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From Lunacy to Diplomacy

The Hôtel de Lamballe

The Hôtel de Lamballe was home to a doomed princess and an asylum for mad artists before it became Turkey’s embassy in Paris. In 1945 the young Nevin Menemencioğlu came upon the elegant mansion when she was searching the city for a building where her uncle, the Turkish ambassador, could set up his mission. Patricia Daunt reveals the turbulent past behind its serene facade. Photographs by Jean Marie del Moral

  • Photograph by Jean Marie del Moral

The fabled Hôtel de Lamballe, above the right bank of the Seine in the old hamlet of Passy, is as charming as any building in the city. And it surely boasts a more varied and tempestuous past than any other building in the staid 16th arrondissement.

The acquisition of the Lamballe by the Turkish government in 1945 was something of a coup, engineered in part by a determined young woman of twenty-three named Nevin Menemencioğlu. Her uncle, Numan Menemencioğlu, Turkey’s distinguished wartime foreign minister and subsequently its forty-fourth accredited envoy to France, had arrived in the recently liberated French capital to reopen the Turkish embassy, closed in 1943 by his predecessor, Şevki Berker, who had been obliged to move to Vichy with Marshal Pétain’s government. For the first year Numan Bey and his small entourage, which included his niece Nevin and her young daughter, Ayşegül, were housed in the war-weary Bristol Hotel.

It was Nevin who, scouring the city on foot for a suitable building for their needs, came quite by chance across the Hôtel de Lamballe. Lying empty, it had only recently been vacated by the Americans, who had taken it for General Eisenhower in the expectation that he would direct the invasion of Germany from Paris.

On the insistence of his niece, Ambassador Menemencioğlu leased the great hôtel from the French government and by the end of 1945 they had moved in, with the chancery offices installed in what is now the music room. It was through his friendship with General de Gaulle that Turkish ownership of the property was won in 1951 – a unique quid pro quo for France’s fine embassy in Ankara’s Paris Caddesi.

The severely classical façade of the hôtel extends fully forty metres along a paved terrace overlooking gardens that once ran right down to the banks of the Seine. Most of the land had been sold in 1922, and today roads, apartment blocks and the Maison de la Radio stand between the embassy and the river. Classical grandeur still reigns in the great entrance hall, which stretches half the length of the house on the north side, but Turkish furnishings and Turkish objets soften the severity of the four main reception rooms that lead off it and overlook the parterres. Indeed, since the end of the Second World War, a succession of ambassadors has succeeded in giving the place an authentically Franco–Turkish aura.

The origins of this grand stone building date from the early eighteenth century, when the Duc de Lauzan erected a two-storey house, with dormered mansard roof, on the foundations of a fifteenth-century convent. Although extensively rebuilt in the 1920s, the core of Lauzan’s imposing house survives, as does the double flight of nineteen stone steps that sweep down to the garden from the terrace. Perhaps the disreputable widower duc, who soon tired of both his new house and the new young bride for whom he had built it, frequented the summerhouse below the terrace. Scallop-shaped and paved with a mosaic of pebbles, this cave-like room still houses Lauzan’s pink marble fountain, fed by one of the garden’s many springs.

Nothing remains of the decorative brick of which the records speak, nor of the pigeon house, chapel and orangery. The magnificent marble basin opposite the front door, now framed in ivy, is a last vestige of the Duc de Lauzan’s bathhouse.

The hôtel itself, like the eponymous avenue which skirts its garden on the southern side, owes its name to the eight-year residence of the Princesse de Lamballe, the blameless (if brainless) friend of Marie-Antoinette and one of the most poignant victims of the French Revolution. She acquired the Folie Lauzan, as it was then called, in 1783. She was thirty-four and had been a widow since the age of nineteen.

