Above: On the grand lawn of Château Balleroy, Normandy, France, a perfect spot for lifting off in colorful hot air balloons.
Celebrating the Fourth of July
at the Forbes Family’s Château de Balleroy
by Nicholas Prychodko
There is nothing permanent except change, as the ancient philosopher Heraclitus famously declared in a classic eureka moment at the dawn of the short-lived Golden Age of Greece. But some two dozen turbulent centuries were to pass before W. Somerset Maugham ventured to offer, in The Razor’s Edge, a sensible if intuitive formula for dealing with this existential conundrum: “Nothing in the world is permanent,” he observed, “and we’re foolish when we ask anything to last, but surely we’re still more foolish not to take delight in it while we have it.”
Much has also changed since 1970, when Malcolm Forbes, who certainly needed no instruction from Maugham or anyone else in how to live life to the fullest and did not hesitate to do so, purchased the Château de Balleroy in Normandy. Mr. Forbes, who took part in the liberation of France, is said to have fallen in love with the chateau, which had gone to seed, and resolved to restore it to its former glory. It has since borne witness to many a fabulous confab. Forty-six years later, over the course of the Fourth of July weekend, Malcolm’s son Christopher C. (Kip) Forbes and Kip’s grandson Cornelius von Heyl Escaravage continued the tradition established by their father and great-grandfather, hosting a gathering at the chateau of a small circle of appreciative friends, most of them fellow members of the Social Register Association.
Sharing in the hosts’ bountiful hospitality were the Graf and Grafin Busso von Alvensleben (Kathy), their daughters, Aileen and Amalia, and friend, Sinclair Jacobs; Ms. Tracey Amon and son, Nasser; Ms. Adrienne Arsht; Dr. Amin Jaffer (whose article, “A Jewelled Quest,” appears in the current issue of the Social Register Observer); Mme. Christine Labourdette and M. Jean-Luc Soule; Philip Norkeliunas; Mr. and Mrs. Michael Perlis (Missy); Mr. and Mrs. Henry Slack (Sarah); Jon Stryker and Slobodan Randjelovic; and Mr. and Mrs. Christopher Wolf (Lise) and their daughters, Eleonor and Elyssa.
The retreat at Balleroy over the Fourth of July weekend in his beloved France, an early ally of the United States in its struggle for independence, was meant by Kip both to commemorate this country’s birth and to highlight Versaille’s exhibition of American Revolutionary War paintings. The reciprocal nature of that special longtime relationship was to be dramatically driven home by a visit to the American Cemetery and Memorial overlooking Omaha Beach, where so many Americans gave their lives on D-Day in the effort to liberate France.
Change can be revolutionary, but more often than not it is evolutionary. The Fourth of July holiday exemplifies the former, but it is the latter sort that more accurately describes the recent transferal of stewardship of the Social Register to one of the guests at the Balleroy gathering. Christopher Wolf, himself a longtime member of the Association, acquired it in 2014 from the Forbes family. Kip and Chris have known each other socially for many years. As Shannon Donnelly, Society Editor of the Palm Beach Daily News, put it in describing the passing of the baton in 2014, “With the utmost discretion and hardly a ripple of publicity – because that’s how The Right People do things – The Social Register has changed hands.” The Forbes family had owned the Social Register outright since 1975, when Malcolm Forbes acquired the institution and its publications from several previous shareholders. These included the family of his daughter-in-law, Mrs. Malcolm S. (Steve) Forbes (Sabina C. Beekman), heirs to its founder in 1886, Louis Keller. The thread is thus unbroken, and Kip Forbes, who continues to serve the Association in a senior advisory capacity, represents the family in their continued interest in the Association’s well-being.
The Château de Balleroy, a monument historique of France since 1951, remains the property of the Forbes family. They are the most recent in a succession of its distinguished occupants over the course of nearly four centuries, albeit only the second family to own the historic chateau, which was built between 1626 and 1636 by the prosperous son of the supplier of wine to the court of Henri IV, Jean II de Choisy. He hired the architect François Mansart, credited with introducing classicism to the Baroque architecture of France, to design and supervise its construction. The Château de Balleroy is the sole surviving example of his early work, and is believed to have served as an inspiration for the design of the Palace of Versailles. Among its celebrated residents was Count Albert Félix Justin de la Cour de Balleroy, a noted 19th-century parliamentarian and artist renowned for his wildlife scenes, some of whose work still decorate the chateau.
