Friday, 22 September 2017

Someone really should make this story into an opera

With all its intrigues, unlikely relationships, financial and political shenanigans, deception, bitter revenge and wronged families, one could hardly imagine a more complicated, scheming, scandalous and decadent plot appearing in any of the masterworks of Puccini, Mozart, Donizetti, Giordano or Verdi.

I have long been fascinated by the saga of the "world's richest woman" in her dotage, her unlikely (gay) suitor upon whom she bestowed billions, her bitter and wronged daughter, the Machiavellian "advisors", the whiff of political scandal that threatened to bring down the French government, the sinister attorney, and the ingenious butler who exposed it all...

The Daily Beast:
The French have a colourful term - s’encanailler - which roughly means slumming, hanging out with rakish types from a different social milieu. That was undoubtedly part of the magnetism that drew [billionaire L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt] to [little-known gay photographer] François-Marie Banier...

“Liliane was rich, she was beautiful, and she was bored to death,” said her former lawyer Georges Kiejman... [but] "when Banier arrived on the scene, he immediately put some spice into her life."

Brash, provocative, iconoclastic, he had none of the kowtowing deference that she was accustomed to. He would criticize her clothes, her hairstyle, playfully call her names at times, even as he flattered her and praised her beauty, her intellect, her sensitivity. Banier also talked to her about books and philosophy and art, things that were not part of [her late husband] André’s dinnertime conversation. And he brought her out of her shell, introducing her to artists, writers, and actors, escorting her to art galleries, museums, theatres, auction houses. As Liliane put it, “he renovated me.”...
From National Public Radio (NPR):
Emotionally and fiscally, their interests dovetailed: Banier opened up the stimulating art world to Bettencourt by escorting her to galleries, introducing her to his bohemian friends, reading aloud to her from Stendhal's Charterhouse, and being thrillingly irreverent in denouncing the giant Monet in her mansion as "hideous." Entranced, she lavished him with money and gifts, including paintings by Picasso and Matisse, apartments, and millions in life-insurance policies. For 25 years, Bettencourt played the generous Galatea to Banier's Pygmalion, with the total of her largesse teetering to an incredible one billion euros.

In 2007, Bettencourt's only child, her daughter Françoise Bettencourt Meyers, filed a criminal suit against Banier for abus de faiblesse (abuse of weakness), claiming that this "Rasputin" had ruthlessly exploited her then 84-year-old mother's oncoming dementia. Meyers, a quiet woman described by a friend as "an austere Carmelite nun," says her hand was forced when an eavesdropping chambermaid told her she had heard Banier asking to be adopted by Bettencourt.

The scandal, which electrified France for a decade, came to be known as the Bettencourt Affair.
From Mediapart:
[Pascal Bonnefoy, the long-serving butler to Mme Bettencourt] produced damning testimony against François-Marie Banier, who he said "destroyed" the Bettencourt family, humiliated Liliane by calling her "a bitch", and whose "arrogant" behaviour included urinating over plants at the Bettencourt home.

He also launched a scathing attack on Patrice de Maistre, the billionaire's wealth manager, and others in her close entourage who he said "hide behind a tired and fragile woman" while leading her astray.

"I could not accept the unacceptable, and for me it was like the scene of a car accident and not stopping to help," he said in his statement to police detectives. "I could not continue without doing anything and still be able to look at myself in the mirror. I had served Monsieur and Madame Bettencourt during so many years, and I could not let all these people around Madame carry on without reacting."...

...The transcripts of the tapes, which were handed by Bonnefoy to Liliane's daughter Françoise and then to police, principally concerned conversations between Liliane Bettencourt and her wealth manager, her tax lawyer and solicitor, and François-Marie Banier. They were made between May 2009 and May 2010, recorded on a digital Dictaphone placed behind a chair in Bettencourt's private office in her town mansion home in Neuilly-sur-Seine, just west of Paris.

Bonnefoy said he was prompted into making the recordings after he was subject to a campaign of ostracism led by Banier...
From The Guardian obituary today:
The saga resulted in not only a public family feud but a major political scandal and courtroom drama when the investigation was extended to look at whether Sarkozy and other figures in his party had also taken advantage of the elderly Bettencourt, asking for money from her after it was declared that she had dementia.

The money, alleged to have been given in brown envelopes, was said to have funded Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential campaign.

The “Bettencourt affair” tarnished the latter half of Sarkozy’s presidency, and when he lost the 2012 election he was placed under formal investigation for illegal campaign financing and taking advantage of Bettencourt. But the charges against Sarkozy were dropped in October 2013 due to lack of evidence.

