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VALUES / A passion for a nation's culture.

Art's Amie

In a life of international adventure, the indomitable Elin Vanderlip took on another project: raising funds to restore French works.


Elin Vanderlip--gowned as writer Edith Wharton--was celebrating her 80th birthday at a costume party at her Villa Narcissa in Rancho Palos Verdes, beckoning guests to join her in dancing the flokke, "a Norwegian dance to keep warm."

The party, billed as a celebration of "the eight decades of Elin Regina"--with an honorary committee including John Dillinger, Mata Hari, Mao Tse Tung and Pablo Picasso--had begun with champagne at the villa's hilltop amphitheater, where her children and grandchildren had presented a sort of "This Is Your Life, Elin" skit.

And what a life it's been for this self-described "Norwegian in an Italian house who has a French passion."

That passion manifested itself in Friends of French Art, the philanthropy she founded in 1979 to help restore French works of art. She explains, "From the age of 3, my grandmother taught me to repair things" rather than discard them. "And I lived eight years in France. I know if a chateau owner has enough money to keep his roof from leaking, he doesn't have enough to restore his tapestries and paintings."

The organization, which has raised $6 million to restore French art and some architecture--money matched by the French government--was born of a visit in 1978 to the city of Pontoise. There she met the curator of the Camille Pissarro museum, who asked her help in saving the mill where the artist worked from demolition to make way for a soccer field. Vanderlip gave $21,000.

Daughter Katrina de Carbonnel, an art restorer who has worked at the Louvre, has helped her select projects. Vanderlip says, "The most charismatic is the balcony" painted by Renoir in "Luncheon of the Boating Party," the most expensive was the staircase at the Chateau de Blois ($128,000) and "my dullest project was giving a $28,000 machine to the museum at Lille" to protect paintings.

She explains that Friends of French Art, by using qualified students or restorers in the local region, gets work done at a fraction of what it would cost for government-hired restorers. Her group succeeds, she acknowledges, in part because she has the "chutzpah" to walk into a city hall in any French city and "ask the mayor if he'll give a dinner" for visiting Friends.

She Receives French Honor

Her efforts were recognized recently when she became one of the few women to receive the Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur, the French equivalent of the Order of the British Empire, from Guy Yelda, French consul general in Los Angeles. "We have a very special debt to her," Yelda says. "She is very strong-minded."

Aware of snipes that charity should begin at home, she has started giving $10,000 a year to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She is also active in restoration efforts at Edith Wharton's "grandiose" English-French chateau in Lenox, Mass.

Her life now is a far cry from where it all started in Oslo, where her father, Guttorm Brekke, had a lumber mill and sash and door company, and where she remembers being in the charge of a nanny "who left me at the Salvation Army every afternoon so she could meet her boyfriend. When my mother discovered I could sing 10 Salvation Army songs, she fired the nanny."

When she was 6, a fire destroyed her father's factory and the Brekke family was uprooted to Berlin, where her father found work as an engineer. In his spare time, "he taught the kaiser to ski and played the violin beautifully."

When Vanderlip was 9, the family moved to Tennessee, where her father helped in construction of rayon factories, and later to Minnesota and then to Iowa, where Elin graduated from high school. "My parents weren't extremely well-fixed," she says, and their priority was educating her two brothers. "There was no money for me to go to college."

In time, the Brekkes relocated to pre-World War II Washington, D.C., where Vanderlip's uncle was charge d'affaires at the Norwegian Embassy. "The moment Norway was invaded [in April 1940], he said, 'Elin has to come to work at the embassy.' "

She was 20, and it was a job that was to change her life.

She worked as an archivist and learned the Norwegians' secret code. "We were trying to keep the Norwegian freighters in Brazil from being bombed." Then word came from Trygve Lie, then prime minister of Norway, that there was a shortage of bilingual secretaries at the Norwegian Embassy in London. She was needed there.

"I was thrilled," she recalls, despite the fact that London was being firebombed. Of course, it did mean leaving behind her fiance, Sir Angus Malcolm, grandson of actress Lillie Langtry, but just as well. In London, she met a Norwegian economist for whom she threw over Sir Angus.

London was exciting, she felt she was doing important work, and then the Norwegian foreign minister ordered her home to take care of her ailing mother. It was not a matter of life and death, she recalls, and "I was furious. I thought the liberation of Norway was near and I wanted to be there."

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