Style: Let them drink Champagne
Seven hundred people stormed Versailles this summer, but revelry, not revolution, was their intent. The charitable assailants were America's elite bon viveurs. Photographer Sheva Fruitman enjoyed exclusive access
Saturday 06 November 1999
Tickets for the five-day, 15-event extravaganza were not cheap. They ranged from $10,000 to $1m (although it is whispered that no one bought the most expensive package). The events to which the "friends" were invited depended upon the price of their ticket, and, for security reasons, they were asked to bring their passports to each gathering. Higher-paying guests enjoyed receptions at the Elysee palace and the British embassy, as well as a smaller dinner at the grand Trianon Palace hotel and a luncheon at the residence of the American ambassador. But "Le Bal de Versailles", in the presence of Madame Chirac, was the high point.
Stars of the show included the Texan-born Princess von Furstenberg, who speaks perfect French, and fashion designer Carolyn Roehm, who wore a king's ransom in jewels - matching diamond and ruby cuffs, and a huge spray of white diamonds on each ear and at her shoulder - although earlier in the day she had arrived at one of the many cocktail parties in flat shoes, khakis and a T-shirt, talking about how she had given up high heels for day wear. Then there was Cecile Zilkha, the indefatigable fundraiser, who wore red and sported an emerald the size of a ping-pong ball set with diamonds. At the peak of the evening, when guests were overwhelmed by the luxury and the beauty of the event, she went from table to table asking friends to double their contributions as she and her husband had done - and she convinced four major benefactors. The event was the brainchild of Catharine Hamilton, who hails from Chicago and heads the American Friends of Versailles. She is also the only American now sitting on the board of Versailles. After all the bills were paid, the event raised around $3m. Not bad for a night at the ball.
We've been to a marvellous party
The Versailles ball was held in mid-summer, allowing guests to stroll around the courtyards until late evening (the highest of the high rollers were given private tours). All 700 "friends" who attended the ball wore their very finest couture, as instructed in the dress code that accompanied their invitations. The bustled ladies had to pass through metal detectors before they entered the Orangerie for dinner. They were taken there by special tram cars (above, close-up) to protect their dainty shoes and delicate feet for late-evening dancing. In scenes reminiscent of Last Year at Marienbad, guests drifted around, greeting each other as if the awe-inspiring grandeur was just the norm. Carolyn Roehm (above centre) was a familiar face among the guests - most were old-money art patrons. The eminent socialite Lynn Wyatt wore a jewel-encrusted bodice, "made by Givenchy when Givenchy was Hubert Givenchy", as she stated. The waiting staff looked on, bemused.
I could have danced all night
Along with their gold-tasselled invitations, guests received information on everything from where to stay in Paris (naturally, The Ritz was top of the list) to a strict timetable of functions, from when they could get the attention of a hairdresser (with 700 guests, appointments were like gold dust) to what to wear. These instructions were followed to the letter. Their outfits for the ball were chosen from a full array of cocktail- length and full-length outfits, none of which would have been worn to another event. One guest had her hair styled differently for each function of each day, all on an elaborate scale. By midnight of the main event at Versailles, the guests were dancing in the Orangerie to disco music, and their couture dresses started showing the strain. Their stamina was rewarded with a spectacular firework display in the gardens, by which time the older "friends" had retired, leaving the "juniors" (the teenage and twenty-something guests, sometimes the children of fundraisers) to party till dawn.
All that glisters ...
Gold was, not surprisingly, the recurring theme at the ball. From the tiny gilt chairs to the immaculately coiffured hair styles of the guests, from the fresh-from-the-vault jewellery to the table settings, the opulent shine was everywhere. Guests at the ball had travelled through the Royal Grand Apartments, the Petit Apartments and the Galerie des Glaces to reach their tables in the Orangerie where a suitably lavish meal awaited them (food was by France's smartest party caterer, LeNotre). But all of the festivities were outshone by the simple turning on of the Versailles fountains. Staff who had worked there for 20 years had never seen the water tumbling before at the famed (and usually locked-up) Marie Antoinette fountain at the Bath of Apollo grotto, so valuable and delicate is that particular piece. The visit by the American Friends of Versailles was the subject of much attention by the French media.
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