Icons / December 2016

Through the Looking Glass: The Rothschilds

Baron Guy de Rothschild preached what he called ‘richesse oblige’ — the idea that his money-laden family should live up to their fortune. In his wife, Marie-Hélène (who also happened to…
Guy with Marie-Hélène and their horse Cerisoles after it won at Chantilly, 1957.

On December 12, 1972, Baron Guy Édouard Alphonse Paul de Rothschild and his wife, Baroness Marie-Hélène de Rothschild, threw a little soirée at the Château de Ferrières, their mansion in Brie, on the outskirts of Paris. Of course, this being the Rothschilds, it wasn’t so little: it was, in fact, a soirée on steroids. The ‘Diner de Têtes Surrealistes’ had a dress code of “black tie, long gowns, surrealist heads”, and guests arrived to find the redoubtable château — designed and built in 1859 by Sir Joseph Paxton, architect of London’s Crystal Palace, and hailed as “the finest example of Second Empire style” — floodlit with moving orange lights, to give the impression it was ablaze. Inside, the 150 guests encountered a mise en scène that only confirmed the detail-obsessed Marie-Hélène as the ‘Queen of Parisian hostesses’ — the press’s regal appellation for her.

The main staircase was lined with men dressed as cats, feigning sleep in a range of staged poses, only to spring to life and ‘rescue’ hapless revellers who got entangled in a web-like labyrinth of black ribbons. There were plates covered with fur, dead fish in lieu of forks, and table settings made from taxidermy tortoises. The pudding was a life-size model of a woman, naked but for a rose fig-leaf, lying on a bed of complementary flora, the whole confection spun out of sugar. Audrey Hepburn arrived with a birdcage on her head, à la Magritte; Hélène Rochas sported a hat in the shape of an arm that morphed into a gramophone horn.

Guests were eventually led to the tapestry salon, where the baron and baroness held court, he in a hat that was a kind of 3D rendering of a 17th-century Dutch still life painting (dead pheasant, rotting fruit) and she in a stag’s head replete with towering antlers and eyes crying pear-shaped diamond ‘tears’. Taking in the spectacle, many of the slack-jawed carousers may have called to mind an earlier comment of the baron’s: “According to an old French motto, noblesse oblige — one must live up to one’s name,” he said. “The Rothschilds’ condition of life has imposed on them a second motto: richesse oblige — one must live up to one’s fortune.” Thankfully, in Marie-Hélène, the baron had found someone who could ably assist him in rising to any number of occasions. “She is excessive, exotic, rare, flamboyant, passionate,” he extolled on the occasion of their silver wedding anniversary in “She has a fabulous appetite for life, emotions always at their height, a spontaneity with a thousand facets, as ever-changing as the sea. And charm which defies description.”

Marie-Hélène transformed both the Château de Ferrières and the couple’s central Paris residence, the 17th-century Hôtel Lambert on Île Saint-Louis, enlisting the formidable assistance of Alexis de Redé, the world-class dandy and flâneur whom Nancy Mitford called “la Pompadour de nos jours”, and the acclaimed interior designer François Catroux, to create the far-from-minimalist look that became known as Le Goût Rothschild: a mixture of Napoleon III objets d’art, Orientalist detailing, Dutch marquetry and Indonesian textiles, with precious miniatures and rare books mixed in with family photos, plants and flowers.

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Stuart Husband