CHARMING LOIRE VALLEY CHATEAU, GRAND CRU VINEYARDS, GRANITE SWIMMING POOL….Mother-in-Law Included

| July 20, 2012 | Comments (0)

It was the shining moment she had dreamed of  since girlhood – being swept off her feet and taken to a castle by a charming prince – but Judy’s moment of marital bliss was less than short-lived.

Minutes after a simple ceremony in the tiny medieval stone chapel adjoining the manor house,  she stood at the chateau’s grand entrance with Alain, her new husband and Alain’s formidable mother, Elise, Princesse de Fausigny-Faubourg, greeting guests who had arrived from near and far for this story book wedding of  a lifetime.

From Paris there was President Pompidou’s Ministre de la Culture, the fabled Andre Malraux; from New York the Secretary-General had dispatched Lord Malcolm Crumley-Stumps, his trusted  Chef de Cabinet to represent the United Nations. Although the ceremony was a private affair, it was also a UN celebration since both the newly-weds as well as Alain’s mother were UN functionaries. Rather a mundane word, “functionary”, to describe the Princesse de Fausigny-Faubourg whose Catherine DeNeuve beauty and brilliant intellect had taken her to the highest reaches of international diplomacy.

Like so many fire flies, camera flash bulbs  from the glitterati world of Paris Match, Life, Vanity Fair, Marie-Claire and Vogue blinked as A-List film-stars approached the chateau’s grand entrance to offer the young couple their best wishes, to “faire la bise trois fois”, planting three, not two, kisses on cheeks,  as was the current Paris fashion. There was Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg followed by Maurice Chevalier; then Christian Dior arm-in-arm with the fabled Coco Chanel. Elegant shoes and  shining black opera pumps crunched tastefully in the manicured gravel as bejeweled hands reached out to embrace the princeling and his new bride.  Almost everybody who counted was there that June day in 1968. Days earlier, Paris had been laid waste by  “les evenements” of the May student revolution and another war in Vietnam was taking its grim toll – this time it was the Americans and not the French who were spilling their blood and treasure – but who cared about all that grim news on this golden afternoon when glamour and elegance has seized the hour.

Choosing just the right moment for the signature photograph of the day, cameramen closed in as the Princesse introduced her new daughter-in-law to the Papal Ambassador to France.  Bowing slightly as his taffeta garments rustled, His Excellency Cardinal Cazzini brushed the young bride’s cheek with his own cherubic jowls and murmured a blessing as Princesse Elise , with a slight smile – or was it a smirk, you never knew with these high-born French people – said to the Cardinal, “Your Excellency, allow me to present to you my son Alain’s FIRST wife !”

Flashbulbs popping, Judy’s ears went red and her face flushed with disbelief as she choked back an alien sound, a cross between a sob and a gasp of shock. What was she hearing, she asked herself, trying her very best to smile happily for the vulturesque cameras that seemed now to be attacking her. “ALAIN’S FIRST WIFE!” Was this woman mad? Looking rapidly at Alain who appeared not to have heard his mother’s inexplicable words of introduction, she shot a desperate glance towards the waving crowd  shouting good wishes at the happy couple, seeking out her mother. Their eyes locked and the good Iowa farmer lady seemed just as confused as Judy, dis-oriented by  the inexplicable Gallic elegance of the international crowd and the incomprehensible languages swirling about her. Meanwhile, having delivering  the coup de grace to her daughter-in-law, the Princesse de Fausigny-Faubourg, statuesque and enveloped in the bewitching fragrance of Guerlain’s JICKY, an antique scent she favored, smiled  sweetly and wickedly at Judy, knowing that round-one was hers; that she would certainly win the battle to rid her son of this unfortunate little American hayseed.

Never were two people so different or so mis-matched, their friends all said. Alain, the descendant of French royalty, in this day and age they would be called Pretenders, was retiring and sensitive with long, delicate piano-player hands. At Eton where his mother had placed him, he was teased for being effeminate and had been taken away from school and put under the care of an  English tutor for private lessons at home in the chateau. Meandering through a maze of higher learning, Alain emerged from Oxford, the Sorbonne and Harvard with a variety of degrees which, at age 33, suited him perfectly for a post in the United Nations. And just what post that would be was assured by his Mamman, the Princesse who was, at the time, Chief of Mission of a United Nations Office in a large Asian country and well-connected to the powers-that-be,  including the  UN Secretary-General.

The Princesse was superb in her work; “impeccable” was the description used by her french colleagues. She also marched to her own drummer and was thought to be more than a tad dictatorial. Cruel, some observers even said. There was that case of the Canadian junior officer that caused quite a stir and had tongues wagging.  An earnest young woman who had arrived for her assignment and had worked tirelessly for the Princess, dedicating herself without seeking recompense.  She had been especially devoted to duty prior to the arrival of  the UN Secretary-General who had come to the capital to inspect the UN’s projects. Day and night for weeks the young woman labored to make the visit perfect. A hour before the VIPs’ arrival, the young Canadian encountered Elise in the office corridor as she scurried to complete a final task. Breathlessly addressing the Princess, she said, ” If Madame agrees, I will take off half an hour to go home and freshen up for the reception.” To which the Princesse replied with a smile, “Mais Mademoiselle, vous n’etes PAS invitee !”

Judy had come to the UN by a starkly different route. The daughter of un-educated farmers from Iowa – strictly speaking not uneducated since they had attended school until they were 13 – her parents were simple folk whose small plot of land enabled them to eke out a living sufficient to send their daughter and only child on to the halls of higher learning. Judy was all Apple Pie and the Fourth of July and did things like cheer-lead and volunteer while she was getting her degree at the State University. Moderately attractive in a plain, straight-forward way,  charm was not her strong suit; Judy’s friends preferred to  describe her as a “supportive” person, somebody who was there for you  when you needed her.

