An Evening at the De Gaulles'

The procession of limousines turning off the Champs Elysées into the Avenue de Marigny stops and starts as one of a cluster of police guards, their white rain capes glistening under the streetlamp, steps off the curb from behind a barricade and brings each car to a halt. The barrier, which stretches across the wide wet pavement to a stone wall, is set up to ward off the curious. But there is no one at all peering past the barricade on this rainy night.

As one’s driver brakes before the police, one rolls down the back window and shows the head guard a white formal invitation — in smart Parisian parlance, un bristol.

“Oui, Madame,” says the chief policeman, with a respectful smile and a courteous tip of the cap. Another of the guards glances toward the end of the insectlike line and speaks quietly into what he calls, as Frenchmen do, his “TalkieWalkie.” The chief policeman waves the chauffeur on.

The driver speeds up, swings to the right, enters a gate flanked by two mounted French Republican Guards, and whisks through an illuminated covered archway, past a double row of twenty-six Gardes Républicans, helmeted, booted, and sabered, the red, white, and blue of their dress uniforms backed by a dark green forest of potted laurel trees. Through a second portal at the end of this passage, and the car moves into the Court of Honor.

The chauffeur, having been given a parking number, leaves. The occupant of the car allows a brief moment for an appreciation of the imposing golden square canopy which shields the entrance on ceremonial nights, then goes up the broad, red-carpeted steps which are bordered by ten more Republican Guards in full fig.

It is ten o’clock. General Charles de Gaulle, President of the republic of France, and Madame de Gaulle are entertaining this evening. Another guest, one of nearly 20,000 received every year at their home, the Elysée Palace, has arrived at the door.

The occasion is a gala reception during the official visit to France of His Majesty Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah Deva, King of Nepal. On the invitation, which is engraved in the flowing type called ”l’Anglaise” favored by diplomats and high society, the name of the guest is painstakingly handwritten in matching script. The President and his wife “beg so-and-so to be so kind as to assist . . .”“Uniforme, Habit [French terminology for “white tie”], Décorations” are indicated.

King Mahendra is the thirty-fifth head of state, since the General took office in 1959, to be accorded the ritual of “The Official Visit,” which lasts a minimum of three days and follows a customary pattern: greetings, meetings, lunches, dinners, receptions, and galas at the opera. In the course of the second dozen of these fetes for heads of state, as the General’s affection for magnificence and ceremony grew ever more apparent, Foreign Service Officers at the Paris American Embassy remarked on the epidemic of “grandeuritis” sweeping the Elysée.

On the day of his arrival, the forty-six-year-old king and his queen, Her Majesty Ratna Rajya Laxmi Devi Shah, thirty-eight, embarked on a program that is by now a formula all too familiar to the French public. They were met by the De Gaulles, the French Prime Minister, Minister for Foreign Affairs, and Minister of State at Orly Airport, where a Republican Guard band rendered “La Marseillaise” and the Nepalese national anthem, “May Glory Crown Our Illustrious Sovereign.” Following a suitable exchange of honors and compliments (President de Gaulle referred to Nepal as “one of those Himalayan countries, the most elevated in the world, which Nature renders epic,” and King Mahendra said that he and his government “are certain that this visit will reinforce the good relations that exist between our two countries”), the party’s cavalcade of fourteen Citroën DS Noires, a motorcycle escort, and the French Chief of Protocol, Bernard Durand, in the lead, sped from the airport to the Quai d’Orsay on the Left Bank, making a journey which ordinarily takes from forty minutes to an hour in exactly twenty minutes.

The route from Orly was of course blocked off during their ride, and for the better part of the morning, the dense traffic in nearby areas of the city was at a complete standstill, to the exasperation of at least one taxi driver. “Another visite!” he said, rolling his eyes skyward. “Nepal. Now there’s an important country. Who’s ever heard of it? Where is it? I’ll be here all day.”

After honors and introductions at the Foreign Ministry, King Mahendra and Queen Ratna were installed in the usual apartments reserved for important state guests at the Quai d’Orsay.

At 12:30 P.M. the King had a private talk with the General, then had lunch at the Elysée (déjeuner intime for 40 persons), after which he was driven up the Champs Elysées to pay his respects at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Are de Triomphe.

After the observances at the Arc de Triomphe, the visiting monarch opened an exhibition of Nepalese art at the Guimet Museum, famous for its collection of Oriental sculpture, and continued the diplomatic round at the formal 5:00 reception (morning coat or uniform), called the Cercle Diplomatique, held at the Quai d’Orsay for heads of missions. The most elaborate event on the calendar for the day, however, is the evening state banquet for 180 at the presidential palace, to be followed by a reception for 800, affairs of comparatively moderate size. Some dinners may be for 250 and receptions for 1500.

