The SohoistIssue 20

No Less Obliged

The really lucky ones would grab the king’s sleeve. If they had paid less to attend, they might be restricted to assisting with a stocking or to mere observation. But being there at all when Louis XIV woke up was to know you’d made it.

As the Sun King of France woke up every morning, a curious kabuki display of intimacy and power would take place: the levée. Noblemen of note and means would cram into his bedchamber to watch the hour long ritual of King getting ready. The ruling elite would buy tickets to the ritual of stretching, washing and preparing for the day. Its steps were inflexible, algorithmic, and as follows:

Wherever the king had actually slept, he was ‘discovered’ sleeping in the recessed and curtained state bed. He was woken at eight o’clock with a kiss from his childhood nurse. The night chamberpot was removed. At this point, nobles who had paid for a ticket would then assist in the modules of his Highness’s routine according to prominence and sum. President George Washington adopted a variant, the presidential levée: he opened the presidential mansion weekly to the public (though the practice was abolished by Jefferson). But Louis’ version, his technique of ruling through splendour and artificially restricted access, was the more masterful.

 

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The United States has long crowed about its lack of an aristocracy. It is a stick with which they beat the Brits as gleefully as they will point out relative orthodontic inadequacy. They feel that stratified class based on birth is a relic of King George’s rebuffed sovereignty. ‘Come and lecture us about inequality when you don’t have dukes’ they say and add that their George fought our George to unchain themselves from such heredity.

Those patriots who remember their history often trot out the strange legend of General Washington being offered, and refusing to be crowned, ‘King of America’. (For my money just as well, given that the designation sounds like the title of a 90s standup routine.) Washington’s refusal to countenance the scheme signified “the death of the monarchical idea in the United States and the total triumph of representative government” in the words of the historian Robert Haggard.

Except, it’s basically bullshit. A certain Colonel Lewis Nicola, in a 1782 letter to Washington, floated the idea but it was nothing more than a midnight musing by man who was in no position to be anointing anyone. The effect is the same as my offering the papacy to my Uber driver and for him graciously to turn me down (three stars). Yet the myth persists. In 2008, Newsweek tracked down the closest living relative of Washington for a feature on ‘America’s Lost Monarchy’. The King who wouldn’t have been was a Texan named Paul Emery Washington who lived a quiet life. For all of his adult existence at William Cameron Company, where he was the general manager of the San Antonio branch. After retirement Paul volunteered at the San Antonio Zoo as a docent. He died in 2014, passing on the paper’s empty crown to his son Richard.

In truth, the air is thick with blue blood here but it is only obliquely acknowledged. I remember a line in search of a New Yorker cartoon orbiting the election of George W. Bush. It concerned the state of the American Dream: ‘America! The land of opportunity: where any old son of a billionaire can get his daddy’s old job’. Indeed, had Hillary R. Clinton defeated Obama in ’08 and become POTUS v. 45, it would have likely been over a quarter-century of either a Clinton or a Bush holding the highest office in the land. As any Kennedy will tell you, apprenticeships exist outside the woodshop.

In Boston, where the experiment started, in what used to be desolate marshland south of the Charles there has sat, since 1903, a paean to patrician insanity – the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The museum is a fine embodiment of the results to be achieved when fancy remains uncrushed by the pestle of a budget. It is based mainly on the Palazzo Barbaro, with an internal courtyard garden and galleries throughout – an incongruous hunk of Lombardy in an unfashionable suburb of the city. This terrific folly of madness comingled with money was dragged from the imagination of its autocratic benefactor into its site in Fenway. Gardner was so deeply involved in every aspect of the place that the architect, Willard T. Sears claimed he was merely the structural engineer making her design possible

Isabella was, herself, totally coconuts. It is stipulated in her last will and testament that if your name is Isabella, you may enter her museum for free – this displays a self-regard and caprice that is Olympian in quality. She was the only daughter of an Irish linen magnate in an era of American life when that fact made her the heiress to an immense fortune. Upon the death of her father (and partly in response to the tragic death of her infant child) she went on an absolute tear collecting-wise. She was aided by an opportunistic Harvard huckster called Bernard Berenson who acted as a ‘art adviser’ to Isabella – and which basically involved spending her money. Together they amassed one of the greatest private collections in the world, (now housed in her museum), spanning Titian, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, Manet, Degas, Whistler and Sargent and some Vermeers good enough to steal.

Where there was only swamp, Isabella Stewart Gardner demanded of her architect, a 15th-century Venetian palazzo – and she got it. There is nothing more aristocratic than a construction casually ordered but painfully wrought. Versailles, likewise, was decreed by a sweep of the hand over the fen.
 

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As the crowds pack themselves into the food court of a New York skyscraper seeking scraps, potentates of every stripe are guided to the penthouse as the press pool holler and gossip. What is said, the huddle can only guess at. Occasionally as the monarch descends to them via a golden escalator followed by children who share his name, power and riches they remind themselves: there is no aristocracy in America.