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The Formulas of the Real
The Question of Democracy
The Sound of Silence:
Wagner with Stalin
A Letter Which Did Arrive
at its Destination
Jean Claude Abreu
Florencia Gonzalez Alzaga
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Jean Claude Abreu was last of a generation of gentlemen who regarded even the mildest self-promotion as utter anathema and would doubtless consider a necrology, in a quotidian publication of bourgeois sympathies, a vulgar abomination. Be that as it may one must somehow honour the passing of so impeccable a figure, one whose resistance to any form of fame ensured all his contributions to our culture went firmly forgotten. Genet claimed "style is to refuse" and Abreu's refusal to allow himself any sort of public profile was perhaps an ultimate, wry dandyism.
As a man-of-letters, conversationalist, mountain climber and jazz expert, a man whose knowledge of literature was as extensive as his love of the visual arts, Abreu was the ultimate enthusiast. He embodied the altruistic "amateur" in the French sense, with his encyclopedic and impossibly retentive knowledge of everything from Formula One to chess, tennis and even yoga, of which he was a Parisian pioneer.
Abreu was born in Paris to a French-Armenian mother and a father from the fabled Abreu family of Santa Clara, Cuba, a land-owning dynasty whose wealth is only matched by the elegance of its Old World connections. The ancient Abreu roots remain tangled back to families as varied as Jova, Vatable, Batlle and even artist Francis Picabia who spent time during WWI with relatives in Cuba. Santa Clara was single-handedly created by this family and is dominated to this day by a sculpture of its founding Abreu. If they were suitably grand, with occasional members tempted into aristocratic pretensions, Jean-Claude himself was always quite clear "we are not like that, let us not forget we cannot compete."
Educated at the École des Roches in Normandy, where his passion for American jazz was first lit with a clandestine wind-up, Abreu went to Harvard to study science before going to live in Cuba where he resided at the renowned Quinta Palatino. This eccentric mansion was built by his grandmother, who filled it with 360 species of exotic simians, which were donated to Harvard upon her death. Abreu assisted with aspects of the family business, but essentially as a young man, with a magnificent bachelor retreat overlooking Havana's old harbour, he knew everyone, from writer Lezama Lima to Julio Lobo, "Richest Man in Cuba." He was also constantly traveling, by ocean liner of course, returning regularly to Europe and even spending six months in Mexico City as a simultaneous translator for the Unesco.
1n 1952 Abreu inherited and began improving and developing land around the suburbs of Havana, such properties being requisitioned with the Revolution. Abreu left Cuba soon after the revolution but maintained his kinship with the island, indeed after his demise a full mass was said in favour of the eternal peace of "Juan Claudio" given by Mons. Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, Vicar General of the Archbishopric of Havana. This was held, complete with children's choir, at the Art-Déco church of San Agustín and attended by no less than Dr. Eusebio Leal Spengler, official City Historian and conservator of Havana's Patrimony.
If Abreu had moved permanently back to Europe by 1960 he had already been spending much of his time outside Cuba, not least in Zermatt, the alpine town he had discovered with delight. Already back in 1956 Abreu had begun construction on his magnificent mountain residence, named Chalet Turquino after the highest summit in Cuba, the very first building constructed in town by a foreigner. With its twelve bedrooms and adjoining bathrooms and beautiful traditional construction, Turquino soon became the centre of an international roster of visitors, from Alan Clark and Mark Birley to actor Robert Montgomery and painter Ernst Fuchs, many of whom subsequently found a place in Zermatt also. Indeed Abreu was creator of Zermatt society, transforming it from a remote village into a highly fashionable resort. But naturally Abreu was not there merely for the parties, much of his time was spent climbing the nearby mountains, all of which he conquered, Matterhorn and Monte Rosa included of course. If Abreu could take the credit for "inventing" Zermatt at the same time he was busy creating another monument, the magazine L'Oeil which was first published in 1957, entirely thanks to his generosity. Having been contacted by the writer Georges Bernier with the idea of creating a luxurious, highly-sophisticated publication to cover all visual and decorative arts, Abreu agreed to become backer and publisher. This revered publication (the only magazine to be found in Dr. Lacan's waiting room) still appears today and was subsidized by Abreu until 1972 when he sold the title. Characteristically he ensured that his name never once appeared on the masthead or in smallest print whatsoever.
