The Last Of The Dandies by Eliot Gregory

Story type: Essay

So completely has the dandy disappeared from among us, that even the word has an old-time look (as if it had strayed out of some half-forgotten novel or “keepsake”), raising in our minds the picture of a slender, clean-shaven youth, in very tight unmentionables strapped under his feet, a dark green frock-coat with a collar up to the ears and a stock whose folds cover his chest, butter-colored gloves, and a hat–oh! a hat that would collect a crowd in two minutes in any neighborhood! A gold-headed stick, and a quizzing glass, with a black ribbon an inch wide, complete the toilet. In such a rig did the swells of the last generation stroll down Pall Mall or drive their tilburys in the Bois.

The recent illness of the Prince de Sagan has made a strange and sad impression in many circles in Paris, for he has always been a favorite, and is the last surviving type of a now extinct species. He is the last Dandy! No understudy will be found to fill his role–the dude and the swell are whole generations away from the dandy, of which they are but feeble reflections–the comedy will have to be continued now, without its leading gentleman. With his head of silvery hair, his eye-glass and his wonderful waistcoats, he held the first place in the “high life” of the French capital.

No first night or ball was complete without him, Sagan. The very mention of his name in their articles must have kept the wolf from the door of needy reporters. No debutante, social or theatrical, felt sure of her success until it had received the hall-mark of his approval. When he assisted at a dress rehearsal, the actors and the managers paid him more attention than Sarcey or Sardou, for he was known to be the real arbiter of their fate. His word was law, the world bowed before it as before the will of an autocrat. Mature matrons received his dictates with the same reverence that the Old Guard evinced for Napoleon’s orders. Had he not led them on to victory in their youth?

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On the boulevards or at a race-course, he was the one person always known by sight and pointed out. “There goes Sagan!” He had become an institution. One does not know exactly how or why he achieved the position, which made him the most followed, flattered, and copied man of his day. It certainly was unique!

The Prince of Sagan is descended from Maurice de Saxe (the natural son of the King of Saxony and Aurora of Koenigsmark), who in his day shone brilliantly at the French court and was so madly loved by Adrienne Lecouvreur. From his great ancestor, Sagan inherited the title of Grand Duke Of Courland (the estates have been absorbed into a neighboring empire). Nevertheless, he is still an R.H., and when crowned heads visit Paris they dine with him and receive him on a footing of equality. He married a great fortune, and the daughter of the banker Selliere. Their house on the Esplanade des Invalides has been for years the centre of aristocratic life in Paris; not the most exclusive circle, but certainly the gayest of this gay capital, and from the days of Louis Philippe he has given the keynote to the fast set.

Oddly enough, he has always been a great favorite with the lower classes (a popularity shared by all the famous dandies of history). The people appear to find in them the personification of all aspirations toward the elegant and the ideal. Alcibiades, Buckingham, the Duc de Richelieu, Lord Seymour, Comte d’Orsay, Brummel, Grammont-Caderousse, shared this favor, and have remained legendary characters, to whom their disdain for everything vulgar, their worship of their own persons, and many costly follies gave an ephemeral empire. Their power was the more arbitrary and despotic in that it was only nominal and undefined, allowing them to rule over the fashions, the tastes, and the pastimes of their contemporaries with undivided sway, making them envied, obeyed, loved, but rarely overthrown.

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It has been asserted by some writers that dandies are necessary and useful to a nation (Thackeray admired them and pointed out that they have a most difficult and delicate role to play, hence their rarity), and that these butterflies, as one finds them in the novels of that day, the de Marsys, the Pelhams, the Maxime de Trailles, are indispensable to the perfection of society. It is a great misfortune to a country to have no dandies, those supreme virtuosos of taste and distinction. Germany, which glories in Mozart and Kant, Goethe and Humboldt, the country of deep thinkers and brave soldiers, never had a great dandy, and so has remained behind England or France in all that constitutes the graceful side of life, the refinements of social intercourse, and the art of living. France will perceive too late, after he has disappeared, the loss she has sustained when this Prince, Grand Seigneur, has ceased to embellish by his presence her race-courses and “first nights.” A reputation like his cannot be improvised in a moment, and he has no pupils.

Never did the aristocracy of a country stand in greater need of such a representation, than in these days of tramcars and “fixed-price” restaurants. An entire “art” dies with him. It has been whispered that he has not entirely justified his reputation, that the accounts of his exploits as a haut viveur have gained in the telling. Nevertheless he dominated an epoch, rising above the tumultuous and levelling society of his day, a tardy Don Quixote, of the knighthood of pleasures, fetes, loves and prodigalities, which are no longer of our time. His great name, his grand manner, his elderly graces, his serene carelessness, made him a being by himself. No one will succeed this master of departed elegances. If he does not recover from his attack, if the paralysis does not leave that poor brain, worn out with doing nothing, we can honestly say that he is the last of his kind.

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An original and independent thinker has asserted that civilizations, societies, empires, and republics go down to posterity typified for the admiration of mankind, each under the form of some hero. Emerson would have given a place in his Pantheon to Sagan. For it is he who sustained the traditions and became the type of that distinguished and frivolous society, which judged that serious things were of no importance, enthusiasm a waste of time, literature a bore; that nothing was interesting and worthy of occupying their attention except the elegant distractions that helped to pass their days-and nights! He had the merit (?) in these days of the practical and the commonplace, of preserving in his gracious person all the charming uselessness of a courtier in a country where there was no longer a court.

What a strange sight it would be if this departing dandy could, before he leaves for ever the theatre of so many triumphs, take his place at some street corner, and review the shades of the companions his long life had thrown him with, the endless procession of departed belles and beaux, who, in their youth, had, under his rule, helped to dictate the fashions and lead the sports of a world.

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