Monday, 12 January 2009
Suha Arafat and the Hope Diamond
RUE DU FAUBOURG Saint-Honoré just before Christmas is the place to be if you are seriously rich. Paris’s most elegant shopping street is lit up as if, well, as if it were Christmas and Sugar Daddy Santa is coming to town. Dior, Féraud, Versace, Laroche, Hermes, Gaultier, Lanvin, Saint-Laurent… all their windows dazzle with immense discretion and not a price tag is in sight. If you have to ask how much an item is, don’t even bother to walk inside. There are plenty of window-shoppers and a few buyers, too, in old-fashioned furs and chic hats, in labelled scarves, long boots and kid gloves. Taxis prowl, chauffeurs cruise.
. Sophie bought a Lanvin dress on our weekend away here, a second skin of eau de nil silk that cost a couple of thousand euros and looked more like a million when she tried it on. It was worth every cent. Heads turned. No restaurants, theatres or even parties were good enough to show her off, it seemed to me. But now she was probably dressing for someone else, and there was no point in thinking about it.
. I had not been back to Le Bristol in Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in the dozen intervening years, nor had I ever seen the street lit up like this. Any moment I expected nature’s perfectly designed snowflakes to come floating out of the gloomy sky, courtesy of the street traders’ association. At Le Bristol, showers of golden lights spilled down the handsome stone façade, spread across its Art Deco glass canopy and dripped over the two topiaried bay trees that stood outside its gold-trimmed door. The doorman would know the names of everyone arriving and leaving on any given day, and when I stepped on to the red carpet to enter the building, he made the slightest movement towards me.
. I mentioned the name of the resident American CEO I was meeting for English tea in the Marie Antoinette Salon, and he tipped his peaked cap and turned away. I was just another businessman, nobody important. I pushed against the revolving door. Nothing happened. Then it started turning in the opposite direction. Confused, I stood back until its occupants spilled out, temporarily blocking my path. There were four of them and I recognised Pierre Rizk, the Lebanese financier, whom I had last seen at Le Bristol in Beirut. Beside him was a woman of medium height and comfortable size in a thick black wool coat, her long blonde hair escaping a Hermes headscarf. Aged around forty, with a soft, Rubenseque face accentuated by thin ruby lips and pencilled eyebrows, she looked a little tired beneath the make-up. I stepped aside and her dark eyes fixed quizzically on mine, as if she wondered what I was doing standing in her way. I could not immediately put a name to her face, though I was sure we had met before, and to fill this moment of slight unease I wished her a merry Christmas.
. Her laugh was little more than an intake of breath, a single, rather harsh note of surprise. Her colleagues raised their eyebrows, nodded, frowned and looked away. “Joyeux Noël,” the woman said over her shoulder, leaving an image of a smile from her painted lips dissolving in the air, like Alice’s Cheshire Cat. Trying to remember who on earth she was, I pushed in through the revolving door, and it was only as I was about to exit into the lobby that the penny dropped. I had just wished Yassar Arafat’s widow the Christian season’s greetings. I continued my revolution until I re-emerged on the street, where I was just in time to see their limousine drive away. I waved a hand lamely towards the tinted windows.
. “There’s something I forgot to give her,” I said to the doorman who was looking at me in a new light. I had forgotten to give her my condolences.
. “Something for Madame Arafat? You can always leave it for her at the desk.”
I nodded and patted my brief case as if it contained a missive for the hotel’s most famous guest, and returned to the spacious lobby that glowed beneath the Baccarat chandeliers. Though I knew the hotel well, it still managed to bowl me over. With marble halls, unique garden restaurant, wonderful rooftop pool and generous rooms with double showers, this was one of only a handful of palace hôtels in Paris, and it had been the perfect choice for a weekend of amour.
. Bypassing the reception desk, I walked straight through to the Marie Antoinette Salon, which doubled as the bar. The American CEO was already sitting on a sofa by a low table. We had met earlier in the week, in our Paris office, but today he had insisted on neutral ground. His New York firm was about to start trading in Europe and he had been looking for premises nearby. There are many reasons why Paris is not the best place to have a European headquarters, but you can’t tell Americans that; they’re still in love with the place. I was here now to show him how to deal with a few aggravating EU regulations and he wanted to ensure our conversation was not overheard. Taking off his glasses, he stood up to shake my hand. Though a New Yorker, he was sun-tanned and lean, a few inches taller than me and a few years older. His manicured hands were as smooth as mine.
