The Salon of comtesse Aimery de La Rochefoucauld1


   Comte Aimery de La Rochefoucauld is one of the most eminent and fastidious of our scholars. M. Paul Bourget is often numbered amongst his guests. The comte professes the admiration of all true connoisseurs with regard to his cousin Robert de Montesquiou. And, having received some or other princess a few years ago, he believed he could not offer her anything more exquisitely regal than several pieces from Chauves-souris2, spoken, if memory serves us well, by Mlle Reichenberg. The following year, after an elegant dinner, it was comtesse Mathieu de Noailles, née Brancovan, who, in the salon in the rue de l'Université, gave the premise of her young glory.3 And the comte never missed an opportunity to go and applaud the so very original and powerful music of Prince Edmond de Polignac4, that artist beyond equal to whom he is also allied by the marriage in the first nuptials of the duc de Doudeauville and Mlle de Polignac. But what if we enter for a moment into the mansion on the rue de l'Université. To do that I must first introduce you to the comtesse Aimery de La Rochefoucauld, née Mailly Nesle. Her beauty, her wit, her kindness are legendary. Few women exude so much charm around themselves, exercise so much prestige, do so much good. If you have never seen her perhaps at least you are familiar with her portrait by Chaplin5, exhibited a few years ago at the École des Beaux-Arts. In which case you will have already admired the fine nobility of her profile, her blue eyes, her blonde head of hair. The exhibition of Amateurs at the rue de Sèze contained several paintings of Mme de La Rochefoucauld, one of which features a corner of autumnal forest with great precision of tone. Does Mme de La Rochefoucauld attach as much importance to armorial bearings as her husband? If, as is generally believed, it is true that she does not, she has the tact and the good taste to never let it be seen. If the opposite is true, she believed, through her sweetness and her feminine charm, in never letting it be felt (a merit which M. de La Rochefoucauld also possesses). That at least is the impression that everybody forms in the rue de l'Université, in its rooms decorated with so many wonderful paintings by the owners and where is also featured, not far from a portrait of comte Gabriel (the only son of the comte and comtesse) by Mme André6, Chaplin's portrait of Mme de La Rochefoucauld that we mentioned earlier. Despite the lifelong affluence of her friends the comtesse has a friendly word for everyone. From time to time one of her friends will take her to one side to invite her to a dinner. But the quantity of invitations is so numerous that she no longer knows on which days she is free and so as not to offend anybody she sends her butler to consult a little book in which all her appointments are written. Then, observing the relationships between all present, she allows small groups to form to continue the conversation, while she goes over to the new arrivals, offering them her hand with a smile. Here is her sister the comtesse de Kersaint, a splendid yet piquant beauty, with magnificent shoulders and such beautiful eyes, who is chatting about literature, art and music with the very pretty, rosy and lively Princesse de Wagram, a woman of remarkable wit and an amiability that her myopia must make very tiring for her. But she is too much the great lady to let it show. The marquis de Lau and admiral Duperré7 only break off from listening to them to gaze at them. Farther off the comtesse de Briey née Ludre, a charming woman whom some fools have called mischievous on account of the sharpness of her wit, is laughing the way other people cry, by hiding her face in her hands8, and perhaps she is weeping with laughter on hearing a story told to her by one of the wittiest women in Paris, a figure of exquisite delicacy, the comtesse de Broissia, née Beaufort. The duchess de Rohan seems to be no less amused by the tale, yet just then she moves off towards Mme de Broissia to listen to these two speakers and she will have no cause for complaint. Here is the comtesse Guy de La Rochefoucauld, the duchesse d'Albufera, princesse Brancovan, the great artist9, the comtesse de Chevigné, the comtesse Potocka, the duchesse de Luynes. What is the marquise d'Eyragues telling to the marquise de Massa with her astonishing wit, with her exquisite literary turn of phrase that she can give to the most trivial thing? But these two fine connoisseurs are enthralled, no less than the comte d'Haussonville who, nevertheless, has the prerogative of being hard to please in matters of wit. The fact is that the marquise de Virieu and comtesse Odon de Montesquiou, inspired by the success of their brilliant parentage and marriages, come to play their part in this entertainment for which the marquis de Castellane is already the incomparable adversary. Space does not permit us to talk about comte Gabriel de La Rochefoucauld, comte Aimery's son, whose literary debuts were so very well received. We are tempted to mention a short story in the style, sad on the inside, impassible on the outside, by Guy de Maupassant.
   All this time Mme de La Rochefoucauld has been chatting - all honour to all great ladies - with the comtesse de Brantes whose powder makes more blooming still her rosy and charming face, whose features are marked by delicacy, by majesty and archness, with a profile like a medal combined with French grace and whose towering intelligence has the force of law everywhere. Finally in come the marquise de Castellane, the marquise de Jaucourt, baronne Hottinguer, the comtesse de Chevigné and the comtesse de Ganay, the comtesse Tiskievitch. All this time we have left M. de La Rochefoucauld, who is busy receiving people, to one side. I would have liked to have had the chance to point out to you his walk, his steady gait, his neck invariably swathed with a silk handkerchief as advised by Dr Lubet-Barbon to protect him from catching cold. He would have responded to your greeting with that grave politeness that is so different from the kind of familiarity of so many others that beneath the surface is merely a form of insolence. I should have liked to have conducted you to Verteuil, the historic château of the comte and comtesse Aimery where the author of his Maximes
10 retreated as you will have read in Saint-Simon. Several monarchs, notably Charles the Fifth, stayed under its shelter. You would have evoked times past in its huge rooms. To look around Verteuil is to leaf through the history of France.


1. From an untitled manuscript, probably written some time before 1900. Prince Edmond de Polignac and Vice-Admiral Duperré would certainly have been alive when it was written.

2. The first collection of poetry published by Robert de Montesquiou.

3. In 1895, at the age of 18, she had had four unsigned poems published in La Revue des Deux Mondes. Her first collection, Le Coeur innombrable was a great success in 1901.

4. He was to die in August 1901.

5. Proust is critical of Chaplin (1825 - 1891), and particularly of this portrait, in À la recherche de temps perdu.

6. Née Nélie Jacquemart (1840 - 1912) portraitist and genre painter, married Édouard André, the collector: she left her house in Boulevard Haussmann to the Institut de France, today the Musée Jacquemart-André.

7. Son of Louis-Philippe's minister, Vice-Admiral baron Duperré was to die in 1900.

8. Mme Verdurin does the same in À la recherche de temps perdu.

9. Mother of Anna de Noailles; she was a talented pianist.

10. Not the author of the Maximes, but his son, duc François VII de La Rochefoucauld.


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