Francing With the Stars: It’s Paris at the Plaza as Tom Wolfe, Vanessa Redgrave and a Matisse Go Gaga for Angélique Kidjo

Wolfe.

Wolfe.

Our phone exploded with calls as we hurried, en retard, to the Plaza in a cab. The French, while not Swiss in their precision, are considerably more punctual than socially overwhelmed New Yorkers.

“Benjamin, tu arrives?” questioned the frazzled voice of one publicist with great concern just as we entered the famed hotel.

Shindigger has seen it all, we sometimes think. But something caught our eye as we graced the step-and-repeat for the 2012 French Institute Alliance Française Trophée des Arts cérémonie gala last Friday evening. Perhaps it was the svelte, couture-clad patrons such as Dovile Drizyte and Lauren Santo Domingo, or the elegant Amazon-lily table arrangements. There was a je ne sais quoi of refined fabulousness inside the often-overproduced ballroom that wasn’t showy.

“Appalling chic!” Shindigger overheard from one doyenne as she traipsed up the staircase in her full-length gown, which, frankly, could have been described in exactly the same way.

“It’s very natural for me to be interested in what’s going on with the French Institute and to be participating,” said Lola Rykiel, granddaughter of the famed Parisian designer Sonia Rykiel and U.S. PR head for the label, as she glided to the ballroom from the silent auction downstairs, which boasted such prizes as a visit to a private château, Hermès accessories and private dinners with world-class chefs like Daniel Boulud. Prices ran steep, but that didn’t stop the Bordeaux-induced bidding.

“How do you feel the French are regarded here in America?” we asked Ms. Rykiel, entering the ornate ballroom.

“I think there is a beautiful love from the Americans towards the French—or at least the New Yorkers towards the Parisians,” she said, correcting herself with a smile.

“I think they are very interested. People are sensitive to the charme, the French culture,” she continued. We simply had to agree.

In return, she said, “I think we are attracted, as French people, to the directness and the power of the American system and the way it works so well. It’s all like Bam! Bam! Bam! Personally, I love it!”

It wasn’t clear whether the French or the Americans were responsible for the evening’s boisterous decorum, but several speakers into the evening, patrons were stubbornly refraining from keeping their chuchotements to a dull roar.

But the crowd snapped to when CBS This Morning’s Charlie Rose took the stage to award Thierry Breton, chairman and CEO of IT behemoth Atos, his Pilier d’Or trophée. “He’s written nine books,” the anchor began about his comrade. “I’ve written no books.”

Mr. Rose delivered a fine speech honoring his friend, before handing over the Lalique prize, at which point—mon Dieu!—down the cumbersome trophée fell, right out of Mr. Breton’s grasp. That didn’t stop Mr. Breton from delivering a fine address about Franco-American relations and history. As he concluded, The Observer siezed the opportunity to échapper and investigate the other attendees present.

Sophie Matisse, great-granddaughter of artist Henri Matisse, just a table away, was having a busy week. The Met had just previewed its new exhibition Matisse: In Search of True Painting on November 26.

“I have seen the exhibit, and I like it very much,” she told us between swishes of wine. “I re-fell in love with a lot of paintings.”

By now, a live auction was underway, which included jet-set escapes and astronomically costly culinary experiences. There had been rumors that fiery honoree Angélique Kidjo was seen joyfully dancing around the silent auction. Perhaps in anticipation of receiving the prestigious Trophée des Arts?

So we darted to her table, where we found such luminaries as Vanessa Redgrave and Debbie Bancroft nearby. Ms. Kidjo dutifully introduced us to her niece, husband and friends around the table.

We congratulated the Béninoise singer on her busy week, which also included a UNICEF gala. We asked her what she hoped to accomplish most with her music and philanthropic initiatives.

“To empower people, principally for them to know that everyone is an agent of change. Not to sit at home and be cynical or overwhelmed by the task that we have before us. We put those problems there, we have the solutions to them and we can deal with them if we want to. Every single person, from the poorest all the way to the richest, can make a change in the world.”

For such a lavish event, Ms. Kidjo’s words surely delivered a healthy scoop of grass-roots humanity, and Shindigger decided to lighten things up:

“We hear you were dancing downstairs. Are you going to be dancing more later?” weasked. “I don’t know yet, that’s a decision I won’t make until something starts moving my feet!”

With that, an aide politely burst out in French that it was time to take the stage for her award.

A dance across the ballroom, and we were seated next to the stage on a bench with Ms. Redgrave, who responded to our inquiries with regal poise. “I’m honored, certainly, because I’m here for Angélique,” she continued, “I have the good luck to have met this lady over seven years ago in a German city where I was working for UNICEF.

“I watched her sing, and she had the whole audience in her hands. We got to talk a bit, and she was telling me about the work and visits she had done in Africa.”

Ms. Redgrave recounted how she had continued to collaborate with Ms. Kidjo, often on UNICEF initiatives.

“She’s one hell of a lady!” she told us with a firm gesture, before being ushered to the stage.

On our way back to our location, location, location at table numéro une, we bumped into author Tom Wolfe, decked out in his signature complet blanc.

“Auctions are a losing game,” he told us as he finished off his meal, “if you think sensibly. But you’re not supposed to think sensibly.” C’est la vérité, monsieur!

By then, Ms. Redgrave was about to address the audience, so we bid adieu to the charming gentleman.

“I think I should maybe auction this beautiful award!” laughed Ms. Redgrave as she held up la trophée and smiled at the seated patrons. Showing off her French, she praised FIAF and the French community before her, before introducing Ms. Kidjo.

Upon accepting the glass prize, Ms. Kidjo expressed thanks for the honor. “I wish my father was here tonight,” she said. “He was more French than any Frenchman in the world.”

Her rousing performance of “Petite Fleur” was dedicated to “all the young girls who have succumbed to female genital mutilation,” she said. “Help us eradicate violence against young women!”

By the last number, everyone was on their feet, enthusiastically clapping to the rhythm, which, to say the least, is not exactly comme d’habitude at the Plaza.

blehay@observer.com