Vive! Versailles

Article excerpt

An animated French aristocrat and an elegant American philan-thropist are sweeping across the United States in search of donations to ensure that a royal palace regains its

There are stirring moments in the history of French-American relations that patriots on both sides of the Atlantic relish, especially today as the drumbeat for the global village blurs old lines of national pride. One such moment was recalled recently by the Viscount Olivier de Rohan.

It was 1917, the darkest days of World War I, and French and British casualties were heavy. Gen. John Joseph Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, arrived in France keenly aware of the critical, if not decisive, aid that country had given to the colonies during the American Revolution. It was, after all, the great Lafayette who stood with George Washington in his cruelest hours at Valley Forge.

"The first thing Pershing did on arrival in France was to visit the grave of General Lafayette," recalled de Rohan. "Standing there, he said, `Lafayette, nous voila!' [`Lafayette, we are here!]"

To mark that heroic moment, two monuments stand in mute tribute at the entrance to the town of Versailles, just outside of Paris. On the one side, Pershing is astride his horse; on the other side, facing him, Lafayette.

De Rohan's point is that American ties to Versailles run deep. And he is using that historical bond to raise $4.2 million for the royal palace's latest restoration project.

"Our role to make you independent was an enormous one and cost us a fortune" says the French emissary, promoter of France's 540,000 monuments, one-third of which are privately owned. "In fact, that was why our own revolution started, because we had no money left."

Accompanying the viscount on his cultural odyssey across America is Catherine Hamilton, a prominent Chicagoan who has founded a spinoff group, the American Friends of Versailles. The organization has pledged to preserve the 17th-century palace and its 2,000 acres of dense woods and geometric gardens, marble fauns, gilded Greek gods and arcing fountains.

"This is really a dream about passion, a love affair between France and America" says Hamilton, whose own chateau, the St. George Motel, is not far from the viscount's ancestral home, Josselin, in Brittany.

To entice contributors, de Rohan, Hamilton and friends are staging a four-day gala in Versailles in June that will resurrect the extravagant spirit of King Louis XIV, who constructed the palace in the mid-17th century. The crowded agenda includes a Bal de Versailles, a state reception at the Elysee Palace, and a white-tie dinner in the Grand Trianon, Versailles' royal summer cottage. "Donor opportunities" range from $1 million down to $5,000. …