Lunch in Paris with Nélie Jacquemart

I had an interview with Nélie Jacquemart of the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris. I was late, but, of course (and I say of course because I’m writing of this interview after getting to know her), she wasn’t. I mean, really, remember in 101 Dalmatians, when the wealthy heiress Cruella de Vil made fun of her friend’s hurried little household. I was kind of expecting that sort of slow moving because I have everything that I (and more importantly that you) could ever want. Servants. Livery. Non-hurried. I was expecting a servant to answer and I didn’t even have my coat buttons buttoned like they do in the movies, so you can imagine my stunned silence and rushing to button my coat like when a lawyer stands up in the movies when Nélie Jacquemart herself answered the door. You can forgive me for being unprepared. This is the mansion Vincente Minnelli used in his 1950 MGM musical hit Gigi for the Parisian mansion of Gaston, the most eligible, richest bachelor of Paris. How was I supposed to know that Nélie Jacquemart herself would answer the doorbell? I guess you can take the girl out of the middle class but you can’t take the middle class out of the girl.

Nélie Jacquemart: I would say good morning, Mr. book, but seeing as how it’s afternoon….

Johnny Book: Forgive me. I suppose I thought the lady of such an important mansion of Paris’s most glorious years wouldn’t take a commoner like me seriously. I mean I’m talking to a lady from Belle Époque Parishere.

Nélie Jacquemart: On the contrary, Mr. Book, I think you’ll find Mr. André and I lived our lives quite for the common man. We left him all of this, after all. (She flicks the wrought iron of her enchanting winding staircase or iron and gold.) All of it.

Johnny Book: (I imagine the scene in Gigi of rich boy Gaston leaving on the gravel entrance in his carriage.) Forgive me, but you can see the confusion. Where should we begin the tour?

Nélie Jacquemart: Oh, don’t be silly. The most important part, of course.

Johnny Book: I assume you’re referring to the Italian museum on the second floor, where, I’m told one might have a Botticelli all to oneself? Or, dare I say because it’s only, like the emperor said in the movie Gladiatorabout Rome, a whisper, but, (and here I do whisper) a St. George and the Dragon?

Nélie Jacquemart: I told you not to be silly. We’ll start at lunch. I did tell you not to be silly, didn’t I? (She stops and turns to look at me from over her shoulder. The dress of brown velvet that melts into silk at the bow is rigid, but her arms crossed at her waste are not so, and the purse of her lips is half-assed as is her brown curly hair pulled up and as is her stern look at me, like when a mother gives a child a look for some behavior that both mother and child know the child will eventually get away with, because, after all, of all the traits discipline is suppose to rid a child of, a playful personality is not one.) I shan’t remind you again, Mr. Book.

We head to the tea room, where Parisians are dining indoors and on the porch outdoors and that is when I begin to sweat but this time my panic is not without rational. Indoors or out? That’s what the hostess asks. One of those moral questions like would you push one person onto the train tracks to save twenty. Inside or out. Inside one of Paris’s grandest dining room salons, so grand, in fact, that of all the mansions in Paris, Vincente Minnelli chose this house as the filming location for Gaston’s mansion, the mansion of the most famous, richest, most eligible bachelor of high society Paris in its most high society of years, or outside, in Paris. That’s outside in Paris, if you can’t hear me clearly. Who the hell out there can make such a decision? Who the hell out there even as the moral authority to make such a decision. Nélie Jacquemart. That’s who. It becomes apparent that her taste for seating matches her taste for discovering paintings, like the painting she attributed to Sandro Botticelli two hundred years before the so called experts could and even then they could not fall back upon instinct but upon technology to be sure.

Nélie Jacquemart: Why not both?

We’re seated in the back far corner of the dining room, but it’s at a window to the porch of Paris outside and the Parisians having lunch on the porch.

Johnny Book: So. I couldn’t help but to notice. You answered the door yourself.

Nélie Jacquemart: Why wouldn’t I? Don’t most people answer the front doors of their own homes?

Johnny Book: Most people don’t have their own painted fresco ceilings in their grand tea salon. Or even a grand tea salon, for that matter. Or even any tea salon at all, for that matter.

Nélie Jacquemart: You’ll find no inherited titles here, Mr. book. No livery. No nobility—

Johnny Book: Except that not one member of the nobility on those guest lists of your ravishing parties that the Parisian press was so obsessed with could ever hide their envy of a tea room like this one. Even the proclaimed modern ones, like the girls on Downton Abbey, in their modern pants and not dresses, would be jealous.

