At the end of the Second World War, Europe’s surviving aristocracy joined a nomadic yet moneyed assortment of South American industrialists, film stars, steel magnates, playboys, and oil heiresses to form the loosely tethered social troupe known to the press as the “International Set.” This eclectic clique sparked more than its usual share of indignation in 1953, when one of its members, George de Cuevas, the Marquis de Piedrablanca de Guana, ushered out the summer season with an elaborate 18th-century-themed costume ball (pictured) for 2,000 guests at the Golf de Chiberta club near Biarritz, France, setting a new standard for postwar excess. Photographs of the gathering in Life magazine prompted the Vatican to observe, “Parties such as this one in Biarritz are insults to the misery . . . of the suffering populace.” The only aspect of the event more conspicuous than its hedonism was the absence of the woman who paid for it: the Marchioness de Cuevas.
This reclusive creature did not require special occasions to participate in a masquerade. While her husband presided over his bacchanal, she remained, as she often did, in the one place her husband was seldom to be found, her bedroom, the elaborate costume she had ordered for the evening adorning a dressmaker’s dummy that stood sentinel in the hallway of her villa.
Born Margaret Rockefeller Strong, the granddaughter of John D. Rockefeller Sr., the marchioness met Jorge Cuevas Bartholín in Paris in the 1920s. A shy, serious young woman, she was an improbable enticement for the artistically inclined Chilean, who worked for the fashion house Irfé, owned by Prince Felix Yusupov, a Russian émigré as notorious for wearing ladies’ makeup as for assassinating Rasputin. After the unworldly heiress married the ambitious immigrant in 1927, she acquired for him his Spanish title, whose authenticity was recognized everywhere except in Spain, and funded his interest in the arts, which culminated in the founding of the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas in the 1940s. He repaid her generosity by siring their two children, Bessie and John, and by beguiling her intractable grandfather into leaving her a larger share of his fortune than she otherwise would have received.
Despite their offspring, the de Cuevas’s marriage was as tepid as the performance that—more than the ballet or the ball—made the marquis’s reputation. In 1958, choreographer Serge Lifar accused the marquis of staging his work Black and White without permission. Flinging a handkerchief at de Cuevas’s feet, Lifar challenged him to a duel. “I’ll make you dance a minuet to my épée,” he said before a group of reporters, one of whom quipped, “I thought they were embracing.” On the appointed day, Lifar, wearing ballet slippers, took up his weapon against a swooning de Cuevas. The duelists danced a pas de deux, brandishing their épées, until the marquis accidentally pinked his opponent, eliciting a greater flow of tears than of blood. The affair did indeed end in an embrace.
Such displays of passion seldom intruded on the various de Cuevas households, save when the marquis entertained young men of the theater. One of the marquis’s enthusiasms, a young Chilean named Raymundo de Larraín, took up permanent residence in the impresario’s affections, first as a protégé and later as his “nephew.” Under the auspices of kinship, the young costume and set designer adopted the title of Marquis de Larraín, but the youth would borrow still further from his mentor’s repertoire. Upon de Cuevas’s death in 1961, de Larraín convinced the withdrawn marchioness to name him her husband’s successor as head of the ballet company. Soon he managed her household, and by 1977—about the time her children, with whom she had a distant relationship, learned that their 80-?year-old mother had married 42-year-old de Larraín—he had assumed control of her finances as well. Like de Cuevas before him, he arranged lavish parties, but these the marchioness was obliged to attend, carted out in her wheelchair wearing clothes, makeup, and hairstyles of her husband’s choosing. By the time she died in 1985 in Madrid, she had become a theatrical prop, a mere accessory to de Larraín’s masquerade—in fact, the erstwhile costume designer’s dummy.
Corrections: The review of the Paul Hobbs 2009 Chardonnay Cuvée Agustina Richard Dinner Vineyard in the June 2012 issue (page 262) incorrectly states that Paul Hobbs held an official winemaking position at Opus One. ? Mark Washburn styled the still lifes that appeared in the June issue’s Style section (“Men’s Fashion,” page 134).