The Princesse de Lamballe’s death was a nasty episode even by the standards of the Terror. She was diminutive, her feet so small that, when a pair of her green silk slippers was found after her murder, they wondered whether even Cinderella could have fitted into them. Prised from the side of the imprisoned queen, she was lynched and her body dragged through the streets while her severed head was paraded on the point of a pike. Something of the tragedy can still, it is said, be sensed in the paved allée leading to the house from the handsome wrought-iron gates which open onto the Rue d’Ankara. It is known as the Allée Marie-Antoinette, but there is no evidence that the murder took place there.

With the Terror over, the house was sold by the dead princess’s nephew to Citizen Joseph Baguenault. Thereafter it remained in that family, let and sublet until house, park and grounds were sold off in lots in 1922. During the Second Empire it had been leased as a clinic to a succession of doctors, housing residents markedly more famous, if admittedly less poignant, than the princess, whose only real distinction was the manner of her death.

Worldly and fashionable Parisians were familiar for seventy years with the clinic of the Doctors Blanche and Meuriot to which those of their number who suffered from serious nervous disorders were committed. The poet Gérard de Nerval was admitted to the clinic in 1854, only two years after his happy visit to Istanbul with Théophile Gautier. He seems to have been driven mad chiefly by the task of translating Goethe’s Faust into French.

Four years later, the composer Charles Gounod was taken in whilst struggling with the composition of his opera Faust, based on Nerval’s translation. And in January 1892, the writer Guy de Maupassant, reduced to final despair by recurring bouts of syphilis, was committed in a straitjacket. A year later, a month short of his forty-third birthday, he died on the upper floor of the house.

When the estate was broken up in 1922, the house was bought by the Comte de Limur and his American wife, Madeleine. A single, fateful blow of a workman’s pickaxe during the extensive reparations they put in hand reputedly caused the collapse of the entire garden façade. Fortunately, Madame de Limur possessed a considerable fortune; undaunted, she undertook a ten-year campaign of complete reconstruction. She even added a large dining room, set functionally beside new, up-to-date kitchen facilities. Finally, she employed the then fashionable interior decorator Monsieur Sauvage to oversee the refurbishment.

The house was returned to its former glory in good time to be requisitioned by the Gestapo after the fall of Paris in 1940, before the Limurs were able to enjoy it. Although much of the valuable furniture had been removed, the Germans found a veritable treasure house, the drawing room exquisitely panelled in carved wood taken from the Château de la Tuilerie, where it had been Louis XVI’s gift to his mistress, the Marquise de la Tour du Pin. It remains in situ; the house was neither looted nor defaced by the occupiers.

In 1972 the Turkish government erected a compact chancery building in the northwest corner of the grounds, sheltered beneath the hill, where the clinic’s kitchen gardens had been. The music room, freed once again to fulfil its proper function, duly acquired a grand piano. But the most striking decorations of this plum-coloured room are eight brilliantly disturbing works of Fikret Mouâlla, the Paris-based Turkish artist. He died in 1967, knee-deep in debt, having lived three decades “in the mouth of the lion” and parted with a painting every now and then in recognition of the help successive ambassadors afforded him.

As if to celebrate the dawn of the twenty-first century, the whole building underwent a meticulous three-year renovation that even included the statues in the garden. Only the great hall, with its huge, folding glass entrance doors, shimmering white walls of newly cleaned pierre de France, and freshly restored Beauvais tapestries, seems largely untouched by Turkish influence, despite an orientalist painting above the mantelpiece.

Cornucopia 30 for the full 14-page feature

The author wishes to thank the Turkish ambassador to Paris and Mrs Özülker, Mrs Nilgün Işık Pirlot, Mrs Ayşegül Menemencioğlu and Ambassador and Madame Philippe Louet for their help in the preparation of this article dedicated to the memory of the late Mrs Nevin Menemencioğlu, who died on October 31, 2001.

The remarkable story of the wartime friendship between Numan Menemencioğlu and the future Pope John XXIII is told by Osman Streater in ‘The Minister and the Monsignor’, Cornucopia 24.

To read the full article, purchase Issue 30

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Issue 30, 2003/2004 Early Journeys
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