It remained in the possession of descendants of the original owner, with a brief intermission after the French Revolution, until Malcolm Forbes purchased it from Myriam de la Cour de Balleroy, the last of the family, and undertook the restoration of the estate. Most of it, including some of the land, had earlier been sold off. Kip Forbes was tasked with putting his skills as an art historian to work in refurbishing the chateau, complementing its remaining original furnishings with compatible flea market finds and antique pieces, acquired largely in New York, in a mix of period styles designed to create the impression of continuous occupancy by successive generations of a single family over the course of centuries, while updating its facilities to meet contemporary residential standards.
This was a project that required years of careful planning and sustained efforts, but Kip Forbes has not devoted his restorative and philanthropic attentions solely to Balleroy. In 2003, he was awarded the insignia of Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, and in 2011 promoted to the rank of Officer, in recognition of his many accomplishments and contributions over the years, among them his service to France not only in helping preserve the Château de Balleroy, but in establishing and heading the American Friends of the Louvre and more recently the International Council of the Louvre, which supports the Louvre’s international projects.
Among the innovations introduced by the new owners of the Château de Balleroy are accommodations occupying former stables to house examples of those colorful rotund conveyances buoyed by heated air for which Balleroy has become best known to many; and, dedicated to their celebration, the International Balloon Museum, the first museum in the world devoted to this lofty pastime. In view of its origins in nearby Paris, which hosted the first successful untethered flight in a balloon designed by the Montgolfier brothers in 1789, the museum’s location could hardly be more appropriate. A leisurely adventure suspended in midair overlooking Balleroy with vistas of the surrounding countryside, weather permitting, is a delightful tradition established by renowned hot-air balloonist Malcolm Forbes, and the recreational centerpiece of a weekend as guests of les propriétaires at Balleroy.
So it came as no surprise that—after a stopover at the Château de Versailles for a private preview of Versailles and the American Revolution, an exhibition in the Galerie des Batailles (July 5-October 2, 2016) commemorating the 240th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence— the first order of the day on Saturday, July 2, upon the guests’ arrival at the chateau by coach from Paris, was cocktails and a visit to the Balloon Museum. Those not yet overcome by fatigue after a long day in the air and on the road, or the effects of the libations on offer, hoped to hitch a gentler ride in a balloon’s gondola before sitting down to a barbecue dinner in the charming and ancient Old Kitchen. To everyone’s regret, the winds proved uncooperative, and remained so until their last full day at Balleroy, the Fourth of July, as if by divine intervention in deference to that momentous holiday. Disappointment, however, quickly turned to delight as friendships burgeoned over dinner. The initial shyness of the younger members of the party, two boys and five girls, all between 16 and 18 years old—seated by Kip in his wisdom as experienced host at the same table for the first time—quickly dissolved within 15 minutes. Their loud conversation and bursts of raucous laughter reassured the elders, engaged in quieter if equally intense discussion but worried that the failure of efforts throughout the day to overcome their children’s reserve did not bode well, that they had all just become the best of friends.
The following day began with breakfast in the Old Kitchen, followed by a trip by coach to Bayeux to view its famous, albeit misnamed, namesake “tapestry”—neither woven, nor made in Bayeux. A masterpiece of the Norman Romanesque that is also regarded as the last great example of Anglo-Saxon art, probably made in England sometime in the 1070s, the Bayeux Tapestry depicts the Norman conquest of England. Although less than 20 inches high, its extraordinary length of nearly 230 feet, divided into about 50 scenes embroidered on linen with woolen thread, affords enough space to record the entire sequence of events leading up to the victory of William the Conqueror and the death of King Harold in the graphically rendered bloody Battle of Hastings in 1066.
Still digesting this historical aperitif, the guests were transported by coach to the arguably more palatable main course, a pristine example of a Norman castle in all its lavish glory, the Château de Vendeuvre, which has remained in the family of its builder, Alexandre de Vendeuvre, since 1741, and, most remarkably, retains its original lavish furnishings. Worthy of mention among its collections is the marvelous Museum of Miniature Furniture in the orangery, the first of its kind anywhere, which contains over 700 examples representing the decorative arts from the 16th century through 1930, as well as thousands of other miniature objects. After lunch at the chateau, the party strolled through its extensive and variegated gardens. Starting in 1970, the original formal gardens have been restored and enhanced with inventive additions, including topiaries, exotic plantings, mazes, romantic structures and water surprises that without warning sprayed water on the fearless guests who first walked under pergolas, through narrow hedged passageways and past playful antlered deer statues. The combined effect of such features served to inspire awe and delight in all who took the tour of the aptly named Fantasy Gardens.
