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Boni goes bust

Edited excerpt from Drinking with Proust

Image: La Vie Parisienne, de Castellane Advert

In the winter of 1867, Anne-Marie Le Clerc de Juigné, wife of Marquis Boniface Antoine de Castellane, gave birth to her first son. He was named Boniface, but became known as Boni. He was brought up at his parent’s residence in Paris and at his grandmother’s Château de Rochecotte, a grand villa in the heart of Bourgeuil surrounded by vineyards.52

Boni and Marcel Proust crossed paths in around 1893 when Marcel joined Madeleine Lemaire’s Salon, “one of the most stimulating and amusing in Paris,”53 which was also attended by Boni.

In 1894 Boni travelled to America in search of a rich heiress. He needed money.

While I had ancestry, title and the very highest social prestige, my income was quite inad-equate. The family estates were important but expensive to maintain; and the Castellane income was not equal to maintain myself and my estates suitably. It was, therefore, not a bad bargain on my part to insure a sufficient income to support my rank in the only way which seemed open to me – by marrying an American heiress. Mine was the distinction of being the first of the foreign noblemen to enter the American matrimonial market…54

According to American newspaper reports, Boni sought to finance his trip with champagne. He brought along a “brand of Champagne which he expected to boom in order to pay his way.”55 It turns out that Boni’s house-wine had real pedigree (and you can still buy it today).

At around the same time that Boni embarked on his gold-digging trip to America, his cousin Vicomte Florens Castellane established the “de Castellane” Champagne house in Épernay. On their distinctive labels, bottles of de Castellane champagne featured the red cross of St. André, the standard of Champagne’s oldest military regiment.

But in spite of his august lineage, a marketable brand of Champagne, “good looks, some English clothes and plenty of assurance,”56 Boni had little luck with the ladies.

He was gutted when his preferred heiress turned him down. Her name was Consueolo Vanderbilt and she was the daughter of a railroad tycoon. Perhaps the champagne was a bit off that day. In any case, she did quite well without Boni, going on to marry Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough and a cousin of Winston Churchill no less.

Boni bounced back and soon struck gold. His new prospect was one Miss Anna Gould. She was the daughter of Jay Gould an unscrupulous railroad developer and speculator. (Gould was recently identified as one of the worst American CEOs of all time.57) Anna and Boni married in New York in the spring of 1893.

With access to his wife’s considerable wealth, Boni de Castellane could finally afford a lifestyle that matched his lineage. From 1895 to 1896, he bought up land on the Avenue du Bois and commissioned a palace modelled after the Grand Trianon of Versailles. With its pink marble pillars, the ‘Palace Rose’ would come to epitomise Boni’s profligate spending.

The Palace Rose later hosted the most extravagant party of Belle Epoque Paris. It featured eighty-thousand Venetian lanterns, illuminated fountains and twenty-five swans, which were re-leased into the lakes of the Bois. Boni put on an elaborate ballet with fearsome warriors who were charmed and then disarmed by a group of irresistible women.58

Marcel summarised the varied reactions to the ball. No-one could quite agree what it had all been about. To Madame Lemaire it was the party with the splendour of a by-gone era, “pure Louis XIV.” To Mme Framboisie it was Athenian, while it was described as being straight out of the era of Lohengrin by the newspaper Gaulois. Marcel adds that, according to Le Figaro, there were three thousand people present:

All of Parisian society was there. We shall give no names. For though the whole of socie-ty was there, it was there incognito, because of the death of Monseigneur the Duc de Nemours.59

Marcel became close enough to Boni to invite him for dinner. The Gaulois recorded the event, which took place on the 24th of May 1897. Among the guests were Reynaldo Hahn, Anatole France, Robert de Montesquiou. “The Marquis de Castellane, who was unable to excuse himself, came, but left immediately after the dinner to visit his cousin, the prince Sagan.”

Used to grand company, Boni’s rank was ideal for the promotion of his cousin’s Champagne. He took charge of the Paris distribution of de Castellane Champagne in 1899 and would later recount an amusing episode involving ‘his Champagnes.’

“One day I invited to dinner the Grand Duchess Wladimir the distinguished aunt of the Czar of Russia, Lady Randolph Churchill, the Duke and Duchess de Broglie, Lady Paget, and several other well-known persons…” he reminisces.

I served my finest vintages of champagne. The butler announced to each guest the name of the vintage which he was about to pour out. Naturally he served the Grand Duchess Wladimir first, and bending at her side called out in a voice distinct enough to be heard by everybody: “Brut Imperial.” Of course the words indicated a quality of champagne, but they meant equally ‘Imperial brute!’ The Grand Duchess jumped in alarm as she heard the words. For a moment she thought an attack was going to be made on her. Then we all laughed.60

Boni’s fortune did not last. His wife divorced him to save her dwindling fortune. (Boni managed to tear through five and half of Gould’s thirty million dollar inheritance.) Anna went on to marry the Prince de Sagan in July 1908, the cousin whose company Boni had preferred to that of Marcel’s dinner guests. This was not a painless transaction. There was a violent altercation between the two cousins after a funeral service. According to the account given by de Segan, Boni de Castellane fired the first salvo by spitting in de Segan’s direction. Then the prince slipped and Boni hit him with his cane, drawing blood.61


