A Decade in Paris #1

I can only surmise why Colonel Thorn relocated the entire family to France in the 1830’s. However, Paris was, at that time, the cultural and social epicentre of the world. It was the place to find his daughters and sons the kind of marriages he desired. The place of noble and wealthy suitors.

The research I have done suggests that Thorn’s desire for acceptance extended beyond the connections he would make through marriage. Americans were still considered to be outsiders, and Thorn spent a decade in the city trying to establish himself as cultured, refined and very much as entitled as those that surrounded him. He also championed the presentation of American’s at court, and held Episcopalian services in his home, which later on led to the construction of the American Cathedral.

In 2001, in the Irish Times, it was reported that “The cathedral replaces an earlier building on the rue Bayard, consecrated in 1864, but the congregation dates back to at least the mid 1830s, when Col Herman Thorn engaged an English clergyman for the first services in the garden of the Hotel Matignon. Today, Col Thorn’s home on the rue de Varenne is the official residence of the French Prime Minister. “

American Cathedral in Paris

It seemed almost as though his life’s mission was one of seeking acceptance for himself and his countrymen, a forging of an American identity. Afterall, the nation was still in its nascence. If you step back and look at the broader picture of the influence American’s such as Thorn had on the social landscape of the time, there is sense destiny surrounding the rise and rise of the politicians and business men of this era, i.e. Astor’s, Rockefeller’s, Waldorf’s Stuyvesant’s etc. Predictably, little is written about their wives outside social columns and births, marriage, and deaths.

When the Thorn family arrived in Paris in 1829/30, it is said that Herman rented the Hotel de Matignon owned by King Louis Philipe’s sister, Adelaide of Orleans:

“It [Hotel de Matignon] was next occupied by a picturesque figure: Colonel Thorn. Originally from the United States and immensely wealthy, he spent a million francs redecorating the mansion, and gave reception after reception. His magnificent lifestyle enabled him to find husbands for his daughters among the finest names in Europe, and his son married the sister of Madame de Metternich. But the political events of 1848 forced him to return to New York.”

Hotel de Matignon

However, in his book The American Cathedral in Paris, Cameron Allen deduces that it was actually the Hotel Monaco, which was close by and also owned by Adelaide of Orleans. He believes the mistake was made because of the proximity to 57 rue de Varenne (it was then located at 23 rue de Varenne). According to a Parisian newspaper of the time, “Colonel Thorn has rented for some years, the sumptuous Hotel Monaco…”

Days were spent parading along the Champs Elysee to the Bois de Boulogne among the hundreds of other carriages. Charlotte Bronson remembers, “Among others we saw Monsieur Thorn in a very splendid carriage with a gay livery with outriders in uniform, Mrs Thorn and another daughter in another splendid equipage…”

Parties were the order of the evening. A costume ball held by Colonel Thorn for the Festival in 1840 is remembered for its Gatsby-esque magnificence and extravagance. I will devote an entire post to this ball, but here is a sneak preview from the actress known as Cora, reporting for The Ladies Companion

“Of all the magnificent entertainments that Paris has, this season, witnessed, the Bal Costume given at the residence of Colonel Thorn, on the second night of the carnival, for sumptuous splendor and concentrated variety of amusements, bears away the palm. I know that you will expect from me a description of what is avowedly indescribable.”

Diaries kept from the time mention lunches and dinners at Monaco/Matignon. Washington Irving recalls dining there with the Prince and Princess de Bethune (House of Sully), the Duchess de Montmorency, General Cass, Princess Demidoff (daughter of Jerome Bonaparte), Madame de Varenne (who planned the Comte de laValette’s escape from prison), Marquis de la Grange, and the Marquis Brignole.

Washington Irving 1783 – 1859

In future posts, I will discuss the dinner conversations at and impressions of those events. Slowly the picture builds…

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