The Salon of Comtesse Greffulhe1

   [...] sounds of the guests.2 Perhaps the intention had been to invite just ten of them to begin with, but little by little this figure grew. But this party will be the opposite of the escapade celebrated by Victor Hugo:

On leaving Cadiz,
We were ten.
On arriving at Otranto,
We were thirty.

   And I am convinced that before too long there will be quite two hundred. Before too long, because it is to take place in one hour. If at that moment you were able to lift the roofs off the most beautiful mansions in Paris, you would find it charming and amusing to witness the graceful agitation of beautiful ladies making their final preparations. As the weather is mild, the victorias wait in front of the door or in the courtyard, and in a moment the same word of command issued from so many different quarters to a hundred coachmen is going to conduct through the warm and sunlit streets these glittering hampers, decorated by the flowers of the multicoloured dresses, that will bow, as they pass, with the grace of a greeting given out or received.
   The first guests begin to arrive, and Mme Greffulhe finds seats for them all along the walls, in the spacious drawing-rooms of the house, in such a way that the centre of the room remains free, ready and waiting for the arrival of His Majesty. Only a few men still remain there, as one might see on the day of a review, before the arrival of the general, the soldiers passing through the empty courtyard of the barracks, who all at once, at the first bugle call, take their place smartly, or return into the rooms or into the line. All the ladies who are to be presented to His Majesty first are at the forefront. Here is Mme de Pourtalès who is also a queen in her own way, but is above all Her Most Serene Grace the Comtesse Edmond de Pourtalès, to such a degree has she maintained intact the serene grace that never wearies of charming so many. When the king, who knew her under the Empire, sees her in a moment, he will not believe that it is she, so little has she changed, and in the same way Mme de Greffulhe will seem like a fairy who has managed the tour de force of evoking for him a beautiful apparition of days gone by. At her side, the Duchesse de Luynes, née La Rochefoucauld, appealing with a particular charm, that one sees repeated in her two children, sitting close by her; the Duchesse de Noailles, of the ravishing eyes; the Duc de Luynes, so refined, so courteous, grace itself. At his side, the Comtesse Paul de Portalès, tall and blonde, with well-ordered features; Mme Ternaux-Compans, Princesse de Caraman-Chimay, née Werlé, Mme Casimir-Perier, the Duchesse de Gramont. People are starting to arrive in greater numbers. Mme Greffulhe standing in front of the door "seems like a great golden bird" ready to spread her wings. Her wonderful eyes change their appearance at every moment: "Do you see that cloud up there", as Hamlet said to Polonius, "to me it looks like a weasel", and at every moment he finds in it a different resemblance so ceaselessly does it keep taking on a new appearance. Mme Greffulhe's eyes are no less changeable. Immobile for a moment, they are like a mineral beauty in precious stone. It might be said that displayed in a glass case they would illuminate a Louvre. Now her pupils have the appearance, in her eyes, of a pebble thrown into limpid waters. But a look has crossed them as she smiles at one of her friends who is just coming in and straight away they are dissolved, they are held like a blessing from on high, like the mysterious and transparent sweetness of stars. Now they are like the beautiful eyes of a gazelle. At every moment they are "other", yet still remain "themselves". Here is the Marquis de Lau, old friend of M. Greffulhe, former orderly officer to General Gallifet, curious Ghirlandaio head with his heightened complexion and eyes of such a blue. Another old officer who is chatting to him is Comte Louis de Turenne, the most charming man in the whole group. Of a benevolence, of an integrity, of an unfailing affability, M. de Turenne is also a man of high culture, known for his most distinguished works and whose small apartment on the rue de la Bienfaisance as well as being a centre of elegance is a home of collections and studies. M. de Turenne is one of those men of which it is said that they make the rain and the sunshine, which is perhaps to attribute to them a little gratuitously a prerogative formerly reserved for the good Lord, and extended today, to a certain extent, to physicians. But it is non less accurate that, in this circumscribed universe, it is true, whoever goes to the rue Tronchet (hôtel Pourtalès), to the avenue d'Iéna (hôtel Standish) and avenue Marigny (hôtels La Tremoïlle and Gustave de Rothschild), to the rue Saint-Dominique (hôtel Sagan) passing by the Cercle de l'Union, his authority is almost unlimited.
   He made his greetings successively: to Duc de Montmorency, a figure from history with a youthful allure; to M. Charles Ephrussi, a great friend of the Comte and Comtesse Greffulhe; to Marquis de Castellane and Comte Rambuteau. At that moment Mme Greffulhe places, by the side of her friend the Comtesse de Kersaint, née Mailly-Nesle, the Marquise d'Eyragues, that noble brunette young lady, her cousin, née Montesquiou (sister to the Comtesse d'Oizonville and sister and sister-in-law to Comte and Comtesse Henri de Montesquiou, née Noailles), a woman of delightful wit, who exercises over all who know her the most justifiable influence. She possesses the sort of thorough and charming mind that consists in seeing everything in an original way and is so acute that there is no such thing to her as an insignificant event or a boring person, and that can extract from the dullest stone a grain of sparkling gold. She too has hardly sat herself down before everyone crowds around her, and you can see how much the persons sitting near her all seem to be delightedly savouring the unexpected nature of her conversation. The Marquise de Massa, Comtesse de Gabriac and the Duchesse de Reggio, who have spotted Mme d'Eyragues, get up and come to find a place next to her. The whole world has turned