I once met a French princess. To a Proust fanatic this is a nerve-racking experience. Proust specializes in the agonies that commoners go through when addressing aristocrats who may have cute little nicknames for each other but don't expect anyone else to use them. Baron Charlus, for example, is Meme', but only to Oriane, the Duchess of Guermantes. I wanted to show this lady that I knew how to do it right and so, as if possessed, I suddenly found myself uttering the words, "Madame la Princesse."
Proust would have been proud of me, but the princess was horrified. She looked at me as if I'd just told her that there had been a problem in accounting and her trust fund was all used up. I understood that I hadn't been Proustian, in fact I'd acted like a favorite Proust type: the snob.
Aristocratic fantasies form a proud tradition in this country, whether it's the robber-baron heiresses who made a specialty of marrying down-on-their-luck European lords or the legions of young working women who cut their hair like the Princess of Wales in the 1980s or the baby moguls who pace Wilshire Boulevard smoking Churchill cigars today. America plays with aristocrats like a tiger with a field mouse. We are completely not threatened by them and totally fascinated. We want to know how they do things, but we don't want the contractual obligations of having them around: inequality, royal fiats, seignorial privilege, money to keep Diana in therapy. We want the tradition but put it on plastic.
When William H. Vanderbilt couldn't get a box at New York's Academy of Music, he built the Metropolitan Opera House. When Mrs. Anna Thomson Dodge--as in your friendly Dodge dealer--wanted a wall clock she got a gilded French beauty from 1755 and it's now at the Getty. When Mrs. Joseph Pulitzer wanted some diamonds she sent Tiffany--as in Charles Lewis Tiffany--to Paris and he came back with Empress Eugenie's diamond corsage. As objects they were beautiful, but as concepts they were duds. None of them was going to bestow the sort of class that the owners craved.
America is the great equalizer: Since you can't be born with class, you either have it or you don't. Aircraft designer Donald W. Douglas, standing in a loose brown suit in front of a DC-7, had it; Malcolm Forbes leering over a Faberge egg did not. Judy Garland in a sleeveless sweater had it, a grande dame in a Schiaparelli gown does not. Jackie Kennedy Onassis always had it and Jay Gatsby never did. (Yes, he's a literary creation but so is Baron Charlus. When it comes to class it would be merciless to show up a real person the way an author can with a character.) Gatsby just never gets it. When he pulls all his shirts out of the closet for Daisy to see their quantity, it is a tragic display. No shirt can say everything he wants it to say about himself. That shirt doesn't exist. At that moment, he realizes that he hasn't reinvented himself; he's bought a wardrobe.
That is the level that most of us function at, hoping that a little will go a long way. When we take the band off a cigar we hope that someone will notice we are real gentlemen who know better than to call attention to the price of their smoke. When we learn that the best way to chill Champagne in a hurry is not the freezer but a solution of salt, ice and water, we hope that someone will drop by unannounced. When we let our gardens overgrow their hedges or when we cover a bed with an all-white quilt of broderie de Marseille we're getting close to style. When bread from our own oven tastes better than any culinary creation and when we put it in our mouths and we know it, that's, well, that's straight-up class.
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Holiday 1996 / BOOK CITY
HIGH SOCIETY: The Town and Country Picture Album 1846-1996 edited by Anthony T. Mazzola and Frank Zachary (Abrams/Hearst Magazines: $60, 288 pp.)
DIAMONDS: A Century of Spectacular Jewels by Penny Proddow and Marion Easel (Abrams: $60., 244 pp.)
EUROPEAN CLOCKS IN THE J. PAUL GETTY MUSEUM (Getty Museum: $xx, pp.)
OPERA HOUSES OF THE WORLD by Thierry Beauvert (The Vendome Press: $60, 322 pp.)
THE GOOD CIGAR by H. Paul Jeffers and Kevin Gordon (Lyons and Burford: $45, 186 pp.)
WINDOWS OF THE WORLD COMPLETE WINE COURSE by Kevin Zraly (Sterling: 49.95, 348 pp.)
QUILTS OF PROVENCE by Kathryn Berenson (Holt: $60, 286 pp.)
THE BOOK OF BREAD by Jerome Assire (Flammarion: $45, 160 pp.)
And Bear in Mind:
PICKUPS: Classic American Trucks photographs by William Bennett Seitz, text by Harry Moses. (Random House: $39.95.)
HOTEL BARS AND LOBBIES by Carl Berens (McGraw-Hill: $59.95, 203 pp.)