. “I just had the pleasure of sharing the elevator with Mrs Arafat and her henchmen,” he said as he sat down. “I hear she has a whole floor here. Must cost her $20,000 a month. But I suppose that’s only twenty percent of the $100,000 allowance she got out of Arafat. Now he’s gone, I guess she’s getting her hands on as much as she can of his $11 billion fortune.”
. A waiter arrived with the silver teapot of Earl Grey and a tray of teacakes, which the CEO had already ordered for both of us. He was as certain of what I would like as he was about how much money the Palestinian leader left behind, yet I don’t suppose anybody outside the Palestinian Authority had any idea of the real amount. Yasser Arafat had died at the age of seventy-five in the Percy Military Hospital more than a month earlier, after being flown to Paris from Ramallah. From her suite in Le Bristol his wife had organised everything, but during those two weeks that he lay dying no Press report seemed capable of mentioning Suha Douad Arafat without using such phrases as “bottle blonde” or “lavish lifestyle”. One said: “The spoiled socialite makes Marie Antoinette seem like a piker.” Not only did she have a suite at Le Bristol, which she had occupied since leaving Palestine and settling in Paris with her five-year-old daughter in 2000, but she also had a “luxury Paris apartment” and a French country home. Nobody liked the idea of Palestine’s First Lady being rich.
. “Some of that money was raised for the welfare of the Palestinian people.” The CEO opened the silver teapot and gave it a practised stir. “It wasn’t for spending on shoes – even Arafat called his wife the new Imelda Marcos.”
. “I suppose it was better that money was spent on Blahniks than on bombs.” I hadn’t noticed her shoes.
. “It’s hardly surprising,” he went on, “that the French financial authorities have decided to investigate. I bet the bitch is a real gold digger.”
The more the American went on about Mrs Arafat, the more I began to view the widow as the underdog. There was plenty of evidence to show that she was capable of looking after herself, of course, but the same could have been said for both Emma Hamilton and the Countess of Lichtenau, who were disgracefully dealt with when their lovers died. In fact their very obvious ability to look after themselves only seemed to antagonise the world. Like witches, they were damned whatever they did.
. “Maybe she’ll turn out to have a heart of gold,” I said as I opened my briefcase and took out the papers I had brought to show him.
. He laughed without humour. “Maybe pigs will fly.”
. The meeting lasted a little over an hour and afterwards I was glad to get away. I had imagined that the hotel would bring memories of Sophie flooding back, but it seemed impersonal now. My story was just one of many absorbed into the fabric, the Gobbelin tapestries and Savonnerie carpets, which the decades had woven with tales of people such as Suha Arafat, whose lives were far more interesting than mine.
. The hotel had the last glimpse of Josephine Baker celebrating fifty years of performance in a gala here just before she died. It saw the coffin of Amschel Rothshild brought down from his room in 1996 after a chambermaid had discovered he had hanged himself using a bath robe chord; aged forty-one, the chairman of Rothschild Asset Management had been due to take over the English arm of the dynasty. And it witnessed a protesting Robert de Niro being led away by half a dozen policemen who had arrested him in his room and hauled him off for nine hours of questioning after his name had been linked to an international prostitution ring. Infuriated, de Niro told Le Monde that he would return his Légion d’Honneur and never set foot in the country again, a threat he later retracted.
. One resident who never set foot in England again was P. G. Wodehouse. Caught up in the German invasion, he and his wife Ethel were arrested in their villa in Le Touquet in May 1940, and interned in Upper Silesia until the following year when he was nearing the age of sixty and under German law was eligible for release. The couple were moved to Hotel Adlon in Unter der Linden (now the Kempinski Adlon) in Berlin where he made five inoffensive, if unwise wartime broadcasts at the request of CBS, because many of his American fans had been petitioning the German authorities for news of his whereabouts. Entitling the talks “How to be an Internee without Previous Experience”, they were designed, he later wrote “to give American readers a humorous description of my adventures”. America had not yet entered the war, and the Luftwaffe’s bombing blitz of Britain had just begun. The German authorities then broadcast these tapes to Britain and as a result Wodehouse was vilified. In 1943 “Plum” and Ethel, with their Pekingese called Wonder, were moved to Paris and Le Bristol Hotel. To secure their daily bread and pay hotel bills, Wodehouse could access money owing to him for royalties and other payments around the world only if it was channelled through German banks. This convinced MI5 that he must have been in the pay of the Nazis and he would not be welcome back in Britain again.
