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R S V P : Reliving France's Era of Elegance


"She's the next queen of France, you know," murmured a gentleman with a French accent. He referred to an elegantly clad matron, a small crowd swirling around her.

"Isn't she beautiful?" sighed another.

"You know, France is a republic and the royal family is trying to regain the throne."

You didn't know?

Welcome to the Parisian Romance Ball, where, if you could manage to put the Biltmore Hotel's impossible parking mess out of your mind, the belle epoque seemed like yesterday.

No ordinary theme party this.

The pretenders to the French throne--Duchesse Gersande d'Orleans and her shy daughter, Princesse Diane--as well as gendarmes on horseback, and yipping and yelling cancan dancers were all part of the back-in-time atmosphere that makes this annual fund-raiser for the Los Angeles Master Chorale seem like no ordinary Saturday night.

"This is over the edge," said Suzanne Marx, fund-raiser for the Ronald Reagan Library. "It's always like this, every year."

"This is our first time, and we are overwhelmed," said David Haspel, who runs a communication company, as he and his wife, Jane, sat down to a table covered in gold damask and laden with a cascading two-tiered flower arrangement.

Those in the know credit Elizabeth Hirsch, a super-charged woman in a strapless gold lace ball gown. She has chaired the event for seven years, with eagerness to make the evenings, well, magnifique.

"Last year was the Venetian Fantasy Ball of 1780," she said. "We did Victorian England. We did Renaissance Italy. We did Vienna. We did America, the Kennedy era.

"The belle epoque almost denied the changes that were coming--the new technology, electric lights, the motor car. That's the part of the belle epoque we're looking at, the dreamy part that didn't want to change," she explained.

So while guests sipped French wines and dined on quail in brandied cherry sauce, French lyric coloratura soprano Isabelle Sabrie sang from a half-moon balcony and members of the Master Chorale serenaded in French.

Even the duchess was impressed. "It's so gay! So entertaining! It's fantastique!"

As guests trekked out to find their cars, they clutched their favors--books on Paris daguerreotypes, written in French--and may have wondered what would ever top this.

"Next year," said Hirsch, "we're talking Russian."

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