of her debtors, but there was nothing in the way of collateral to offer them except Eve’s papier-mâché fig leaf and the somnolent snake “Adam” had refused to carry to the garden party.
Casati was finished in continental society and fled to London.
The Palais Rose’s last illustrious inhabitant we know of was Charles de Gaulle, who was briefly quartered in L’Ermitage in 1940. Towards the end of her life Josephine Baker expressed a desire to buy the property, although she died before anything came of it. The palace remains a private residence, although it is unclear who lives there now. It was listed as a historic monument in 1986, a status clearly powerless to prevent unsympathetic renovations. At least it fared better than Boni’s Palais Rose, which fell to the wrecking ball in 1969.