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
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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." In one of the scrapbooks is a snap of the Duchess of Windsor standing in front of the painting.

The Cabrols first met the Windsors at dinner parties in Paris. In 1947, they were surprised to receive an invitation to stay at their house on the Cote d'Azur, the Chateau de la Crok. "We were astonished to find such luxury after the deprivation of the war," she recalls. "Even at that time, two years after the war, people didn't eat much, but they had so much food and there were fresh sheets every day." There was also a swimming pool and steps leading directly down to the beach. "The Duchess was the best hostess in the world," Madame recalls. "There was always the most delicious food." Later on, the Cabrols would often go to the Windsors' renovated windmill at Gif-sur-Yvette to the south of Paris for Sunday lunch. She also recalls singing "Clair de Lune" with the Duke, sword dancing after dinner and the Cabrol children entertaining the Windsors by playing the guitar.

But for Daisy, there was never any kowtowing to the former king and his wife. She proudly relates that she refused to bow to the Duchess and that she never wrote "Your Royal Highness" on letters to him. "He would often say, `When I was King ...' she remembers, "and that would always cast a chill." The Duke, she claims, loved the Duchess more than she him and she hints that they experienced a certain ennui. "They were at almost every social function," she says over lunch. "They didn't know what to do with themselves and the parties filled in their time."

In her scrapbook is the cover of a French magazine, Jours de France, with a photo of the Windsors arriving at one of the balls she threw herself. It was at Paris's Palais des Glaces and took three months to prepare. Charlie Chaplin was among the guests. The Begum Aga Khan turned up in a flouncy feathered number and a young Madame Mitterand was on the organising committee. The composer Henri Sauguet wrote some music especially for the evening, Jean Anouilh and Nancy Mitford composed sketches and everybody skated on the ice.

"I gave a ball every year," Madame remembers. Each was in aid of a children's charity over which she presided. In 1978, she organised one event in Paris at which Marlene Dietrich sang. "Afterwards, a friend had organised a dinner for her, but she turned down the invitation," she says. "But, she did send me a note." And, of course, there it is, stuck into a scrapbook.

There are also invitations for receptions given by the Queen, one to the wedding of Princess Grace of Monaco, Maria Callas's autograph and a poem by the French society hostess Ghislaine de Polignac, entitled "Advice to a foreigner on how to succeed in Paris". It ends with the line "C'est chez Pam qu'on va B-----R" which translates as "For a F--K, you go to Pam's". The Pam in question is the late American ambassador to France, Pamela Harriman.

There are also numerous images of Madame at the legendary balls of the past, such as the Surrealist Ball thrown by the Rothschilds in 1972 at the Chateau de Ferrieres to the east of Paris. "There were three or four a year, mainly in the spring," Madame recalls. "Nobody would ever dream of socialising in Paris after the Grand Prix de Paris horserace at the end of June. People who stayed in the city after that would close their shutters to pretend they had gone away." Many of the balls were costume affairs. To one, she went disguised as a tree. To another, as the wife of Louis XIV, and once her husband dressed up as French ceramicist Bernard de Palissy and she as one of his plates. There is also a portrait of her in front of a fireplace in a Lanvin evening dress. As a society star, she would be given free gowns by designers. In the Thirties, she favoured Jacques Heim, during the war Robert Piguet and in the late Forties Schiaparelli.

"Schiaparelli was a very difficult person," she remembers. "She had a dreadful character, but was always very nice to us." She was not the only one. The dreaded Elsa Maxwell, who had a vitriolic gossip column in America and served as the Windsors' social secretary, was also fond of them, as was Greek shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos. The Cabrols once went on holiday with him and the actor Douglas Fairbanks on his yacht. "We travelled from the Riviera to Greece, but Niarchos refused to stop the boat for us to bathe. Every day, there was a huge tin of caviar, but after eight days, it became a bit of a nightmare. Nobody can eat caviar for eight days in a row!"

She has fonder memories of times spent with French lady of letters Louise Vilmorin and Jean Cocteau, "Their conversation was so stunning, witty and funny," she says. "Once I laughed for one hour without stopping and my stomach hurt so much that I could not eat lunch." She also encountered Rasputin's assassin, Prince Youssoupov, who came to Paris after his deadly deed and opened his own couture house. "He told me all about the assassination," she recounts, "and said that afterwards he was haunted by Rasputin's ghost. For years he could not stop drawing awful ghoulish faces."

Today she lives alone and spends much of her time visiting her children and grandchildren. She treasures her scrapbooks, will not let them out of the house and plans to leave them to her daughter- in-law. "We really were very lucky," she says with a hint of nostalgia. "Life just isn't like that any more"

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