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“Folies-Bergere” – 1940

download article this article first appeared in TIME on February 26 1940. Click on the pdf button to download a copy of the original article

Folies-Bergère

Time Magazine, February 26, 1940

Mention of the word party brings to Ouida Bergère’s baby brown eyes a weird, predaceous glitter. Ouida Bergère (nee Ida Berger) is chubby, red-headed Mrs. Basil Rathbone. Once something of a scriptress, for seven years she was head of Paramount’s scenario department. Now, with her tall, dark, talented, professionally sinister, personally amiable cinemactor husband she inhabits an overstuffed stronghold in Hollywood’s fashionable Bel Air quarter. There she contrives her parties. They are said to being as a fulmination of her blood, a bounding along the veins, which eventually detonates in something pyrotechnic, exotic, ingenious and rare. At their most grandiose, they combine the best elements of annual maneuvers, a meeting of the Soviet of Nationalities and the New York World’s fair.

Of late a run of foul California weather has dashed Ouida Rathbone’s efforts. It began with her Charity Ball last December. The project was sumptuous. Pièce de résistance was to have been an Alpine scene re-created with real snow in the subtropical palm gardens of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Afternoon of the party the rains came. What with this disappointment and that, by 7 in the evening Mrs. Rathbone was in a state of nervous collapse and could not take part in the festivities. But her guests had a high old time inside the big, rambling hotel where only the jollification was wet.

Everybody was just getting happily awash when the Beverly Hills police arrived to break up the crap game. The more prudish producers went home. By 2 o’clock only the drunks and the pretty girls were left. At 4 the fights began. By 6 the flunkeys were mopping up and sweeping together the fragments. Next day people counted their hang-overs, declared it was one of the best Hollywood parties ever. There was some question whether the party made any money. After the 1938 party charity was reported to be only $2,000 in the red.

Fortnight ago Ouida Rathbone was at it again. So was the weather. It poured. But that did not stop 54 guests, representing most of Hollywood’s international elite, from streaming into the plush-conditioned Rathbone mansion. Occasion was a party in honor of Polish-born Pianist Artur Rubinstein. London-born Conductor Leopold Stokowski, and Poland.

Motley Hollywood society tends to split clannishly along party lines (the kind of parties they go to, not the kind they belong to). There is the right little tight little English huddle, typified by their doyen, C. Aubrey Smith. They drink tea, have garden parties and play cricket. There are the tumbler-tilting Celts of Jimmy Cagney, Pat O’Brien. There is the racy crown around Bing Crosby, the young blades of whom Micky Rooney and Jackie Cooper are gleaming Excaliburs. And there are the big producers, who like to play poker and polo. Intrepid and hard-working Ouida Rathbone is leader of an amorphous salon of her own, and she managed to bag a specimen of nearly every Hollywood social genus for her party.

Catered by Dave Chasen, the dinner was served with pomp in the 60-foot Rathbone dining hall. Lebensraum was conquered by extending the dining-room floor out into the garden, covering and siding the extension with canvas to keep out the rain.

Result was somewhat like Ali Baba’s cafe, with “Dubonnet” the color note of the occasion. A vast Dubonnet rug covered the floor from end to end. Silver lame flashed on the walls. Just below the ceiling ran a three-foot-wide frieze of Cellophane scored with the black notes of Chopin’s Polonaise Militaire, which the Warsaw radio used to play at hourly intervals during the siege of the doomed city. Over the fireplace flamed a red Cellophane banner inscribed with this sentiment: “The world of music knows no boundaries.” The quotation was contributed by Actress Blanche Yurka, who did not know where it came from. Neither did anybody else.

In the centre of the mirror-topped table, around which sat the hosts and the 14 most notable guests, stood a grand piano of lucite, flanked by two lucite violins. From the piano stemmed lilies-of-the-valley, forget-me-nots. Scattered about were Dubonnet flowers. Place cards were one continuous scroll of silvery-grey material inscribed with the names in Dubonnet lettering. Between the names ran the score of the Polonaise, also in Dubonnet. All the glassware was Dubonnet.

Lesser guests were clumped in groups of ten at four tables resplendent with silver tablecloths. On one was a miniature grand piano made of carnation petals. Vast mirrors at the hall’s ends multiplied the happy scene.