. A fellow resident at Le Bristol during those war years was John Amery, who tried to recruit Wodehouse for real Nazi propaganda work. He himself made regular broadcasts for the Nazis and set out, unsuccessfully, to enlist British and Commonwealth POWs in a fighting brigade for Germany. Immediately after the war he pleaded guilty to charges of high treason and treachery and was hanged in Wandsworth prison. The son of Leo Amery, who was half Jewish and Secretary of State for the Colonies in Churchill’s wartime cabinet, Amery was a virulent anti-semite, and he would have been astonished to discover that a Jewish architect called Lerman had been hidden in Bristol’s Room 106 for the duration of the war, from where he continued to redesign the hotel, turning its Art Deco into a Regency style and doubling the size of the guest rooms. His room number was removed from both the door and the register so that he might not be found.
. There is a three-act play somewhere in this war-time tragedy, a black French farce involving the opening and closing of many hotel-room and elevator doors, with Wonder yapping at any drape that twitches. After the liberation, Wodehouse was taken in by the French authorities and interviewed by British intelligence officer Malcolm Muggeridge, while the Observer’s man in Paris, George Orwell, rushed over from the Hotel Scribe for an interview, providing a fitting finale for the farce.
After my meeting with the American in Le Bristol’s Marie Antoinette Salon, I took a brief window of opportunity to find Christmas gifts for my parents, and for James’s two children, to take to them in Spain on Christmas Day. I wished I could have indulged in expensive purchases for Sophie. Instead, I had to settle for a few consumable goods for Mum and Dad and a couple of French football shirts for the boys, leaving them to decide which of them wanted to be Zidane, and which one Thierry Henry.
. I was staying at another Bristol, the Hôtel Bristol République, which I had for some time promised to tick off. It was typical Bristol: old, solid, reliable, content with its three stars. It was no palace hôtel like Le Bristol, but it was fine.
. The next morning was Christmas Eve, and before going down to breakfast I checked my emails. There was one from James. He and his family had already arrived at my parents’ villa in Spain where I was about to join them, flying down the following day. “Just in case you were wondering what last-minute gift to get me,” he wrote, “as you’re in Paris, you could buy me a Cartier Tank Américaine with a black band and gold case. Otherwise, just bring the usual…” The usual was nothing. We had a pact: no presents on either birthday or Christmas. I was looking forward to seeing him. He would be intrigued to know about Suha Arafat at Le Bristol.
Friday was a full working day in our Paris office, some of which was taken up with a discreet discussion with our art expert, Jean-Philippe, about the hypothetical disposal of a couple of Expressionist masterpieces. Around five o’clock I returned to my hotel to wash and change into something warmer and more comfortable. With nothing else to divert me, and no other plans, I was vaguely prodded by James’s email in a direction that I had already considered exploring. The starting point was the Hôtel de Ville, the heart of the city, where for a while I was entertained by the skaters on the open-air ice rink. It was too cold to stay long, so I wandered up through the Palais Royale, where Paris’s first restaurant had opened in 1785, offering, for the first time, a choice of dishes and individual tables for its customers. Regretfully, Lord Bristol could not have appreciated it. He had been in the city half a dozen years earlier, during the American War of Independence, when he had befriended Benjamin Franklin, America’s first Minister in France, to try to find some points of reconciliation between Britain and her colony. The French Revolution had kept him away after that.
. Half a century later there were several Bristol hotels in Paris. In fact when Hypollite Jammet opened the sumptuous Le Bristol in Rue du Fauburg St-Honoré in 1925, he had to do battle with two other hotels claiming the name, which had been made famous by a grand Hotel Bristol that had stood between his hotel and the Palais Royal on the corner of Rue St Honoré and Place Vendôme. The Prince of Wales, “Duke of Lancaster”, heir to Queen Victoria, was among those who enjoyed the original Hotel Bristol’s splendid apartments, which consisted of dining rooms, drawing rooms and up to four bedrooms with bath, plus pensions for the servants. “Perhaps the most comfortable hotel in Paris. Patronised by our Royal Family, the general rendezvous of the British and foreign aristocracy and others to whom expense is no object,” says Murray’s guides to Paris in both its 1882 and 1890 editions.
. From the Palais Royale I walked up Rue St Honoré, stopping at the corner of Place Vendôme. This was where the nineteenth-century Bristol had been, and now the site was occupied by the much smaller new Hôtel de Vendôme, I stepped into its warmth. The lobby was not extensive and the woman at the desk directed me to the bar on the first floor, up a fine spiral marble staircase. The room was intimate and masculine, with button-back leather chairs and rich mahogany panelling. A quartet of businessmen sat at a table by a window overlooking the street, and the barman stopped his desultory cleaning duties to come to take my order. To give him something to do, I asked for a dry Martini, then took off my scarf and coat and made myself comfortable on a bar stool.