In 2015, the photographer Banier was convicted of exploiting Bettencourt and sentenced to three years in jail, fined €350,000 and ordered to pay €158m in damages. He appealed and last year received a suspended prison sentence and a fine but did not have to pay the vast damages.
..and The Guardian, again, from 2010:
[Georges Kiejman, speaking in court, commented:] "This is a family story; the daughter is trying to use this court to settle a psychological conflict with her mother. It's a 57-year-old little girl complaining 'my mummy doesn't love me. She loves him more than me'."

Kiejman added: "That Madame Bettencourt should have the misfortune of finding the brilliant Mr Banier more amusing that her own daughter – and between you and me that's no surprise – is not for this court to decide."
The court certainly did decide. Banier was shamed, but kept his fortune. Sarkozy survived, albeit with his reputation tarnished. Liliane was to remain in the care of her daughter, and the L'Oreal fortune was secured. No idea what happened to the butler.

I await the first production of this Machiavellian operatic masterpiece, opening at a concert hall near you...

RIP Liliane Henriette Charlotte Bettencourt (née Schueller, 21st October 1922 – 21st September 2017)

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

The madness for feathers has reached a point of excess

Montezuma's headdress

From The New Yorker:
...After the [Spanish] conquest, Cortés sent crates of Aztec feather-work to the king of Spain, along with codices tallying the birds and the down collected. The most beautiful pieces made their way across Europe, enthralling Albrecht Dürer and the Holy Roman Emperor, among others. In France, a taste for feathered hats took hold under Louis XIV and quickly grew into a craze. Ostrich feathers were shipped in from Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, and Madagascar, and dyed black, green, lilac, rose, sky blue, and yellow; heron feathers were brought from Germany and Turkey to adorn the Knights of the Holy Spirit. “The madness for feathers has reached a point of excess one never could have suspected,” the journalist Louis-François Métra wrote in the winter of 1775. “Hats that would have seemed ridiculously tall a few months ago no longer suffice.”

Prompted by Marie Antoinette, who doubled the height of her feathered hat for a ball thrown by the Duchess of Chartres, women were soon wearing hats as high as two and three feet. Arguments broke out at the opera, where viewers could no longer see the stage, and the finest ladies were forced to kneel in their carriages to clear the ceiling, or else stick their heads out the window. “When a woman thus coiffed dances at a ball, she is compelled to continually bend down as she passes beneath the chandeliers,” the Count of Vaublanc noted in his diary. “It is the most graceless thing imaginable.”

Paris had twenty-five master plumassiers at the end of the seventeen-hundreds. A century later, it had hundreds, making fabrics for Hermès, the Folies-Bergère, and the Moulin Rouge.

In London, the feather market went through nearly a third of a million egrets in 1910 alone. In New York, Hanson writes, a bird-watcher named Frank Chapman counted more than forty species of feathers on women’s hats on a single walk, and those were only from native birds. Some ladies had taken to wearing whole birds on their heads by then - an economical choice, given that feathers were more costly, by weight, than anything but diamonds. Among the treasures that went down with the Titanic were more than forty cases of feathers, worth upward of 2.3 million in today’s dollars.

I think today should be a "Say Something Hat" day!

Don't you?

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Mi struggo e mi tormento

The sad news today that dear Dame Kiri te Kanawa is to hang up her crinolines and retire from stage performing made me think - I am so pleased we got to see her live at Proms in the Park back in 2010...

Read my previous tribute to the great Dame on the occasion of her 70th birthday.

Friday, 1 September 2017

This weekend, I am mostly dressing casual... "Lucrece", one of the many stars of Madam Arthur's French Fun House!

Read more about Madam Arthur's at the wonderful (and sadly now no longer being updated) Queer Music Heritage

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

This is the theatre

“Once an actress went overboard with notes to me about how she doesn’t wear pink. I told her, ‘Well, don’t wear it home then, sweetie. This is the theatre.’"

Award-winning designs for La Cage Aux Folles, The Great Gatsby, Addams Family Values and Dreamgirls by Theoni V. Aldredge (22nd August 1922 - 21st January 2011)

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Eternal Yootha

There was, and will ever be, only one Yootha Joyce, who would have been 90 years old today...

As I said five years ago on the occasion of her 85th anniversary: "We miss her".

We still do.

Yootha Joyce (20th August 1927 – 24th August 1980)

Friday, 4 August 2017

The Black Sheep of the Family

Jim and I went to a most intriguing soiree at the British Library on Monday evening - part "potted history", part cabaret, and in part a "workshop" for a full-scale musical extravaganza based up on the great man's life - Fred Barnes: the Black Sheep of the Family: "all about the Victorian invert Fred Barnes and his outrageous music-hall career, brought to life by Christopher Green". Mr Green is, of course, more famous for his creation "Ida Barr" [who made a spectacular appearance at my sister Hils' wedding!].

