BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
“It was the most brazen triad since the permissive days of Louis XV,” reveals Mitchell Owens, Decorative Arts Editor of Architectural Digest, about his subject for the Alliance Française de Chicago’s September 25 virtual lecture.
A glamorous auction, an anonymous consignor, and the monogram that gave it all away: Owens starts his story here and weaves the narrative thread to the lady behind the luxe (and the two men in her life who inhabited the highest social circles on the Cote d’Azur). In the final lecture of this series on the Grand Style of the Riviera, guests will learn more about Chilean heiress and social swan Patricia Lopez-Willshaw; her husband, Arturo; and their constant companion, the Baron Alexis de Rede.
Owens explains, “In the late 19th century, a South American contingent came to Paris as diplomats and established a foothold. They brought to Paris a real degree of exoticism and great beauty. Arturo, who made his money in fertilizer, and Patricia collected opulent things and gave extraordinary parties. They had treasure-trove residences, including a Neuilly mansion, a Saint-Tropez villa, and the Gaviota IV, the most opulent yacht to sail the seven seas. Arturo had very regal tastes. Once, while touring Versailles, he turned to a companion and said that it reminded him of his Neuilly residence. They created a real daisy chain of sex and money—really an interesting trajectory.”
The Baron de Rede was his financial advisor, as he would become for the Rolling Stones and others. He became known as “the savior of the Willshaw money.” Hosts and hostesses just had to get used to saving three places when you invited the Lopez-Willshaws: “It was all very open, certainly not acceptable in America at that time,” Owens says.
As an Architectural Digest, editor Owens once received a Christie’s catalogue offering rare furniture and custom-made objects from an “unidentified amateur collector.” Owens describes how he quickly cracked the mystery: “I have a passion for objects that tell a story, everything comes with a narrative. I saw a monogram, and the mystery was solved in about 10 minutes. As the British say, my eyes were stalks at the opulence of the collection.”
He adds, “You can’t help but be amazed by the Lopez-Willshaws. They lived at this very high level and were thus able to be collectors of an impressive regard.”
Owens once placed a call to the Baron to ask about the veracity of a gallery’s offering of a Lopez-Willshaw’s coin collection. “I had heard that it was not a collection, per se, but just an object where he kept his spare change. The Baron said that was exactly what it was. When I was a reporter at the New York Times, I was drilled to be skeptical of any fact, and the Baron gave me the true story.”
If the Rivera became a canvas for artists like Picasso, Cocteau, Chagall, and others, and the stunning setting for the works of authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald, it was the Lopez-Willshaws and other fascinating characters described in this year’s Alliance Symposium that further colored and shaped this glittering part of the world.
Mary Ellen Connellan, Executive Director of the Alliance Française de Chicago tells how the wildly popular annual Symposium began: “The program started in 2002 under the name French Decorative Arts Symposium, with the idea of celebrating the best of French decoration and its worldwide influence both historically and today.”
“In 2016, the title was changed to the Symposium on the Arts of France because its scope broadened,” she continues. “This alteration allowed us to charter new territory and explore so much more by incorporating the beautiful gardens, the architecture, and the people who played an integral role in our beloved tradition, while continuing to offer the museum-quality lecture series to which our community is accustomed.”
Mary Blust, who along with Myriam Bransfield co-chairs the Symposium, is a dedicated Alliance volunteer. She joined in 1983, taking classes and attending events in order to keep up her French after having worked for the First National Bank of Chicago in their Paris office as a trainee.
“Later I worked for La Societe Generale Bank here in Chicago and became more involved with the Alliance at the board level,” she says. “There are always interesting classes, lectures, and events for all ages, and including the arts symposium. The Women’s Board is particularly proud of its Outreach Program, which brings public school teenagers into the Alliance for French classes after the normal school day. The Alliance has maintained all of these activities online during the shutdown, or as the French more eloquently put it the ‘confinement.’ “
She shares that the organization has been very pleased by the tremendous response that the 2020 online Symposium on the Arts is experiencing during this challenging year: “We want to thank the speakers, patrons, and other subscribers for their continuing support. We are already planning for the spring 2021 program and hope to see all our supporters at an in-person program followed by the usual gracious luncheons.”
Needless to say, the Alliance Française offers some of the most intriguing programs in town. Watch their website for the launch of Chic & You: The French Fashion Fair (and keep your eyes here for an October 4 story on the event). Aimee Laberge, Director of Programs, gives us a soupçon: “This series of online talks from Paris, New York, and Chicago reveals the seismic changes going through the fashion world. Not your usual Zoom meeting! Please join us on Thursdays starting October 1 for fabulous and very chic guests—an Alliance Française de Chicago exclusive.”
For more information about Mitchell Owens virtual lecture on September 25 and about Chic & You, call 312-337-1070 or visit www.af-chicago.org. The cost for The Millionaire, His Wife, and His Lover is $25.