out, writers and illustrious scholars, come to be presented to His Majesty. Around every great feminine influence there are always groupings and arrays of talents. But today, the day (to take up our image once more) of the grand review, where the veterans of French thought will be parading in honour of the king, each and every one of them, the reservists and the major-generals, have been called to arms. With the result that next to the young Helleu, La Gandara, Lobre, Le Sizeranne, we find M. Bertholt, the great chemist; M. Albert Sorel, with the precise and profound mind of the imperturbable and perspicacious historian; M. Camille Saint-Saëns, M. Paul Hervieu, still young but illustrious too, and whose musical and relaxed diction, in inverted harmonious cadence, holds captive the attention of all, as they hang on his profound and charming words. M. Janssen, the great astronomer, has come in a morning suit, even though it is four o'clock in the afternoon, be it out of excessive anxiety of officialdom, be it out of the scholar's disdain for the contingencies of dress, be it out of a touching desire, in absolute ignorance of fashion, to do the right thing. On anybody else and anywhere else but here it might look ridiculous, but with M. Janssens [sic] it takes on something very noble and touching, and one feels that the men of intelligence who are present would willingly put themselves in morning dress to be like him and say to him like Dumas fils to George Sand: "I much prefer to be wrong with you than right with everybody else". The king has still not arrived. It is as if we are in class, awaiting the arrival of the examiner. People chat. Through the window that is open to the garden, mingling with the song of a bullfinch, comes the delicious scent of lilac. At every moment a humorous remark produces a burst of laughter from Mme Greffulhe. Ah! such a pretty thing! She remains indecisive for a moment as if hesitating before the appropriate volley of laughter that suddenly and delightfully bursts forth, in countless outpourings and chimes.
   And nobody can take their eyes off her. She is "Glorious with the blaze of eyes fixed upon her".
   But she has a rival in the fascinated attention of all present. It is Houdon's Diana who sits on the chimney piece. For I have presented to you, like the worthy dramatic author, all the characters in this little society production, before the performance begins, but I have not told you about one inanimate spectator, the most vivacious of all, Houdon's Diana, a failure that is all the more grievous since it is she that has furnished me with the title of this article.4 This Diana has a story. Would you like me to tell you it quickly before the party starts; but we'll have to hurry, because I can see a great movement taking place, M. Greffulhe has left the drawing-room precipitately, I have an idea that His majesty is not far away. Well then, about ten years ago, for a fancy dress party, Mme Greffulhe wanted to go as Diana and on account of this she wanted to have a look at a Diana by Houdon that was kept in the house of one of her country neighbours, quite simple folk, and whom she did not know. This was done. Whereupon, deep mourning in the house where, I don't know if it was the daughter or the wife of the owner of the Diana, was dying. Mme Greffulhe felt it her duty to go and offer her consolation to these people. This she did quite naturally without imagining that she could do anything else, letting her heart, which is so eloquent, speak for her. Ten years passed, the owner of the Diana died, leaving the statuette to her in his will, in memory of that visit. (We have the letter, because it could not have been done any other way, see the Goncourt journal, which I don't have to hand right now). And that is how the adorable marble "guest" came to be present - as plenty of others would like to be in flesh and blood - at all of Mme Greffulhe's parties. No, it wasn't the king, I did have time to finish my tale and still he's not here.
   Punctuality is not to be... you understand. Here are a few latecomers: Comte and Comtesse Edmond de La Rochefoucauld, née Colbert; Comte and Comtesse Henri de Montesquiou, née Noailles; Comte and Comtesse Mathieu de Noailles, née Brancovan, and Prince and Princesse Alexandre de Caraman-Chimay, also née Brancovan. But at this point I must open a parenthesis. I do not pronounce those last two names without a feeling that is quite difficult to fully describe. The Comtesse de Noailles and the Princesse de Chimay are already the one a great poet, the other a great prose writer - and as from last month we could also call Mme de Noailles a great prose writer3 - who it seems to us might be spoken of in a book of literary criticism, in a history of French literature, but not in a society account. To see them cited as "ladies of fashion" would give us the same feeling of disproportion that we experience reading memoirs from the Restoration where we read: "Fine soirée today at the Duchesse de ***'s. There present MM. de *** and de ***. One among them, introduced by M. de Castrie [sic] or M. de Broglie, M. Lamartine, read verses that he entitled Poetical Meditations." I know quite well that it is not exactly the same thing when it concerns ladies. Besides, the case hardly ever appears in histories of literature and there is no jurisprudence, because there is no precedent. M. Paul Hervieu comes to congratulate Mme de Noailles on her wonderful novel, while all those who are gazing at the Comtesse stand as if fascinated by those boundless eyes, filled with lights and shadows, and with a twilight that sings, before her perfect beauty, before her absolute divine grace.