Fanciest dish was crêpes suzette chafed on the spot for the hungry 54. Among those who ate them: Charles Boyer and his British wife, Pat Paterson; Errol Flynn and Lili Damita; George Raft and Norma Shearer (whose friendship has Hollywood currently agog); Marlene Dietrich and Novelist Erich Maria Remarque; Novelist Louis Bromfield (The Rains Came) and Kay Francis; David O. Selznick and wife; Olivia de Havilland; Shanghai Tycoon Sir Victor Sassoon; Columnists Ed Sullivan, Princess Conchita Pignatell; Vogue’s Edna Chase; Bette Davis; Hungarian-born Songstress Ilona Massey (who arrived alone, left with Conductor Stokowski). Absent: Conductor Stokowski’s great friend, Greta Garbo.
Top note of the whole performance was Artur Rubinstein playing three numbers (including de Falla’s Fire Dance) on the Rathbone piano while Charlie Chaplin sat on the floor at his feet (reverentially). Reginald Gardiner mimicked a symphony conductor (in a corner where Rubinstein could not see him).

Last words of the departing guests were almost as lavish as the trimmings.

Said Novelist Bromfield: “It was very much like a good Paris party, with such a cosmopolitan gathering. … As a spectacle … most impressive. … I had a very good time.”

Said Edna Chase: “Mrs. Rathbone gives a party with a great sense of organization. … My first impression was that I was amazed to find myself tripping over movie stars every other minute. …”

Said expensive Interior Decorator Harold Grieve, who decorated the dining room for Ouida Bergère: “You never saw so many actors not acting in your life.”

Gushed Bette Davis: “It was the most beautiful party I have ever attended and Mrs. Rathbone is the most gracious hostess I have ever met.”

The heavens were still gushing, too. But the downpour did no worse damage than baptize happy Hostess Ouida Bergère Rathbone with a new nickname: The Rain Maker.

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120 Comments

  1. Pingback: Party with the Rathbones! | The Baz

  2. Cassie says

    Ouida was famous for being insanely jealous of her husband and keeping him almost a prisoner.

    Like

  3. Burton Haynes says

    I very much admire this blog, and ut’s coverage of Rathbone’s life, please keep up the excellent work!

    Like

    • Ulrika says

      Merry Christmas all! I got to lovin’ the Baz through watching BBC Sherlock and I think a whole new generation is discovering him because of that – a really good biography would be fantastic for all of us new fans

      Like

    • Hot Chick says

      I completely second that – merry Christmas, happy new year and here’s to a great year of Bazzy goodness!

      Like

      • Georgiana says

        Here Here – I have found so much great information on this wonderful man from coming here. I am so looking forward to seeing a new biography that rally does him justice

        Like

  4. causus belli says

    Fan freakin tastic blog. I have loved Basil so long. I remember watching him in Frenchman’s Creek when I was fifteen (long long time ago) and just taking one look at him in that “rape” scene and —-yowza! Oh momma! That open-necked shirt and the disheveled hair. I was hooked.

    Like

  5. simon704 says

    Entertaining article. Great blog. I am a big fan of Mr Rathbone and have been since childhood

    Like

    • BASIL says

      Sorry, you come off as an asshole. ¬_¬ How the hell is it possible to judge someone you’ve never even met?

      Like

    • BASIL says

      No offence meant by the way, but it’s true, you’re being really harsh on the poor thing…

      Like

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  7. wendy says

    Aww she was only trying to give people a memorable experience. They all enjoyed themselves. Why the snarky tone?

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  8. roesbette says

    What fights and drunkenness? The accounts of these parties describe them as elaborate social occasions, not brawls.

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    • Granny Gingrich says

      I think amomwholovesbasil is referring to this part of the article quoted above:

      “By 2 o’clock only the drunks and the pretty girls were left. At 4 the fights began. By 6 the flunkeys were mopping up and sweeping together the fragments. “

      Like

      • roesbette says

        I guess you’re right. But it sounds as if Ouida, exhausted from all the preparations, just went to bed during all the excitement. It actually sounds like a scene from The Great Gatsby. Wonder who the pretty girls and the drunks were.

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      • Baz Fan says

        Wow I totally missed that! Goes to show you read what you expect to see! So these parties could be pretty wild affairs!

