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Palace Lovers Make French Connection

May 12, 1999|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Cartier invitations, engraved on ecru paper festooned with gold tassels, are to Le Bal de Versailles on June 26--as well as five days of pre- and post-ball merriment at the famed French palace and around Paris.

Guests will be received by Mme. Jacques Chirac, first lady of France, at the Elysee Palace, and will lunch with Ambassador and Mrs. Felix Rohatyn at their residence, picnic in the gardens at Versailles and attend soirees in grand maisons.

This "event of a lifetime" is all about raising $4.2 million to restore Les Trois Fontaines Bosquet, a 17th century fountain and grove designed for the gardens at Versailles by Andre Le No^tre. Its terraced fountains are overgrown with weeds, and little remains save for a marble ramp, up which the gout-afflicted Sun King, Louis XIV, was once wheeled in his roulette to admire the waters.

At a recent Los Angeles luncheon, Elin Vanderlip of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, president of Friends of French Art and honorary co-chairwoman for the Versailles gala, introduced fellow Francophiles to the project's principals, Catharine Hamilton of Chicago, president of the American Friends of Versailles, and Vicomte Olivier de Rohan, who heads Les Amis de Versailles in France.

The neophyte American charity was formed last year to assist the 92-year-old Les Amis in restoration of the chateau and gardens and to promote Franco-American relationships through cultural exchanges in the fields of art, music, architecture and garden architecture.

Vanderlip admitted she thought it "ridiculous" when Americans raised $21 million to restore Louis XIV's bed, but she's since realized "the more gold, the more beautiful the gardens, the more tourists will come to Versailles and the Ministry of Culture will have more money to save beautiful things we all love."

The Versailles extravaganza, says Hamilton--who with husband David has a centuries-old chateau near Paris--is "for people who love France, love beauty, and believe in internationalism." She has pledges of more than $1.2 million, plus significant corporate support.

The vicomte agrees that Versailles "should be looked after by people who care for it." He mentions that, of 10 million annual visitors, only 20% are French--and 80% of the rest are Americans.

French taxpayers--who get no charitable deductions--can't foot the bill, he adds, and the government spends millions just to maintain Versailles and its staff of 700. "The French have a lot of places like Versailles to take care of."

Over 200 years, Les Trois Fontaines Bosquet, once a grand display of cascading and leaping waters, fell victim both to neglect and the French Revolution.

As for the ball and satellite festivities, for more than a few francs, some benefactors will have the privilege of leaving their names for posterity on plaques around the grounds of the chateau once occupied by the hapless Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

Indeed, a $1 million "Cercle du Loi" subscription entitles the donor to three plaques dotted about Versailles bearing the family--or company--name. (Mon dieu!) Lesser angels ($25,000-$125,000 donors) will share plaques, while low-end donors ($5,000-$10,000) will be entitled only to attend most of the 16 gala events. Such commercialism may have the royals twitching in their graves, but royal palaces are high maintenance.

The Versailles project is about more than just a fountain, Rohan and Hamilton will tell you. It's about history (the treaty ending World War I was signed in its Hall of Mirrors) and about the enduring friendship between France and America.

"You can't go there and not feel it's a noble, noble project," she says.

The American Friends of Versailles is at 919 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60611; (312) 943-0173.

Beverly Beyette can be reached by e-mail at beverly.beyette@latimes.com.

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