By Sir Taki Theodoracopulos
Synonyms for the subject of this month are too many to list, but I like suavity, civility, poise, and savoir-faire. We are living in such dreadful where manners are concerned times, that a little old fashioned sophistication is like the proverbial breath of fresh air. Take for example an event that took place just before World War I, at an exclusive party at Count Boni de Castellane’s. A great French lady felt herself beginning to die at the dinner table. She whispered to the waiter, “Quick, bring the desert.”
She was not overcome by greed. She simply wished to hurry dinner along so as not to drop dead before the party rose from the table. In other words, she did not wish to cause discomfort to fellow guests, nor to embarrass herself, Needless to say, the lady was a sophisticate.
Her host, Count Boni, was no slouch when it came to sophistication either. Having accepted an invitation to the British embassy, one he refused to honor because of a sudden assignation with a lady, he nevertheless showed up on Rue St Honore the next evening in full dress pretending he had got his dates mixed up. Now that is a very gracious way to cover up one’s bad manners. Boni was anything but unsophisticated.
Personally, the most suave thing I have ever heard was a tale told to me by Gianni Agnelli a very long time ago. We were talking about the war and how Rommel was badly let down by his Italian allies in the dessert war against the Anglo-Americans. Gianni had been in Tripoli as a young lieutenant and found himself in a very noisy nightclub very late in the evening. A beautiful lady of the night was dangling from the arms of a very blond and very tall German officer dressed in a beautifully cut Wehrmacht uniform. An Italian officer approached the couple and began a conversation with them, obviously trying to ingratiate himself with the lady while paying rudimentary attention to the German officer. The latter kept up polite appearances while surreptitiously taking out his sidearm and firing the Luger once at the Italian’s booted foot. No one became the wiser as the place was at its noisiest when the German pulled the trigger under the tablecloth. Gianni went on to tell me that the Italian smiled, saluted and excused himself. He then limped away from the table. No one caught on what had transpired, not even the lady involved, except for the two Axis officers. According to Agnelli, it was the most civilized act ever. According to me, I suspect that the officer who got shot was Agnelli, but he would never reveal himself to have lost a one-on-one against a German. But he sure carried the scar on his right foot.
I have another favorite, this one concerning General De Gaulle and General Massu, the French paratrooper hero of Algeria, one tough cookie. During the 1968 “student” uprisings that had De Gaulle’s government reeling, Le Grand Charles flew to Germany to meet with Jacques Massu, then leader of France’s 3rd army stationed there. When the president of the 5thRepublic walked in, General Massu stood up and saluted. “Alors Massu, toujours con?” said the president. “Oui, mon general, toujours Gaulliste,” answered Massu. Even the deadly serious and cold as ice De Gaulle had to smile on that one. Massu pledged his allegiance. The 5thRepublic survived to this day.
Sophistication does not always come with maturity, but it is very rare to find it in the young. Especially nowadays, and I don’t mean to be sophisticated where useless ghastly gadgets like twitter and facebook are concerned. Just think about Tory members of Parliament during the early part of the last century, who would debate subjects in ancient Greek or Latin to the furor of their Labour Colleagues who had not attended upper class boarding schools. “Translation, translation,” they would scream and bang on their desks to the delight of their conservative members. If only a few of our Greek Parliamentarians could speak ancient Greek, they’d be able to embarrass the unembarrassable, our present government.
What I find the most excruciating habit of all is today’s perpetually offended brigade, all this faux outrage and offence taking. Show me someone who says, “you can’t say that, it’s offensive,” and I’ll show you a great bore. When did we all become so fragile, that mere metaphors turn us into fainting flowers. Where has the sophistication gone? When the Earl of Sandwich (yes, the man who invented it) accused John Wilkes, an opponent in Parliament with the following phrase, “You Sir, will either die of the pox or at the gallows,” Wilkes didn’t miss a beat and answered, “That, dear sir, depends if I embrace your mistress or your principles.” That was the end of the Earl’s speeches in Parliament.
Our life now is devoid of wit and laughter and wickedness of speech because of the most dreaded disease since the black death: Political Correctness. Our lives are now desiccated, dreary paragraphs delivered by people terrified of saying anything colorful or interesting that might offend the armies of those Waiting to be Offended: American women, transsexuals, one-legged black lesbians, over-fifty years of age women with PH’ds in psychology, you know the type.
All I can say is let’s try and be a bit retro. Like Voltaire, for example. When asked to join the church and to renounce the devil while he lay dying, he smiled and said, “This is no time to make new enemies.”