Scandalous tales from the British embassy in Paris

The exterior of the Hotel de Charost Image copyright Picasa

It's 200 years since the Duke of Wellington bought the grandiose Hotel de Charost in Paris, a few doors down from the Elysee palace. And if you want to get to know the secrets of a stately home, I always say, just ask the butler.

Happily the British embassy in Paris - the sumptuous architectural pearl that is the Hotel de Charost - boasts a butler who is in every way befitting of his charge.

I say butler, because that's how he's referred to on his business card, but in fact Ben Newick is rather more than that. Head of embassy administration, I guess, would be modern business parlance - except it sounds so grim.

So let us stick with butler, and let us stick with the wonderful Newick as he conducts me around the British ambassador's residence in Paris (not technically the embassy any more because that's next door).

It was built in the 1720s when the Rue de Faubourg Saint-Honore was a winding road that passed through fields and market gardens to the village of Roule.

For our purposes the hotel comes into its own when it's bought in 1803 by the wayward Pauline Borghese, sister of Napoleon, wife of an Italian prince and by all accounts a bit of a wrong 'un.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Pauline Borghese, 1780-1825

In a history of the embassy, we read that at her levees or receptions Borghese liked to walk around naked in order to be admired; a "magnificent black man" carried her into and out of her bath; and if she felt cold, she warmed her feet in the decolletage of a lady-in-waiting lying on the floor.

She can't have been all bad though, because the house as we see it today is basically hers. Much of the furniture - Empire style - is what she acquired, as are the silk damasks on the walls.

In one room, next to a bed that was later slept in by both King Edward VII and the late Queen Mother, there's a stunning framed mirror known as a psyche. I can just imagine the narcissistic Borghese twisting round to get a rear glimpse of her own stunning frame.

Napoleon himself used to come to the house to have assignations with one of his sister's ladies-in-waiting, a certain Madame de Mathis. He came in by the garden, and they made love somewhere near where the current ambassador and his wife like to take their tea.

Time is too short to describe the beauty of the Hotel de Charost. Suffice to say that in all its wonderful salons, the marbled hall, the ballroom, the state dining room, and the Duff Cooper Library, it combines the elegance of classical French design with the warmth and comfort of the British feel.

In 1814 Borghese left to join her defeated brother on Elba, but before doing so she secured the sale of the hotel to the commander of the British Army the Duke of Wellington.

He paid her in instalments of gold louis, which Pauline loyally passed on to Napoleon - so it can truly be said that the emperor's dramatic comeback that climaxed the next year at Waterloo - was partly financed with British lucre.

Image copyright Other
Image caption Ben Newick (left) with Victoria Beckham at the ambassador's residence

One quirky factoid is that the writer Somerset Maugham was born in an upstairs room.

In the early 1870s, after France had just been defeated by the Prussians, there was talk of a new law imposing French citizenship on anyone born on French soil, in order to secure manpower for the future war of revenge.

Well-connected Brits like Maugham's parents could have babies delivered at the embassy so as to avoid the dreadful fate of being forcibly made French.

A few weeks later there was another rite of passage - the American beauty Jennie Jerome married Lord Randolph Churchill, conceiving at roughly the same time their son Winston. He was born seven months later.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Lord Randolph Churchill and Jennie Jerome

And so Mr Newick's tales roll on. Here's a lock of hair of Napoleon, next to it, here's a lock of hair of Wellington.

Did you know that according to British etiquette cutlery has to be laid face up (fork prongs in the air), but in France it's vice versa - prongs down. It causes no end of raised eyebrows with some of the guests.

And today the current ambassador Sir Peter Ricketts lives in a modest flat in a small part of the building. It's a blessed release for everyone, says Newick. At last the ambassador's got a kitchen of his own and doesn't have to summon the staff for a boiled egg.

Image copyright Picasa

And I suppose that's the point really. The hotel is a magnificent building, but it's no longer in any meaningful sense a residence - it is a constantly functioning part of Britain's diplomatic machine.

Last year there were 500 separate events here, promoting trade, educational links and culture. Just the day I was being shown around there was a talk in the evening on the 1919 Versailles peace conference given by the historian Margaret Macmillan.

And earlier the gardens had played host to the launch of the new Jaguar Land Rover. The lawn had been crawling with British car executives.

I wonder if any of them caught a glimpse of a little man in uniform sneaking through the bushes - on his way to faire l'amour avec Madame de Mathis in the gallery of the glorious Hotel de Charost.

Image copyright Pascal Le Segretain

How to listen to From Our Own Correspondent:

BBC Radio 4: Saturdays at 11:30

Listen online or download the podcast.

BBC World Service: Short editions Monday-Friday - see World Service programme schedule.

Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.

Related Topics