Nélie Jacquemart: (A genuine blush. Not the first one I’ve seen on a celebrity, but the first non-rehearsed one.) You’re too kind, Johnny. You embarrass me. You’re making me sound like Cruella de Vil in some unhurried dilapidated chateau of the Loire Valley but this isn’t that. We’re not the tenth generation of some ancient family who won some ancient war for some ancient king. We inherited no palace filled with paintings. We traveled to Venice and elsewhere on the hot pants art circuits and we bought our own. Bought and paid for. And I think you’ll agree with me, Mr. Book, that I’ve quite elevated my husband’s taste in art from silly little plates and tacky knickknacks to High Renaissance. Look. I won’t pretend that Édouard André, my husband, did not inherit the fortune of a protestant banking empire, but unlike the nobility, we used it not to pass on this house and a title along with some arranged marriage to a first born cousin to keep it all still in the family for the next generation like the older generation folks of Downtown Abbey are so obsessed with. No. Mr. Book. That’s not our style. Not at all. We wanted to give something back to Paris, to Parisians. So we left this house and our collection of art to France in return for France allowing the people to come in and to enjoy and to live this house the way we did.

Johnny Book: I’m surprised you have so much negative to say about the nobility. Were not they your friends? Were not they the ones who made these salons and rooms and entranceways and staircases of yours so grand and famous? I mean a grand staircase is one thing but an article in the press about a duchess descending them is another.

Nélie Jacquemart: I suppose my dear husband Édouard André could have bought his way into the nobility, but like Gaston said in the movie Gigi that was filmed here, it’s a bore.

Johnny Book: Generations of family prestige is a bore?

Nélie Jacquemart: Lingering. That’s what I hear when I hear the word, generations. Not a moment. Just lingering. Mon Dieu, it’s like a snowman that doesn’t melt and just collects dirty snow until it’s sad and you don’t remember the grand time it was to build it. Oh, no, Mr. Book. I didn’t want to buy lingering. I wanted to buy a series of moments. In Italy. In The Orient. Of the Dutch Masters. Moments that you would never forget. Moments that all Parisians could enjoy. Not just the sons who are to inherit.

Johnny Book: Look. And I apologize for the nature of this, but you understand it is my job, and you, and not some liveried footman who wears the same colors your father did and his father before him, did answer the door to me and to this interview, and so now I must ask you…

Nélie Jacquemart: Go on. It seems that nobody can talk about art in Paris without mentioning…her.

Johnny Book: So. You were a society portraitist who married the son of a protestant banking empire who used his money and your taste to collect, admittedly, one of the most stunning collections of art on the planet, and I don’t use the word planet lightly. So. Why donate your art collection to the people of Paris when Madame the Louvre, yes, her, has entire hallways of Botticellis, and Rembrandts, and anybody else for that matter. What do you have to offer that the Louvres of the world, or the d’Orsays of the world, or the Mets of the world or British Museums of the world don’t have to offer Paris and it’s people with just a quick standing in line or a quick flight to a nearby city?

Nélie Jacquemart: Oh, my dear Mr. book. You’re confusing what art is with what art is for. By the way, how are your croissants?

(Note to my editor: Listen. I know it’s my job to have recorded our conversation in its entirety but at this point in the interview our food came (Nélie ordered for me) and then came the pistachio pie (Nélie’s selection). In these circumstances, I usually try to find a break in the conversation, like say a tourist group passing by, or, say the person I’m interviewing gets a text or a call, but the only tourists here at the Jacquemart-André museum were as respectful of this place as if they were visiting a neighbor’s home, and of course Nélie Jacquemart is French, which means her phone was nowhere to be seen. She showed me all the politeness and wit of conversation that no French person has ever shown me less than, but you know that if I don’t write something down I forget it, and no tourist or text interrupted us as she showed me her rooms of Rembrandts in her study and Botticelli’s in the Italian Museum. Then what does one do after a lunch in Paris but stroll for a few minutes in any direction and then sit in a Parisian park, which we did at Parc Monceau only a few minutes away, and we got ice cream by the carousel and so then of course I had to ride the carousel which is no place for writing and then since I’m only a man I had to ride the carousel again because who could resist that by the pond and colonnade where Gigi sang I don’t Understand the Parisians. Then you know how it goes that I had sticky fingers from the ice cream and who likes to write with sticky fingers because it makes your pen sticky and also it gets the notebook sticky too. Then I fell asleep on the grass of the park. Those dadgum Parisians running with their strollers on the outer paths of gravel makes the same hum as the noise machine I use by my bed in hotels. I’ll tell you one thing, too: that grass in those Parisian parks looks soft but really it just tickles your neck unless you use your sweater as a pillow. I guess that’s why the sweater-around-the-neck look never goes out of style. Once I got the tickling settled I did think that was going to be my chance to get some real writing done, so I tried to picture in my mind the Botticelli that Nélie had shown to me so that I could think of some great revelation to compensate for the fact that I was already forgetting most of what she had said to me in our interview over lunch at her place in Paris, but then some pigeons hobbled between us and the click of Parisian girls on the blanket next to ours and so then I was going to write about the pigeons but then I thought I couldn’t be so tiresome as to write about pigeons in a park. Perhaps that’s why Hemingway hunted pigeons for lunch in Jardin du Luxembourg and ate them. I’d love to make it up to you, though. Get me another interview over lunch in Paris and I’ll clear my schedule for tomorrow. Especially if pigeon is on the specials board.)