Wednesday, March 16, 2011


It is difficult to take the measure of a man through someone else's eyes and experience. After all, we don't actually meet them, except, perhaps, in the pages of diaries, magazine articles, even cookery books - as is the case, in my experience, with Norman Douglas. Over the years, I haven't bothered to read any of his books, and the other day I remembered why. I shall read them now - I discover that the university library has some - South Wind, Old Calabria and even a collection of limericks entitled Some Limericks, Collected for the Use of Students, Ensplendour'd with Introduction, Geographical Index, and with Notes Explanatory and Critical. Anyone who can write such a title deserves to be read, however bawdy the contents of his book.

I was put off Douglas years ago because of what I read or, rather, read into the quotation below, another from Elizabeth David's An Omelette and a Glass of Wine. The young man referred to, it seems to me,was simply being inexperienced, adulatory and looking for what we nowadays call validation for expressing what was, in post-war Europe, and could be still, a valid socialist point of view about the haves and the haves-not. Looking back, I wonder if I, young as I was, took Douglas, and the victim (as I considered him), and myself far too seriously. I wonder also, as I write the last sentence, if a reproof ever really needs be annihilating.

"In the summer of of 1951 there was much talk on Capri, and elsewhere in Italy, of a great fancy-dress ball to be given in a Venetian palace by a South American millionaire. The entertainment was to be on a scale and of a splendour unheard of since the great days of the Serene Republic. One evening, Norman, a group of young men and I myself were sitting late at Georgio's cafe in the Piazza. Criticism of the Palazzo Labia ball and the squandered thousands was being freely expressed. Norman was bored. He appeared to be asleep. At a pause in the chatter he opened his eyes. 'Don't you agree, Mr Douglas?' asked one of the eager young men. 'All that money.' He floundered on. 'I mean, so many more important things to spend it on ....'

" 'Oh I don't know.' Norman sounded very far away. Then, gently: 'I like to see things done in style.'

"And he stomped off. Evaporated, as he used to put it. The reproof had been as annihilating as any I ever heard administered."

Charles de Beistegui's fancy-dress ball took place sixty years ago and is as far distant in memory and relevance as the Ball of the Yew Trees given at Versailles in the Galerie de Glaces. Either ball could be called legendary - the one attended by royalty, aristocrats and artistic riff-raff, snobs and panderers, a group of loose associations and equally loose living – now collectively described as cafe society – and the other ball where Jeanne Antoinette Poisson tangled with the King's hunting horn, went on to become royal mistress, great patron of arts and literature, and lend her name to a hairstyle much beloved by tele-evangelists. However, legendary isn't an adjective I'm disposed to use and I wonder, perhaps, if there might not be a description less travelled-by, as it were.

Celebrated, fabled, notorious, out-of-sight, doozie, outrageous, rad, fantastic, fabled and stupendous are all adequate synonyms, depending on your point of view and age. I don't think there's anyone still alive who might say out-of-sight, man except perhaps ironically, though there are plenty of us who remember it. Rad is, well, no longer rad, fabled is such an advertorial phrase, notorious has long slipped into the porcine vocabulary of reality TV, and chic has lost its cachet in some quarters - though not in mine, as I quite like the word still. My style guru says that crispy is a word of the moment but the moment might have passed by the time I finish this sentence. I shall fall back on the old word, gratin to describe if not the ball, then the guests, and in that I am definitely not being original.

When the gratin - European royals and aristocrats, American and South American millionaires, Hollywood movie stars, politicians, artists and general hangers-on - moved on after the ball in the not-so-early hours of the morning, they left behind not a legacy of taste and style for the aspirational, as is occasionally supposed, but something of far more lasting value. That something, which for a few short hours, was merely a theatre for one of the silliest of human activities - striking attitudes, playing at tableaux, and seeing and being seen - that something was the glorious set of rooms at the Palazzo Labia.

The ballroom is the star, with its frescoes by Tiepolo of the story of Antony and Cleopatra, a tale from the ancient world, transposed to modern-day Venice. The pair, as with everyone else in the frescoes, was not clad in Roman or Egyptian fancy dress, as had been Besteigui's guests dancing in front of them, but in seventeenth-century aristocratic dress - the equivalent of being portrayed today in a tuxedo and a couture evening gown.

The conversation Elizabeth David recorded took place in 1951, three years after de Beistegui bought the house from a Labia widow, and only six years after the end of the Second World War - a war that had laid waste to Europe, the East, and to unimaginably vast numbers of people, in the Shoa, on battlefields and at sea, and which rewrote the manuals on Fascism for succeeding generations. Undoubtedly, in those early years of reparation and repair, an ostentatious event such as the Villa Labia ball could be viewed as a rich foreigner's attempt to buy his way into an old and hermetic society - much in the same way as did the Labia family centuries before - and, given the rawness of the early post-war years, perceived as spitting in the face of the still-suffering populations of Europe. That is how, I think, the young man in Elizabeth David's tale saw the situation. If I have taken his measure correctly, the young man, the anti-hero, saw the situation for what it was.

Photographs of Villa Labia rooms by Gianni Berengo-Gardin for an essay published in The World of Interiors, April 1987.

Painting of Palazzo Labia by John Singer Sargent from Wikipedia Commons.

Paintings by Tiepolo from Wikipedia Commons.


  1. Perhaps the Palazzo Labia party was the height of decadence, but I have to admit that I would have loved to have attended. I have seen many photos, from the Venetian firemen who performed at the entrance dock to the elaborate costumes worn by all the guests. It just all seemed to be so fabulously stylish.