        Like

  9. Amomwholovesbasil says

    So, did Ouida approve of the fights and the drunkenness? I sort of think not 🙂

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  10. Ranee says

    I just want to mention she may have had good intentions by what she is doing. People are not all the time as they are made to appear by media.

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  11. Manson says

    It’s very harsh to call her a mental case, maybe a little eccentric, but then creative people often are

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  12. My aunt’s friend was Ouida’s secretary during the war. I remember her saying Ouida gave her presents for her kids at Christmas and made sure she didn’t do without. She said Ouida gave them chocolate and cake for the kids. She enjoyed working for her but said Basil was distant and uninterested. Ouida would be friendly to him and involve him in household things and he’d barely talk or just seem uninterested. She said Ouida would make excuses for him. This would be 1941-45.

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      • roesbette says

        Or Basil, like my own DH, had a disability, selective male hearing loss, a profound affliction whereby the male seems unable to listen or feel interest when asked to do household tasks….Perhaps this was his own passive-aggressive response to growing broke after throwing too many parties and becoming a slave to Universal.

        Like

    • Margaret G says

      Interesting, what was your aunt’s name? It would be very good to get more from someone who liked her.

      Like

  13. menstaringatgoats says

    The tone is mocking which is informative of itself. I read somewhere else someone said they didn’t recall anyone saying they liked Ouida or were close to her. We can’t judge someone on these grounds, but we can draw general conclusions – that she was difficult to access, emotionally closed off. People can be this way publicly for many reasons, but generally it’s dividable into those who are shy and withdrawn and those who are genuinely cold emotionally. The only way to now which of these categories Ouida fitted into, would b to know more about her close attachments. Was she warm with her husband and child or family or close friends?

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    • I’m afraid both Basil and Ouida were the butt of jokes back then. In the movie The Ghostbreakers, Bob Hope hears a loud thunderclap and quips, “Basil Rathbone must be throwing a party!”

      Like

  14. roesbette says

    Again…context. This was Hollywood’s “Golden Age”, and lavish parties were common. The Hearsts were also famous for throwing lavish, theme-based parties. Perhaps this was Ouida’s way of exerting her own passion and creativity as a hostess, an area where she could “shine”, just as her husband could shine in his own field of theater and movies. I know many women like this, including some who spend beyond their means to make their homes perfect for hosting. The problem with the Rathbones was possibly they spent most of their “gold” from the golden age and didn’t leave the nest egg they needed for the future. Perhaps Basil needed to be stronger about reining in her expenditures, and perhaps she was too obstinate to see reason. Statistically, couples fight more about money than any other issue. This all shows the Rathbones as imperfect people lacking in foresight , but these are very ordinary flaws, not the “high drama” of cheating, illegitimate children, etc., which probably would disappoint the more salacious curiousity.

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  15. Vienna Sausage says

    That woman was a freakin mental case. Who the hell does all that just for a party?

    Like

      • kendrick says

        By not making assumptions based on vague evidence. There is no word n what Basil says to suggest they were anything but happy and nothing to show the disagreements weren’t trivial

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        • cherylandmandy says

          I heard about a perfect marriage once-between two red-headed Eskimos in Ethiopia.

          Like

  16. roesbette says

    I’ll be Chris is a “techy” who thinks he can improve anything with his golden touch. I’m married to one of those types. Then, when he’s finished, I’m like, “Why can’t I use this anymore the way I used to?” but he says, “But it’s better!”

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    • yeah, he decided he could edit the css in some new way and just deleted the mods I’d already made. We do have a new banner though so it was worth it 😉

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  17. In case anyone was wondering what has been going on with this site, my housemate Chris decided to “experiment” with the layout and ended up wiping out the old one completely. He spent about three hours trying to fix it before he told me. It’s more or less back to normal at last.

    If I had two good hands Chris would be dead now.

    Like

  18. Valerie Hanzner says

    Yes, interesting question about wifely insecurity, but Basil was a model husband was he not?

    Like

    • Alyssia Warren says

      Me too, it’s ridiculous the relentless negativity coming out of certain people who are obviously jealous.

