Letter from France-A tiny village with it’s very own princess
The French village of Haroué does not have much to offer. There’s a bakery, a pharmacy, a tabac, a restaurant, a police and fire station, a doctor’s office, a retirement home, a church that’s rarely open and a population of fewer than 500.
But Haroué (pronounced ah-rou-eh) does have an 82-room chateau with its very own princess, Minnie de Beauvau-Craon. Everyone here calls her “Princess Minnie.”
The princess, who is 59 and divides her time between the French countryside and an apartment in London, has ruled over the Château de Haroué in the Lorraine region of northeast France since her father died in 1982. Only 29 at the time, she inherited both the joys and the financial challenges of keeping the place going. In a country where the revolution overthrew the monarchy more than two centuries ago, “princess” is really just a charming honorific. But Princess Minnie takes her job — if not the title — seriously.
“When you inherit something, you owe some respect to your forbearers,” she said in an interview in English. “I’m determined to put life into Haroué. I want to put it in the map, to make it a destination.”
To that end — and to keep the chateau solvent — six years ago, Princess Minnie began hosting operas in an elaborate theater she had constructed atop the formal French garden. On two nights in late August, Opera en Plein Air (Open-Air Opera), a company from Paris, presented “The Magic Flute” to sold-out crowds of 2,400 people. When the opera ended on the first night, the spectators stayed in their seats and applauded with appreciation, not passion. (This is France, after all.) Princess Minnie, by contrast, jumped to her feet and shouted, “Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!”
The following evening in her welcoming remarks, she said, “Don’t hesitate, all of you together, to applaud the very beautiful voices and the very beautiful orchestra.” This time, more people joined her in the standing ovation.
“How cool to sing here!” said Pablo Veguilla, an American tenor. “This is exactly what you think a chateau should look like.” Indeed, Haroué has turrets, a moat with white swans, a formal French garden, an informal English garden, centuries of tapestries and family portraits, Baccarat crystal chandeliers, a chapel and an 18th-century library with floor-to-ceiling enclosed bookcases. Owned by the Beauvau-Craon family since its construction was completed in 1732, it celebrates the calendar year with 365 windows, 52 chimneys, 12 towers and four bridges. One of its architectural jewels is a turret decorated with 18th-century chinoiserie murals. It’s the sort of place that attracted Britain’s Queen Mother Elizabeth for an eight-day stay in 1979. She brought along her own servants, hairdresser, cigarettes and gin.
For a princess, Minnie is thoroughly modern, or at least thoroughly modest. She insists on picking up guests at the Nancy train station in her own car, a 1997 BMW; she underdresses (one of her favorite outfits is a white T-shirt, navy blue straight skirt, unstructured tan suede jacket and very worn Tod’s loafers); she wears little makeup and does not bother with dyeing her gray hair. Her English is flawless (she grew up with British nannies); her accent is unidentifiable rather than French. (She is often asked whether she is Eastern European or Israeli.)
Asked why she is called Princess Minnie in a country that toppled its king more than two centuries ago, she replied, “By respect? By amusement? Yes, it’s ridiculous!”
In an era when many old French families have been forced to sell their chateaus because of the prohibitive maintenance costs, Princess Minnie is determined to beat the odds. “We’re in the middle of nowhere,” she said on the morning of the first opera performance, as she collected wineglasses and emptied ashtrays in the library, where she had hosted a gathering the night before. “This is not an area for tourists. We are not a chateau of the Loire. We are not in the South of France. There was a point when I felt I couldn’t do anything more. I said to myself, ‘How far can you do this out of duty?’”
Some suggested she dump the place, but she held on. In 2010, Hubert de Givenchy, the retired fashion designer and a close friend, curated an exhibition at the chateau of evening clothes by three of the pillars of 20th-century haute couture: Philippe Venet, the late Cristóbal Balenciaga and Givenchy himself. In the second floor reception rooms, Princess Minnie shoved the French royal furniture aside (one of the finest collections still in private hands) to make room for 42 dresses, including the black duchesse-satin gown designed by Givenchy for Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and the mink-trimmed Balenciaga wedding dress made for Queen Fabiola of Belgium in 1960.
Two years later, Givenchy and Venet organized another show, “The Most Famous Wedding Dresses.” It brought together vintage bridal dresses designed both by them and by several other couturiers, including Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Balmain. Among the highlights: Balenciaga’s last wedding dress, a silk creation for María del Carmen Martinéz-Bordiú y Franco, the granddaughter of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, embroidered with 10,000 pearls and 5,000 sequins, and Princess Minnie’s natural silk shantung gown and long lace veil designed by Venet in 1978 for the first of her two marriages. (Both ended in divorce.)
Next year she plans to expand into the art world by hosting exhibitions in several rooms she has renovated in one of the basements, including one with the decorative artist Joy de Rohan Chabot and another on street art with the British gallery Steve Lazarides.
Her fantasy is to open an informal “pub” at the chateau. She wants families to visit for the day, fish in the river, walk in the small forest and enjoy a simple, home-cooked meal. Maybe one day guests can stay overnight. “I haven’t got the equation together yet,” she said. “I need a second life.”