If you’ve heard the term “cafe society” you may not know that it references a society and a time period, mostly in Europe, from about 1920 to 1960 and not just hanging out at coffee houses.
You may thenÂ assume that cafe society was made up of writers and artists who hung out in Paris during this time period (you know, the ones we always hear about) and you would be somewhat correct – many of them moved in this circle, or at least on the periphery of it – but mostly this society was closed to people like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald and more open to writers like Truman Capote and Noel Coward. Why?
Because Capote and Coward devoted a fair amount of their time to being charming, going to the right parties and befriending the very wealthy in order to better their stations, which is a big part of what cafe society was all about.
But let’s start at the beginning.
“Cafe society” was first a term given to the “bright young things” who gathered in cafes and restaurants beginning in the late 19th century in places like Paris, New York and London. So that’s the “cafe” angle. They were not always part of the Establishment but rather people with money and therefore no need to work or artists who had attracted the attention of society for being brilliant, witty, charming or all of the above.
Cafe society was made up of sets of people – circles within circles, if you will. The main group was the noblesse oblige, also known as the “Windsor Set” after the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (aka Prince Edward and Wallis Simpson). These were people of means who went to each others’ dinners and balls, went yachting and traveling together and basically tried to keep from being bored by throwing parties, gossiping and having weekend stays at each others’ country houses.
A second group was comprised of socialites and society figures who served to set the tone. They weren’t necessarily the “big guns” in terms of birth or wealth but they had money and definitely went to the right places, hung out with the right people and sometimes made good marriages that bettered their station.
A third set was comprised of artists, writers, photographers, magazine editors, etc. who were very talented and so had caught the eye of the movers and shakers in the scene who often became their patrons, providing them with money, commissions and places to stay. These were people like Cecil Beaton, for a time Truman Capote (before he lost his footing), Jean Cocteau, Noel Coward, etc.
The fourth circle was made up of escorts, seducers, Don Juans and gigolos. It was not a bad thing, necessarily, to be an escort on the cafe scene. What this meant was that you were either the long-term lover of a married man or woman and therefore had your own station in life or that you were a favored, platonic friend who received benefits like an apartment or invitations to the right parties. Escorts sometimes started out as someone’s gigolo and then became a trusted adviser and friend. The origins and pedigrees of many of these people were often unknown – they simply came onto the scene and gave it everything they had.
It was maybe better to be an escort than to be in the fifth circle – fashion icon. These were people with no background or standing whose sole purpose in life seemed to be to be seen in the magazines and at society events. Think reality TV stars, if you want a comparison within today’s world. Kim Kardashian, Lauren Conrad, Paris Hilton and Heidi Montag would all fill this role.
Cafe society was the point in history when social classes did start to mix and one was more likely to find an eclectic mix of people at the parties but it was also marked by snobbery not often based on wealth. It was a time period and group of people often described as chic, romantic, tragic, snobby, cosmopolitan, superficial, louche (which is a word that doesn’t get used often enough in general) and depraved.
To understand cafe society, one has to understand the worldview of the very rich during this time period. Many of the top members of this society were people who inherited money and had never worked a single day of their lives. This group included Europeans, American and South Americans. Some of the people in cafe society were aristocrats with titles but many were what was called the nouveaux riches – people with new money and lots of it.
The nouveaux riches served a great purpose for the aristocracy – they pumped in much-needed cash from enterprises like pewter mines and sewing machine empires,Â in exchange for noble names. Many American heiresses married princes and dukes for this express reason. Some socialites “worked their way up through successive nuptials until they managed to cast off all financial cares.”