      Like

      • Alyssia, here are the B’s own words from his autobiography:

        “My wife and I have been married for thirty-six years. No two strong-minded, healthy, normal individuals live together that long in a romantic paradise! There have been times when clashes of personality and human folly have temporarily disrupted our lives. But because we happen to be in the public eye, does this entitle us–or you–dear reader, to an expose of our weaknesses and problems? To what end? To destroy your illusions?–to insinuate that my problems are greater than yours and worthy of your consideration?–to feed my ego under the glaring light of publicity?–to expose a friend or acquaintance in circumstances that I have learned of by chance–or have been exposed to in confidence? No! For me indeed no! Where, within the dictates of my conscience, I can speak with you of those I have known, and ofttimes loved, I will do so respecting their confidence in me and my regard for them.”

        He’s telling us quite plainly that he doesn’t intend to tell the whole story, and, quite specifically, that there were problems in his marriage he prefers to leave out.

        Was he lying?

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        • Alyssia Warren says

          He doesn’t say his marriage was unhappy, and the fact they stayed together proves it was happy

          Like

          • The fact that they stayed together proves only that they were committed. They made vows to stay together “for better or for worse, through sickness and health,” etc. I’m not saying it wasn’t happy, but being committed to stay married is not proof of a happy marriage.

            Like

        • Deirdre'sCatiscalledMichael says

          Is it just me or is he implying that there were other people involved in these “clashes of personality” and “human folly”? So did Ouida possibly have an affair? Did he love her more than she loved him? If true then it’s tragic and lovely the way he protects her.

          Like

          • Elisabeth Tanner says

            Yeah I read it that he is keeping other peoples’ secrets not just his own

            Like

        • Jenny says

          Wow I never saw that was there, he’s basically saying “I’m leaving out all the good stuff” 🙂

          Like

        • Kendrick says

          I don’t agree with your biased interpretation. Basil is not saying his marriage had problems, he’s saying they occasionally had differences of opinion, but that would only be about trivial thing like the color scheme for the dining room. Why do you want him to have been unhappy?

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          • I don’t think any “interpretation” is even necessary. “clashes of personality and human folly have temporarily disrupted our lives. . . . an expose of our weaknesses and problems” is a straightforward statement that there were in fact weaknesses and problems. And I don’t think trivial disagreements such as the color scheme for the dining room would qualify as something that would disrupt their lives. I wish more than anything that Basil had happy life, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to put blinders on and refuse to consider evidence to the contrary.

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            • roesbette says

              Couldn’t the “human folly” be the recognition of the consequences of her spending habits? As Basil was writing in what could have been his retirement years, this could be what he was discreetly referring to because I’m assuming that’s when the realization would come upon them that they spent money for the present, not the future. I don’t think this is horrible, just human, as many people have done this, especially in today’s economy! How many people today are in credit card debt or in debt for a car, vacation, or some other extravagance they couldn’t afford?

              Like

        • Margaret G says

          You have to respect his gentlemanly discretion don’t you, but instantly you wonder what he was leaving out!

          Like

        • Vera Vague says

          The trouble is you can’t evaluate what he isn’t saying. Is he talking about trivial spats or major problems? I still think they were happy by and large

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        • FRAN Goodacre says

          Well that does change things IMO. He is saying the impression of a perfectly happy marriage is not valid. But then why say elsewhere hat it was? It’s completely contradictory.

          Like

        • Larry says

          Didn’t he say something else about their marriage having been in trouble at some point?

          Like

        • wandering minstrel says

          “to expose a friend or acquaintance in circumstances that I have learned of by chance–or have been exposed to in confidence?”

          So a “friend” was mixed up in his marital problems and talking about those problems would entail exposing the “friend”. Well, that’s pretty clear isn’t it.

          Like

      • Bradford says

        Alyssia, I believe the blog owner is planning to publish extracts from some of Basil’s letters that you might find interesting.

        Like

    • BASIL says

      I know right? She stuck with Basil even when he had affairs, she tried to commit suicide because of one of them, which means she obviously loved him heaps. So what she liked spending lot’s of money? If we had that much money we’d all do the same…………and so what if she was a bit chubby, lot’s of people are….she was probably quite a nice person. I mean, lot’s of people say she was so who can complain? I think we should all leave Ouida alone a bit….

