New York may very well be the greatest city in the world, but every now and again it is important to recognize one’s roots. Although perhaps on the brink of economic collapse, the Old World is worthy of our gaze once in a while, and does offer some relics which America simply cannot replicate… like palaces! Even the hammiest Hamptons estates cannot compare to the grandeur of a Neopalladian villa in the English countryside, and the Cape hardly holds a candle to the Baroque French chateaus which dot the paysage. As cultured New Yorkers know, it is necessary to maintain these palaces for posterity and propriety’s sake. It seems to be castle-saving season, as The Observer attended not one but two benefits last week to garner support for the aging architecture of Europe’s grandest manors.
On a particularly dreary Fall evening, appropriately reminiscent of London’s perennial dampness, the great and the gray gathered for a small dinner at Sotheby’s to raise money for Blenheim Palace. Despite the weather, New York’s philanthropic gang soon filled the room. Alexandra Lebenthal, Jeff Peek and Liz Peek, Barbara Bancroft, Jonathan and Somers Farkas, Jamee Gregory, Cece Cord and Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia sipped glasses of white wine as they greeted one another in the gallery.
It was one of those unusual black-tie events where the men rival their wives in their lavish livery: apparently drawing inspiration from the English aristocracy (or some James Bond interpretation thereof), velvet dinner jackets abounded, paired with tasseled evening slippers likely purchased just for the occasion.
The guests of honor, the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, greeted their friends genially near the entrance. The Duke’s particularly gruff guffaw drew affectionate (and occasionally alarmed) gazes from around the room as he laughed with his American acquaintances. “Everybody’s so kind,” the duke drawled with his well-bred British accent. “It’s a lovely party. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves. That’s the important thing.”
Karen LeFrak was indeed enjoying herself. Circulating the room and chatting with guests, Mrs. LeFrak was enthusiastic about her visits to the storied Palace. “It’s such a treat. I think I’m the luckiest person in the world having been entertained there,” she said. Her favorite facet of Blenheim? “The rose garden,” she said flashing a smile. “Extraordinary.”
Next, we spoke to Lady Henrietta Spencer Churchill who fondly recalled the time she spent at Blenheim growing up. Lady Henrietta claimed that two distinct memories stood out in her mind. One was learning to water ski on the lake with her father, the current Duke of Marlborough, at the helm. “And the second thing is my brother and I sort of pretending we were ghosts and trying to scare the tourists by appearing from the galleries,” she said. Aside from her private memories, Lady Henrietta believes that Blenheim represents an important Anglo-American relationship. “Our heritage goes back to the American connection when my great grandfather, the ninth Duke, married Consuelo Vanderbilt, which was in my view a fantastic legacy because she basically helped Blenheim survive and be what it is today,” she said. “By sinking a good deal of her family’s money,” Lady Henrietta added wryly.
Soon guests were ushered into the dining area where long tables had been elegantly set with giant rose arrangements. As guests ventured to their assigned tables, men stood at their places upright, waiting for the women to take their seats. Carafes of water, bottled at Blenheim’s private aquifer, were imported across the pond for the special occasion. Beet nicoise salad and roast chicken were washed down with Puligny-Montrachet and Sociando Mallet Bordeaux.
As guests finished their meals, Sotheby’s chairman and staunch Blenheim supporter Jamie Niven hosted a brief auction. Imploring the aging crowd to read their programs for descriptions of the items, Mr. Niven lamented the small font. “The only thing that’s guaranteed to go up as you get older is the font,” he said, drawing subdued chuckles from the slightly scandalized crowd.
After nibbling on banana chocolate and peanut butter confections (topped with both American and British flags), tired guests gathered their belongings and called their drivers around to the front. Kissing one another goodnight, the cavalcade of bejeweled and bespectacled couples headed out into their awaiting town cars.
Although it was drier the following evening, it was hardly warmer when The Observer arrived at the Upper East Side mansion of Juan Pablo and Pilar Molyneux. Although Mr. Molyneux was absent, Ms. Molyneux opened her home for cocktails to the American Friends of Versailles. As we ascended the stairs, we walked into a drawing room where several well-to-do Francophiles were sipping champagne and gossiping.
Thinking perhaps that there would be some palatial fraternity, we mentioned the Blenheim event from the previous evening. “What do they need money for?” one female guest demanded. “Probably all those roofs,” she quipped acerbically, answering her own question with a caustic cluck.
As guests delicately sipped from their flutes, waiters appeared with a technicolor spectrum of fresh vegetables, and for those less virtuous about their figures, foie gras and potato pancakes with caviar were ceremoniously offered.
In another room, the Vicomte de Rohan was deftly greeting guests with the formality one expects from the surviving French aristocracy. The Vicomte, who has been involved with the American Friends of Versailles for several years, explained how the organization has improved the palace. From the formerly lost Trois Fontaines Bosquet to the Pavillion Frais, the American Friends of Versailles have reprised Rockefeller’s role as deep-pocketed American patrons of the palace.
The Vicomte seemed surprised when we asked if he thought Versailles was superior to Blenheim. “Oh a hundred times,” he said emphatically. “Blenheim is a family estate which I love, but no, I mean Versailles is the most important chateau in the world,” he added. “It’s really the place in the world which impresses everyone,” he said of his beloved Versailles. “Blenheim impresses a lot of people, including myself, but it’s a private house,” he explained. “As we say they don’t play in the same court,” the Vicomte said.
Having thusly shown support for palaces of both Franco and Anglo variety, we went home to our own cozy abode. We began promptly planning our next European holiday, where we intend to stroll the grounds of both Blenheim and Versailles.