DEATH OF A QUEEN
Byline: William Middleton and Natasha Fraser
PARIS — Marie-Helene de Rothschild — the undisputed Grande Dame of Paris society — died Friday at her home in Ferrieres, marking the end of a glittering social era. For more than 10 years she had been severely ill with degenerative arthritis. A mass will be held Wednesday morning at 10:30 a.m. at Eglise Saint Louis-en-l’Ile, just steps from her spectacular Paris home, the Hotel Lambert. She will be buried at a cemetery in Deauville.
In her decades as Paris’ reigning queen, Marie-Helene de Rothschild hosted more fabulous parties than anyone else in France. Her exotic costume balls, grand dinners, family parties and fund-raisers for worthy causes were some of the best in Europe — if not the world.
Isabelle d’Ornano, herself a noted hostess, said Sunday, “Marie-Helene’s parties were the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. She was such a unique person who had a great love of life coupled with extraordinary taste and judgment of quality.”
“She was like a lighthouse for Parisian society,” said decorator Jacques Grange. “She had extraordinary character and style. And her entertaining was so important on all levels.”
Her close friend Dreda Mele said, “She was an exceptional woman who fought for years to live. She was an extraordinary human being. Everyone who knew her well will agree that she was marvelous. Her life was like a fairy tale.”
Oscar de la Renta said, “Marie-Helene was the biggest enhancer of life. She loved life more than anyone I know. I adored her, and she was a really wonderful friend to me and to Francoise. She was so sick for many years, and she fought so hard till the very end.”
“Although we have not been close the last few years for political reasons, we were intimate friends for 25 years,” said Pierre Berge Sunday. “She was someone who counted a lot in my life and I’m very sad.” Berge is convinced her death is not only a loss for high society but also for high fashion. “I’ve already said what would happen if Yves Saint Laurent were to stop doing couture, but with the passing of Marie-Helene, the reason for haute couture has disappeared. It’s not a question of money, and it was more than just les grand bals; it’s a style of living. She was the only one to have that kind of style.”
Marie-Helene married Baron Guy Edouard Alphonse Paul de Rothschild, on February 17, 1957. Both were married when they met the year before, and their decision to divorce their respective spouses caused something of a scandal at the time. As a leader of France’s Jewish community, Guy married Marie-Helene, a Catholic, in a civil ceremony. Each had a son from their first marriages — David de Rothschild and Philippe de Nicolay, and they had one son together, Edouard de Rothschild.
Within a few years of their marriage, however, Marie-Helene acquired a reputation for staging the most extravagant entertainment in Paris. Many of her events were held at the Chateau Ferrieres, the palatial family home, north of Paris, where Guy’s ancestors entertained Louis Napoleon and where, during the Franco-Prussian War, Bismarck had his headquarters.
At one garden party in the summer of 1970, she hired a fleet of black Citrons to ferry 2,000 guests up to the chateau’s grand entrance hall with its enormous double staircase. Guy and Marie-Helene greeted visitors from 5 to 10 p.m. under a chandelier threaded with Sweet William and with the recorded sound of birds singing in the background.
The next year, she hosted her famed Bal Proust honoring the 100th anniversary of the birth of Marcel Proust, where hundreds of guests dined at tables named after characters in “The Remembrance of Things Past” and had their portraits taken by legendary photographer Cecil Beaton.
And those guests included such luminaries as Princess Grace, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, the Duchess of Windsor, Audrey Hepburn, Marella Agnelli, Jacqueline de Ribes, Charlotte Rampling and Andy Warhol.
When the family donated the chateau to the French state, the parties moved to the Hotel Lambert, their Ile St. Louis residence that many regard as the most magnificent townhouse in Paris.
Marie-Helene’s energy was all the more remarkable given the debilitating illness that plagued the last 30 years of her life. It never sapped her free spirit and sense of humor. “She had the most extraordinary vitality,” said Helene Rochas.
Her naturalness, directness, inquisitiveness and courage in facing her illness was greatly admired by her friends, many of whom went to Ferrieres this weekend upon hearing of her death.
Some remember her as the first to come to the aid of a friend and the first to strike down enemies. On her birthdays, they brought her the most extravagant gifts, as though they were bringing gifts to a queen.
In recent years, she spent much of her time in a garionniere — a little isolated room high in the Hotel Lambert where she sat up in bed making phone calls to friends late into the night. “Even when she was very ill she was still fascinated by world events and politics,” said Isabelle d’Ornano. “She never lost her curiosity.”
But her extravagance did create political controversy in the 1970s, when the then- opposition leader Francois Mitterrand named Rothschild as one of a group of banks that he contended were causing inflation. At the time of the Surrealist Ball, with France in the midst of a severe economic recession, it was rumored that French President Georges Pompidou urged Guy de Rothschild to call off the event. Yet Marie-Helene was unapologetic.
“Some people might say it’s throwing money away, but it’s not,” she once insisted. “It’s very healthy. It gives people jobs. It’s an illusion for an evening. If my parties amuse others, and they are happy, then I am, too.”
Not every event she organized, however, was a complete success. She lost points for her role as head of the Paris committee of a 1973 fashion extravaganza at Versailles, when the group of upstart American designers upstaged the locals on French soil. But her biggest social setback came in 1989, when she hosted a gala for the Paris Ballet, long an important cause of Marie-Helene’s. The Palais Garnier event turned into an embarassing debacle due to a strike by the Paris Ballet corps, the very people the evening was intended to benefit.
The daughter of a Belgian diplomat and an Egyptian mother, Marie-HAlAne de Zuylende Nyevelt van de Haar was born in New York. She attended Marymount College, which explained her flawless English and accounted for a somewhat surprising ambition — to become a nun. As she once told W, “Someone asked me what my favorite occupation was, and I said ‘convincing.’ If I feel strongly enough about something, I want to convince everyone. I wanted to be a nun once, you know. I definitely have a missionary side to me.”
She never made any secret of her admiration for New York, and she and Guy even moved there briefly in the early 1980s when the newly elected Mitterrand government nationalized the family bank. Their Upper East Side apartment, on 66th Street, was filled with Old Master paintings, 17th century tapestries, Louis XIV furniture and a host of friends and family. Yet even towards the end of her storybook life, France’s greatest hostess always insisted, “I’m really not very social.”