High Society: Belle of the Balls Jean Cocteau, Nancy Mitford, the Windsors ... for 50 Years Fred and Daisy De Cabrol Were at the Pinnacle of French Aristocratic Society. with the Help of Her Late Husband's Extraordinary Scrapbooks, Madame la Baronne, Now 83, Looks Back on an Endless Round of Glittering Parties. Interview by Ian Phillips. Photographs by Giacomo Bretzel
Phillips, Ian, The Independent (London, England)
Montford L'Amaury, to the south-west of Paris, is a quaint hill town with windy streets, where the composer Maurice Ravel whiled away much of the Twenties. Nearby is the small village of Grosrouvre, which is today home to the Baronne Daisy de Cabrol. For more than 50 years, she was at the centre of French society - a confidante of the Windsors, a friend of Jean Cocteau, a holiday guest of Greek shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos and a regular at all the best balls in town. Today she keeps a slightly lower profile. In fact, finding her house proves quite a trial. The woman who runs the cafe has never heard of her. A local workman looks completely blank when her name is mentioned. Even the man at the post office is not quite sure where she lives. Eventually, I come across somebody who knows her. "Madame La Baronne?" he says cheerfully. "She lives in the house with the two flagpoles after the bend in the road."
The flagpoles are for flying her family's coat of arms and her late husband's. She was born into one of the oldest and noblest families in France - the Harcourts. In 1966, the clan celebrated its 1,000th anniversary. One of the dukes was painted by Fragonard and there are numerous family chateaux scattered around France, one of which lies in ruins after being blown up by the Germans during the Second World War.
At 83, Madame La Baronne remains sprightly. She talks at a hundred miles an hour with an almost preposterously posh accent, jumps constantly from subject to subject and uses charmingly old-fashioned words such as "automobile". Lunch is like taking a trip back in time. It is also proof that Madame La Baronne still knows how to entertain in style. She has hired a lady from the village to cook up a three- course feast and the wine is served from grand crystal decanters. She rings a little bell at the beginning and end of every course to summon her manservant, then scolds him in English for the heinous crime of bringing the meat in before the gravy. Her husband, Fred de Cabrol, who died in July 1997, was also from a wealthy aristocratic family. They met at a rallye (the French equivalent of a coming-out party) and married in 1937 ("the same year as the Windsors"). He was a gifted amateur artist, who made a career for himself as a society decorator. His clients included French nobles with names such as Ghislaine de Polignac and the Princess d'Arenberg. He also decorated the salons of the Hotel George V in Paris. Throughout his life he kept scrapbooks, which trace the couple's society life and today provide a fascinating and precious record of a time gone by. In the early ones, he collaged cut-out photographs with his paintings of balls and parties. In the later books there are press cuttings, invitations, holiday snaps and hundreds of pictures of rich and famous faces. The couple bought their house in Grosrouvre in 1950. It used be a farm, and today roses climb up its stone walls, sculpted bushes stand at each corner and a tree has been trimmed into the shape of an arch which looks out on to a meadow. Inside, the late baron's decorating skills are in evidence. In the dining room are several of his watercolours, as well as a portrait of Daisy by Christian Berard and a drawing by Cocteau. In the bathroom, the toilet is strangely but skilfully hidden under a table which is attached to the wall at one corner and swivels out of the way when nature calls. The piece de resistance, however, is the barn, which has been transformed into a grand sitting-room. A sculpture of a deer sits atop the huge wooden fireplace. On a beautiful cabinet sits a glass case filled with multi-coloured stuffed birds. On the walls there are numerous deer heads. There are also several family portraits and a large painting under which there is a caption: "Queen Charlotte and her Children by Sir Allan Ramsay, given by the King (George III) to the Earl of Harcourt, Viceroy of Ireland. …