(Photo source) Last night, I was invited to the Romanian Embassy, otherwise known as the Hôtel de Béhague in rue St Dominique, Paris 7ème for a conference, followed by some great jazz and a very sociable cocktail afterwards. It was the first time I had ever set foot in the Embassy itself although I know the ICR just next door fairly well. Tucked behind a high wall with heavy, unpenetratable street doors leading into a paved court-yard, it is a stunning palace with an incredibly eclectic mix of styles from Versailles staircases, French and Italian marble, 18th century boiserie and gilded salons, not to mention the Byzantine-Mauresque concert hall / theatre (incidentally, Paris's largest non-commercial theatre today).
On the French 'Monuments Historiques' list since 25th August 2003, it was built during the marvellously rich Belle Epoque (1866) by Gabriel-Hippolyte Destailleur (who restored the castles of Vaux-le-Vicomte and Maintenon) on land which had once belonged to the Railway Company of Orléans for Countess de Béhague (Laure de Haber - daughter of a Berlin banker - separated from her husband, Count Octave de Béhague in 1858) and enlarged between 1895 and 1904 by Walter-André Destailleur for its then-owner Martine-Marie-Pol de Béhague, Countess of Béarn. Originally known as Grand Hôtel, Countess de Béhague ordered that it be built on the corner of rue St Dominique / rue des Expositions, just behind the home of her son, Octave, and daughter-in-law.
(Photo source) With its columns of marble and its golden reliefs, Hotel de Béhague is a haven of mythical elegance. Isadora Duncan, the legendary bare-footed dancer who so inspired Rodin, gave a recital on the stage of the theatre in 1909. She thanked Martine de Béhague for having received her "in her living museum where everything is so animated and in perfect harmony with the graceful things surrounding her (sic - the Countess)."
By the end of World War II, the wonders of Hotel de Béhague had almost been forgotten. Bought by the Romanian state in 1939, it had been transformed into the country's embassy and, under the communist regime up until 1989, the building was inaccessible to mere mortals, according to L'Expansion.com. "Romanians could not enter the 'fortress' with its eternally bolted doors except for the very rare official reception," remembered the historian Mihnea Berindei. "It was a strange representation of communist Romania, where the staff lived totally cut off from everyone else." Sometimes, protesters (Monica Lovinescu, Claude Mauriac, Marie-France Ionesco, Maria Bratianu, Sanda Stolojan and representatives of the League for the Protection of Human Rights in Romania) would gather on the pavements nearby crying their indignance, their fury at what they called 'the Embassy of Shame'.
Under Ceausescu, the Embassy quickly became a frightening symbol, reputed for harbouring Securitate agents. "If you want to cease thinking of your country, go take a walk around the Embassy and it'll snuff out the desire forever," said the Romanians of Paris. A building of such beauty had become a building of great fear and loathing....
(Photo sources) Long before Hotel de Béhague's sad, sinister creepiness washed over it, the writer Henri de Régnier had called it "one of the most beautiful Parisian palaces of the Belle Epoque". After Octave, the countess's son, died in 1893, the palace came into the ownership of her daughter, Countess Martine de Béhague (1869-1939). In 1890, she had married René-Marie-Hector de Galard de Brassac de Béarn (what a mouthful!!), a cavalry lieutenant and brought a dowry of 3,500,000 gold francs to the marriage. The couple separated pretty promptly, but didn't actually divorce until 20th March 1920!
The muse of Marcel Proust, mécène and protector of Paul Valéry (to whom she dedicated her personal library) and rumoured to have been one of Napoleon III's mistresses, the countess spared absolutely NO expense in having the palace rebuilt, hiring William Destailleur, Hippolyte's son. On its completion, it was admiringly rebaptised the "Byzance du VIIe arrondissement". The Countess, who was famed as a great traveller sailing all over the world on her yacht in search of rare pieces for her eclectic collections, filled her home with all that she deemed most beautiful: drawings, paintings (Watteau, Tiepolo, Guardi, Fragonard Leonardo, Poussin, Rubens and even a Titien), sculptures, manuscripts, antiques, treasures from the Orient, Dresden porcelain...
