Tuesday, February 21, 2017

RIP | Ernest William Boissevain (1898-1984), by E. G. Boissevain

Jean Tennyson – fourth wife of Ernest
Ernest William Boissevain (1898-1984).
Feb. 21, 2017–The article that follows appeared in the Boissevain Bulletin in 2008, written by Ernst Gulian Boissevain (1924-2017), nephew of Ernest William Boissevain. 

I was just informed of the death of the nephew, Ernst Gulian, and am re-posting this in his honor (with minor edits to improve the English and in one case the French). 

Page 109 of the Nederland’s Patriciaat (sometimes called "the Blue Book" of Holland), 1988 edition starts the intriguing biography of Ernest William Boissevain (NP p 109). 

He grew up with money, married four women, lived in high society and enjoyed several country manors. I, Ernst Boissevain (NP p 111), am probably one of the last remaining persons in our family to remember him. So... et voilà... here are a few stories about him and some photos from his own collection.

Think back to beginning of the 20th century. The table is set in the large house in Trompenburgerweg in Hilversum, the Netherlands, that once belonged to my grandfather. His twelve children are already in the dining room: the children from his first marriage and the oldest two, a son and daughter, of his second marriage are already seated. The other four are eating standing at the table. A brother-in-law to be and two nannies complement the party. 

Then the door opens and my grandfather and his wife make their grand entry. He is seated, reads a passage from the Bible and they all pray. Then the large soup tureen is brought in. When too much steam rises up from it, grandfather empties a large jug of water into it. At the far end of the table stands the youngest son, who was two years old in 1900. This story is about him.

He is a nice lad. He will have many friends among the boys, and even more girl friends. He goes to work for an American trust company in Paris where he meets an American woman who becomes my aunt Billy in 1927, when I was three. 

They visited in a beautiful car. We are allowed to come for a ride! Unfortunately the ride ends prematurely 500 meters down the road, as the car hits a tree. That had a lasting impression on me. That also goes for auntie Billy's kisses, the bright red legacies of which my father immediately wiped off at the nearest fountain.

After the stock market crash in 1929 the couple went to live in London, and their visits to Holland became decreasingly frequent. The next contact that I remember clearly was in 1939. I am with my parents somewhere on the west coast of France when unexpectedly uncle Ernst walks in the door. Unexpectedly,also, he has a new lady with him: Dorothy. He has big plans for a future with her. 

We return to the Netherlands, the war breaks out (September 1939) and suddenly uncle Ernst again stands before us. With Dorothy. Travel to France and England has become more difficult. They come to stay with us. But that is not on. 

My father is not prepared to house them until uncle Ernst phones his wife Billy and explains his situation. He reluctantly does so. At the top of the stairways I stand, a 14-year-old boy, listening in with red ears. 

After several days the pair disappears to London. Billy is uncooperative, orders meals at expensive restaurants and is angry. Finally a telegram arrives: "Am on my way to Cuba with Dorothy. Send money immediately. Ernest." It is the 9th of May, 1940 [the day before the surprise Nazi invasion of Holland]. 

Not until five years later [after the war is over] do we hear how this story ended. Aunt Billy took the next boat to Cuba and there they divorced. Uncle Ernst and Dorothy had some good years, but unfortunately she got a severe illness and they spent her last years in Canada, where she died. Dorothy painted and uncle Ernst learned from her how to paint. 

Back in New York, he managed to make a living painting portraits of members of New York's high society. He opened an art gallery there, as far as I know under our old name Bouissavy. And he marries a young student, a marriage that lasts four years. 

Then comes the grand finale, his fourth wife, Jean Tennyson. She had finished a thriving career as an opera singer, having sung in Europe in the Salzburg Festival and in many capitals and married a captain of industry who left her a fortune.

She reluctantly went to a party that uncle Ernst, also reluctantly, attended. They hit it off and for 25 years their marriage was a big feast. They bought an old run-down castle of the Antinori family South of Florence. It was renovated extremely well, partly in the original Renaissance style. The ballroom was refurbished for concerts and many famous musicians performed there. Arthur Rubinstein was a very dear friend of the family.

[Photo: Ernest William Boissevain at his castle in Italy.]

When I visited him, we drove up past the porter's lodge, between the rows of cypresses left and right. Above through an archway, a brief but hearty welcome and soon we were splashing away between the golden water fountains in the bathroom. In our guestroom hung an elite selection of paintings, museum pieces. Behind the walls of most of the rooms was a system of corridors for personnel, who could thus pick up our clothes and return them within a few hours after having been washed and ironed, without being seen.

Uncle Ernst gave us the grand tour. This started in the basement where around twenty of the lower staff - gardeners and caretakers of the vineyard among others - have their meals. Two steps above this was a table for Elisabeth, since forever auntie Jean's lady's-maid. Down below was also the kitchen. There was a fantastic cook, who baked a cake for every single meal. 

Our host and hostess tended to eat a miniscule piece of these cakes; the rest went to the staff... or so they thought. After a while uncle Ernst discovered that the cook had bought a shop in Florence where he sold slices of cake! Uncle Ernst flew into a rage which made the castle shake on its foundations. The cook looked bewildered and auntie Jean had rarely had such a good laugh.

[Photo: Aerial view of Villa Antinori delle Rose south of Florence (Italy).]

To vary the scenery, they had a few other assets.  

  • On Ischia island they owned a large piece of land with a residential area, a house for all the staff, a captain's cabin for uncle Ernst and a large studio for aunt Jean. She modeled there and among other things, on a commission for the United States, she made a bust of Golda Meir. 
  • There was a beautiful swimming pool which was enjoyed by Herbert von Karajan with his girlfriend, who bathed without a suit, which made uncle Ernst raise his eyebrows. [Photo: Jean Tennyson in her period of glory.] 
  • They had a house in Vermont and an apartment on Avenue George V in Paris.
  • Also, a seaworthy yacht, docked in Monaco and seldom used. 
Finally, an anecdote. When Polaroid introduced its camera with instant developed photos for the wider public, uncle Ernst decided to give one to auntie Jean for her birthday. At the end of that day he said that he would like to take a closer look at the camera and took it with him to his captain's cabin. The camera never came back. 

Six months later it was uncle Ernst's birthday. Auntie Jean sneaked into the cabin, took the camera, wrapped it up beautifully with nice paper and a bow. ‘Here: a present for you.’ Uncle Ernst, unabashed, wrapped up the camera again six months later and again gifted it back. This remained a standing joke for another year or so.

In 1982 it was time for them to slow down a little. They bought a flat at Lake Geneva and their Italian possessions were sold and auctioned off, along with the yacht. Even before the flat was fully equipped, uncle Ernst died, in 1984. Jean lived on until in 1991.

–Ernst Gulian Boissevain, Apeldoorn (the Netherlands). R.I.P. 2017.

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