Suspended in Time

While you may have missed it, gentle reader, a story has been making the rounds in the international press about an unique Paris apartment that The Courtier suspects may attract general interest. Recently an elderly lady by the name of Mme. de Florian died at the age of 91 in the south of France. She had arrived there in 1940 after fleeing Paris ahead of Hitler’s invasion of France, but remained on in the Riviera even after the war, never returning to the capital. While this is not necessarily an unusual story, for certainly a number of Parisians were traumatized by World War II and permanently abandoned the city, what is remarkable here is the discovery made by those settling her estate.

In addition to the property where she had spent the last 70 years of her life, Mme. de Florian was also the owner of a beautifully furnished flat in the 9th, not far from the Paris Opéra. She had inherited the apartment from her grandmother, a famous actress of the Belle Epoque era. The executors were astounded to discover that when she fled to the south, Mme. de Florian had locked up and left her Parisian residence completely intact, with furniture, paintings, etc., and continued to timely pay the apartment complex maintenance fees on it for the next 70 years until her death. During that time the flat remained completely unused and undisturbed.

One investigator described his initial visit to the apartment as “stumbling into the castle of Sleeping Beauty,” noting that, apart from the piles of dust and peeling wallpaper, the flat was like a time capsule from the year 1900, when it had been decorated to the luxuriously expensive taste of Mme. de Florian’s grandmother, Marthe de Florian. In the luxurious but faded space, agents found piles of books, furniture, porcelain, gowns, jewelry, and even an old Mickey Mouse toy. In fact the centerpiece of the apartment was a portrait of Marthe de Florian by the Italian artist Giovanni Boldini, which recently sold for $3 million at auction.

Like many actresses, Marthe de Florian had her admirers. One of her many prominent suitors was the French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, although it was her relationship with the very-much married Boldini, documented in love letters discovered in the apartment, which seemed to attract the most interest among bidders at the auction. It also perhaps explains the rather breathless quality of his portrait of her.

While much of the world’s attention has been focused on this remarkable, hitherto unknown painting and the (admittedly sordid) story behind it, The Courtier’s attention – and indeed, salivation – was most drawn to the flat itself. In New York City what are referred to as “Pre-War” apartments are among the most prized pieces of real estate on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. One can imagine the price this particular bit of residence would fetch if it was located in New York, let alone in Paris where the cost of even the smallest of pied-a-terre spaces in the center of town is eye-wateringly dear.

And as space goes, this is quite an architectural joy: the flat was never subdivided or modernized. No hideous avocado green tiles or drop acoustic ceiling tiles ruin the interior, nor were the floor parquets pulled up and discarded as being out of fashion by some Neanderthal in the 1970’s. It is not only a Pre-War apartment, it is a Rip van Winkle of an apartment. Who knows what will ultimately become of the space, or indeed who will be next lucky owner, but for now we can all enjoy some of the images of the shadows of another century’s very elegant life, and daydream.

The dining room of the late Mme. de Florian’s flat in Paris