By late afternoon, teetering on the verge of sensory overload, most were prepared, however reluctantly, to board the coach for the return trip to Balleroy and cocktails in Le Salon Louis XIII. Originally the main entrance of the chateau, it now features a 1623 painting by Claude Vignon as well as works by Albert de Balleroy. From there the guests and hosts, joined by Count and Countess Guy de Vendeuvre (Elyane), the current masters of the spectacular Norman chateau visited earlier in the day, proceeded to the Salon de Musique, where they were able to relax and digest the day’s events to the soothing notes of a piano recital. The distinguished artist Julien Le Prado treated them to masterly renditions of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique, Schubert’s Andante sostenuto from the B-flat major sonata, Chopin’s Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor, and the Elegie in E-flat minor and Prelude in C-sharp minor from Rachmaninov’s Morceaux de Fantaisie (Op. 3). In Honor of the occasion, Julien’s encore was a bravura performance of John Phillip Sousa’s Star and Stripes Forever. Appetites whetted by the musical interlude, all convened at its conclusion in the main dining room for a fabulous formal four-course pre-Fourth of July gala dinner. On the menu: Terrine de poissons des côtes rougailles et petites légumes (Terrine of fish in spicy tomato sauce and young vegetables); Le veau comme un parmentier aux girolles (Veal with potato and mushrooms); Salade et brie de Nangis; and Pêche et crème brûlée vanille (Peach and vanilla crème brûlée). Remarkably, after a long and eventful day, and the bountiful repast at its conclusion, all the guests were left with enough energy before retiring after midnight for Bagatelle in the game room, appropriately accompanied by ancient brandy and cordials. (A game derived from billiards, Bagatelle owes its name to a party thrown in 1777 at the Château de Bagatelle to honor Louis XVI and the queen by his brother, the Count of Artois, where it was played, soon becoming the rage throughout France.)
On the morning of the Fourth, after breakfast in the Old Kitchen, the party departed for Caen to visit the Mémorial de Caen museum. Devoted to commemorating the history of violent conflict in the 20th century, especially World War II and more specifically the brutal two-month-long Battle for Caen, it was opened by President Mitterrand on June 6, 1988, the 44th anniversary of D-Day. Later additions include a gallery devoted to the Nobel Peace Prize and three memorial gardens dedicated to each of three allied nations that helped liberate France—the United States, Great Britain and Canada—as well as an extension dedicated by President Chirac in 2002 devoted to the Cold War and the search for peace during the final decades of the last century. From there, after lunch at the Restaurant La Terrasse at the Mémorial de Caen museum, they proceeded to the American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer. Dedicated in 1956, it is located on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach and the English Channel, the site of the temporary St. Laurent Cemetery, the first American cemetery in Europe, established in 1944 to hold the remains of American soldiers who died during the D-Day landings and invasion of Normandy. The landing on June 6, 1944, at Omaha Beach, one of five sectors in the initial assault, was carried out primarily by American forces, and it was especially difficult and costly, resulting in an estimated 2,000 casualties. Having paid tribute to the fallen, and witnessed the consequences of events that all agree must not be allowed to happen ever again, the Balleroy contingent returned to home base and cocktails.
To universal joy, the Fourth turned out to be ideally suited to ballooning, and the guests were not, as had been feared, condemned to leave Balleroy without once having taken to the air—ascending twice that day, in fact, just after lunch and later in the afternoon. The repeatedly deferred flights fortuitously turned into the grand climax to a once-in-a-lifetime experience that all nonetheless agreed would bear repetition. Even the most seasoned traveler with thousands of miles of air travel under the belt could not help but be thrilled by the unique sensation of soaring slowly and quietly over bucolic fields redolent of earlier and in retrospect seemingly gentler times, a delicious delusion, with time to savor it fully in the absence of all the modern distractions that unceasingly overwhelm the senses in the “real” world of hustle and bustle.
