La Cour des grands is the French title of a fairly recent book published in English as “The Great and the Good.” I have not read it, but it does remind me of the one of the side trips I took from London en grand seigneur.
There is a club in the center of Paris, in an 18th century hôtel particulier. This comprises, as is typical, a forecourt, a mansion, and a large garden. It was used by the Rothschilds just for entertaining. I had been there decades with my Parisian Aunt, who was a member. There once for lunch, I experienced one of the more embarrassing moments of my life. My Aunt had invited a Columbian family to the club; I was there with my aunt, my uncle, and a South American family of parents and two teenaged daughters. The convent-bred girls spoke in Spanish to their parents, in French to my uncle, and in perfect English to my aunt and me. Now I had studied both French and Spanish beyond the basic College level. I could only follow the English. It reminds me of the worst aspects of American education: the failure to learn languages early. At any rate, my failure detracted only a bit from a grand lunch.
I wanted to take an English friend of mine to lunch there; we were to meet an American woman I knew traveling in Paris. It was not what I would call something on my “bucket list,” a term I dislike. For one thing, does one have to die when one completes his bucket list? Or does he start over again? Anyway, I have always wanted to go to Paris just for lunch: no art museums, no shopping – not even at Hermès. Just lunch. Originally the plan involved a Lear jet from the States, but I am always happy to compromise, so my friend and I took the Eurostar from St. Pancras for a one o’clock lunch booking at the club in Paris.
That such places exist is a Good Thing, even if I only get to use this club a few days a year. If never got to set foot in such a club, it would still be a Good Thing. “Wealth redistributionists” tend to be envious, grumpy, and doctrinaire; they apparently want nobody to have something if everybody cannot have it. Rubbish. It reminds me of C. S. Lewis’s remark that it is not equality to scratch up a pretty woman’s face so that she doesn’t outshine her plainer sister.
Envy remains a deadly sin. I knew perfectly well that a professor’s salary would never let me buy a Rolls Royce, but why should I grudge the late Duke of Wellington his? In any case, I would have to replace his Ducal coronet on the bonnet with my own less-impressive crest. (The Queen’s “Flying Lady” is St. George; the Duke of Edinburgh’s, as I recall, is one of his “wild man” supporters.) To want to destroy beauty because it is only for a few is a churlish attitude that should not be encouraged. It reminds one of the “worst excesses of the French Revolution.” (By the way, Burke was as sound in his opposition to the French Revolution just as he was judicious in supporting the American Revolution. He was absolutely right that it was churlish of the French not to rescue Marie Antoinette; one unfortunately thinks of her more often in the trumbrel than at Court or her hameau. One of the preachers at St. Etheldreda’s, the old church now in Roman hands, used to use her in his sermons almost more than the saints!)
If all the wealth in the world was equally distributed at nine o’clock in the morning, by nine o’clock in the evening, all would be unequal again. It may be chic to want to make capitalism unselfish (as the Prince of Wales seems to desire), but altruism does not work very well as an incentive for those of us not yet great saints. Banning beauty because not everyone can afford a piece of Fabergé rather misses the point that craftsmanship is good, no matter how restricted. Would Michelangelo have prospered as well without Lorenzo de Medici?
The club in which the ladies and I took luncheon is one of the most beautiful mansions in Paris. The inside was light and airy, with pastel furnishings and lovely mirrors in white and gold. In the sitting room overlooking the garden, there appeared to be frescoes above the doors. As my friend and I sippied Kirs while waiting for my American friend, I thought not only how lucky I was to revisit such a place, but how good it was that such places exist – even if I never saw them!
The dining room stretched the whole garden front of the house on the first (our second) floor. As they were out of Cristal Champagne (much more reasonable in France), I settled on a delightful Ruinart Blanc des Blancs sparkler that was perfect for a summer lunch. We had melon balls with small squares of lardons and a lovely sweet sauce. The Americans settled on lamb with foie gras while my English friend had veal liver. I think I limited myself to three or four desserts: chocolate mousse, apple tart, and sorbet.
After that, we walked in the large, lovely garden, with its fine lawn and flower beds. The garden ended in a fountain jet. We sat there, protected from the rain by the large trees. A bee settled on the Englishwoman’s finger; she let it stay for the longest time, unperturbed by the insect. She knew about bees, and the bee never stung her.
I suppose that, if this were a club one used all the time, the magic would have been lessened. Even enchantment can seem ordinary when it is ubiquitous. However, a trip to Paris just for lunch has its own magic.