Abreu's interest in the arts began with back in Cuba, with friends like Wifredo Lam and Cundo Bermúdez, and continued in an eclectic manner, juxtaposing an Egyptian falcon with Courbet, Claes Oldenburg or Thornhill. A major contribution to his collection also came from his aunt, the legendary Lilita, close confidante of those composers les Sept and an adored muse to writers such as Saint-John Perse and Jean Giradoux, who left Abreu many major works by Vuillard, Bonnard, Klee and an occasional Picasso even.
Over the decades the collection was displayed with soignée relaxation in a series of suitably delicious apartments around Paris, Abreu being au fait with the work of the major decorators of the day, not least fellow Cuban exile Emilio Terry. Grandest of these abodes was an Hôtel Particulier with its own park in the Marais, which he swapped for a high-ceilinged, ground floor apartment on the rue Verneuil, his final habitat, adorned with perfect pitch by the great Italian designer Renzo Mongiardino.
In 1960 Abreu had married Mary-Sargent "Didi" Ladd, a Boston debutante who had graced the cover of Harper's Bazaar and whose fine family contained Republican politicians, intelligence operatives and indeed portraitist John Singer Sargent. An entirely enviable couple, the Abreus entertained on a generous scale and were intimate with an astonishing range of people on every continent, the sort of people whose inherent glamour depends upon its being hidden from the larger public. These might include Surrealist poet Joyce Mansour and her Egyptian playboy husband, Nan Kempner, Hans Bellmer, reclusive financier Alain Thorel, laird Simon Fraser, screenwriter Paul Gégauff, shipping-magnate Jean Alvarez de Toledo and a judicious scattering of varied crown princes.
But some of Abreu's most favoured figures were his fournisseurs or specialist suppliers, not least his English tailor who catered to his strict palette of grey suits and blue shirts-for Abreu was one of those men for whom the term "French suit" was an automatic insult. There was also his expert car mechanic and his personal horological provider. Abreu was continually loyal to these artisans and would go specially to Geneva for any work that needed doing on watch or automobile, of which there was often a lot, as he had a delight in alterations and improvements. For Abreu had a brand theory that reflected his core philosophy, never buying from the best-known source but the secondary, more recherchée competition. As he put it with his usual Anglo-Gallic admixture; "Second to best, plus difficile à trouver, encore plus cher." Thus his man at Gübelin in Geneva would create a version of the Rolex Explorer made from white gold, absolutely indistinguishable from others but far more costly. He would also have his "trombone" collar-stiffeners crafted from white gold, precisely because they were never visible. Or he would drive his new Aston Martin DB4 over to Switzerland to have it fitted with radial tires and family seating.
This was to accommodate his progeny, two daughters and a son, on their numerous sporty trips through the mountains, doubtless emulating his favourite Formula One drivers. Having re-married in 1973, to the equally ideal WASP beauty Georgina 'Georgie' Manly, Abreu continued his charmed existence of reading, skiing, climbing and collecting-friends and objets - and not least listening and improving his important jazz collection. A tootler himself, Abreu had a particular love of Pee Wee Russell, matched by his passion for Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong. In fact one of his few recorded public acts was to vote on the international panel for the Jazz Hall of Fame put together by his old friend Ahmet Ertegun. For Abreu was the ultimate fan, a full-time fervent admirer without guile or cynicism. "My father was, quite simply, nourished by the talent of others," as his son Miguel suggested at his funeral, an event attended by le tout Paris from the Ganay brothers to Fran¨ois Pinault, Barbara of Yugoslavia and Jean D'Ormesson who gave an oration recalling their yacht trips through Aeolian islands. Here, he arose early to see Abreu on deck playing his clarinet, but with typical discretion, absolutely silently, so as to wake no one. To quote the son again, "Abreu was always happy to play the role of the modest observer, a rationale which gave sense to his gentle retreat from all that we might term 'action' in general."
Jean Claude Abreu, gentleman, born Paris, 11 January 1922, died Paris, 9 September 2006. Leaves a wife, Georgiana, a sister, Juliette, and three children, Natalie, Miguel and Elise.
A version of this obituary was published in the British newspaper The Independent.
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