      Like

      • GRETCHEN says

        I also think it’s wrong for people to be “picking-on” Ouida……actually, I feel quite SORRY for her. 😦

        I’ve mentioned this several times in previous comments—she was most likely suffering from “narcissistic personality disorder”. Anyone interested can look-up this mental affliction online, and you’ll find that the symptoms match her behaviors EXACTLY. Living life the way she did must have made her a miserably UNHAPPY individual…

        These symptoms include:

        * Believing that you’re better than others
        * Fantasizing about power, success, and attractiveness
        * Exaggerating your achievements or talents
        * Expecting constant praise and admiration
        * Believing that you’re special and acting accordingly
        * Failing to recognize other people’s emotions and feelings
        * Expecting others to go along with your ideas and plans
        * Taking advantage of others
        * Expressing disdain for those you feel are inferior
        * Being jealous of others
        * Believing that others are jealous of you
        * Trouble keeping healthy relationships
        * Setting unrealistic goals
        * Being easily hurt and rejected
        * Having a fragile self-esteem
        * Appearing as tough-minded or unemotional

        (Taken from: MayoClinic.com)

        Ouida changed her birth-name and family origin to make herself “appear” regal and of a “higher” class. She sought-out and married a famous person to seem more “appealing” to society, to be recognized as “the well-known actor Basil Rathbone’s wife” by publicists, and to live the haughty lifestyle she’d always dreamed of achieving. The parties were her way of showing-off how much MORE she had than everyone else, and to “prove” her worth and value as a person to the “upper-crust” people she invited to them.

        She didn’t attempt suicide because she loved Basil “heaps” as the person’s comment above states, but because she wanted to CONTROL him. She probably drove him to cheat with someone who ACTUALLY loved him, by her sexual and emotional coldness and her selfish overspending (he was NEVER “rich”, only “well-off”). She wanted to get HER way, and forced him to end the affair that SHE’D caused, by trying to kill herself to receive attention and pity…sadly, it worked. And, we wouldn’t “all do the same” (when it came to money) if our husbands were wealthy. A GOOD woman doesn’t spend her spouse into poverty and public-humiliation if she is SO much in LOVE with him…obviously. Most people who knew her DISLIKED her because of the self-centered, pompous, egotistical way she ran her husband’s life, and dictated how everything was to be in their home, and with their friends—including WHO was “desirable enough” to be considered “worthy” of being their friends. I’m NOT KIDDING.

        So, as much as people may feel anger and even HATE towards Ouida, I feel only sorrow. Someone with this disorder can’t HELP the way they are, and treatment is VERY difficult—if not impossible—since the person must recognize the problem within themselves before seeking therapy. It is an EXTREME form of low self-esteem, which the person attempts to hide behind a sense of “faux grandeur”, in order to feel better about themselves and their world. Being narcissistic wasn’t Ouida’s FAULT. It begins in childhood—with how a kid is either spoiled, abused, or neglected by their parents or caregivers; as well as possible genetic predisposition at birth. She could NOT have known Basil’s deep love for her, because of her OWN love for attention, and the possessive need to have him beside her—not out of LOVE mind-you, but obsessive ownership of her PRIZE. Basil was her “trophy-husband”, and NO one else…not even his friends or family members…was going to have him, OR his love—if she could help it. 😦

        Like

  19. Kendrick says

    She seems like a nice woman devoted to her husband, and Rodion looks just like her

    Like

  20. OuidatheSecond says

    I think you are a bit unfair on Ouida. She was probably putting herself through this ordeal for Basil’s sake, to help his career.

    Like

  21. I note how she was too emotionally exhausted to appear at the party. The words “maintenance” and “terrifyingly high” spring to mind 🙂

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  22. patching my ignorance says

    But how did she manage to spend all her hubbie’s money even with these parties?

    Like

  23. SusanSarandon says

    I think Ouida was just being a celebrity’s wife. Famous actors are egotists and demand a level of devotion from their partners that seems insane. No doubt Rathbone’s ego was the one needing boosting, and his poor wife tok the strain

    Like

    • Virginie says

      I don’t think that’s completely fair. Basil showed no interest in hosting giant parties before he married Ouida

      Like

  24. Odette FitzPatrick says

    Wow, Ouida was not a beauty, and in that pic of the two of them she is way more than chubby!

    Like

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