And it was marvellous! Fred Barnes's story is of course a fabulous one - more outrageously gay than many of the late 20th century artists who supposedly "broke the mould"; he flounced and flaunted himself across the Music Hall stages more than half a a century before the likes of Liberace, Sylvester, Bowie or Boy George were even gametes. His meteoric rise and equally spectacular (and somewhat sordid) fall will make for an excellent (and long overdue) show - and, from what Chris told us, it is already mooted to be staged at Wilton's Music Hall (co-starring Roy Hudd) in 2018.

However - what of those stories of Fred's life he related to an enraptured audience? They are somewhat sketchy [mainly due to Mr Barnes' notoriety; few comprehensive biographical details were ever published], but fascinating...

From The Guardian:
[Fred Jester Barnes was] a "wavy-haired, blue-eyed Adonis", fond of pink-and-white makeup and his pet marmoset; he had been inspired to take the stage by Vesta Tilley and the original Burlington Bertie. But by 1907, he was bored. Inspired by his father, a Birmingham butcher who despaired of his theatrical son, Barnes wrote a new song, The Black Sheep of the Family, about the "queer, queer world we live in". The song had its first outing on a Monday night at the Empire; the crowd of 1,500 loved it, and Barnes - who later joked that he had written the song in a fit of pique at being repeatedly given a tricky "first turn" billing - was soon promoted to the star slot.

From British Music Hall - an Illustrated History by Richard Anthony Baker:
Fred Barnes, the original singer of Give Me The Moonlight (1917) [later made world famous by Frankie Laine] and On Mother Kelly's Doorstep (1925) [which became one of Danny La Rue's mainstays], was among the most popular entertainers of his day. But his career ended by heavy drinking and his homosexuality. Having earned thousands of pounds, he finished his days in poverty...

...It is impossible to tell how many people knew Fred was gay. [Homosexual acts were then illegal.] At first, it became known in the profession. Fred was derided for wearing more stage make-up than most and he earned himself the nickname "Freda". Quentin Crisp has recounted that, on making visits to Portsmouth as a young man, friendly sailors jokingly asked him if he knew Fred. It is probably that Fred's father knew of his predilection. Whatever the truth, Fred's store of good luck started to run out in 1913 when his father committed suicide by cutting his throat. One account speaks of Fred's father arriving with a meat axe at the stage door of a theatre Fred was playing, determined to kill him. When he was thwarted, he went home and killed himself. Fred dated his own downfall from that point, although he had many more years ahead of his as a star. In 1914, he said he had no vacant dates for three years and even had contracts booking him as far ahead as 1924.

Fred's success went to his head. He kept four cars, he employed a butler, a valet and two maids; he gambled, getting through as much as £1,500 in one night in Monte Carlo; and he began drinking. His dressing room bill sometimes totalled £30 a week. By 1922 his drinking had become a problem. He was booked to appear in Australia at a salary of £200 a week, more than he had ever earned before, but, every day, he said, he drank more than was good for him and, during the middle of his second week at the Tivoli, Melbourne, he missed a performance. The rest of the run was cancelled... Back in Britain, theatre managers soon got to know of his unreliability. In Brighton, he was taken off the bill at the Hippodrome for being drunk on stage...
However, for me the greatest revelations about Fred were his absolutely outrageous defiance of the rules and the law of the land, regardless of the consequences. QX magazine, partially quoting from Paul Bailey's book Three Queer Lives related:
Fred liked men in uniform. In 1924 The Times reported that he’d been arrested in Hyde Park for “being drunk in charge of a motorcar.” He had tried to bribe the arresting officer with £100. The paper gallantly made no mention of the half-dressed sailor seen running from the scene of the crime. Fred was sentenced to a month in prison. When he was released, he was banned from the Royal Tournament as “a menace to His Majesty’s fighting forces”...

...but, according to Chris, he continued to get back in to the Tournament, year on year - often with the help of "his boys"!

What a remarkable man Fred Barnes was. And Christopher Green is the perfect man to "bring him to life"!

Here's he is performing as Fred [at Duckie's Lady Malcolm's Servant's Ball]:


Monday, 31 July 2017

People's opinions don't interfere with me

"Beyond the beauty, the sex, the titillation, the surface, there is a human being. And that has to emerge."

"People's opinions don't interfere with me. Ageing gracefully is supposed to mean trying not to hide time passing and just looking a wreck. That's what they call ageing gracefully. You know?"

"To give a character life in a short space of time, it helps if you arrive on screen with a past."

"If you get trapped in the idea that what is most important is what image of yourself you're giving to the world, you're on a dangerous path."

"I don't feel guilt. Whatever I wish to do, I do."

Adieu, Mademoiselle Jeanne Moreau (23rd January 1928 – 31st July 2017)