The dinner guests arrive at 8:00. They sit down in unison at a Ushaped table in the Grande Salle des Fêtes at 8:15. The menu, which has taken the palace staff two days to prepare, is briskly served by footmen dressed àla française — white knee breeches, red waistcoat, blue jacket — and begins with Crème Germiny soup. Dishes are likely to be whisked away before the diner is certain he has finished with his course. The General is known not to like to dawdle over his food. The filets de sole Joinville, accompanied by a Riesling 1964 wine, and the dindonneau de Bresse Châtelaine, washed down with Château LafitcRothschild 1959, appear on one of the three great services of Sevres china that belong to the Elysée — the Capraire, made in 1846. After a green salad, the foie gras de Landes, with Clos Vougeot 1959 in the Baccarat crystal, is followed by a parfait Trianon served on the Sèvres Oiseaux plates, a series handpainted with portraits of birds and created in 1858. If anyone drops a Oiseaux plate it takes $140 to replace it, but the set is less dear than the third of the Sèvres services, “Little Views of France,” $160 a plate. In all, the individual dinner guest at the palace has some $600 worth of china, silver, vermeil, and crystal set before him during an evening meal. Once in the annals of Elysée entertaining, a diner made off with two silver plates. They were retrieved, with tact. But no such incident is likely to occur tonight in the company of the president of the Assemblée Nationale, the vice president of the Sénat, the nineteen cabinet ministers, the ten counselors of state, the doyen of the Corps Diplomatique (the Papal Nuncio), and other high representatives of officialdom.

De Gaulle and Mahendra rise to make their respective toasts (with Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin 1961 champagne). The General takes this opportunity to speak of “the external intervention in Southeast Asia and the odious conflict this intervention involves.” The King, whose languages are English, Urdu, Hindi, and Sanskrit, responds in English through an interpreter with reference to his country’s situation, “between two friendly nations, India and China,” and with emphasis on Nepal’s pride in its traditions of “sovereign independence and territorial integrity.”

As the dinner comes to an end, the people invited for the reception begin to drive into the Court of Honor. Many are Hindus, wearing, like the King, black topees on their heads and black Western jackets over their white tunics and jodhpur trousers. Women gather their long skirts above their ankles before mounting the red-carpeted steps. All are momentarily dazzled by the flashes of prismatic light from the massive crystal chandelier that shine through the solid glass wall of the entrance hall. Eighty lighting fixtures of similar proportions hang from the high ceilings of the Elysée, and it takes two men eight days to clean each chandelier.

The transparent doors open. Bristol at the ready, the guest crosses the threshold. One of an efficientlooking team of officers in full dress, swags of red cord looped to the shoulders of their navy blue uniforms and rows of multicolored medals across their chests, springs forward. He says, “Bonsoir, Madame,” or “Bonsoir, Monsieur,” and scans the invitation to see whether there is a blue triangular mark at the top left corner. The guest with a blue-marked bristol is motioned to the right, for he is among the 700 persons invited who will not be introduced to the host or hostess or the guests of honor. The 100 bearers of unmarked invitations are sent to the left, the route to the receiving line. (Restricting the number of handshakes at Elysée functions is a relatively new practice which a French newsmagazine has seen as an indication that the seventy-six-year-old general now tries to conserve his energy.) Leaving their coats at a checkpoint behind the grand staircase where wraps are sent downstairs in a special dumbwaiter, guests tapped for presentation are directed to the corridor at the left of the stairs.

All the semipublic social events at the Elysée are held in the rooms on the ground floor, a chain of salons that follow the back facade of the palace and face an enormous park. As the reception progresses, the stream of traffic moves to the right through these salons and is prodded along by a crew of palace factotums. It is in the first of these rooms, the Salon of the Portraits, a mélange of eighteenth-century and First and Second Empire decor, that guests who will be formally received first take their places in line. While waiting, they have a view through the massive French windows of the arbored rose garden to the left and the swans on the lake at the foot of the park, floodlit for the evening’s festivities.

On the approach to the receiving line, guests next enter the Hémicycle Salon — Savonnerie rug, gold and white carved paneled walls. The Marquise de Pompadour, a mistress of Louis XV, slept here. When the guest arrives at the door leading to the Salon of the Ambassadors, he surrenders his invitation. The noise of conversation in the crowded Hémicycle is considerable. A person may fail to recognize his own name when it is called out by the announcing usher, whose title, Aboyeur-Huissier, means Barker-Usher and who takes his cues from Monsieur Durand, the Chief of Protocol. An imperious man resplendent in the traditional ambassadorial uniform (black, covered with scrolls of golden embroidery) of Ministre Plénipotentiare, which is conserved for his office, Monsieur Durand is posted at the right of the door.

