Flamboyant, Acerbic Alexis von Rosenberg, Baron de Redé
For the aging doyennes of the Paris social scene, a wisp of nostalgia must fall from their chignons every time they cross the Pont de Sully if, for some reason, they find themselves on the wrong side of Place des Vosges, perhaps descending Boulevard Henri IV toward the Seine after smelling the flowers at Monceau Fleurs, taking in an exhibition at the Pavillon de l’Arsenal, or pondering the origin of the name of rue du Petit-Musc.
A glance to the right is the root of the reminiscence, for it is there at the end of rue Saint-Louis en Île that their eyes fall on the fabled Hôtel Lambert. Anyone who was anyone back in the day would be utterly familiar with this landmark, the site of some of the most exclusive, most lavish, most talked about parties of the twentieth century. They were hosted by a Swiss.
Of course, Alexis von Rosenberg, the 3rd Baron von Rosenberg-Redé, was no ordinary Swiss. The Baron was never ordinary. This son of the Habsburg Empire was born in Zurich and raised in a suite of rooms at the Dolder Hotel, though the lap of his luxury continually decreased in size as his father’s fortune lost weight over the years. Never mind, the taste for all that is pretty and wonderful had already been instilled in little Alexis; it served him well throughout his life as he worked his way up the socioeconomic ladder from the Dolder to Le Rosey and on to New York, then a beacon of wealth shining directly into his eyes as it reflected off the Atlantic in 1939.
It was in New York that Alexis, by now having acceded to the title Baron von Rosenberg-Redé upon the deaths of his father and older brother, found the financing for the life to which he had been accustomed in the form of one Arturo López-Wilshaw, another of the debonair South American millionaires raking in the cash from their continent’s natural resources in the first half of the 1900s. Arturo’s money came from excrement, more agriculturally known as fertiliser. The Baron’s money came from Arturo, with whom he shared a life and a wife. A ménage-à-quoi? Whatever it was, it suited Alexis perfectly.
It was the Baron’s 1946 return to Europe in the company of famed socialite and interior designer Elsie de Wolfe, the Lady Mendl, that began the most legendary chapter of his life. Eventually taking rented premises in Hôtel Lambert, the Baron became one of the most outlandishly extravagant hosts the city had ever seen. His domestic bliss lasted until Arturo’s death fifty years ago in 1962, at which time the Baron inherited half the Wilshaw-López fortune, with which he promptly acquired a controlling interest in the Leopold Joseph & Sons bank. He later went on to manage the financial affairs of the Rolling Stones.
The banking world took on a permanently important role in his life when his dear friend Marie-Hélène de Rothschild and her husband Guy purchased the Hôtel Lambert and made it there home, with Alexis retaining his apartment that included the Hercules Gallery, one of the most famous salons in Paris. It was in the company of Mme de Rothschild that the Baron gave his legendary parties. The 1956 Bal des Têtes gave neophyte fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent the boost he needed to have his designs recognised and accepted by la haute société. More extravagant still was the Oriental Ball of 1969, which this time saw luminary guests clad in the sartorial splendour of Pierre Cardin. Who says the Swiss are no fun? If all this sounds too inconsequential in today’s world of real stress and faux glamour, that’s because it is.
Had he not succumbed to mortality in 2004, Baron Alexis de Redé would have celebrated his ninetieth birthday this year, his acerbic observations of the idiosyncrasies of others still with us. The Paris social scene, as well as his literal and figurative home there amongst les people, has never been the same. Today, as before, the Hôtel Lambert is often in the news, though now for utterly less exultant reasons. Currently owned by a member of the royal family of Qatar, the once-grand playground for the cream of European society is a rundown pile in need of restoration. The owner wishes to make changes, including the addition of an underground garage. The neighbours will have none of it.
Article by Hal Vetik, Illustration : John Douglas