A Date with History

Downton-Abbey-dinner-place-setting

I read this in a newspaper, written by a woman who used to edit my copy for Quest, but I will withhold her name to save her embarrassment and social atrophy: “He’s hosted Kim Kardashian and Kanye West for Thanksgiving, regularly cruises with Justin Bieber on his party yacht…” The mind reels. Is it possible to read such crap without throwing up? How would you, dear reader, like to spend Thanksgiving with Kim and Kanye, or go cruising with Justin, Heaven help us. (I’d rather fail a syphilis test than have a Kardashian as a guest.) I suppose the selfish generation, whose motto is “he who dies with the most toys wins,” could easily spend a holiday with the above mentioned unmentionables, yet the “my cell phone is thinner than yours” principle leaves something to be desired.

Mind you, the person who has had such august personalities for dinner is a Miami nightclub owner, hardly le gratin of American society, but my ex-editor meant to be nice. She was actually impressed by his name drops. Imagine if she had asked him for an imaginary dinner party. I wonder whom he would have picked? Charlie Sheen? The imaginary dinner party is a bit like Desert Island Discs, an English institution. I was on it once, and Sue Lawley, the presenter at the time, and I got along just dandy. During a break I asked her about the choices people made, and she told me that those who picked only classical and rarely listened to pieces, were mostly footballers or music hall comedians.

Ditto for imaginary dream dinner parties. I once asked an American automobile tycoon—O.K., it was Henry Ford II—whom he would have liked to dine with à deux, and he answered Paul Valéry. I was impressed. “How come Paul Valéry? Which poem?” “Poem? What poem? It’s my whorehouse on Rue Paul Valéry in Paris.” Sure enough, he was right. Billy’s was a whorehouse in Rue Paul Valéry, and I had been a client once, but Madame Claude had left Billy a mile behind in the quality of service. Back then, when girls didn’t give it away as often as they do nowadays, whorehouses were good business. But back to dinner parties, imaginary ones.

I suppose I should start with myself. Who would I have to dinner? As I’m only interested in history, I suppose they would all have to be people who have played a great part in it. Among the Ancient Greeks I would be over my head, so I’d pick someone who was both a great warrior and womanizer, Alcibiades. He was also the first conservative, putting himself above the state. When the Athenians went after him for midwifing the Sicilian disaster, he defected to Sparta. When he slept with the Spartan queen and had to skidadle out of town, he went over to the Persians. That’s where the Greeks finally caught up with him. After his girlfriend covered him with her shawl trying to protect him from their arrows, the killers went back to the mainland and said he was dressed as a woman. Alcibiades was an Athenian aristocrat whose teacher was Socrates, and there’s a wonderful passage where Alcibiades is riding while old Socrates is walking. I remember asking my old dad why it was so and I was told: Patricians rode, plebs walked.

I don’t think I would have Napoleon because the Corsican blamed others when he made mistakes, and although I take no back seat to anyone in my admiration for him, in his period I would choose Prince Talleyrand, the bishop of Autun, Napoleon’s foreign minister as well as before and after him. Napoleon once famously called him a shit in a silk stocking, but Talleyrand was much more than that. He managed to seduce three generations of the Duchess of Dino—granny, mother, and daughter—as difficult an achievement as it was to survive Napoleon’s rule and still have a sway in Vienna. His illegitimate son, Count de Flahaut, fought with Napoleon in Russia and was the lover of three queens, although two of them were Napo’s sisters. Three was a lucky number for the Talleyrand family.

Needless to say “Papa” Hemingway would be included. I wonder what Alcibiades and Talleyrand would make of Papa? Hemingway’s style cannot be imitated because it comes from inner necessity. Thousands have tried, but their writing remains a fake imitation. Papa was haunted and wrote hauntingly. He’s be great with Alcibiades about nature and rivers back then, but cool to Talleyrand’s exquisite manners. Or maybe not. Hemingway appreciated the old aristocracy, as long as they were not too stupid, something the old fox certainly was not. But he wouldn’t bring up women. He was old fashioned and I’m sure the Greek and the Frenchman would have understood.

Finally I’d have Prince Metternich as the fourth. He was also a great seducer—he was late at a conference and a whole province was lost to Austria while the winners were redistributing real estate, and when informed he sighed and said, “but she was worth it.” When the Greeks asked for the King of Rome to become their first monarch after the liberation in 1827, Metternich refused. He knew Napoleon’s son was tubercular and the mild Greek climate would prolong his life. He kept him in Austria and the young man died in his early twenties. Metternich did not wish for too many Napoleonic descendants around.

So the next time you plan a dream imaginary dinner, give a thought to poor old Kim and Kanye, and don’t forget Justin B.

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