Immediately following the end of the Second World War my father, an army officer, found himself administering a district in Northern Germany. My father was really good at administration and made things run as smoothly as possible. Whilst carrying out his duties he decided to get married and subsequently spent part of his honeymoon in the Rue du Faubourg St. Honore in Paris. During his honeymoon he had the good fortune to visit the beguiling and beautiful Hotel de Charost – which was situated a few metres away from where he and his new wife were staying. The Hotel de Charost is now the British ambassador’s residence in Paris.
In a recent article the BBC’s Paris correspondent, Hugh Schofield, tells us something about the early days of this wonderful building. It was built in the 1720s when the Rue de Faubourg Saint-Honore ‘was a winding road that passed through fields and market gardens to the village of Roule.’ He continues with a story guaranteed to put the spice into any honeymoon:
‘For our purposes the Hotel de Charost comes into its own when it was bought in 1803 by the wayward Pauline Borghese, sister of Napoleon, wife of an Italian prince and by all accounts a bit of a wrong ‘un. In a history of the embassy, we read that at her levees or receptions Borghese liked to walk around naked in order to be admired; a “magnificent black man” carried her into and out of her bath; and if she felt cold, she warmed her feet in the decolletage of a lady-in-waiting lying on the floor.’
Yes, the French certainly know how to enjoy the delights of sensuality.
‘Time,’ writes Schofield, ‘is too short to describe the beauty of the Hotel de Charost. Suffice to say that in all its wonderful salons, the marbled hall, the ballroom, the state dining room, and the Duff Cooper Library, it combines the elegance of classical French design with the warmth and comfort of the British feel.’
All this means that ‘Pauline Borghese, can’t have been all bad though, because the house as we see it today is basically hers. Much of the furniture – Empire style – is what she acquired, as are the silk damasks on the walls. In one room, next to a bed that was later slept in by both King Edward VII and the late Queen Mother, there’s a stunning framed mirror known as a psyche. I can just imagine the narcissistic Borghese twisting round to get a rear glimpse of her own stunning frame.
Napoleon himself used to come to the house to have assignations with one of his sister’s ladies-in-waiting, a certain Madame de Mathis. He came in by the garden, and they made love somewhere near where the current ambassador and his wife like to take their tea.’
Yes, one can only admire the refinements of taste (and eroticism) that continue to define so much of French culture.
As he concludes his article, Hugh Schofield draws our attention to one of the many differences that distinguish the English from the French. This time it’s about etiquette:
‘Did you know,’ he writes, ‘that according to British etiquette cutlery has to be laid face up (fork prongs in the air), but in France it’s vice versa – prongs down? Apparently it causes no end of raised eyebrows with some of the guests at ambassadorial receptions…’
Back in 1946 my father did not have the luck to be invited to any such reception.
However, he did tell me that he managed to secure, for his beloved wife, a soft-boiled egg from a rather devious and money-grubbing restaurateur – whose establishment was situated somewhere up in Montmartre. Eggs were still in very short supply in Paris during the spring of 1946 so the egg in question had genuine scarcity value. My father was delighted to be able to offer the soft-boiled egg to his wife – in lieu of an engagement ring. However, his delight soon turned to dismay: he was obliged to pay such an exorbitant price for the egg that he had to cut short his honeymoon and return as quickly as he could to Bremen in Northern Germany.
Footnote: With thanks to Hugh Schofield’s charming article entitled: ‘Scandalous tales from the British Embassy in Paris.’