(Photo source: Martine de Béhague) Often in a green wig (!!) and reclined on a sofa covered in animal pelts, the graceful and very attractive Countess would receive a wide array of painters, sculptors, musicians, poets and writers (particularly the "Symbolists") of the time, notably Paul Helleu, Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret, Carlos Schwabe and Jean Dampt. She was also a known sponsor of the poet Verlaine and, within the awe-inspiring walls of this palace known as a true nest of culture and artistry, performances of Wagner and Bizet's Carmen rang out into the Parisian night, and Gabriel Fauré (who lived nearby in Bd Malesherbes, XVIIè) conducted his own Requiem. What fabulous evenings they must have been!
(Photo source) In the white stone entrance hall, one falls upon a monumental staircase carpeted in superb marble framed with beautifully worked wrought iron banisters inspired by the Queen's staircase at Versailles. Oh, to float down them in an evening gown of rustling taffeta and satin slippers! The garden is filled with statues and the ballroom still seems to echo with the sounds of the countess's many receptions and parties, however jaded it may now appear. In the dining room, Destailleur moulded a niche of 'jasper' green nestling a fountain in the form of a Baroque mask and on the opposite wall, one can still admire a masterpiece by François Boucher, La Naissance de Vénus, unearthed after 1989 although one had thought it long gone. The route to the countess's private apartments follows another staircase, this time wooden (see photo left), style Louis XIV along with a lift surprisingly still in working order and a beautiful oval library also with its panels of dark, rich wood. It is so reminiscent of Romanian workmanship and atmosphere that I couldn't help feeling it should have always belonged to the Romanian people. Sadly, though, those same Romanian people have never been known for taking care of nor respecting patrimony (nor anything lovely in general, for that matter), and the Hotel de Béhague is no exception to the rule...
(Photo sources) In the late 1890s, the Countess's marvellous Byzantine-style theatre / concert hall built by the architect Gustave-Adolphe Gerhardt and edified in 1898, was a hub for art exhibitions - Robert de Montesquiou once said of it, "such a beautiful place one cannot tell whether it is a theatre or a church." Apparently, it can accomodate up to 600 people (I wouldn't be surprised) and still has one of the last private organs in Paris. Today, however, it is in desperately urgent need of restoration, despite the fact that it is often used for events organised by both the Romanian Embassy and, since 2009, the ICR. Any wall paintings that may once have been visible are now entirely lost to the naked eye along with the mosaics imported from Ravenna. There are holes in the wall, plaster is chipped and chunks are missing, the walls are dreary and non-descript (at least, not with complimentary adjectives)... I was told last night that until fairly recently, electrical cables were left hanging from holes in the walls like garlands (see photo above left by Cedric Benetti) but they have since been tucked away, thankfully. According to the directrice adjointe of the ICR, Simona Radulescu, restoration costs have been estimated at five million euros by the Romanian Embassy, but so far I have found nothing quoted by French experts. Le Figaro reported last month, quoting Mme Radulescu, that "une telle somme permettrait la restauration complète de l'intérieur du théâtre, mais aussi la restitution de sa fosse originelle (80 musiciens), de l'orgue et de la machinerie de Fortuny."
Despite its sorry and, frankly, shameful state, with a little imagination one can very well picture how breath-taking it must have been before the years of (typical) neglect took their toll. Its asymmetrical form, elegant arches, romantic Italianate balcony, spacious stage at the perfect height, high wooden 'coupole' ceiling so conducive to superb accoustics and marble Corinthian columns all lend themselves to the most glorious of evenings - past performances from a golden age in the presence of the charismatic and somewhat exotic Countess Martine de Béhague flooded my senses with little or no effort at all and will remain there for a while yet...
For more exceptional photographs of Hotel de Béhague, please see HERE.
Bibliography, links and references:
My sincere thanks and apologies to Cedric Benetti and his beautiful post in Paris Deuxieme whose photos (with two exceptions) I have posted and linked above without prior permission, hoping he will forgive me. They are the loveliest images of Hotel de Béhague I have been able to find.