  2. Some folks would begrudge a party within decades of a tragedy. What is that cool centerpiece on the big table in the last picture.("Cool" seems to be withstanding the test of time.)

  3. The party can be rented on DVD, any time, under the title, "The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade." A stimulating anatomisation of masochistic cupidity, I've been able to watch it only once. The template for Douglas, if it's still in print in Penguin's Travel Library, is "Siren Land," 1911.

  4. I do like "ensplendour'd", and shall try and use it as often as I can in the coming weeks, nay months. It might force me to make my life more so. I also like the idea of being "evaporated". Maybe I'm just enjoying your writing. No surprise there!

  5. In the excellent biography of Elizabeth David by Lisa Chaney, the author
    makes a matter-of-fact reference to Norman Douglas's "disdainful
    paganism". It could be that which made you wary. In any case, glad
    to know that I wasn't the only one thrown by that anecdote in Mrs
    David's piece on Norman Douglas.

  6. So interesting because the word that came to mind as I was reading is splendorous!

    A stunning recount of a historical ocassion and times.

    Art by Karena

  7. The Devoted Classicist, thank you. I agree that the ball must have been immensely stylish but I was led down another path by the quotation from Elizabeth David. Occasionally, I'm interested in looking behind the curtain even at the most splendid of occasions - and undoubtedly the Villa Labia ball was that. MInd you, I'd love to see the photos of the pompieri di Venezia!

  8. Laurent, thank you for your delicious comment! I'll try to find the DVD.

    I have not been able to get Siren Land but when I have read the two of Douglas's that I have, Old Calabria and South Wind, I shall order it.

  9. I'm a reasonably reactionary sort of person, but just the other day, when I was reading Dilettante's latest piece in NYSD, I made the mistake of clicking on an adjacent article about a days' long party recently held down in the Dominican Republic. There, I thought to myself, if there is ever to be a massed attack on the frivolous, stupid rich, let it begin there.

    Of course, that was just a stray thought, quickly suppressed. The idle rich, defunct politicians, commodity monopolists, degenerate aristocrats, debt-fueled break-up artists, and the bubble-brained blonds attached to them like so many suckerfish are obviously entitled to spend their money however they like.

    So I suppose what I think is this:

    It's certainly possible to enjoy the pictures and accounts of Charlie de Beistegui's party without wanting to have been there -- either for the reasons adduced by that young man, or simply to avoid the many silly people who were there. And if the entire place had fallen into the canal that very night, taking everyone with it, well, that would have just made the night even more memorable -- the gratin would ensplendour'd the waters of Venice in some entirely new way.

    sec word: flodies -- Gratin bobbing in the Grand Canal

    P.S. I second Laurent's recommendation.

  10. Toby Worthington, thank you.

    I do not know Lisa Chaney's biography but will try to find it. I have Artemis Cooper's "authorized" biography of Elizabeth David. I've my memory serves me well, Douglas's paganism is there for all to see in the quotations about him in David's books and it makes him all the more interesting a personality. I shall now read his books.

  11. Karena, thank you - a very complimentary comment and one I really appreciate.

  12. The Ancient, thank you. A splendid and heartfelt comment if ever I read one!

  13. I took a look at the story on the partying in the D.R. that Ancient mentioned. I found it interesting (odd?) that so-called Society reporters were in attendance. Perhaps the thought was that it was not really fun unless others knew what they were missing! And as for the mobs of have-nots, people who have visited the resort told me that security is a serious consideration and it is well armed against any uprising but all are prepared to leave on short notice.

  14. The Ancient and The Devoted Classicist, again thank you.

    I finally read the NYSD article about the party in the DR. It is not something I would normally click on, that sort of account of a society party - I'm neither part of society nor interested in it. That those people are interested in seeing themselves in a society column and, to The Devoted Classicist's point, to invite press photographers along is beyond my understanding - unless it is pure ego (which should be of no surprise, I suppose.)

    Clearly, there are enough people interested in so-called society for gossip websites, magazines and TV programs to earn vast revenues in advertising. Look at the obsession with Charlie Sheen!

    And so it is with Charles de Beistegui and his fancy-dress ball - an unending fascination with the doings of a rich man who looked down great disdain on the rest of us.

  15. I don't want to prolong this unduly -- BUT the article in question was written -- and most of the photographs therein were taken -- by the very blond third wife of a billionaire in attendance.

    (In practice, this makes the feelings expressed above even more to the point.)

  16. what this brought to post war france was frivolity. why not? even the rich deserved a party. this in the extreme and now it is politically correct because it is a Charity ball. there are people doing an inordinate amount of work for the cause they do believe in,the heavy lifters, then there are the people that do the work because they need to make money-serving catering whatever-then there are the feeders- pay to come dressed for the party. there is a place for everyone to benefit. I prefer to be the doer -for art's sake and retreat behind the columns or pass on the actual event. Something for everyone- even the discontents, malcontents and ignorantly blissful. As always your words sail far beyond the topic at hand. Gaye

  17. Looking at this picture, one dreams about the refined elegance and brilliant conversation of that circle, all so beautifully summarised in this vignette from the August 1998 Vanity Fair article on de Beistegui.

    "Moreover, no one actually seemed to like Charlie much. In fact, several people told me he was a real shit, and they used the English word. Not all his moments were exquisite, either. At a Paris party, I heard the story of a grand lady, who must remain nameless, who called on Beistegui after his stroke and was dismayed by his disagreeable habit of placing his hand beneath him under the covers and then smelling his fingers during their conversation."

    I would certainly have thought twice about kissing anyone's hand at that party! Still, scratch and sniff isn't the worst thing I've heard about him!