The five young women in the party, Elyssa and Eleonor Wolf, Aileen and Amalia von Alvensleben and their friend Sinclair Jacobs, commandeered two balloons for a glorious untethered flight of more than an hour’s duration over the chateau and the rural landscape surrounding it. As the photographs documenting their adventure attest, proving correct the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words, the expressions on their faces defy description, reflecting a mixture of awe, bliss, delight, excitement, enthusiasm, enchantment…. It would hardly be courting hyperbole to suggest that if one word could summarize the full gamut of emotions they reflect, it might be rapture, as close to a state of transcendence as it is possible to achieve through secular experience.
An informal pizza supper that evening provided the guests with an opportunity to leisurely review the eventful weekend rapidly coming to a conclusion, and to exchange contact information, as well as pledges not to let too much time go by before getting in touch again. Cornelius, usually quiet and soft-spoken, surprised his grandfather Kip with a beautiful toast. Hank Slack, Kip’s roommate at Princeton, followed with an equally thoughtful and witty toast. All retired that night, hearts heavy in anticipation of soon having to leave, but full in the knowledge that the following morning they would be saying not adieu but au revoir.
The following morning, alas, was the last for the guests at Balleroy, and parting after an early breakfast was not easy. Regrets at the inevitable passing of a magical and memorable long weekend, however, were tempered by fond recollections of time well spent in the congenial company of good friends, some old and some newly made, enabled by the generosity of their gracious hosts, in a setting evocative of times past, yet offering the promise of pleasures to come.
Above: The Salon de Musique piano recital given by the distinguished Julien Le Prado, enchanting all of the guests. Photo: SLOBODAN RANDJELOVIC
Below: The Pre-Fourth of July Gala Dinner in the Main Dining Room enjoyed by all. Shown (l-r), Graf Busso von Alvensleben, Lise Honoré-Wolf, Philip Norkeliunas, Jean-Luc Soule, and Grafin Kathleen von Alvensleben. Photo: SLOBODAN RANDJELOVIC
Above: Adrienne Arsht strolling in the gardens of the Château de Vendeuvre. The Count Guy de Vendeuvre, host of the private tour of the Norman castle which has been in his family since 1741, is in the background.
Below: Tracey Amon and her son, Nassar, together enjoying the Fantasy Gardens at Château de Vendeuvre.
Above: A very old bronze tree sculpture suddenly spraying water, one of the many surprises that delight strollers in the Fantasy Gardens of Château de Vendeuvre.
Above: Marie-Christine Labourdette delights in the sweet-smelling roses of Château de Vendeuvre’s extensive gardens.
Above: Eleonor Charlotte Wolf smiling in appreciation of the Fantasy Gardens at Château de Vendeuvre.
Above: Exquisite trompe l’oeil painting of hot air balloons aloft on the ceiling of the Game Room, Château de Balleroy.
Below: Nassar Amon shows Sarah Slack the finer points of playing Bagatelle in the Game Room of Château de Balleroy..
Above: Christopher “Kip” Forbes and Grafin Kathleen von Alvensleben share lunch together at Restaurant La Terrasse at the Mémorial de Caen Museum in Caen, France.
Above: A map of the D-Day landing beaches on June 6-8, 1944, at the American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, located on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach.
Above: Christopher “Kip” Forbes and his grandson Cornelius von Heyl Escaravage watching fellow celebrants taking flight in hot air balloons from Château de Balleroy.
Above: Elyssa Wolf and Amalia von Albensleben enjoying the liftoff of their first hot air balloon flight at Château de Balleroy.
Above: Missy Perlis and Marie-Christine Labourdette waving goodbye to spouses and friends.
Above: Lise Honoré-Wolf and Christopher Wolf waving au revoir to old and new friends as their hot air balloon begins its ascent above the grand lawn of Château de Balleroy.
(L to R from back): Dr. Amin Jaffer, Jean-Luc Soule, Jon Stryker, Slobodan Randjelovic, Michael Perlis, Christopher Wolf, Henry Slack, Graf Busso von Alvensleben; Philip Norkeliunas, Marie-Christine Labourdette, Sarah Slack, Tracey Amon, Missy Perlis, Lise Honoré Wolf; Nasser Amon, Adrienne Arsht, Christopher “Kip” Forbes, Grafin Kathleen von Alvensleben, Cornelius von Heyl Escaravage; Amelia von Alvensleben, Eleonor Wolf, Aileen von Alvensleben, Sinclaire Jacobs, Elyssa Wolf.
Right: Eleonor Wolf, traveling with Aileen von Albensleben, feigning apprehension as their hot air balloon takes flight.