ARE YOU GAME?
French Version of this post, click here.
Special thanks to Delphine Schrank for editing this story
They didn’t just want to give to their favorite foundations. Some New Yorkers wanted to have some fun while doing it, playfully bidding for things both secret or less than significant. In the end, the cost matters less than the price of elegance.
What about you? Would you take the gamble and surprise a gathering of bow tied, long-dressed revelers, the accoutrement of traditional New York galas whose ‘in-person’ season just wound down with the closing year? How much would you be willing to pay to blindly acquire the contents of an evening clutch or a surprise bag – to promote Franco-American friendship?
It all started with a challenge, “un pari” in French. Un jeu, a game.
“Why don’t you put it on sale tonight when you’re on stage?” a friend suggests.
CNBC’s correspondent Contessa Brewer looks at him with mischief. She locks her little white bag and laughs at the trick she is about to play on the guests of the Trophée des Arts, the French Institute-Alliance Française (FIAF) gala evening. Already invited on the FIAF stage at the Plaza hotel in New York in 2019 to honor actress Charlotte Gainsbourg and Ardian President Domnique Sénéquier, Contessa Brewer has proven her affinity for this annual French American gathering. The journalist, Mistress of Ceremonies for a day, even takes this opportunity to practice a bit of her crystal-clear French. She has a few jokes tonight, written on a piece of paper, stored in her bag. The idea of asking diners to bid on a worthless object excites her. “The evening promises to be beautiful,” she tells herself.
The first Post-Pandemic Trophée des Arts is celebrating one of the world’s best-known writers, the French New Yorker Marc Levy. It will pay tribute to Marie-Monique Steckel who is presiding over her final gala as president of this unique cultural and educational space in New York. Saint-Gobain Chairman Pierre-André de Chalendar will also be honored for his company’s long-ago commitment t—and world leadership in—building materials and solutions that fight climate change. The Plaza’s ballroom—the very place where Truman Capote invited his friends to his legendary black-and-white ball in 1966—has thus been redecorated as an urban forest, a greenery landscape at the symbolic crossroads of nature, city, and culture. The effect is mesmerizing.
I have in my bag an object of immense value.Contessa Brewer
I dare you to buy it for the benefit of FIAF.
Contessa Brewer is walking towards the microphone. Christie’s Adrian Meyer stands beside her. Yet, before letting him take control of the live auctions, the journalist calls out to the room. “What if we started the auction with a surprise lot?” she asks. No one among the FIAF team is aware of her initiative. And there she raises her small white evening clutch.
“I have in my bag an object of immense value,” she tells the 480 people room, suddenly very attentive. “I dare you to buy it for the benefit of FIAF.” She takes out her lipstick from her bag. “No, this is not my lipstick. Not even the paper on which I wrote my jokes in French.”
A week earlier, gallery owner Éric Mourlot, donning the auctioneer’s clothes at the annual American Friends of Blérancourt gala, had also presented the evening guests with an unexpected lot, “a surprise pouch,” he told the assembly, like the one we used to buy as children in French bakeries,” a paper cone sheltering unknown treasures.
The Blérancourt gala surprise package had been meticulously prepared. It somehow tells the story of Paris as seen through the eyes of Judith Pisar, a special envoy for cultural diplomacy of UNESCO and a former President of Paris American Center. Winner of the American friends of Blérancourt’ Anne Morgan Women of Courage Award, Judith Pisar has a special tenderness for the French capital, symbol of her American friendship with France and where she settled after marrying Samuel Pisar.
“Are you ready to bid without having a clue what you are bidding for?” asks Éric Mourlot. “All I can tell you is that this prize contains an album by Jay Gottlieb,” the great American pianist based in Paris, a friend of Judith Pisar, of course, who has been playing pieces by Philip Glass, Cole Porter, Debussy, and Erik Satie between courses all evening. “The starting price is 100 dollars,” says the gallery owner. Flabbergasted, the guests throw themselves into the game and begin, gingerly, one after the next, than pell-mell and all at once, to raise their hands. Within seconds, someone offers 1,500 dollars.
At the Plaza, Contessa Brewer unveils the mystery object. “I have in my bag a pen,” the emcee shouts, “but not just any pen,” she adds.
There are three versions of a story. My own, yours and the true story.Marc Levy
It is at the intersection of those three that novels are created.
Earlier in the evening, the journalist was introduced to Marc Levy. The writer was then leaning against a bar of the Plaza, away from the other distinguished guests. With his literary agent Susanna Lea by his side, “my best friend” he writes, he reads and rereads the notes for his speech. “I owe her my writing career,” he adds, thanking her on stage for “accompanying, and guiding,” him as he “navigated on the paths of writing which led me to freedom.”
Marc Levy is looking for something to write with, a felt-tip pen or a pencil, anything. He wants to correct a word, change the meaning of a sentence, delete another. Does he want to rectify this passage in which he pays tribute to his father, the man who introduced him to America by taking him to an American cemetery in Colleville in Calvados 47 years ago? “Most of those resting on French soil were just 20 years old, or younger yet,” his father told him at the time. “As we exited the cemetery,” Marc Levy adds, “my father opened the car door—a Peugeot 404—and said to me, ‘never forget.’” Does he want to fix this reference to books? “There are three versions of a story. My own, yours and the true story. It is at the intersection of those three that novels are created.” Or this quotation from Romain Gary: “to whom I owe so much,” undoubtedly one of his favorite writers: « Tu sais, l’amour, ce dont il a le plus besoin, c’est d’imagination, mais quand deux imaginations se rencontrent, alors-là, c’est magnifique » / “You know, what love needs most is imagination, but when two imaginations meet, then it is truly magnificent.”
