The Grand Prix by Eliot Gregory
Story type: Essay
In most cities, it is impossible to say when the “season” ends. In London and with us in New York it dwindles off without any special finish, but in Paris it closes like a trap-door, or the curtain on the last scene of a pantomime, while the lights are blazing and the orchestra is banging its loudest. The Grand Prix, which takes place on the second Sunday in June, is the climax of the spring gayeties. Up to that date, the social pace has been getting faster and faster, like the finish of the big race itself, and fortunately for the lives of the women as well as the horses, ends as suddenly.
In 1897, the last steeple chase at Auteuil, which precedes the Grand Prix by one week, was won by a horse belonging to an actress of the Theatre Francais, a lady who has been a great deal before the public already in connection with the life and death of young Lebaudy. This youth having had the misfortune to inherit an enormous fortune, while still a mere boy, plunged into the wildest dissipation, and became the prey of a band of sharpers and blacklegs. Mlle. Marie Louise Marsy appears to have been the one person who had a sincere affection for the unfortunate youth. When his health gave way during his military service, she threw over her engagement with the Francais, and nursed her lover until his death–a devotion rewarded by the gift of a million.
At the present moment, four or five of the band of self-styled noblemen who traded on the boy’s inexperience and generosity, are serving out terms in the state prisons for blackmailing, and the Theatre Francais possesses the anomaly of a young and beautiful actress, who runs a racing stable in her own name.
The Grand Prix dates from the reign of Napoleon III., who, at the suggestion of the great railway companies, inaugurated this race in 1862, in imitation of the English Derby, as a means of attracting people to Paris. The city and the railways each give half of the forty-thousand- dollar prize. It is the great official race of the year. The President occupies the central pavilion, surrounded by the members of the cabinet and the diplomatic corps. On the tribunes and lawn can be seen the Tout Paris–all the celebrities of the great and half-world who play such an important part in the life of France’s capital. The whole colony of the Rastaquoueres, is sure to be there, “Rastas,” as they are familiarly called by the Parisians, who make little if any distinction in their minds between a South American (blazing in diamonds and vulgar clothes) and our own select (?) colony. Apropos of this inability of the Europeans to appreciate our fine social distinctions, I have been told of a well-born New Yorker who took a French noblewoman rather to task for receiving an American she thought unworthy of notice, and said:
“How can you receive her? Her husband keeps a hotel!”
“Is that any reason?” asked the French-woman; “I thought all Americans kept hotels.”
For the Grand Prix, every woman not absolutely bankrupt has a new costume, her one idea being a creation that will attract attention and eclipse her rivals. The dressmakers have had a busy time of it for weeks before.
Every horse that can stand up is pressed into service for the day. For twenty-four hours before, the whole city is en fete, and Paris en fete is always a sight worth seeing. The natural gayety of the Parisians, a characteristic noticed (if we are to believe the historians) as far back as the conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar, breaks out in all its amusing spontaneity. If the day is fine, the entire population gives itself up to amusement. From early morning the current sets towards the charming corner of the Bois where the Longchamps race-course lies, picturesquely encircled by the Seine (alive with a thousand boats), and backed by the woody slopes of Suresnes and St. Cloud. By noon every corner and vantage point of the landscape is seized upon, when, with a blare of trumpets and the rattle of cavalry, the President arrives in his turnout a la Daumont, two postilions in blue and gold, and a piqueur, preceded by a detachment of the showy Gardes Republicains on horseback, and takes his place in the little pavilion where for so many years Eugenie used to sit in state, and which has sheltered so many crowned heads under its simple roof. Faure’s arrival is the signal for the racing to begin, from that moment the interest goes on increasing until the great “event.” Then in an instant the vast throng of human beings breaks up and flows homeward across the Bois, filling the big Place around the Arc de Triomphe, rolling down the Champs Elysees, in twenty parallel lines of carriages. The sidewalks are filled with a laughing, singing, uproarious crowd that quickly invades every restaurant, cafe, or chop-house until their little tables overflow on to the grass and side- walks, and even into the middle of the streets. Later in the evening the open-air concerts and theatres are packed, and every little square organizes its impromptu ball, the musicians mounted on tables, and the crowd dancing gayly on the wooden pavement until daybreak.
The next day, Paris becomes from a fashionable point of view, “impossible.” If you walk through the richer quarters, you will see only long lines of closed windows. The approaches to the railway stations are blocked with cabs piled with trunks and bicycles. The “great world” is fleeing to the seashore or its chateaux, and Paris will know it no more until January, for the French are a country-loving race, and since there has been no court, the aristocracy pass longer and longer periods on their own estates each year, partly from choice and largely to show their disdain for the republic and its entertainments.
The shady drives in the park, which only a day or two ago were so brilliant with smart traps and spring toilets, are become a cool wilderness, where will meet, perhaps, a few maiden ladies exercising fat dogs, uninterrupted except by the watering-cart or by a few stray tourists in cabs. Now comes a delightful time for the real amateur of Paris and the country around, which is full of charming corners where one can dine at quiet little restaurants, overhanging the water or buried among trees. You are sure of getting the best of attention from the waiters, and the dishes you order receive all the cook’s attention. Of an evening the Bois is alive with a myriad of bicycles, their lights twinkling among the trees like many-colored fire-flies. To any one who knows how to live there, Paris is at its best in the last half of June and July. Nevertheless, in a couple of days there will not be an American in Paris, London being the objective point; for we love to be “in at the death,” and a coronation, a musical festival, or a big race is sure to attract all our floating population.
The Americans who have the hardest time in Paris are those who try to “run with the deer and hunt with the hounds,” as the French proverb has it, who would fain serve God and Mammon. As anything especially amusing is sure to take place on Sunday in this wicked capital, our friends go through agonies of indecision, their consciences pulling one way, their desire to amuse themselves the other. Some find a middle course, it seems, for yesterday this conversation was overheard on the steps of the American Church:
First American Lady: “Are you going to stop for the sermon?”
Second American Lady: “I am so sorry I can’t, but the races begin at one!”