French industrialist Paul Louis Weiller collects houses the way other people collect stamps--and his house guests have been some of the most famous people in the world.
Weiller, 92, may own as many as four or five dozen chateaux, palaces, hotels particuliers and villas, according to an article in the February issue of Town & Country, and he makes a practice of allowing his friends to live in them rent-free.
"The Duke and Duchess of Windsor lived for many years in my house at 85 Rue de la Faisanderie (in Paris)," he said, "but they were friends, not tenants."
Weiller has had at least three homes in Versailles. The most famous is the Villa Trianon, bought in 1933 from the decorator Elsie de Wolfe (Lady Mendl), who lived there until her death.
Fifty yards east of Villa Trianon is another Weiller home.
"That is where Oscar Wilde and Lord Arthur Douglas lived, and lived very well, on the royalties from Wilde's plays," he said.
Weiller spends August at La Reine Jeanne, his house near Saint-Tropez. Among his guests have been President Richard Nixon, Greta Garbo, Vivian Leigh, Laurence Olivier, the King of Sweden, and the Grand Duke of Luxembourg.
Tish Martinson, who came to Paris to model at age 15, tells how, when she was a teen-ager, Weiller gave dinner parties for her at which she could name the guests--anyone she wanted.
Importance of Flying
"So I chose Omar Sharif, Andre Malraux, the Duke of Windsor, Maurice Chevalier, Christian Dior, Yul Brynner, Orson Wells--he knew them, and when he summoned them, they came to whichever house he had indicated."
Weiller is the son of a French industrialist.
"My father early envisioned how important flying would become and offered a prize of $100,000 to the first flyer who could stay in the air for one hour with one passenger," he said. "So Wilbur Wright came to Paris, and on Oct. 11, 1908, he won the prize and became a family friend."
Weiller, a World War I air ace, ran airplane engine factories and two airlines after the war. In 1935 his airlines were nationalized into what became Air France, paying him a fraction of their worth. He decided never to do business in France again.
Travel With Charlie
During this period he was much sought after socially.
"Charlie Chaplin asked me to go to Japan as his guest," Weiller said, "And it was on that trip I learned he always kept a few crusts of bread in his pockets. It was the result of being so terribly poor and so often hungry when he was a boy. Winston Churchill, on the other hand, always had his coat pockets crammed with books to read whenever he had a moment free."
Weiller was imprisoned by the Germans in World War II but escaped and worked in Canada for Charles de Gaulle's government-in-exile.
After the war, Weiller came to the United States where he made fortunes in Cuban sugar and Venezuelan oil.
Ultimate Worry Bead
He became a collector of whatever delighted him--a beautifully shaped rock or a Rembrandt. He bought the Jubilee diamond, the fourth largest in the world, and carried it around in his coat pocket as the ultimate worry head.
Weiller is reluctant to discuss his charities, but in Town & Country he likened his giving to the button marked "Renvoyez l'ascenseur" on Paris self-service elevators, asking you to return the elevator to the ground floor.
"I believe that in life, too," he said, "if you have been lucky as I have . . . you must send back the elevator and help others to get up."