As he steps into the relative quiet of the Salon des Ambassadeurs the guest is suddenly alone with President de Gaulle, King Mahendra, Queen Ratna, Madame de Gaulle, the announcing usher, the Chief of Protocol, two interpreters, and at a discreet distance, a few bodyguards. Benign and genial, the General, garbed in his midnight-blue army dress uniform, with pearl-gray waistcoat, is bathed in rays of golden light from the monumental chandelier overhead. His responses are cordial. They range from the terse “Monsieur” to the “Ah! Untel! Delighted to see you!” to a quick exchange of phrases with a notable whom De Gaulle already knows. Compliments to pretty women may begin with the simple “Mes hommages, Madame,” and flower into “Your grace honors this ancient house, Madame.” At an intimate Elysée dinner for 40, a beautiful woman recalls, De Gaulle reached into his pocket, put on his powerful spectacles, and looked her up and down when she was introduced to him, but she was exceptionally striking and the circumstances were relatively informal.

King Mahendra, whose ten million subjects regard him as an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, rarely asks for the services of the interpreter behind him and speaks to the guests with agreeable restraint. Men go through the motions of hand-kissing without actually kissing the hands of Queen Ratna and Madame de Gaulle. Many of the women curtsy to both ladies. The Queen, like her husband, wears sober black-rimmed glasses, but her smile is warm, and her native dress (a rose-red sari embroidered in silver) and royal jewels (a pearl-drop diamond necklace and matching earrings) are far from severe.

Madame de Gaulle, who often used to frown in public, looks radiant and gracious in the darkgreen moiré dress designed by her couturier, Jacques Heim. Her graying brown hair is closely cut at the back of the neck and dressed in set waves. The freshness of her complexion is extraordinarily youthful for a woman of sixty-six. By nature of a character typical of many French middle-class women who are frugal, who have an unshakable respect for tradition, a strong sense of order and organization, and who uphold the old established moral virtues, Madame de Gaulle is deeply religious. She has the reputation of being the regime’s Mrs. Grundy and is widely considered to be the unofficial censor who has brought about the banning of certain books, plays, and films in France.

An army wife for forty-five years, Madame de Gaulle runs the palace staff of 160 with dispatch. She has never granted an interview nor posed for an official photograph. She is an accomplished knitter. She once said that her ideal wardrobe was two black dresses, “one on my back and one in the closet.” Those days are over. Since she is above all what an acquaintance describes as “a woman of duty,” she now does her best to act the part of the First Lady of France by being well dressed and by overcoming her innate shyness. She is an extremely dignified person but has none of the regal comportment of her husband.

An assistant chief of protocol overseeing the exit from the receiving line hurries the guests out with sweeping gestures toward the adjacent antechamber, the Salon des Aides de Camp. Hastening past, a guest is poked in the eye by a flower piece bristling with gladiolus. Seated near the door in rapt conversation with a lady is the stout sixty-sevenyear-old playwright Marcel Achard, a member of the venerated Académic Française, who is wearing the ornate attire in which academicians appear for ceremonies — a swallowtail coat embellished with elaborate designs of green, gold, and white silk. The colors match the medal of Officer of the Legion of Honor which hangs from a red ribbon on his chest. The protocol man notices him and tells him to get up, saying, “The passage must be kept clear.” Concealing their annoyance, Achard and his companion move on.

The young footmen in their tricolor livery are passing silver trays of American, English, and French cigarettes. Madame Hervé Alphand, wife of the former ambassador to Washington, who herself works as directrice of the haute couture house of Paris designer Pierre Cardin, a proponent of mini-skirts and futuristic men’s wear, chats smoothly with a functionary in a corner. There are few women of fashion at this gathering, and Madame Alphand, however subdued she may be in elegant, unobtrusive black, with one shoulder bare, stands out.

Her carefully groomed husband, now Secretary-General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is decorated with the large badge of Commander of the Legion d’Honneur. It is worn on a wide red ribbon around the neck. “Virtually obligatory at the Elysée,” notes a palace aide, pointing out that two thirds of the men in the room wear the same decoration. “But the Cross of the Liberation — bronze with black Cross of Lorraine, green and black ribbon — is also, of course, most acceptable.”

In the next room, the lovely gold and white Salon Murat, which has wall paintings of Rome and of a château in Alsace, a black-garbed huissier, the long silver chain of his office strung around his neck, urges the company ahead into the vast Salons des Fêtes. He gives directional signals by waving his whitegloved hand in swooping motions, in the manner of a courtier on the stage at the Comédie Française. Celebrities, who ignore his efforts to keep the traffic circulating, pause for minutes of conversation, while others amuse themselves by identifying famous guests and by counting decorations.