As Junior Officers in a remote UN posting (Alain’s mother thought one hardship assignment would be the right garnishment on her son’s resume and so consented to, indeed personally selected, his first UN assignment), Judy and Alain, though birds of very different feathers, became soulmates in remote Phnom Penh. Neither being very sexual, the two young people spent long monsoon evenings in Alain’s  romantic riverside villa not making love, but playing scrabble and swapping stories of their childhoods, Alain, fascinated in the way only an excruciatingly elite frenchman could be with her “simple” roots, and Judy agog at the tales of Alain’s growing up in a chateau, riding to hounds, going to balls, being catered to by a staff of liveried retainers.

Getting wind of Alain’s inexplicable attraction to what she considered a boring American non-entity, Princesse Elise dismissed their friendship as the desperate measure of two lonely white people in an alien land of little yellow natives. After all, she herself had felt the same need decades before when she had traveled with Malraux in Cambodia, but the object of her affection had not been a man.

In the subdued, tasteful world of lipstick lesbians, those female homosexuals who retained their grace and femininity, Elise had become famous, indeed notorious. She was glamour incarnate. Seated behind the wheel of her olive green two- seater Morgan sports coupe, enveloped in a cloud of Jicky parfum, cigarette-holder clinched between her teeth as she sped through the teeming alleys of Bangkok, upsetting vendors’ carts, sending chickens flying, Elise was indeed a piece of work. The tales that swirled about her were not to be believed, true as they were. One of her exploits while working for the UN in Bangkok during the day involved her frequenting a certain hotel at night – the Hotel Nana – a “comfort den” patronized by rich Arabs looking for young Thai female company.

After completing her day job,  brilliantly directing crews on public works projects, designing bridges, for she WAS an engineer , Elise regularly repaired to the Hotel Nana to choose her female companion for the evening. One night tipsy on champagne – she had celebrated with the French Ambassador earlier that afternoon -Elise arrived at the Nana and was set upon by a wealthy Saudi who wanted to have HER. Accepting his proposition as a lark with approving shouts from her female admirers in the hotel lounge, she countered with her OWN proposal: If the Saudi would pay EVERY girl in the hotel $1,000 – and there were 50 of them ! – Elise agreed to mount the stairs with him.

Fulfilling his part of the agreeement, he fished into his djelaba, distributing a fistful of $100 bills to the hysterical bar girls; however, Elise mocklingly reneged on her promise telling the Arab, “Vas te faire foutre !” (Go fuck yourself !) A fight ensued with punches thrown, Elise triumphantly being carried out of the establishment on the shoulders of the comfort girls, her nose bloodied and both eyes swollen black and blue.

The following day in her office, clad impeccably in Chanel, Jicky wafting about her, Elise explained to the meeting she had convened that she had been in a traffic accident the night before. Her colleagues were awed when she told them that she had eschewed medical treatment and had not even considered going to hospital. More of a blow to her was the news she got later in the day that Alain planned to marry Judy,  his little American “non-event.”

A fortnight after their wedding, Alain and Judy returned to their Southeast Asian duty station. Clearing customs at the airport, they were surprised when a uniformed officer stopped Judy demanding to check her luggage. Judy had lost her United Nations  Laissez-Passer, the diplomatic passport that gave her immunity from such searches. It had disappeared mysteriously after the wedding. She and Alain had looked high and low, even enlisting the household staff at the Chateau, but it was not to be found. She had no recourse but to submit to the inquisitive probes that were being demanded.

Her personal effects having been rifled through with disturbing thoroughness, it appeared that nothing was amiss and Judy heaved a sigh of relief as the uniformed officer opened her last piece of luggage.  But digging through a layer of clothing, he produced a small Buddha statute, an exquisite Boddhisatva from the 10th century, a piece of rare museum quality. Alain’s jaw dropped when he saw the image. The very same statue that Andre Malraux had given his mother thirty years earlier after their trip to Angkor Wat. It was a well-known and controversial piece of recent French history that Malraux had “appropriated” certain ancient objects from the ruins of Bantay Srei and other  temples in the Angkor complex taking them back to France. Years later, when this theft had become known, most of the pieces were returned to Cambodia. One was not. The precious image that Malraux had given to Elise remained discretely in her possession under lock and key, secure in a Louis XVI cabinet in the Chateau library.

But how had it gotten into Judy’s luggage ? As Alain questioned her, Judy appeared confused, on the verge of tears. Alain wondered: was the expression on her face one of guilt ? As she was led away by customs officials and taken to an interrogation room for questioning,  Alain was speechless and  beside himself.

After several hours, Alain was informed that the Government had decided to hold Judy  for further questioning pending resolution of how she came to possess this stolen statue which had been declared a lost national treasure. She had to remain in custody at the police station overnight.

Later that evening, home alone, Alain telephoned France and spoke with his mother giving her the bad news. The voice on the other end of the line was soothing and motherly. Elise assured her beloved son that everything would work out, that there  really was nothing to worry about. Her calming words seemed to have an adverse effect as he broke into sobs saying their life was ruined. Putting the phone slowly on the table so his voice was more distant, Elise smiled, lit a cigarette placing it in its ivory holder and turned to her young Thai female companion saying, “Ju Ju, ma chere, it doesn’t always happen that things turn out exactly as one plans them to be. But tonight we must celebrate.”

 

 

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