   Delightfully modelled by touches of a moving subtlety and delicacy, the exquisite face of the Princesse de Chimay holds us under no less enchantment. Her beautiful eyes that can only see things close to her, that see into things so deeply, her charming figure, energetic and fragile, everything about her gives the impression of an indomitable sweetness. Comte Mathieu de Noailles and Prince Chimay are at the very height of the exquisite and difficult task of being the husbands of two women of genius, and not only that, for they possess their own independent value. And those ladies, in their turn, find in their husbands the strength and goodness on which they can depend after the fatigues and uncertainties of ideas and art. But I am going to have to take up this portrait again, of which I have hardly completed anything but a first sketch, in a few days' time, because coming into the room on the arm of Mme Greffulhe is the king. I shall not describe him as that would let him be recognized, because as far as I can I want to preserve his incognito. Yet, you might say, what does that matter. Because where is the king who has not gone to rue d'Astorg or to Bois-Boudran? A visit to Mme Greffulhe forms just as inevitable a part of the timetable for the sovereign of any importance who is only spending one day in Paris as a visit to the Élysée, the Louvre or Notre-Dame. Mme Greffulhe - muse to the poets, regal with kings and good to all, and beautiful to all - moves forward on the arm of the king and introduces him or reintroduces him to the Comtesse Edmond de Pourtalès, Duchesse de Fezensac, the dowager Duchesse de Luynes, Duchesse de Trémoïlle, to Mme Casimir-Perier, Duchesse de Bissacia, the dowager Duchesse d'Uzès, Duchesse d'Uzès, née de Chaulnes, Duchesse de Rohan, Comtesse Mathieu de Noailles, Princesse Alexandre de Chimay, Duchesse de Luynes, née d'Uzès, Duchesse de Mortemart, Duchesse des Cars. By turns the king congratulates the Duchesse de Rohan for the latest piece of poetry she has just composed [...]5 Calmette who comes to [...] to hold the early [...]Mme Greffulhe names one by one the nearest gentlemen [...] the sovereign as she invites them to receive the crown. Slender, motionless, her finger unwavering, she indicates in a lively voice, saying: "M. Barthelot". M. Barthelot comes forward and converses for a moment with His Majesty, M. Vandal, of such delicate and refined charm; "M. Fauré", the great musician of the attractive inspired and refined face beneath the premature seemingly artificial whiteness of his snowy hair, beneath which blaze eyes as blue as alpine milkwort in the snow; "M. Jules Roche". His majesty seems to take a particular pleasure conversing with the eminent man of state. With glowing eyes, feverish and colourful speech, indefatigable intelligence. The king then takes his seat and the programme begins. It is entirely made up of Beethoven's sonatas, Chopin's preludes and polonaises, performed by M. Planté.6 Those who have not heard M. Planté can have no idea of the metamorphosis an artist of genius can make the piano undergo, by turns roaring like a tempestuous sea, turning sweet and penetrating as the song of the nightingale, then full of voices like a deep forest. And leaving aside - as we must always do - M. Risler, no other pianist seems able to reach those heights. But those who do not know M. Planté have no idea either of the highly amusing peculiarities of this original artist. M. Planté does not play a bar without accompanying it with an observation, underlining it with a gesture, preceding it with a warning to the audience, to have it followed by some appreciatory remark. Let us add that this originality, being quite natural to him, is highly pleasing, in contrast to the affectation displayed by certain pianists, such as M. Delafosse, for example, in whose genuine talent as a pianist and composer we often see the most beautiful performances spoilt by tiresome mannerisms.
   Everybody waits. M. Planté is going to begin. He holds his fingers over the piano, the sound is about to come to life, but no. M. Planté stops himself and turns towards the king: - "Since His Majesty has a mind to hear a little music, I shall first of all play him a prelude. I have called it The Rocks of Biarritz." Turning to M. Bonnat: "Yes, my old master, of Biarritz. Ah! such an adorable place!" He begins to play; we hear an exquisite trill. And as he plays: "It's the waves, can you hear them, you can hear their pearly laughter." Looking at Mme Greffulhe: "Aha! I see that the Comtesse can hear them, I am so pleased." He laughs. (The trills continue naturally without stopping for a moment while he is talking.) "How crystalline it is! Oh! it's getting us wet, we'd better watch out." He turns to the orchestra that is accompanying him: "Oh! my dear cello, not too loud, let me sing, I love to sing," (and without stopping he makes the piano sing beneath his fingers in truly sublime fashion), "ah! there it is", still playing, and without stopping, "let's sing together there... it... is, there... it... is. Let's sing, sing", (addressing the orchestra again). "Ah! what you're saying is so nice, wait, I'll reply to you straight away": (and indeed the piano makes its reply to the phrase begun by the orchestra). And the piece ends, the programme is interrupted. M. Planté, who is too hot, has let it known his intention to go and take a shower. At that moment a sprightly and glorious old man comes in, still youthful looking, taking an interest in all artistic novelties, playing his part in all fashionable pleasures, the illustrious Hébert. "Here is the good, the charming M. Hébert, your Majesty", Mme Greffulhe says in that particular voice that at times seems to glide over the words, introducing M. Hébert to the king. The king, full of respect for the great reputation and the age of M. Hébert, stands up, runs over to him to have him sit down, and they chat together at length. Then, M. Planté, showered, bright eyed and bushy tailed, returns, in a different and lighter suit, takes his place at the piano and announces a nocturne by Chopin to which he gives the title: The Melancholy Hébert. "Take care, my old friend," he says to the great painter, "I am aiming at the heart." And he plays, in a voice that does indeed divinely touch the heart. Hébert, filled with emotion, embraces him when he has finished. But alas! the king arrived so late that the matinée was scarcely half way through and it was six o'clock already; I had to leave. Too soon for my liking; much too late perhaps for yours; so heavy and long must the evocation of these minutes have seemed to you that to me had seemed so light and swift.