The great historian, biographer, and academician André Maurois is remarked upon because he has chosen to wear merely a broad red sash across his chest, attaching his Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor to a large red bow on his hip, and has left his other medals at home. The devout Gaullist writer and Nobel Prize winner François Mauriac, writer Joseph Kessel, playwright Marcel Pagnol, film director René Clair, and the Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Louis Victor de Broglie are other Académic Française members invited. Among the best decorated men present, Prince Guy de Polignac is given high marks for distinction, for, although only an Officer of the Legion of Honor, he holds four different Great Crosses, even if they are not French, and is the only man in the assembly who has the Grand Cross of the Order of Malta hanging from his neck.

Those well versed in medals are stumped when Foreign Minister Maurice Couve de Murville comes in wearing a wine-colored ribbon about his neck with an unfamiliar order hanging from it. He retires to the end of the salon to confer with a député next to a priceless table fashioned entirely of Sèvres porcelain and ormolu. It is a prize piece among many antiques in the palace. All Elysée furniture belongs to the French people and is administered and cared for by the nation’s storage warehouse, the Mobilier National. However, the majority of French people do not see these Elysée treasures. There are no public tours of the palace.

Prime Minister Georges Pompidou, exuding health and well-being, passes through, his white shirtfront crossed with a huge sash of vivid blue with green borders. “Nepalese orders,” explains the palace aide. “They got those this afternoon, and naturally they put them on this evening. Couve de Murville is now a Commander of the Right Hand of the Gurkha. Pompidou has the Great Cross of the Three Divine Powers, but please do not ask me what they are.”

One third of the floor space of the immense winter garden of the Salons des Fêtes is taken up with a sixtypiece orchestra of the Republican Guard, manfully playing Rossini’s overture to La Gazzetta (The Little Magpie), but only a note or two can be heard over the chatter of a thousand voices. The walls are draped with twenty-four of the seventy-one splendid Gobelin tapestries housed in the Elysée. Three of the Gobelins in the Salons des Fêtes depict the story of Esther and are thought by experts to be particularly fine. The Gobelin that hangs in De Gaulle’s office, the Salon Doré, located directly above the Salon of the Ambassadors and much the handsomest room in the house, belongs to another series of tapestries and shows “Don Quixote Being Cured of His Madness by Wisdom.”

The passage into the Salons des Fêtes is cleared. The guests break apart instinctively, leaving a broad lane in the center of the gray carpet. From the rustle of activity in the rooms beyond the Salon Murat, it is evident that the dramatic peak of the soiree is about to be reached.

With stately tread, through the portals of the winter garden come four ushers, two by two, solemnfaced, their silver chains glinting against their black uniforms. Following them, solo, walks the Chief of Protocol, his looks forbidding, his gait measured, the intricate gold braid curlicues of his uniform redolent of another century. He carries a flattened bicorne, edged with white feathers, in his left hand and appears to use a staff with his right. Behind him, the two chiefs of state, King Mahendra to De Gaulle’s right, are somewhat more relaxed. Across the General’s chest is a wide yellow ribbon, also worn by Queen Ratna, who is paired off in the procession with Madame de Gaulle. “The Great Cross of Ojaswirajanya,” murmurs the palace aide. “Reserved for heads of state. Please do not ask me what Ojaswirajanya means.”

Since the retinue does all but cry “Make way . . .” as the party continues its march down the length of the Grande Salle des Fêtes, breaking ranks at the buffet, it is difficult not to be reminded of La Gloire and stirring moments in France’s monarchal past.

The hour is 11:25 P.M. The King tells the Chief of Protocol that he wishes to leave. Once again the crowd divides into two parts to make a passageway as the official party falls into formation. The musicians sound the opening notes of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Many of the guests strain for a final view as the procession leaves the halls. Others do not bother to look up, too engrossed in their own conversations.

There is a last movement toward the buffets, where few of the 3000 sandwiches and canapés are left, but most of the 5000 petits fours remain uneaten, arranged in tidy pink pyramids on a lesser service of Sèvres china with a deep blue and gold border. “No caviar,” says a visiting journalist from Moscow, accepting a glass of champagne. “No scotch,” notes an Englishman, choosing a brandy and soda instead. “Only French drinks served here. House rule,” says an editor of Paris-Match.

Foreign Minister Couve de Murville is seated on a banquette against the wall, still talking animatedly with the same député, but most of the rest of the top echelon of the hierarchy have already said goodnight. The orchestra begins to play Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. As the guests converge in the main entrance hall, where a radiophone operator signals their chauffeurs and another guard announces the numbers of the cars as they drive up to the red-carpeted steps, the 110 clocks of the Palais de 1' Elysee strike midnight. Another grand performance is over.