Image: AN INTERNATIONAL HIGH NOON DIVORCE.Promptly at high noon the unhappy couple entered the court room to the soft strains of Hymn Twenty-three. The American wife, looking happy for the first time in many years, leaned on the arm of the family solicitor; she wore a lovely green going-away gown and bore a huge bouquet of incriminating affidavits; her train was carried by her minor child. Next in the divorce procession came the co-respondents, charmingly and in some cases daringly gowned. The husband was supported by his counsel, and swooned twice during the separation ceremony, which was performed beneath a monster floral ax, while a surpliced jury sang “My Boni Lies Over the Ocean,” “How Can I Bear to Leave Thee,” and other appropriate selections. After the ceremony the former wife’s father gave a luncheon to the Count’s creditors and arranged to pay them thirty cents on the dollar. The Count’s gift to his former wife was a statement of his debts to date. Her gift to him was a tin can in a Tiffany setting. Miss Creesis will be at home after March 15.”

In his twilight years made a living selling antiques to rich Americans. He also wrote a book titled “The Art of Being Poor.” As Boni’s fortunes declined, de Castellane Champagne also suffered. It was acquired by L’Union Champenoise in 1907. In spite of Castellane’s noble rot, the director of L’Union Champenoise, Fernand Mérand, believed in the power of the Castellane name. He re-branded his entire company as Champagne de Castellane.

In 1999, the Champagne de Castellane became part of the Laurent-Perrier group. The brand survives to this day. The champagne’s character is quite unlike Boni’s: “brilliant value for money…absolutely clean” with “plenty of freshness and fruit” and a “creamy, citrus, fruit-driven Chardonnay” character.62 

Notes & References

52 The castle is now a hotel and restaurant. It has its own vineyard on a south-facing hillside. Like most of the red wine in the area, it is made from Cabernet Franc. At the time of writing, the wine-maker is Jacky Blot from the Domaine de La Butte in Bourgueil.

53 Carter, W. C., 2000, Marcel Proust: a life, New Haven & London, Yale University Press.

54 Castellane, B. d., 1923, How I Won and Lost Anna Gould’s Millions, The Pittsburgh Press.

55 How Count Boni Castellane spent the Gould Millions, The Deseret Evening News, November 17, 1900.

56 ibid.

57, Portfolio’s Worst American CEO’s of All Time, CNBC. According to the CNBC ranking: ‘When it comes to unscrupulous behavior, Gould makes Milken look like a sweetheart. A railroad developer and speculator, Gould sold out his associates, bribed legislators to get deals done, and even kidnapped a potential investor. He duped the U.S. Treasury, pushing up the price of gold and prompting a scare on Wall Street that depressed all stocks. After hiring strikebreakers during a railroad strike in 1886, he was reported to have said, “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.”

58 The Magnificent Boni de Castellane Now Poor and Paralyzed, The Milwaukee Sentinel, 15. February, 1931. See also Carter, W. C., 2000, Marcel Proust: a life, New Haven & London, Yale University Press.

59 Quoted from Carter, W. C., 2000, Marcel Proust : a life: New Haven ; London, Yale University Press. Marcel later drew on the spectacular event in the Guermantes Way. In one scene, Monsieur and Mme Guermantes are chatting with Charles Swann while preparing to leave for a grand party held by the Princess Marie-Gilbert. M. Guermantes is given the news that Amanien the Marquis d’Osmond has just died. M. Guermantes is dismayed, but quickly recovers, “He’s dead! No, no, they’re exaggerating, they’re exaggerating!” and continues with his preparations. The conversation switches to light-hearted topics. Swann, ever the astute gentleman, compliments Mme Guermantes on her rubies. “They were a present from the Grand Duchess”, replied Mme Guermantes, “They’re a little too big for my liking, a little too like claret glasses filled to the brim.” She has put them on, she says, because the Grand Duchess will be at the party. She mentions the gardens and “then the fountain – really, it’s Versailles in Paris.” And then, in a hurry lest there is more news of Amanien’s death, they rush off.

60 de Castellane, The Fortune Hunger!, The Pittsburgh Press, 17. January, 1926.

61 [Hahn, R., 3. January, 1908, Marcel Proust, Lettres à Reynaldo Hahn, VIII-1, Association Reynaldo Hahn. ‘Le Figaro, vendredi 3 janvier 1908, p. 2, Incident/Castellane-Elie de Talleyrand : “Hier matin, à l’issue du service funèbre qui était célébré, en l’église Saint-Pierre de Chaillot, à la mémoire de lady Stanley Errington, née Marie de Talleyrand-Périgord, une vive altercation s’est élevée entre deux personnalités parisiennes fort connues : le comte Boni de Castellane, député des Basses-Alpes, et son cousin, M. Elle de Talleyrand-Périgord, un des assidus de l’ancienne demeure du comte de Castellane. […] “Voici enfin le récit que, dans la soirée, le prince de Sagan nous a fait parvenir : “… il cracha dans ma direction. Comme je m’avançais vers lui, il recula et gagna l’autre trottoir. Près de le rejoindre, je fis un faux pas, et une chute s’ensuivit. C’est alors que M. Boni de Castellane, me voyant à terre, me frappa à coups de canne et à coups de talon, aidé de son frère Jean de Castellane…’

62 Stevenson, T., 2003, Christie’s world encyclopedia of champagne & sparkling wine: Bath, Absolute.

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