It’s been a busy few weeks with work on (and delays with) the new book, interest in our film and television projects from London, and an unexpectedly ramped up social calendar.
Last week, the socializing whirlwind found me sitting next to a young French aristocrat. He was perfectly polite and casually dressed. Open, informed, and opinionated, we hit it off almost immediately. Over numerous glasses of wine and cognac, and battling the noise of a boisterous Parisian cafe, we bounced over topics willy-nilly: art, film, politics, and, quite accidentally, the attitudes and traditions of the French aristocracy.
My new acquaintance was not forthcoming with his background initially. He is known professionally for his own accomplishments, and I’m not sure how many of his colleagues know who he and his family are. It was only after I mentioned that I’d written a book about Old Money in America that he confided in me how he was raised and what his family’s history included.
I was able, after our conversation, to confirm that he was indeed who he said he was. He has residences in France, the UK, and the US. He his at least bilingual (fluent in English and French), and has been educated at some of the more exclusive schools in the two countries.
He did tell me that he did not accept (I guess that’s the term) his title when it was conferred to him, preferring to be known for his own work, rather than his family’s heritage. He was, however, proud of their accomplishments and devoted to honoring their legacy through his own achievements.
The conversation, as I mentioned, was hardly linear and the atmosphere hardly conducive to orderly recollection. (Did I mention ‘cognac’?)
Still, I am able to recall some of the more interesting points he put forth.
They are his opinions, and, in no particular order, they are as follows:
First, he noted the tradition and purpose of education among the aristocracy, as opposed the the haute bourgeoisie. The haute bourgeoisie send their children to posh schools in order to expand their social circle, learn skills to make or preserve their financial fortunes, and confirm their status in society.
The aristocracy, he noted, had different responsibilities, a different perspective, a different history. These had fostered different traditions with regard to education. They were educated to command and rule, he said without an ounce of self-consciousness.
If there was going to be a war, it was going to be the aristocracy leading the fight, and leading the soldiers in that fight. If the leaders (members of the aristocracy) were not tough enough and disciplined enough to command the respect of the toughest members of French society, whether they be bankers or butchers or candlestick makers, then God help them when they stepped up to them and started giving orders.
His family background confirmed this: they were ‘of the sword’, meaning nobility who had earned their stripes in battle, as opposed to those who were ‘of the quill’, i.e., granted their title and status based on making money, court connections, or by other means. (Feel free to clarify or add to this distinction, if you know more than I’ve stated here.)
So the education of the aristocracy was (and probably still is) rigorous and unforgiving. The young aristocrat I sat with only alluded to the harsh reality of his days at school, and hinted that the strong often only survived and the weak were very often destroyed in the process. I got the distinct impression in his brief description that it was really, really tough.
He added bluntly that generations of his ancestors had fought in wars with distinction, matter-of-factly dropping household names of military leaders who his forefathers had fought alongside, or against. He also mentioned a Paris landmark or two in Paris that his ancestors helped create. (I checked, and his claims checked out.)
He also stated without emotion that if there was ever another war on French soil, he would be leading the fight. There was no bravado, just certainty. He mentioned that, strangely, he felt a little lost without a war to fight, and a cause to rally behind. That was what he had been raised and educated to do, the responsibility he was groomed to accept, the price his privileged family and entire social class was expected to pay without question, hesitation, or regret. The only rub was that there was no clear and present danger to confront (Thank God for that, I thought to myself). So he had committed himself to his work, and he excelled.
He noted with an edge in his voice that it was the aristocracy and the peasants who had fought the Nazi invasion of France in World War II. The haute bourgeoisie had collaborated. (I have no way of knowing if this is accurate, but he had no reason to lie, besmirch others, or embellish.) He explained that the haute bourgeoisie were more desperate to preserve their wealth and their newly-minted social standing.
By contrast, the aristocracy, ancient and omnipresent, just was, regardless of who ruled the country. Their treasure was their land and their name, neither of which could be easily diminished or confiscated, he noted, adding that… you had to have land as an aristocrat.
Their chateaus, farmland, and families had been there before the Nazi occupation, and they would be there World War II. They had, after all, weathered previous revolutions and rulers. This was another one, albeit the worst. What really mattered, he explained, was how they conducted themselves in the difficult interim, that is to say, with honor and courage.
So you die, he mused, your name will live on. Not so for the haute bourgeoisie, whose material possessions and tenuous social position were not as certain, not as ancient, and not as secure.
He asked where my wife and I were living in Paris, and I told him. He knew the area intimately, as he has several family members who live nearby. It didn’t surprise me and confirmed my suspicions that he was who he said he was: I’ve met a dozen people in as many months around here who, despite their threadbare jackets and worn loafers, have a chateau in the countryside and a title in the attic.
No, he was not posing. He was not bragging. He had no interest in impressing me. He simply responded to my interest about Old Money in France. And he did it with typical French passion, erudition, nonchalance, and color.
It was great fun, and really informative. I only wish I could have remembered more. (Did I mention ‘cognac’?)