The Secrets of François Catroux, the Über-Rich’s Favorite Interior Designer

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    For nearly a half-century, Betty and François Catroux have been one of
    Paris society’s most storied couples. The romance began one evening in
    1967, when François tried to put down some francs for a drink at
    Regine’s. “ ‘It’s been paid for,’ ” François recalls the bartender
    telling him.

    “I didn’t pay for it,” interjects Betty when the story of how they
    first “cruised” each other comes up over dinner with her husband on a
    recent evening at Le Voltaire. “I told the barman, ‘Give him a drink.’
    They were begging me to go to nightclubs then. Everything was free.”
    Well, it was—if you were Betty Saint, as she was then. With a long
    mane of straight platinum hair and legs that didn’t stop, she was one of
    the original “It girls.”

    “I knew she was the one for me immediately,” says François. “If I
    missed this one, there was nobody else. I couldn’t miss this one.

    “We’ve been together for 50 years,” he continues. “No regrets. But
    she’s not something . . . normal. She’s a special case.”

    Details of her parentage and birth in Rio de Janeiro have been somewhat
    blurry in press accounts over the years. Tonight, she opens dinner with
    a bit of a bang, by announcing, “I was illegitimate.”

    When Betty was four years old, her mother, Carmen, a daughter of Italian
    émigrés, ended a short marriage to a Brazilian gentleman and took her to
    Paris—“in her suitcase,” Betty has said previously. In France,
    Carmen married Daniel Saint, a wealthy entrepreneur, whose last name
    Betty took.

    As she grew up, Betty received occasional visits from someone who was,
    she was told, a family friend. “A man who looked like Peter O’Toole,
    stayed at the Ritz, took me to tea, and was very nice,” she says.
    “When I was around 12 or 13, I guessed it,” she continues. “I was his
    spitting image.”

    Her real father was Elim O’Shaughnessy, a Yale-educated American
    diplomat who had also dated such other beauties as Babe Paley and
    Pauline de Rothschild. (He was also the father of V.F. contributing
    editor Elise O’Shaughnessy.) He had met Carmen when he was posted in
    South America. He died in 1966 at the age of 59. “When Babe met me, she
    couldn’t believe it,” adds Betty. “I looked exactly like her great
    love. She and I had a divine relationship until she died.”

    The only thing Betty won’t divulge is her age. “It won’t come out of my
    mouth!” she says. But when she was 17, in the early 60s, Betty started
    modeling for Coco Chanel. Six feet tall (the same height as François),
    Betty towered over the runway. “I was the baby of the house,” she
    says. “Chanel adored me. Through her, I learned cynicism. She was
    totally cynical. She said horrors about everyone. And she was right. But
    she was charming.”

    Betty met Yves Saint Laurent at Regine’s just a few months after she had
    met François in much the same fashion. Saint Laurent and Betty’s bond
    was immediate and intense as well. “He probably felt I was like
    him—disturbed, neurotic,” she says. “We were alike.” Betty’s
    figure, along with her personality, made her “a living mannequin” for
    Saint Laurent, as François says.

    “Betty personified the ideal woman for Yves,” confirms Pierre Bergé,
    Saint Laurent’s longtime partner and a major French industrialist, by
    phone from Tangier.

    For decades, the designer and his muse talked incessantly, daily. About
    what?, I ask. “Ourselves!” she answers quickly. “Not very
    interesting. Never a word about fashion.”

    She laughs about her reputation as a style icon. “I hate fashion!” she
    says. Even as she became synonymous with Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking—a
    man’s tuxedo adapted to a woman’s body—“Yves always had a feminine
    touch,” Betty says. “He made the woman come out.

    “Now I am all man—thanks to Hedi [Slimane],” she adds. “I’ve
    dressed like a man since he came to Saint Laurent.” Since Slimane’s
    departure, in April, from the house, where he was creative director, she
    is “desperate,” she says. “My closet is a museum of Yves and a museum
    of Hedi.”

