He married the daughter of a U.S. robber baron and, with her fortune, built the Palais Rose, the most sumptuous mansion in Belle Epoque Paris.
In 1906, Anna Gould divorced Boni de Castellane, her profligate and philandering husband, and in 1969, the Palais Rose was demolished to make room for a dull luxury block.
An exhibition at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris revives such bygone glories and invites you to explore a local specialty, the “hotel particulier.”
Under the monarchy, Parisians reserved the honorary title of “palais” to royal residences. Other mansions, even the most palatial, were modestly called “hotels particuliers” or private townhouses.
Unlike their Roman or Florentine peers, French aristocrats didn’t flaunt their wealth: Most hid their residences behind high walls. You had to be invited to discover the splendors inside.
Some mansions are now museums and open to the public, such as the Musee de Cluny, the Musee Carnavalet or the Musee Picasso. Most, though, have morphed into ministries or embassies and are off limits to tourists.
At the Cite de l’Architecture, a wing of the Palais de Chaillot, you can have a look behind the closed doors even if you don’t know anybody in the French administration or the corps diplomatique.
The first section recreates the ground floor of an archetypal hotel particulier with its traditional sequence of rooms -- the entrance hall, the antechamber, the salon, the dining room and the gallery.
After that introduction, you enter the historical part of the show which relates how the fashionable neighborhoods changed over time.
In the Middle Ages, a man of taste built his mansion near the Louvre. Under Louis XIII, the fashionable quartier moved to the Marais and the Ile Saint-Louis, under Louis XV to the Saint-Germain and Saint-Honore suburbs, and in the 19th century to the new neighborhood around Parc Monceau.
The changing styles are illustrated with maquettes, paintings, photographs and architectural drawings of outstanding specimens.
One of those, the Hotel Lambert on the Ile Saint-Louis, made headlines in recent years after the Rothschild family sold it to a brother of the emir of Qatar. His plans to modernize the venerable building sparked a storm of protest: The authorities were accused of sacrificing France’s national heritage to the whims of Oriental potentates.
After a venomous debate, a compromise looks to be in the works.
Another gem, the Hotel Beauharnais, was bought in 1818 by the King of Prussia and is now the residence of the German ambassador. Eugene de Beauharnais, son of Josephine who later married Napoleon, almost went bankrupt decorating his acquisition in the then fashionable Empire style.
It’s the most ravishing ensemble of that period in Paris.
The exhibition is discreet about the turbulent life of La Paiva, the great cocotte who built the only surviving hotel particulier on the Champs-Elysees.
Born Esther Lachmann in Moscow, the daughter of a Jewish weaver, she decided that she wasn’t made for a life in poverty and became the mistress of a series of rich men. One of these, a Marquis de Paiva, married her only to discover that his fortune couldn’t keep up with his wife’s lifestyle.
After inviting his creditors to an opulent last supper, the marquis shot himself. The mansion now belongs to the Travellers Club.
In niches, the show explores characteristic details of the hotel particulier: facades, doors, wall decorations, ceilings, gardens.
Boni de Castellane’s knowledge of those details and his exquisite taste helped him survive in style after his divorce: He became an antiques dealer, with mostly U.S. customers, and titled his memoirs “L’Art d’Etre Pauvre,” or “The Art of Being Poor.”
“L’Hotel Particulier: Une Ambition Parisienne” is at the Cite de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine through Feb. 19. Information: http://www.citechaillot.fr.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)