Marc Levy is growing impatient. The writer is disarmed. He needs to edit his text. It seems impossible for him to meet any guest until this is done. The writing above all must live up to the award that is bestowed upon him tonight by the Franco-American community of a New York and an America that have become his own.
Contessa Brewer approaches and greets him. He forgets for a moment his two sheets of paper sprawled on the bar. He introduces her to Susanna and politely engages in a conversation. “I’m told you’re looking for something to write with,” she tells him, pulling a pen from her small white purse. In a few minutes, Marc Levy scratches through a line, abandons a punctuation mark, transforms a word, tries to move a paragraph. He adds, removes, draws arrows between the lines, repositions a periphrasis, re-shuffles two words to create a different meaning. Perhaps he traces lines under the names of Gary and of his entourage whom he will mention later. His focus is on his text, he peps it up, silently, silently imbuing it with his voice. Marc Levy has never stopped being an architect. However, without this pen, he could not have finished his edifice for the day.
Now that he can step away, Marc Levy expresses his gratitude to Contessa Brewer and gives her back her property.
“So,” says the Mistress of ceremonies in front of a stunned audience, “this pen is not just any pen, it is the one Marc Levy has just used to make his final corrections to his speech!”
The room is delighted, surprised, breathing again and having fun—an improvised provocation; Enough with the protocol and usual social codes, and the fine-tuned programs.
“Oh, I forgot,” adds Contessa Brewer, “this pen is branded Hilton, you know, the kind of pens you mistakenly take home from a hotel room.” And that’s how the live auction begins, with a Hilton-branded pen that Marc Levy has just transformed into the weapon or tool of his art.
Adrian Meyer takes the microphone. “Here we go, I’ll start the bidding at 100 dollars. 200 here, 300, 500 … “
At the Blérancourt dinner, Éric Mourlot voluntarily puts the sale of the mystery lot on hold at 1,500 dollars. He had premeditated his move. “It is a question of inciting curiosity above all.” He moves on to the next lot. “We’ll come back to the surprise pouch later” without any further information on its content.
Well, you’ll win a Camembert!Eric Mourlot
The pen is sold within minutes. Hands fly up on all sides. Adrian Meyer walks fast around the room. Suddenly it’s all about simply supporting FIAF. This gala had already surprised in the past by putting up for auction an apple and a bottle of beer. Those who give up trying to buy the now infamous Hilton-pen try to guess the names of the people who are snatching it up. One of them is sitting at Marc Levy’s own table, a friend no doubt. Another is dining near the stage, most likely a prestigious donor. The sum soon reaches 6,000 dollars. Marc Levy is delighted with this impromptu game and tells the auctioneer that he will also offer the winner the pen with which he wrote his latest novel. The back and forth between the bidders continues. The amount increases.
When the bidding started again for ‘Le Paris de Judith Pisar,’ some guests decided to move the sale to new heights. Here as well, the price quickly reached an unexpectedly high amount. One woman asked for more information about the contents of the surprise. “Judith Pisar likes to enjoy cheese plates in Paris with a good wine,” Eric Mourlot replies, pulling one from his podium, “Well, you’ll win a Camembert!” When Judith Pisar moved from New York to Paris, he adds, she first settled on Avenue Bosquet near the Champ de Mars; the auctioneer for the evening unwrapped a Chagall lithograph with a representation of the Eiffel Tower. From there, the bids accelerated: 8,000; 9,000; 10,000 dollars… far beyond anyone’s expectations.
The ‘Hilton-pen’ used by Marc Levy to edit his speech finally sold for 7,500 dollars. The American Friends of Blérancourt raised 12,500 dollars thanks to the ‘Paris of Judith Pisar.’
Are you wondering what was in the surprise package? Thanks to many donors, often anonymous, there was—in addition to the camembert, the Jay Gottlieb record and the Chagall lithograph—a bottle of Lafite Rothschild 1985; a lunch for two at La Coupole near the former American Center on boulevard Raspail; the correspondence of Albert Camus and Maria Casarès; the book Degas à l’Opéra published by the Musée d’Orsay, one of Judith Pisar’s favorites, a bottle of her favorite perfume, Heure Bleue by Guerlain; one of her own necklaces; the Norton Lectures by her friend, Leonard Bernstein, which she would now like to present at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, the theater she visits every time she stays in Paris and where she years ago produced a tribute to Gershwin for his centennial; and, obviously, two invitations to a performance at the Champs-Elysées.
Putting these two lots on auction was a gamble, ‘un pari’ really, similar to that of guessing here the anagram for Pisar, Judith’s family name—a lover of the city of lights. As Éric Mourlot said at the Blérancourt gala when he launched the bidding: “Are you game?”
The American Friends of Blérancourt Gala and the FIAF Gala were held in New York on November 8 and 15, 2021 respectively.