Who was it that said at springtime a young man’s fancy turns to love? When temperatures went on the rise some sixty years or so ago, the best place for the turning was Paris. Yes, Paris is eternal and all that; yes, Paris is the place where rich Americans go to die; yes, Paris is the city that Papa Hemingway said always has new lovers. But it also took Paris only ten years to recover from the war and to reclaim the title of being the most cosmopolitan and glamorous city in the world.
London was quirky and quaint, but one could go nuts waiting for a warm beer and places shut down at midnight. There were some hotels with showers, but the food was bad, and some very proper people with bad teeth wore funny black round hats called bowlers, although London did have its charms. New York was already the capitalist centre of the universe, and the WASPs ruled the roost (before Hollywood and the Bronx took over) but however gritty, the city lacked a certain je ne sais quoi when compared to the city of light. Rome was a contender, perhaps too beautiful to be real, but the place was more of a postcard than a city.
Ah, Paris. Once the snows had melted, the international set made its way northwest to the best hotels, places like the Plaza Athénée, the Ritz, and the Bristol, or to their hôtel particulier — as townhouses are known in France — on the chic left bank or around the Arc de Triomphe.
The reason Paris was so glamorous back then was that rich and cultured South Americans, upper class Egyptians, Greeks from distinguished backgrounds, and, of course, cultured Americans viewed the French capital as their second home, with a romantic appreciation of its arts and history. I remember certain evenings chez Maxim’s, or lunches at the Relais Plaza, when French nationals were in the minority.
"London was quirky and quaint, but one could go nuts waiting for a warm beer and places shut down at midnight..."
How did a young man break into French society back then? Easy. The equivalent of the debutante ball was called a “Rallie” in France, and every society beauty — and some not so comely — presented themselves and met young men of their background about five times in spring. Young women called de Montesquieu, de Caraman, von Schoenburg, Lubermisky, Troubetzkoy, Beghin, des Royes, and others of their ilk met young men called de Ganay, d’Ornano, de Segur, d’Arcangues and so on. And Taki. It was as simple as pie.
But what really made springtime in Paris unforgettable back then were the balls given by various socialites. These private affairs started the social season. There was nothing like being young, dressed to the nines, and arriving to a glittering ball with endless possibilities as far as romance was concerned. A few come to mind: the very first one I attended, given by Countess de Rochambeau, born Sheila McIntosh back in the good old US of A, was in her château just outside Paris.
Her hubby was a descendant of one of France’s war heroes in the American War of Independence, along with Lafayette. The moolah was Yankee. The countess is still with us, just. Her ball was tops. Then there were the Rothschild balls at Ferrieres, their chateau near Paris, and the famous Rede ball in Paris itself. (It was the first ball to include a Hollywood celebrity, Liz Taylor, who brought along a little known Richard Burton).
"What really made springtime in Paris unforgettable back then were the balls given by various socialites..."
The Agnelli ball was at the Bois de Boulogne, and I remember seeing a solitary flic — French for cop — drinking a rather expensive wine outside the enormous tent. (Today there would be a revolution if a private affair were held in the Bois).
Springtime in Paris was also the start of the polo season, with horny Argentines arriving eager to sell their ponies to overweight Frenchmen and bed their wives. Which they did regularly. Most upper class Frenchmen had mistresses, and their wives had lovers, but absolute discretion was practiced in public.
My mentor, the famous playboy and seducer Porfirio Rubirosa, had me stay in his house, a 15-minute drive from the centre of the capital. In the morning we’d box in his private gym, then in a ten-minute drive we’d be at the Bagatelle polo club, in the middle of the Bois de Boulogne, work the ponies, then shower and go for lunch at the Relais Plaza. No other city had polo right in the middle of its main park, and in no other city did all the pretty young girls appear every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday to watch the matches.
Looking back it was paradise, and then it was time for the French tennis championships, again right in the middle of the city, at Place d’Auteuil. Polo, tennis, private balls, there will never again be a time like it. Now we have sponsored events with celebrities like Cardi B as stars. Think of it and weep.
Want more friends in high places? See what Nick Grimshaw thinks of festival season…