How did one spend one’s time in cafe society? A lot of hours went into planning and attending balls. These balls were themed and often required elaborate costumes. Here is a listing of some of the balls from throughout the era:
The White Ball
The Sea Ball
Famous Paintings Ball
Tricentenary of Racine Ball
Kings & Queens Ball
Moon Over Water Ball
Second Empire Ball
Beistegui Ball (thrown by Charles de Beistegui in 1951 and considered to be the “ball of the century”)
Also taking up one’s time in cafe society: speed boating, car racing, hunting to hounds in England, skiing in Gstaad, partying on yachts and at country homes, partying in Paris, partying in North Africa, Italy and on the French Riviera. And don’t forget “hunting antiques” – interior decorating was a major past time and often something people got competitive over. Ball-of-the-century-thrower Charles de Beistegui, who sounds like a prick (he never “paid court” to any woman below the rank of duchess) devoted his time and money to putting himself in the spotlight and decorating. He was described as “the Don Juan of interior decorators.”
Married couples were united mainly by the convenience of mixing titles and fortunes and by their love of art and the social whirl. Often, that’s as deep as their relationships went – they both got excited about decorating the Paris mansion but when it came time for deep conversation or sex they turned to escorts and lovers, often of the same sex. A lot of people in marriages in this society were gay. And this wasn’t a shameful thing. Other people knew and didn’t really care except that they got to gossip about it. In a way, homosexual relationships alleviated boredom for those in the relationship and those who got to hear about it.
For example, Count Blunt was “bowled over by a footman named Cecil Everley and from then on divided his time between his wife and Everley, for whom he bought a New York apartment and a villa on the Cap d’Ail.” And the Duke of Kent was known for his love of cocaine, morphine and lovers of both sexes, including Noel Coward. Jean Cocteau, well-known as a homosexual, had an affair with Natalie Paley. Parisian grande dame Marie-Laure de Noilles had an steady stream of relationships with gay men after she caught her husband with his gymnastics trainer and decided to “live independently.”
One of the best examples of a truly Parisian menage a trois in which everyone – wife, husband, lover – was accommodated was Arturo Lopez-Willshaw, his wife (and cousin) Patricia Lopez-Huici and Alexis de Rede. Arturo had married Patricia because he wanted children but they failed to have any. He fell in love with Alexis in New York during World War II and installed him in the Hotel Lambert in Paris after the war. He then divided his time between Alexis and Patricia, who lived in a mansion in Neuilly.
When Arturo bought a yacht, he made sure that both Alexis and Patricia had cabins on board. When he died, the estate was divided between his lover and his wife, who had become friends, and Alexis worked to ensure the growth of the fortune by going into banking and setting up Artemis, an investment fund specializing in the purchase, exhibition and sale of fine art.
This doesn’t sound too bad.
However, not everyone was as determined as Alexis de Rede to leave something, a business, inheritance or art, behind. In fact, cafe society was marked by many people who simply wanted to spend all their money on a lavish lifestyle – the prime example being the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who led empty lives of snobbery, perfection and boredom surrounded by friends and hangers-on but who left no legacy, who did not contribute to anything or launch the careers of any fashion designers, artists, etc. For many people in this circle, their lives were their art and they treated their days and nights as performance, which was probably a lot of fun while it lasted.
C’est la vie!
Some interesting characters from cafe society:
Alexis de Rede
Barbara Hutton (dubbed “Poor Little Rich Girl”)
Cristobal Balenciaga (Spanish couturier who dressed the finest ladies in the world)
Diana Vreeland (eventually editor in chief of Vogue)
Emerald Cunard (and her daughter, Nancy)
Noel Coward (who didn’t this guy sleep with?)
Some hot cafe society reads (if you can get your hands on some of them):
The Glass ofÂ Fashion by Cecil Beaton (and anything by Cecil Beaton, including his diaries)
Chips: The Diaries of Sir Henry Channon (known as Chips because his room mate at school was nicknamed “Fish”)
Poor Little Rich Girl: The Life and Legend of Barbara Hutton
Snob Spotter’s Guide – Philippe Jullian
Opium by Jean Cocteau
Cafe Society: Socialites, Patrons and Artists by Thierry Coudert (which helped a lot in this post!)
Riviera Cocktail by Edward Quinn