Le Bal Proust
Words by Raquel Fernández Sobrín
I have never felt victim of nostalgia related to things that have never happened to me, and at this moment in my life I am almost certain that the secret to moving on is to add what has been lived, loved or possessed to the list of things we let go. Never until I think that, had I existed at some other time in history, I might have received an invitation to a Proust-themed party.
The commemoration of the centenary of the author’s birthday may seem like an excuse, a stilted argument to add to the legend that Marie-Hélène de Rothschild carved out for herself as hostess; as much as the fact that I have decided to commemorate that fifty years have passed since then (and 150, of course, since the author was born) with this text only two steps away from the end of 2021. I will not be the first or the last person to write with ulterior motives, nor to admit it, but to reveal mine on this occasion would ruin the experience for anyone who has ever been resolved to finish reading the seven parts of In Search of Lost Time. That idea is more unbearable to me than any shadow of a doubt.
Bringing Marcel Proust into the table today sounds stranger than it did in the early 1970s, when the handful of people who set the creative pulse of Paris gravitated towards his figure. Emmanuel Ungaro, for example, admitted that his enthusiasm for the novelist involved a retirement to his home in Klosters, Switzerland, to devote himself to his reading before starting to design a collection. “I keep quiet for a month,” he confided to the Washington Post editor Nina Hyde at the time. “I don’t do anything apart from reading, and I read only Proust. It’s on the Proust level, in the total submersion into Proust that I get my ideas and come up with new ways.” Yves Saint Laurent’s obsession, however, was not limited to read and reread. Château Gabriel, the Trouville house he bought with Pierre Bergé in 1983, belonged to Gaston Gallimard, who had received the author on numerous occasions. Not content with that, they commissioned the interior designer Jacques Grange to decorate it using references to Proust’s work. Saint Laurent also used to check into hotels under the name of Monsieur Swann when he did not want to be disturbed.
In Search of Lost Time was a “rite de passage” in Parisian society, and while not all of the 350 principal guests at the Bal Proust had probably read every page of it, they all knew what they were talking about before the first toast. The female guests, in particular, knew who to call when, on receiving the invitation, they discovered that wearing a Belle Époque attire was expected of them. The Duchess of Windsor, Princess Grace of Monaco, Audrey Hepburn, Marisa Berenson, who chose Paul Poiret as her designer and Marquise Louise Casati as her reference, and Elizabeth Taylor, dressed as the Countess of Greffulhe, who inspired the character of Oriana, Countess of Guermantes; arrived punctually at Château de Ferrières, the country home of Marie-Hélène and Guy de Rothschild decorated for the occasion by Jean-François Daigre. Yves Saint Laurent signed the “costumes” of the hostess, Jane Birkin, Nan Kempner and Hélène Rochas. All were photographed by Cecil Beaton.
“As soon as you arrived at Ferrières it was like going back in time, but more luxuriously with highly refined taste… The women wore dresses, bodices, big headdresses, tiaras, lots of jewelry. It was truly the era of Proust”,
“Marie-Hélène used to seat people well at her dinners,” Deeda Mele told Robin Givhan in a series of interviews for her book The Battle of Versailles (2015). “She was so unbelievable. She loved artists; so suddenly during the dinner somebody would be singing. The music was extraordinary. We danced all night.” That dinner, which featured lobster quenelles and duck stuffed with foie, was followed not only by dancing, but also by the arrival of 350 other people in the manner of the customs and habits of Proust’s time, where the tables were small and the later gatherings large. Time has made us less inventive in our party themes and more susceptible in our social conventions.
The generous reporting of the details surrounding the event contrasts with the absence of a chronicle of what happened, what was seen and what was discussed during the hours the guests spent in the house. Although it may be a simple matter of discretion, I am inclined to think that no one dared to play the Proust part regarding a party held in his name.
Silence makes the task of individual memory smoother, remembering what we thought have happened in the terms in which it seemed to us to have happened. That night became the best homage to the author, a dance of memories that sometimes are not clear but, when least expected, might assault us with photographic quality. The certainty that the past, although it never returns, is not as delimited as in its dictionary definition is not a bad starting point for the new year.
P.S. 2. As Omicron has leave all us without New Year’s celebrations, here’s a centenary for 2022: Marcel Proust began writing “In Search of Lost Time” in 1909, and was forced to abandon it in 1922 because of the pneumonia that killed him in November of that year. That makes a century.