Jean Claude Abreu

Publisher and jazz enthusiast


Jean Claude Abreu, publisher, collector and musicologist: born Paris 11 January 1922; married 1960 Mary-Sargent Ladd (one son, two daughters; marriage dissolved), 1973 Georgiana Manley; died Paris 9 September 2006.

Jean Claude Abreu was last of a generation who regarded even the mildest self-promotion as utter anathema, his resistance to any form of fame ensuring his contributions to our culture went persistently unnoticed. As a man of letters, conversationalist, mountain climber and jazz expert, Abreu was the ultimate enthusiast for everything from Formula One to chess, tennis and even yoga, of which he was a Parisian pioneer.

He was born in Paris in 1922 to a French-Armenian mother and a father from the fabled Abreu family of Santa Clara, Cuba, a town created by his family and dominated to this day by a sculpture of its founding Abreu.

Educated at the Ecole des Roches in Normandy, where his passion for American jazz was first lit with a clandestine wind-up, Abreu went to Harvard to study science before going to live in Cuba at the Quinta Palatino. This eccentric mansion was built by his grandmother, who filled it with 360 species of exotic monkeys, donated to Harvard upon her death. Abreu assisted with aspects of the family business, but as a young man in his bachelor retreat overlooking Havana's old harbour he knew everyone, from the writer Lezama Lima to Julio Lobo, "the richest man in Cuba", and was also constantly travelling (by ocean liner, of course), returning regularly to Europe and spending six months in Mexico City as a simultaneous translator for Unesco.

In 1952 Abreu inherited and began developing land around the suburbs of Havana, but these properties were swiftly requisitioned with the revolution. Abreu left Cuba soon after, in 1960, but he had already been spending much of his time elsewhere, not least in Zermatt, the alpine town he had discovered in Switzerland.

In 1956, Abreu had begun construction on his mountain residence, named Chalet Turquino after the highest summit in Cuba, the first building constructed in Zermatt by a foreigner. With its 12 bedrooms and adjoining bathrooms, Turquino was soon filled with a roster of international characters, from Alan Clark and Mark Birley to the actor Robert Montgomery and painter Ernst Fuchs, many of whom were later to take a place in Zermatt. Thus Abreu created Zermatt society, transforming it from a remote village into a fashionable resort. But Abreu was not there merely for parties; much time was spent walking and climbing mountains, all of which he conquered, Matterhorn and Monte Rosa included.

If Abreu can take credit for "inventing" Zermatt he was also busy creating another monument, the magazine L'Oeil, first published in 1957, entirely thanks to his generosity. Contacted by the writer Georges Bernier with the idea of creating a luxurious, sophisticated publication to cover all visual and decorative arts, Abreu agreed to become backer and publisher. This celebrated publication (the only magazine in Dr Lacan's waiting room) still appears today and was subsidised by Abreu until 1972, when he sold the title. Characteristically he ensured his name never once appeared on the masthead or even in the smallest print.

Abreu's interest in the arts began back in Cuba, with friends like Wilfredo Lam or Cundo Bermúdez, and continued in an eclectic manner, juxtaposing an Egyptian falcon in his collection with a Courbet or Claes Oldenburg. A major contribution also came from his aunt, Lilita Abreu, close confidante of "les Sept" and an adored muse to the writers Saint-John Perse and Jean Giraudoux. On her death Lilita left Abreu major works by Vuillard, Bonnard and Klee, and a Picasso or two.

Over the decades the collection was displayed with soigné relaxation in a series of suitable apartments around Paris, Abreu being au fait with the work of leading decorators of the day, not least his fellow Cuban exile Emilio Terry. Grandest of these abodes was an Hôtel Particulier with its own park in the Marais which he swapped for a high-ceilinged apartment on the rue Verneuil, his final habitat, adorned with perfect pitch by the great Italian designer Renzo Mongiardino.

In 1960 Abreu married Mary- Sargent ("Didi") Ladd, a Boston debutante who had graced the cover of Harper's Bazaar, whose family covered Republican politics, Intelligence operatives and, indeed, the portraitist John Singer Sargent. The Abreus entertained on a generous scale for an astonishing range of people, the sort of people whose inherent glamour depends upon its being hidden from the larger public. These included the Surrealist poet Joyce Mansour, Nan Kempner, Hans Bellmer, the Scottish laird Simon Fraser, the screenwriter Paul Gégauff, the shipping magnate Jean Alvarez de Toledo and a judicious scattering of crown princes.

But some of Abreu's most favoured figures were his "fournisseurs" or specialist suppliers, not least his English tailor who catered to his strict palette of grey suits and blue shirts. There was also his expert car mechanic and his personal horological provider. Abreu was fiercely loyal to these artisans, going specially to Geneva for any work that needed doing on watch or automobile, as he had a delight in alterations and improvements. For Abreu had a brand theory - never buying from the best-known source but the more recherché competition. As he put with his usual Anglo-Gallic admixture; "Second to best, plus difficile à trouver, encore plus cher."

Thus his man at Gübelin in Geneva would create a version of the Rolex Explorer made from white gold, absolutely indistinguishable from others but far more costly. He would also have his "trombone" collar-stiffeners crafted from white gold, precisely because they were never visible. Or he would drive his new Aston Martin DB4 over to Switzerland to have it fitted with radial tyres and family seating.

This accommodated his progeny, two daughters and a son, on numerous trips through the mountains, emulating his favoured Formula One drivers. Having remarried in 1973, to the equally ideal Wasp beauty Georgiana ("Georgie") Manley, Abreu continued his charmed existence of reading, skiing, climbing and collecting - friends and objets - and not least improving his important jazz collection.

A tootler himself, Abreu had a particular love of Pee Wee Russell, matched by his passion for Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong. In fact one of his few recorded public acts was to vote on the international panel for the Jazz Hall of Fame put together by his old friend Ahmet Ertegun.

In respect of his Cuban heritage a formal mass for the eternal peace of "Juan Claudio", complete with children's choir, was given by Monsignor Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, Vicar General of Havana in the city's Art Deco church of San Agustín. Meanwhile in France his memorial was attended by le tout Paris from the Ganay brothers, François Pinault, Barbara of Yugoslavia and Jean d'Ormesson - who gave an oration recalling yacht trips through the Aeolian islands. Here he arose early to see Abreu already on deck playing his clarinet, but with typical discretion silently, so as to wake no one.

Adrian Dannatt

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