Conversation with the Aristocrat

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’?)

  • BGT








15 thoughts on “Conversation with the Aristocrat

  1. Enjoyed thoroughly. Laughed out loud. A delightful treat in my day.

    Thank you for sharing.

    More please, more – and soon…

    Regards, jan ________________________________________

  2. This is why travel is wonderful. Not to stop by iconic monuments or take selfies, but because you could have a conversation with a fascinating person that shifts your assumptions and opens your mind.
    Also, you have a new book?

  3. Hi Byron. Yes, you did mention cognac! 🙂 Glad you enjoyed some, and we are glad you recalled as much as you did. Fascinating read. Thank you.

  4. Dirt will always remain dirt. Since I do not have to worry about loosing my social status (I do not play this funny game, however it is interesting to watch it) therefore I will put it straightforward: education starts with calling things their right name. So the pearl is the pearl and the shit is the shit. And there is a big difference between them.

    There is a huge difference between education and compulsory schooling. Educated men and women know what to do, but compulsory schooled must be told what to do, buy, wear, watch, listen, read ………. just to fit in into nice cocoon of mediocrity.

    Whatever direction the wind blows, dirt goes with it.

    Have you noticed that cognac can make you sober?

    1. Thank you, omgm. That is the difference in real ‘education’. I have not noticed that about cognac. I guess I must try again… – BGT

  5. Traditionally, the army has been a suitable option for men of good birth who either have no capacities for a prestigious civil career, or have a “problematic” character. The idea that male aristocrats would lead in the event of a war is partially valid, because they tend to hold higher ranks.

    But that seems to be a result of selecting those who are apt for the job, and helping them progress, rather than the idea that every male aristocrat is a born general, drilled with Spartan discipline. In France, and elsewhere, the occupations of the nobility have diversified: artists, fashion (yes, indeed) designers, chartered surveyors, farmers, etc. An article in Le Monde even mentioned a clown and a lumberjack. Some would be quite unfortunate without inherited property and a title.

    Today, the task of nobility is, one hears, to lead by example, rather than by the arms, or through a military career per se. In the words of Mériadec de Gouyon Matignon: “Respect for others, defending those in need” [own translation]

    It wouldn’t be unlikely that the petite bourgeoisie collaborated as much – or even more – than the haute bourgeoisie. Middle-class independents who provided goods or services to the occupying Nazis profited from the war. Some held a grudge against the ruling noble elite. But it would be wrong to generalise. My family was/is, in a European sense, bourgeois: bilingual and university-educated. Yet, they were (very) active in the resistance, and sympathetic towards aristocracy.

    PS: Perhaps you enjoyed Armagnac 700?

    1. Merci beaucoup, Jean-Louis. Great perspective and a great quote. I agree: today the aristocracy leads best by example. I will investigate the 700… Talk to you soon. – BGT

  6. Byron, thank you for sharing this conversation. This chap possibly ‘opened up’ to you because you are not French. He could be candid and objective without worrying what you were trying to gain or profit from it locally, as it were. Or he is a slick imposter.

    Incidentally, have you ever been invited to give a presentation on your book and blog at one of the weekly talks at the American Library in Paris ? I am a member and will watch the Library calendar in case your name is ever listed. Ensure you have copies available for the post-talk signing. I look forward to it happening.

    Thanks again.

    1. Thank you, David. No, this guy was the real deal as far as his family was concerned. Among friends–except for me–I imagine that he was probably a little more relaxed. I’m going to look into the American Library here. Will keep you posted. – BGT

  7. Another great post Byron.

    As an observer of the Old Money class you describe the clothes that they wear, the general process of wealth accumulation (and preservation) and the values that they espouse. I would love to hear more of your thoughts about where those values are taught and nurtured, i.e. schools, family discussions, trustees, etc.

    Your description of this French aristocrat that you paint with your words, in my humble estimation, is very abstract modernist: you paint the lines but you allow us as readers to try to fill in the picture.

    You mention that cognac and wine played a part in assuring the relative anonymity of your aristocratic companion but I would be quite intrigued to learn which schools influenced your friend. The attitude and responsibility that he feels leads me to believe that he is a graduate of one of the “Grandes Ecoles” of France; I would guess he was educated at the Ecole Polythecnique in particular or the Ecole Normale Supérieure.

    In a previous post you argued for an American Aristocracy to step forward, as an example for all the peoples of America to emulate. Perhaps you can post something about how you see elementary, middle, secondary, and post-secondary Institutions influencing all young persons to learn and live Old Money values.

    1. Thank you for the comment, TC. Let me briefly answer, while preserving the privacy of my aristocratic friend. I believe the British boarding school was Gordonstoun, followed by the ENS in France, as the family has roots on both sides of the English Channel.

      The educational institutions that form many Old Money children do several things, with mixed results: first, as they often house students as well as teach them, these boarding schools loosen and/or severe ties to the ‘comforts of home’ that may hinder the development of self-reliance, discipline, and learning. You can’t run crying to mommy, and daddy’s influence can’t fix it, when you’ve got to get up and get going every morning, whether you like it or not. This can result in young men and women maturing very quickly and developing great skills to perform, understand, and problem solve. It can also make them emotionally distant and create a lack of empathy.

      Second, these institutions instill a sense of identity which often breeds snobbery, but just as often creates a bond that dictates a certain level of behavior and work ethic. Benedict Cumberbatch, a Harrow alumni, is an example. While riding in a car in London with this wife and child recently, he saw a bicycle delivery guy being assaulted by a gang of thugs. Cumberbatch immediately told the Uber driver to stop. He hopped out of the car and came to the defense of the delivery guy, attacking the attackers. Startled, they ran. When asked by a journalist why he did it, he replied, ‘I just had to. I had no choice.’ That’s very Harrow.

      And finally, the education the students receive is usually of very high standards and very high quality. They learn, they are challenged, they are exhausted–mentally and physically–in a demanding and often unforgiving environment, and if they get through it, they exit very confident and competent individuals.

      I’m reaching out to some alumni of British schools to see if I can get a ‘In Their Own Words’ post from a couple. We’ll see. Thanks again – BGT

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