Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Fête des Fêtes: Le Bal Masqué de Beistegui

Don Carlos (Charles) de Beistegui
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"No mere party giver, he was the producer of brilliant social events, works of art with themes, and he had the money to carry them out to the last expensive detail."
~ Dominick Dunne

Rarely do frivolous nights of festivities metamorphose into legend; but those that do, surpass any other night and enter the realm of myth. For one, ephemeral night only - Saturday, September the 5th, 1951 - at the historic Palazzo Labia in Venice, a most fantastic bal masqué - in the grand tradition of an eighteenth-century masked ball worthy of Casanova - took place. The magnificent affair - perhaps the last truly great reception of the twentieth century - which was hosted by the millionaire and collector Don Carlos de Beistegui, began at 10:30 in the evening: "...the event epitomised the return of luxury to a post-world war society. For it was in the tradition of the outrageous legendary pre-war stunt parties held by Elsa Maxwell and other American society hostesses in Europe." Beistegui's 1951 Venetian ball, Fête de Fêtes, was such a party and  in time, has surpassed any other night of its calibre; it has since acquired the lustre of a fable, mythologised and chronicled in countless memoirs, diaries and reminiscences. (Quote: Anderson, J., Tiepolo's Cleopatra, 2003:162)

Paul-Louis Weiller, Madame Mallard, Lady Diana Cooper, Baron de Cabrol and Madame Hersent

The well-styled but mysterious bachelor, Don Carlos Beistegui y Iturbi (always called 'Charlie' by his friends), was the scion of a Hispano-Mexican family who chose France as their country of residence. The Beistegui fortune was made in Mexican silver mines, which were discovered at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Educated in England, Carlos spent his growing years in Spain, France and England but never lived in Mexico - although he did visit there twice in  his lifetime. (Source: Dunne, D., Vanity Fair: The Grand Manner, August 1998:

Lady Diana Cooper as Cleopatra 
(Costume designed by Oliver Messel based on Tiepolo's fresco; wig by Stanley Hall)
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The fashionable society photographer and designer, Cecil Beaton, once wrote of Beistegui in his autobiography, The Glass of Fashion, "[he was] obsessed by the old houses that bear traces of the tastes and habits of successive generations." (Quote: Anderson, J., Tiepolo's Cleopatra, 2003:165)

A few years after the war, in 1948, Beistegui bought the Palazzo Labia and restored it, filling its rooms with the finest antiques and tapestries (although from the accounts of all those who knew him well Carlos was a confirmed heterosexual, he was known for his exquisite taste; in particular, for the greatness of the interiors and decorations of his houses - he was influenced and inspired by the nonchalant ease and elegance of the great English country houses. He maintained, at various times, residences in New York, London, Paris and Venice). But it was here by candlelight, at the Palazzo Labia,  that Beistegui threw the first big party after the Second World War, signalling the return to luxury living  and  an end  to the austerity of the war years. (Flowers and other details were exactly recreated from eighteenth-century documents.)

The couturier Jacques Fath and his wife, Genevieve
(He as Le Roi Soleil; she as Queen of the Night)
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Beistegui decided that Antony and Cleopatra, as painted by Tiepolo, would be the fête's theme, presided over in the persons of the famed English beauty and wife of the former British ambassador to France, Lady Diana Cooper (in the role of Cleopatra) and Baron Alfred de Cabrol (in that of Antony). (As Cleopatra, Lady Diana was attended by black pages; her costume, closely based on Tiepolo's fresco, was designed for her by Oliver Messel while her wig was created by Stanley Hall.) Both of whom, Cooper and Cabrol, received the costumed guests at the ball, mirroring the scenes depicted Palazzo's frescoes, whereby Antony and Cleopatra were shown receiving envoys and dignitaries of foreign kingdoms. (Oliver Messel may have been chosen to create the costumes of some of the guests because in 1945, he was responsible for the sets and costumes of Gabriel Pascal's film Caesar and Cleopatra, which starred Vivien Leigh and Claude Rains.)

For what would turn out to be one of (if not the) most famous parties of the twentieth century, invitations were sent out six months in advance to allow guests enough time to ready themselves for the ball (guests had to have their costumes made and needed to prepare their entrées into the ball and for which they rehearsed in the preceding days leading up to it). And to reach Venice, even in 1951, was no easy task - gas rations were still in existence and the voyages by boat and train to Venice took at least five days. But  once the guests arrived (from the wide canal that flows off of the Grand Canal and from the every far-flung corner of the globe), they were greeted by cheering crowds, reporters, spectators and hopeful last-minute invitation seekers, all of whom were waiting to witness social history in the making - much as crowds do today at important celebrity-fueled functions. (Sources: Dunne, D., Vanity Fair: The Grand Manner, August 1998:; Anderson, J., Tiepolo's Cleopatra, 2003)

Baron Alexis de Redé
(In the retinue of Arturo Lopez-Willshaw as Emperor of China)
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The arrivals of the bejeweled and bewigged guests were as important as their made-to-order costumes and drew considerable numbers of spectators, all anxious for a view. By ten in the evening, the canal in front of the Palazzo was congested with motorboats and gondolas. As floodlights emphasized the arriving guests, some Venetians peered down from nearby windows for a better look (neighbouring  palace owners charged 80,000 lire per person for the privilege). (Source: The Big Party, September 17, 1951:

Desmond Leslie, a journalist for Picture Perfect magazine, gives a descriptive account of the scene on the Grand Canal in this way: "When Don Carlos de Beistegui flung open the great doors of his exquisite Palazzo Labia, he found the Grand Canal already teeming with launches and gondolas overflowing with ladies and gentlemen faultlessly enlaced in glittering eighteenth-century costume; perukes, wigs, crinolines, and jewellery whose theft would embarrass any insurance company. Bowing elegantly to one another, the guests traipsed up a stately staircase lined with flunkies dressed in the original liveries worn at the Duchess of Richmond's party on the eve of Waterloo, and assembled in the great painted ball-room, where on a high minstrels' gallery an orchestra dressed to match the wall-frescoes played." (Quote: Anderson, J., Tiepolo's Cleopatra, 2003:165)

Dressed as a Venetian Patrician and decked out in scarlet robes and an eighteenth century sausage-curl wig, Beistegui, perched on sixteen-inch high buskins so as to more easily see and be seen, stood atop of the Palazzo's steps - his usual five-foot-six-inch height augmented and magnified, thanks mainly to his stilts - to greet his guests as they disembarked from their gondolas. (Sources: Anderson, J., Tiepolo's Cleopatra, 2003; Dunne, D., Vanity Fair: The Grand Manner, August 1998:

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The great collector (and a legendary party giver in his own right), Arturo Lopez-Willshaw - dressed as the Emperor of China - and his wife, Patricia, for instance, arrived in a Chinese junk and carried into the Palazzo in a litter accompanied by a retinue of  mandarins; Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton alighted as Mozart; the Aga Khan, who escorted Princess Radziwill to the ball, appeared in the guise of an Eastern potentate, also costumed by Oliver Messel; the couturier Jacques Fath, costumed as Le Roi Soleil, Louis XIV, had to remain standing in his gondola because, as Jean-Louis de Faucigny-Lucinge writes in his book, Legendary Parties, "his posture [was] dictated by a costume so perfectly fitted and heavy with embroidery that he could not sit." (Fath's wife, Genevieve, came as Queen of the Night.) Christian Dior also attended, accompanied by black and white giants from an old carnival - all costumed by Salvador Dali as Phantoms of Venice.
(Quote & sources: Dunne, D., Vanity Fair: The Grand Manner, August 1998:; Anderson, J., Tiepolo's Cleopatra, 2003)

Orson Welles

Orson Welles and Mademoiselle Aimée de Heeren

Aimée de Heeren, Baron Alexis de Redé and Orson Welles
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Anyone and everyone of social  prominence in what is termed as international Café Society was there: from  Ancien Régime nobility to Hollywood royalty  - the whole evening captured by the discerning eye of Cecil Beaton's camera for the pages of Vogue. (Beaton came dressed as a French curé.) But demand for such an event was understandably great while, conversely, the supply of invitations was limited, causing international black markets to sprout in some of the world's cosmopolitan capitals: invitations were offered for as high as $500 per card. And the great Parisian couturiers were kept busy for weeks concocting suitable eighteenth-century costumes for the rich, the famous and the infamous fortunate enough to be on Beistegui's guest list and to have secured a card.
(Sources: Dunne, D., Vanity Fair: The Grand Manner, August 1998:; The Big Party, September 17, 1951:

Gene Tierney
The couturier Jacques Fath as Le Roi Soleil

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Shortly before midnight, trumpets sounded, and the 1,500 assembled guests were ushered into the great hall. To entertain his guests until dawn, Beistegui offered divertissements of champagne, ballets, minuets, sambas, a troupe of acrobats and even the Charleston. Never one to neglect his other, less-esteemed and uninvited guests, Beistegui provided a special party - of sorts - to the common folk out in the Palazzo's courtyard: a Punch-and-Judy show, soft drinks (for which people had to pay), and a contest to see who could climb to the top of a greased pole. And in spite of the social gap between guests and curious onlookers, at times the two worlds mingled delightfully: Madame Louis Arpels, wife of the famed Parisian jeweler, was spotted dancing with an open-shirted Venetian youth in the courtyard.
(Source: The Big Party, September 17, 1951:

Baron Alexis de Redé

Baron Alexis de Redé, Arturo and Patricia Lopez-Willshaw
(Arturo costumed as an Emperor of China

The Marquis and Marchioness de Marianao

Princess Maria Pignatelli, Countess Consuela Crespi and the Count of Clary 

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Towards the end of the evening, the Aga Khan was quoted as saying, "I don't think that we will ever see anything like this again." And we never have. (Quote: The Big Party, September 17, 1951:

Ten years before his death in 1970, Beistegui suffered a stroke and ceased to notice the details he had once been so meticulous about. After his stroke, Beistegui sold the Palazzo and disposed its priceless contents. He died at the age of seventy-four, without a will. (Source: Dunne, D., Vanity Fair: The Grand Manner, August 1998:

Daisy Fellowes as La Reine d'Afrique 
(In Christian Dior and attended by James Caffery, as her page)
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Suggested readings:

Nancy Mitford: A Memoir (1975), by Harold Acton: Hamish Hamilton

Darlinghissima: Letters To A Friend (1985), by Janet Flanner: Random House

Legendary Parties (1987), by Jean-Louis de Faucigny-Lucinge: Vendome Press

Vanity Fair, Volume 50 (January, 1987): Condé Nast Publications

Tiffany Parties (1989), by John Loring: Doubleday

Baroque Baroque: The Culture of Excess (1994), by Stephen Calloway: Phaidon Press

Venice: Hidden Splendors (1994), by Cesare M. Cunaccia & Mark E. Smith: Flammarion

Parties: A Literary Companion (1997), by Susanna Johnston: Penguin Group USA 

Tiepolo's Cleopatra (2003), by Jaynie Anderson: Palgrave Macmillan Australia

Palaces of Venice (2003), by Andrea Fasolo: Arsenale

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