Dominique.


1. This article was long thought to be lost, when it was rediscovered by Laure Hillerin when she was researching for her biography: La Comtesse de Greffulhe. L'Ombre des Guermantes. Whilst exploring the archives “I alighted upon a little blue envelope. On the front written in pencil: ‘article to follow up Calmette’. On the back, in blue pencil ‘Soirée at ctesse G.’s’. Inside, eight printed sheets held together with a paperclip, numbered in blue pencil. At the end, a signature: Dominique. My heart beat wildly: I had discovered the unpublished article by Proust.”
   Calmette from the Figaro had sent the proofs to the Comtesse for her approval. Apparently Mme Greffulhe refused permission for the article to be printed.
   Towards the end of her life Mme Greffulhe wrote: “He [Proust] sent me a portrait of myself that he composed after having seen me, which was one of the great desires of his life. He asked me to return it to him if I found it good. But, having a great dread of publicity because of my husband, I hid it away in Bois-Boudran. Alas! Is it lost?”

2. The first two pages are missing. Laure Hillerin assumes that they weren’t included as they would have been introductory and not directly concerning Mme Greffulhe.

3. L'Ombre des jours, Anna de Noailles' first novel appeared in spring 1902.

4. Since the first two pages are missing the title of the article remains unknown.

5. At the bottom of this page of the proofs there is a gap in the text where the printer's ink has run dry.

6. Francis Planté (1839-1934), virtuoso pianist, was one of the very first musicians to be recorded. Proust greatly admired this musician, to whom he was introduced in 1902 by Reynaldo Hahn, and whom he mentions twice in la Recherche, putting his name into the mouth of Mme Verdurin.


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