. Although quite early, the evening already had about it a late night air, a time when people had nowhere left to go. The barman was from St-Etienne, the industrial town in the south, and had no family to speak of, so he was happy to work on Christmas Eve, he said. He didn’t ask about my arrangements, and I was in no hurry to offer details. Instead I mentioned the Hotel Bristol that once occupied this site and I asked him if he knew the story of the world’s biggest blue diamond, which is now in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington.
. “Non, Monsieur,” he said, showing polite interest.
. “It was first offered to an American millionairess in a room here in the old Bristol,” I said, and as neither of us seemed to have anything better to do, I settled back to tell the tale, gauging my words so that they might last no longer than my cocktail. As he listened, he started polishing the already sparkling glasses.
Evalyn Walsh McLean was the daughter of Thomas Walsh, a millionaire who had made his money after discovering and exploiting the Camp Bird gold mine in Quary, Colorado, and she had married Edward “Ned” Beale McLean, whose almost equally rich father had bought the Washington Post. For the benefit of her education, Evalyn had visited Paris where she always spent a generous portion of her father’s fortune on clothes and hair-styles. But her real passion was jewellery. In 1908, aged nineteen, Evalyn and Ned honeymooned in Europe and the Middle East with $100,000 spending money each from their families. They ended their three-month jaunt at the Bristol in Paris unable to pay the hotel bill. So she cabled her father and he sent fresh credit and his love. She went straight to the jeweller’s, Cartier. And there she treated herself to a wedding present, the Star of the East, a 94.8 carat pear-shaped diamond mounted on a platinum links with a 34 carat emerald and 32-grain pearl. It cost $110,000.
. Evalyn’s love of jewellery and her ability to spend money makes Suha Arafat seem parsimonious. In 1910, after her doting father died, she and Ned left their first child, Vinson, in the care of her mother for a trip to Europe. In Monte Carlo, after playing at the tables one night, they suddenly decided to drive to Paris in their yellow Fiat roadster. Evalyn’s maid was put on the express train with the bulk of their luggage but their chauffeur felt too unwell to make the journey, so Ned told him to sit in the back of the car, which he proceeded to drive at a ferocious pace north to the capital.
. Some six hundred miles later, the car drew up outside the Bristol in Place Vendôme, ten minutes before the express train arrived from the Mediterranean. When the hotel doorman stepped out to greet the guests, Evalyn looked around to see why the chauffeur was not helping them from their car. The man’s eyes were wide, there was spittle on his jacket and he was half on and half off the back seat.
. “Mon dieu!” the doorman exclaimed. “Il a frappé le pipe!”
. Somewhere on the high-speed journey the chauffeur had died of a heart attack.
Nobody was more pleased to hear of the dramatic return of Evalyn to Paris than Pierre Cartier, grandson of the jewellery firm’s founder. He had sold her the Star of the East and he knew her likes and dislikes. On her honeymoon she had told him of her visit to the harem of Sultan Mehmet VI in Istanbul, where she had been attracted to some of the occupants’ jewellery. Now he had just the thing for her: the Hope Diamond. This unprecedented blue diamond had an adventurous past, and he would enjoy embellishing its story for the sales performance of a lifetime. On their previous encounter Evalyn had declared that things that brought bad luck to other people invariably turned to good luck in her hands. Using this as the core of his strategy, Cartier would say that the diamond had been torn from the throat of a woman in the Sultan’s harem, and even that it had been stolen from the forehead of a Hindu shrine, just like Wilkie Collins’ Moonstone.
. What is true about the stone is that it probably came from the Kollur mine in Golconda in India. It was first mentioned in the 1660s, when it was purchased by a French trader, Jean Baptiste Tavernier, since when it had passed through many hands, including those of the kings of France and England, though it took its name from an English banker, Henry Philip Hope, who acquired it in the mid-nineteenth century
. Few people in the world could afford the diamond, but Cartier knew Evalyn Walsh McLean had both the desire and the means to acquire it, so he wrapped it in a small box, sealed it with wax, and walked across the Place Vendôme to their suite in the Hotel Bristol. In the couple’s room, he laid the small box on the table and, sitting opposite them, slowly unwrapped it as he spun out a story about the jewel’s past, engulfing it with tales of mystery and inventing misfortunes that had befallen its owners.