    It has been reported that Betty and Yves entered rehab together on
    occasion for their respective drug problems. “Many times!,” Betty
    confirms cheerily as she sips a nice white Burgundy. She describes their
    stays as “Great fun!,” where they were both “wanting to go out and
    re-start again.”

    “They shared the same taste for living and having a good time. They
    were both very naughty,” says Bergé jocularly.

    Eight years after Saint Laurent died in her arms, Betty offers some
    revisionist history. “Everyone thinks Yves was the sweetie pie and
    Pierre was the tough one. It was the opposite. Pierre is a very human
    and caring person. He bleeds. He suffered. Yves did suffer—about
    himself.”

    With Yves and many other members of their golden circle gone, the
    Catroux continue to be a source of fascination and reverence for younger
    generations of the style-conscious. They are the beau ideal of
    glamour—and they are still kicking.

    “They are an essential reference from the 70s, but they are still a
    very inspiring couple,” says writer and producer Olivier Widmaier
    Picasso, a grandson of the artist. “When you see them they talk about
    interesting topics—not like bourgeois socialites,” he says,
    pronouncing “bourgeois” with visceral disdain.

    “They come from the world of the real jet set, when people traveled
    from Paris to New York on the Concorde for lunch, without the need to
    post pictures on Facebook or Instagram. They don’t need a selfie,” he
    says. “This is the real chic. They still maintain an elegance.”

    But there’s a secret to this ultimate style couple. They are homebodies,
    who only occasionally venture out at night from their apartment on the
    Rue de Lille, where they have lived since 1992 and which François is
    currently renovating. According to François, they curtailed their social
    activities about a decade ago. “We haven’t been to a disco in 20
    years,” adds Betty.

    And they are grandparents. “Don’t talk about that!” says Betty with a
    shriek. According to many friends, however, they dote on Vivien, 10, and
    Alexandre, 12, the children of their daughter, Daphné, who handles
    cultural exhibitions at Dior. The couple’s other child, Maxime, an
    editor at the distinguished art-book publisher Flammarion, recently
    married her girlfriend of nearly 20 years, in a small ceremony (attended
    by Pierre Bergé and a few other close friends and family) at Paris’s
    City Hall that made François and Betty “delighted and proud,” Betty
    says. “I’ve got the most fabulous children and grandchildren.”

    Conventional parents clearly they were not. (“I told my children, ‘I
    don’t like children,’ ” Betty recalls telling her girls when they were
    young.) But they were devoted. “Miraculously, with an alternative
    notion of family,” says Maxime, speaking for her and her sister, “they
    conveyed their sense of humor, beauty, culture, and love to us.”

    When not in Paris, François and Betty are generally alone together at
    Les Ramades, a 16th-century stone house in the Lourmarins region of
    Provence, on 10 lush acres, which they bought in 1990.

    Houseguests, according to François, are “very few,” and these are
    invited only in July and August. “That’s it,” he says.

    “They have the manners of people who don’t need to prove anything,”
    says Baroness Hélène de Ludinghausen. “If he doesn’t like someone, he
    doesn’t bother. He’s never been an ass-kisser.”

    “We love to be alone together, with our two cats,” says François.
    “We’re madly in love with our cats.”

    That would be Mic and Mac, a pair of blue-gray Burmese, who were born in
    Oklahoma. François flew to Tulsa to pick them up from the breeder of his
    previous cat, Bleuy, who was tragically run over by a car. “I was in
    tears,” he says about the accident.

    Otherwise, his great pleasure on weekends is speeding down the Provençal
    roads in his black Aston Martin Vanquish convertible, or one of his two
    Mercedes-AMG convertible sports cars (one black, the other matte gray).

    But Monday morning it is back to work. When the subject of retirement is
    brought up, he laughs off the idea.

    “I wouldn’t know what to do. I feel 26. I don’t see my age—except
    when I look in the mirror.”

    Nobody else seems to see his age, either. “It’s shocking how he both
    looks and acts lots of decades younger than he is,” says Barry Diller.
    “He ain’t stuck.”

    Selected photographs from François Catroux, by David Netto, to be
    published in October by Rizzoli New York; © 2016 by the publisher.

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