PARIS — French resistance to American imports, from fast food to feature films, has made the transatlantic cultural relationship mighty testy in recent years. But, through it all, one small group of Americans still gets treated like visiting royalty in France.
Members dine annually in grand chateaux with barons and princes. French mayors invite them to cocktails in gilded town halls. And museum curators battle to treat them to personal tours.
The members of this group, based in Los Angeles, call themselves Friends of French Art. The group has won the hearts of the French by raising $4.5 million over the past 18 years to help rescue France's cultural riches, restoring items ranging from paintings and tapestries to desks and chairs.
By making many relatively small donations of $10,000 to $20,000, amounts that are matched dollar for dollar by the French department of historic monuments, the group has acted as a catalyst for hundreds of restoration projects here.
"What we really do is shame the French into helping preserve their own patrimony," said Elin Vanderlip, 76, the wealthy, persistent and indefatigable founder of Friends of French Art. "When they see what we can do with a little money, they invariably pick up the ball."
Her organization is a rare example of U.S.-French cultural cooperation. The French are proud of their treasure-filled heritage, which they believe is under threat from U.S. popular culture. And they are easily seduced by these wealthy Americans, who show a strong feeling for France's glorious past and are willing to put up money to save it.
Every year, Vanderlip brings about 30 donors to France. Participants make a tax-deductible donation of $6,000 to Friends of French Art and pay all their own expenses. In exchange, they are allowed to visit places not ordinarily open to tourists and dine in museums and palaces.
The next Friends of French Art tour, from May 28 to June 7, will have a Napoleonic flavor. On tap is a tour of Chateau de Malmaison, once home of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, and dinner in the imperial dining room with Her Imperial Highness Princess Alix Napoleon. Among the many chateaux on the itinerary is Chateau de Fontainebleau, where the emperor's private quarters recently were restored and reopened.
The journey includes lunches and picnics with the owners of several private chateaux as well as dinners with an array of dignitaries, from the prefet of Eure-et-Loire to U.S. Ambassador Pamela Harriman.
Vanderlip got the idea to help the French in 1978, when she joined Lehman Katz, former vice president of United Artists and her longtime companion, on the set of "Moonraker," the James Bond movie, at Chateau de Geurmantes. Traveling in France afterward, the pair met the curator of the Pissarro Museum in Pontoise, who begged Vanderlip to help save the mill where Pissarro had worked and been visited by Cezanne. The city wanted to raze it and turn it into a soccer field. Vanderlip raised $31,000 and, "once we showed it could be done, the city and other French donors came up with the rest of the money," she recalled.
Not long after, she was asked to help restore the crumbling balcony of the Maison Fornaise, a beautiful home on an island in the Seine, west of Paris; it had been painted by Eduoard Manet and Claude Monet, among other 19th century luminaries. She raised $18,000 and the balcony was saved.
When news of her efforts spread, others in France sought Vanderlip's help. She returned to Los Angeles, drew up a charter for Friends of French Art, secured nonprofit status and launched her appeals for money. The group initially was primarily made up of her friends in Los Angeles, though regular donors today come from across the country.
Her approach was simple: encourage tax-deductible contributions by rewarding donors with sumptuous tours of France, introductions to France's upper crust, privileged welcomes in private palaces and private tours of offbeat places such as a bird whistle factory.
Soon, she had a gilded reputation in France, which decorated her as Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters, the first non-Frenchwoman to be so honored.
Over the past two decades, the group has left its mark across France. Often, the painstaking work has been done by stagiers, American students training in art restoration who are sent to France for the summer by Friends of French Art.
The group helped restore a fragile theater curtain, painted by Pablo Picasso, in the Museum of Modern Art in Paris and Empress Josephine's dress at Chateau de Malmaison. It has paid to restore ceiling paintings in the Grand Theatre of Bordeaux, 18th century clocks, tile floors, aging staircases and hundreds of works of art.