. “As we all stared at that diamond,” Evalyn recalled, “Monsieur Cartier began to tell us things he did not vouch for... that Tavernier had stolen the gem from a Hindu idol, and was cursed and torn apart by savage beasts. Since then, the diamond had brought bad luck to anyone who wore or even touched it… Monsieur Cartier was most entertaining.”
Cartier was not just entertaining, he was a brilliant salesman, and though he did not make the sale on the spot, he had the diamond re-set to her liking and shortly afterwards took it to Washington where the sale was agreed, for $180,000…
At this point in my story a group of Italians appeared in the bar of the Hôtel de Vendôme, demanding the barman’s full attention. They were in good humour and wished everyone a merry Christmas before embarking on a long discussion about what they might drink. My tale was pretty well told, so I drained the Martini, slid off my stool, said good night, put on my scarf and coat and headed back on to the street.
. Cartier’s main shop is in the Rue de la Paix on the opposite side of Place Vendôme. The square itself is full of jewellers; Christmas lights shone in the plate glass windows of Van Cleef & Arple, Bulgari, Chaumet, Reza, Channel and Dior. CCTV cameras were everywhere and a couple of occupied police cars sat silently against the kerb beside The Ritz.
. I imagined Pierre Cartier coming across the square from Rue de la Paix with his hand firmly on the valuable parcel tucked in his pocket. Wearing a silk hat and frock coat, the knife-sharp crease of his trousers pricking his oyster-coloured spats, his shoes skipped lightly on the cobbles and his deep blue eyes sparkled as brightly as his wares while his mind worked over the details of the tales he was about to spin.
. Just before I reached Rue de la Paix I saw that Cartier had another, smaller shop on the square. The mesh grilles were down, and the most sparkling items had been removed from the display cases, but there were still a few baubles left to stare at, among them a couple of watches. A Tank Divan had a price tag of 8,000 euros, and a Tank Français 11,600 euros, but there was no Tank Américaine. I took out my mobile phone to text James, to tell him he would have to settle for the usual.
. I was tapping in the keys when a car pulled up to the kerb behind me. Doors slammed and high heels clicked on the pavement. I looked round to see a pair of expensive black boots with fur lining. Suha Arafat was with an older woman and two bodyguards, one on a mobile phone, the other scanning the square. I don’t know if it was because she had seen me outside Le Bristol and thought I was a resident and therefore a neighbour, or if Pierre Rizk had told her who I was, or perhaps it was just because it was Christmas Eve, but she gave me a friendly smile and said hello.
. “My brother wanted a watch for Christmas,” I explained. “I was just telling him he’s out of luck. Are you after something?”
. “Perhaps.” And then, as if she were too aware of her reputation as a spendthrift, she added. “For my daughter.”
. The child’s name came to me. “Zahwa? How old is she now?”
. “Nine and a half.”
. I found myself saying that children were a good investment. The warm and worldly face of the older woman, whom I took to be her mother, glowed. Suha came from a Christian family and was educated in a convent, only converting to Islam when she married. I imagined that Zahwa, who was born here in Paris, was looking forward to Christmas like everyone else in town.
. There was the sound of locks being undone and we all looked towards the door where lights had come on. Suha and her mother were shopping out of hours, a personal arrangement. As the glass door opened and a pinstriped salesman greeted his clients behind the rising grille, I said good night. Crossing the Rue de la Paix I slipped into the shadows beneath the canopy of another jeweller’s. From there I could see the lights come on in the first floor corner building above Cartier’s. Suha Arafat would be looking at jewels for her daughter, and I wished she wouldn’t.
. I had left the Hôtel de Vendôme before the barman could ask me anything more about the Hope Diamond, which is now one of the most popular exhibits in the Washington museum. If those Italian customers had not arrived in the bar at that moment, the young man from St-Etienne would have asked if the legendary stone had brought Evalyn Walsh McLean bad luck, because that’s what everyone wants to know.
. Well, I would have told him that her husband, Ned, a lifelong alcoholic, bankrupted the Washington Post and died insane in a clinic unable to recognise his own name. Vinson, her oldest and favourite son, died in a car accident just before his tenth birthday, and when she was twenty-five, Evie, Evalyn’s only daughter, took an overdose of sleeping pills.
However brilliant the Cartier salesmen were now as they brought out their trinkets to show their wealthy client, whatever stories they spun and however dazzling their wares, I could not help wishing that Zahwa Arafat might not find the diamonds that she was hoping for in her stocking on Christmas Day.
This story is the copyright of Roger Williams, © 2009