High life

An elegy on the end of elegance

13 February 2021

9:00 AM

13 February 2021

9:00 AM


During these dark, endless periods of lockdown, let’s take a trip down memory lane to a time when we still had real high life: parties galore, carefree girls in their summer dresses, and drunken dawns playing polo in dinner jackets. Life forms began to move properly about 500 million years ago, but I will take you back only 50 or so years, when chic creatures moved to the beat of the samba, the tango, the waltz and the cha-cha-cha. The Roaring Twenties roared because of the Great War’s privations, and the fabled, fabulous Fifties were a reaction to the second world war. People ached to have a good time — to splurge, to let go. Hunger and post-war austerity had turned even Paris into a gloomy, cold place.

By the mid to late 1950s, things had changed, and I hit the ground running. I was 20, ranked in tennis, and had been locked up in school for half my lifetime. The search for a good time is a natural reaction to the horrors of war, or boarding school. The reconstruction of Europe had taken more than a decade, and I remember American tennis players complaining about the lack of showers and hamburgers when they came over for Wimbledon in the mid 1950s. Then the Italian, German and, to a lesser degree, French economic miracles happened and it was party time.

Back in those halcyon days, social distancing meant no cheek-to-cheek dancing in Parisian debutante dances known as ‘rallies’. Then the grown-ups started giving balls, as country houses, physically run down during wartime, were refurbished and put to good use. The first great international party that I attended was at the Palazzo Serra di Cassano in Naples, hosted by the Duke and Duchess Serra to commemorate the Rome Olympics of 1960. Many crowned and uncrowned heads of state were present but I remember little as I got very drunk with Leopoldo Serra, the youngest in the family. We began to celebrate early, after breakfast, when the crown prince of Greece, Constantine, won a gold medal in yachting. (Onassis got so excited by the Greek victory that he ran into the showers fully clothed and embraced a naked Constantine, getting himself drenched in the process.)

A superlative week in Rome followed. I had sailed there on the Agnelli boat and ensconced myself at the Grand Hotel. Suetonius would have loved it. The high and the mighty had been grounded for years, and suddenly every aristocratic Roman terrace was filled with celebrants. The weather was perfect, the temperature ideal, and the guests the best the eternal city had to offer. The exhilaration one felt was matched only by the energy of youth. The best-looking, most spiritual, most poetic, and most successful seducer of Rome, Prince Dado Ruspoli, opened up his palazzo and threw a ball I shall never forget. Dado invited only very beautiful young women and men of his class, and he managed to pull it off. Never have I seen so many handsome creatures dancing the night away as I did in his candlelit Roman palace. No models, no actresses, no celebrities, no gossip columnists, no nouveaux-riche Philip Green types — certainly no paparazzi. And after 60 years it’s still the ball to remember.

Once the French had tired of shaving women’s hair as a punishment for horizontal collaboration with the conquering Germans, and De Gaulle had returned to power in 1958, the rich and the aristocracy felt safe enough to splurge. What better and more elegant way to do it than by giving a ball. The Rochambeau dance, the Agnelli one at the Bois de Boulogne, and the two balls that Guy and Marie-Hélène de Rothschild gave in their chateau outside Paris come to mind. My friend and polo mentor Porfirio Rubirosa owned one of the most charming houses just outside Paris. It took ten minutes to drive from playing polo in the Bois to the open country where his house was located. It was the most ideal spot imaginable because it was in the countryside but only a 15-minute drive from a Parisian nightclub.

Rubi used regularly to give parties at home, inside a large drawing room that opened up on to a vast lawn that looked over miles of fields. He would install a small orchestra of four or five or six that would play non-stop throughout the night. The host had a canny ability to raise a party mood to almost orgiastic levels, and he invited only young good-looking people with impeccable manners. His party for Frank Sinatra was a milestone, old blue-eyes announcing that had he known such beautiful people existed in Paris he would have skipped Los Angeles, Las Vegas and New York.

Rubi and I played polo at the Bagatelle club in the Bois de Boulogne. After every match there would be a party at the club, and on special occasions the dawn would find us playing in black tie and without helmets. No one was ever seriously hurt. The practice was stopped only after a drunken Argie galloped into the clubhouse wildly swinging his mallet against the furniture.

A couple of Badminton balls, the Venetian dance thrown by Greville Howard, Tim Hanbury’s bash in France, the Greek royal wedding in London all come to mind as milestones of elegance and fun. The end of elegance was sudden and swift; with the advent of charity fundraisers, vulgar new-rich social climbers could become household names overnight. Fade out.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments