Paris at the end of the 19th century saw a lot of Romanian aristocracy members among its inhabitants. Therefore it was quite often that Romanian aristocratic women, in possession of a noble title, wealth, education, beauty and the right connections, were sought for salonnières and often times rivals in the French capital. From writers like Marcel Proust, Colette or Jean Cocteau to musicians such as Claude Debussy, Camille Saint-Saëns and George Enescu, and many political figures and diplomats, there was no shortage of prominent personalities among those who used to frequent the salons.
A (very) short history of the salons
Though European salons date back to the 16th century, when they were a rather informal and intimate affair, in France they became more popular and more organised in the 18th century, as a result of the Enlightenment. In a society dominated by men, the salons— focused on both entertaining and encouraging the exchange of ideas, literature, and music—were a great opportunity for women to serve as hostesses, decide on the topics to be discussed and conduct conversations. Thanks to these salons, women started to be less marginalised and more involved in the intelectual life.
As in the other European countries of the 19th century, Romanian aristocratic women were not allowed to participate publicly in the political life of their country. However, they made valuable contributions to public life, particularly through social projects and artistic patronage. Some of them managed to influence the political life indirectly—through salons, journalism or cultural activities—thus managing to make their mark one way or another.
Mme de Rambouillet, Mme Geoffrin, Gertrude Stein, among many others, were very famous for their Parisian salons. Nonetheless, cultivated and sophisticated, beautiful and charismatic, often writers or artists themselves, these Romanian aristocratic women, have remained renowned as Parisian salons hostesses at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.
Anna de Noailles
Probably the most acclaimed of the hostesses on our list, Anna de Noailles was born Princess Anna Elisabeth Bibesco-Bassaraba de Brancovan in 1876. She was a descendant of Romanian and Greek aristocracy, but lived her whole life in Paris. Extremely prolific, Anna published 9 volumes of poetry, 3 novels, novellas, prose poetry, and an autobiography. She was made a commander of the Légion d’Honneur and elected to the Royal Academy of French Language and Literature of Belgium.
Her writings, her literary salon, her charisma, and obviously her high-level connections (at 19 she married Mathieu, count of Noailles), turned Anna de Noailles into one of the most representative figures of aristocracy in la belle époque Paris. She befriended Marcel Proust early on, and, later, intellectual and literary elite, such as Colette, André Gide, Rainer Maria Rilke, Paul Valéry or Jean Cocteau were among her habitual guests.
Born in Romania, in 1864, Elena Văcărescu, or Hélène Vacaresco as she was later known, was a descendant of aristocratic and intellectual families, on both her parents’ sides. She spoke English since childhood and later studied at Sorbonne—literature, philosophy, aesthetics, as well as poetry under Sully Prudhomme.
The future king of Romania, Ferdinand of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, met Elena through Queen Elisabeth of Romania, a friend of hers. They were in love and engaged to be married, but, unfortunately, the Romanian constitution from 1866 prevented a king to marry a Romanian. Because their affair turned into an enormous public scandal, Elena chose to self-exile herself to Paris, a decision which in the end proved to be very fertile for her. She translated many Romanian poets into French, published her own poetry, becoming twice a laureate of the French Academy, hosted a fashionable salon at her apartment and had a very prolific diplomatic career, serving as a Delegate to the League of Nations for many years.
Princess Elena Bibescu, born in 1855, was a noblewoman and pianist, educated at the Vienna Conservatory and regarded as one of the greatest pianists of Europe in the nineteenth century. She was also, alongside Queen Elisabeth of Romania—of whom she was a close friend—a renowned benefactor to the great Romanian composer George Enescu.
Following the outbreak of the Ferdinand of Hohenzollern – Elena Văcărescu scandal, being considered an accomplice in their love story, Elena Bibescu was also exiled to Paris, where she flourished as a hostess. Besides entertaining memorable soirées, with many acclaimed musicians of the day in attendance (Liszt, Wagner, Debussy, Saint-Saëns, Rubinstein, etc.), perhaps her greatest accomplishment was introducing George Enescu, at only 17, to the Parisian public.
Née Martha Lahovary in (probably) 1866, in a family of Romanian aristocrats and diplomats, Martha Bibescu / Marthe Bibesco was a prolific writer, a socialite, a style icon, as well as a salon hostess. She got married at only 17 to Prince Valentin Bibesco, an aviation pioneer and car enthusiast. Her marriage wasn’t happy, but she managed to keep an amicable relationship with her husband until his death.
At only 22 Martha Bibescu published her first book, a travel memoir, Les Huit Paradis (“The Eight Paradises”), which was favourably received by the critics and launched her successful literary career. Besides fiction and memoirs, she also penned articles in the French Vogue and other magazines, as well as romances under the pen name Lucile Decaux. She was a very sought for host, her literary salons, in both Mogoșoaia and Paris, were attended by glorious Romanian and French intellectuals and diplomats of the era. Martha, beautiful and charismatic, had many memorable friends, from Marie, Queen of Romania, and Marcel Proust, who called her “a sculptor of words” and about whom she later wrote a book, to Jean Cocteau, Paul Valery, François Mauriac or Vita Sackville-West.
Born in 1879 in a family of Greek bankers from Galați, Romania, Hélène became a princess in 1903 by marrying Prince Dimitri Soutzo (Șuțu). Very active in the diplomatic field, she was a Romanian military attaché in the diplomatic corps and organised fundraisers in Paris for the Romanian Red Cross, while also managing her other organisations aimed to help the Romanian ambulance service and military hospitals.
While in Paris, Hélène Chrissoveloni famously lived at the Ritz, where she held a very fashionable salon, prior, during and after WWI. She was quite outspoken and very opinionated about her rivals, the other aristocratic Romanian salonnières, and often a critic of their literary work. Author Paul Morand, whom she would marry after divorcing the prince, introduced her to Marcel Proust, who would become a regular at her dinners at the Ritz, her friend and confidant.
Pictures via Wikimedia Commons. Featured image: Eugène Galien-Laloue, Place de la Madeleine.