“Well-behaved women seldom make history.”
So wrote historian Lauren Thatcher Ulrich. On the other hand, badly-behaved women don’t always make history either, as James McAuley points out in his fascinating book The House of Fragile Things, Jewish Art Collectors and the Fall of France.
When I started spending more time last year on the Côte d’Azur, I knew I needed to find someone to write about here. A woman, preferably. One whose life surprised and moved me.
It didn’t take me long to find her: Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild. But once I found her, I was stunned that such a larger-than-life character was little more than a footnote in most histories, if mentioned at all (until I was directed by a friend to McAuley’s book).
La Villa Ephrussi (tho I prefer the original La Villa Ile-de-France)
I confess to a weakness for castles. The “home” Béatrice built on St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat from 1907-1912 is a “villa,” not a true château. But it works for me.
BTW, un château connotes a structure belonging to un seigneur who rules the area, offering protection (ie fortifications) where town folk can hide if attacked. Un palais is a grand residence that bespeaks power. Un villa is a large and luxurious country home.
Le Chateau de Vincennes - now those are fortifications
Béatrice bought the land for her Villa Ile-de-France (outfoxing King Leopold of Belgium for it) and had an active role in building it. She may have gone through architects like Kleenex – they called her tyrannical, impulsive, tightwad, and worse - but she also designed structures which she patented. And seven fantastic and fantastical gardens.
She was a single woman, a rich woman, who wanted it done her way. This did not make her popular. Surprise surprise.
"Woof woof?" "Woof woof!"
Ok, she did keep a menagerie and talk to them like people. And she did have a black-tie wedding for her two dogs, where she invited 300 others dogs (and their owners), all in top hats and ball gowns. But we all have our quirks.
Béatrice and Maurice
By 1907, when Béatrice started construction on her villa, she’d been divorced for three years from Maurice Ephrussi, her husband of 21 years. By then, they’d already been living apart for ten years. So the Villa Ile-de-France was her house. She named it after the legendary cruise ship because of its position on a promontory, thrusting out into the sea. Every franc spent was hers, every plant or painting her choice.
I sat by this window for ages...
So why, after she died and left it to the Académie des Beaux Arts, did it somehow become the Villa Ephrussi? Because “Ephrussi de Rothschild” was too big a mouthful? Or because…?
That’s one mystery I’ve yet to solve.
Back to Béatrice. It’s 1884. She’s 20. Maurice is almost twice her age. A bon vivant, as they say. Which encompasses many kinds of behavior. I imagine the moment when things started to break down. Only a year after they married.
And, action! (please call on your willing suspension of disbelief since I cast myself to play the young Béatrice).
And please share comments, questions, corrections below - I want to do her justice!