Having recently been to Austria (again) and inevitably but  nevertheless unpremeditatedly  stumbled upon an earthly remnant of the famed Sissi, Franz Joseph’s bohemian Empress, in the form of a palace called Kaiservilla, my fascination with her legend instantly rekindled. Thus I ended up buying yet another biography depicting the bizarre destiny of the much idolized monarch whose blazing icon still lingers over the lore-inspired part of our collective memory quite as if time would not attempt diminishing such rarefied a charm – although perhaps time in itself shares not half the merits for its transcendence in the detriment of intensive propaganda which doubtlessly enhances the Austrian economy with its touristic value. So, out of a melange of eagerness and spontaneous, exceptional magnanimity, I made my pecuniary contribution by purchasing Sophie Zavadill’s “Elisabeth, Empress of Austria” and Jean des Cars’ “Sissi, Empress of Austria” (do note I’m aware of the phenomenal difference between these two exceedingly dissimilar titles), managing to devour them in a bit under 2 days.

Here’s one delicious fragment to justify my enthusiasm and concomitantly provide an insight in Sissi’s complex personality:

Sissi, portrait by Hungarian artist Gyula Benczúr

During a carnival she and Ida Ferenczy attended a masked ball in secret. It was the Redoute, which is still held annually in the grand ballroom of the Hofburg. The emperor knew nothing of his wife’s escapade. She also deceived her servants by having herself undressed as usual, going to bed, and pretending to sleep – just as in a novel.  When her servants had withdrawn, Ida Ferenczy slipped into her room with the fancy-dress costume, a magnificent yellow domino made of heavy brocade. Ida also brought the empress a red blonde wig and mask with long black tassels to completely cover her face. Ida wore a red domino and was also masked- as is still the custom at the Redoute.

‘The two slipped into the hall and at first only watched the goings-on from the the balcony. Elisabeth was fascinated. She had been to every sort of functioning by then but never to a masked ball. When she became tired of looking, the empress selected from the crownd a young man who was obviously without an escort. Ida brought him, a government employee in his late twenties, to the masked empress, who spent the rest of the evening in the company of this Fritz Pacher. She questioned him about politics, asked whether he was satisfied with the government, inquired what he thought of the empress and finally spoke about her favorite poet, Heinrich Heine. She flirted with the young man but could not be moved to lift her mask by a centimeter. The ball of the yellow domino was followed by a series of letters between the blonde “Gabrielle” and Pacher. These letters have survived and confirm the fairy-tale story.

More than ten years later, Elisabeth wrote a poem called “Long, long ago: the song of the yellow domino”.’

(“Elisabeth, Empress of Austria” by Sophie Zavadill)

I thought it fit to conclude the series of most glamorous balls held in the last century with one which took place at Château de Ferrières, the Rothschild residence that hosted the first party of the cycle too, thus enforcing a certain impression of circularity much needed to complete the sense of times past. 

Marisa Berenson, actress and model, depicts the fabulous evening so vividly I find it quite ineffectual to attempt a personal description of an event I was part of in my dreams solely, so I can merely inquire about how you regard this type of exquisite social gathering and otherwise live you to relish the accreditable recountals of a witness and participant.

Le Bal du Palais d’Hiver

It just so happened that I stumbled across an incredibly posh and surprisingly well composed series of five episodes on the most exquisite XXth century parties I’m going to use as a main support for my own sequence, just to baffle a bit the monotony this blog has, alas, succumbed to.

So without further (and obviously unnecessary) introductory lines, behold the first sample.

As if anticipating the ensuing horrors of the Russian Revolution, Tzar Nicholas II, knowingly the last Romanov ever to sit on his rightful throne, and Empress Alexandra, whose demeanor, like her mother in law,  I’ve always disapproved of, threw the most dazzling party at the Palais d’Hiver.

The Surrealist Ball

How splendiferously eccentric can a mid-late 20th century ball get?

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Apparently, the Rothschilds forward their answer through a flamboyant surrealist party of oddities galore, as anticipated in the picture above, which gives gives an accurate account of just what unusual looks they could conceive. The Rothschilds being the banker family that honorably took over Croesus’ reputation in modern days. Surrealism- the inter-bellum artistic current prizing the chaotic, fantastical  absurd. Think Dali (who not coincidentally was a guest).

Now, another participant at the mentioned gathering, Baron Alexis de Redé, extensively describes all one would love to know about the whole ‘a tad ludicrous’  event:

On 12 December 1972, Marie-Hélène gave her Surrealist Ball at Ferriéres. This time the guests were asked to come in black tie and long dresses with Surrealist heads.[ The year before, 1971, the Rothschilds were hosts to a glorious Proust Ball assembling more than half the international elite] The invitation was printed with reversed writing on a blue and cloudy sky, inspired by a painting by Magritte. To decipher the card, it had to be held to a mirror.

invitation

‘For the evening the chateau was floodlit with moving orange lights to give the impression that it was on fire. The staircase inside was lined by footmen dressed as cats that appeared to have fallen asleep in a variety of staged poses.’

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Guests had to pass throught a kind of labyrinth of Hell, made of black ribbons to look like cobwebs. The occasional cat appeared to rescue the guests and lead them to the tapestry salon. Here they were greeted by Guy with a hat to resemble a still-life on a platter, and by Marie-Hélène wearing the head of a giant weeping tears made of diamonds.

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Marie Hélène proved that she had the flare and imagination to create something unique and worthwhile. None of this was created by charm alone. It needed a degree of ruthless determination. She attended to every minute detail of style in her life and also in her entertaining. She was a great hostess with all the qualities. She loved parties and people. She was forever in quest of new talent and new figures to entertain from the world of the arts, literature, dance and haute couture. She mixed them with the more established set of Paris society. Everyone was intrigued. Marie-Hélène’s parties took on such importance that one social figure threatened to commit suicide unless she was invited…

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It is not possible to repeat such things now for many reasons. But it is fascinanting to look back and to remember these occasions, which dominated our thoughts and plans to such an extent for so many months. I am happy that I took part in so many, and happy that I gave some myself.

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And with this verdict, reminiscent of Proust although much less highfalutin,  ends our attendee’s account of the soiree which, lush and exuberant in spirit, inaugurates a “Parties of the Past Century” series.

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