The Belle 'Epoque. Chronicle of European high society

The Belle 'Epoque in the Paris Herald 1890-1914, by Hebe Dorsey. New York: Abrams. 224 pp. $29.95. AH, the good ol' days, especially for the rich and famous! Fashion and society editor Hebe Dorsey of the International Herald Tribune thumbs through back pages of the paper when it was known as the Paris Herald in those elegant days called the Belle 'Epoque in Europe. Roughly 1890 to 1914, it's all enough to make any multimillionaire weep for joyous nostalgia.

In fast and breathless chapters, we get a picture of the period, greatly enhanced by illustrations culled from the paper. Here is the sport, life style, fashion, and art of these leisurely bon vivants.

These old newspaper pages seem suspended in a kind of amber, bejeweled world of many-course meals, orchestra music that was always live, manners that mattered, lavish routines, and a beautiful charade of upstairs-downstairs.

The people were marvelous. They had Queen Victoria, not to mention her son, the fun-loving Prince of Wales. They had Nicholas II, czar of all those Russians; ``Der Rosenkavalier's'' composer, Richard Strauss; American writer Mark Twain; and French actress Sarah Bernhardt - ``French poets recited sonnets in her honor.'' And you couldn't pass a potted palm in some elegant salon without bumping into an American millionaire. They came over by the yachtful.

The royal houses of Europe were just one big happy family. Spas and villas and palaces creaked and groaned making roofs over, and dance floors under, those sumptuous, lavish, sophisticated, and noble folk.

Rich American playboy Gordon Bennett had founded the Paris Herald and made sure that his ``crowd'' was well reported. He had the good sense, incidentally, to run his paper (at least some of the time) from his private 314-foot yacht. When he wasn't introducing polo to America, he sponsored the Gordon Bennett Cup race in France for the early automobiles (today's Grand Prix), as well as taking to his high living literally in balloons. ``By 1908, balloon parties had become a favorite Sunday recreation.''

The Wright Brothers' invention quickly became just another sport for the wealthy, and 1910 saw a new world's height record for airplanes - 2,582 meters (1.6 miles). ``It is easy to rise high but it is another matter to descend safely,'' the proud pilot announced.

Lady Dorsey scrupulously details what one of the best-dressed brides managed to get by with: ``... four dozen day chemises ... four dozen pairs of drawers, three dozen night chemises, all of different shapes, 24 petticoats ... an indefinite quantity of fancy handkerchiefs ... edged with priceless lace.''

An art critic advised collecting the Impressionist painters. But he did feel that ``Delacroix, Rousseau, and Corot were much greater artists than today's innovators.''

Enjoy these old-time slaves of fashion. They had fun and so will you.

Gene Langley is a free-lance book reviewer.

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