The End of Heritage in Rochefort

the centre of La Tourelle
Within the walls of La Tourelle - the central part,
with the 'tour' behind.

Last Visit to Unique Site -
Last Visit With Richard Carrott

Rochefort-en-Yvelines:- Sunday, 21. September 1997:- It was for a fourth of July celebration that I first saw La Tourelle. M-R thinks it was 12 years ago, but she is not certain. She went there for the first time in the last half of the '70's.

The way she put it the first time, the invitation was formidable. To arrive at the French residence of Dr. Richard Carrott, Professor of Art History at Riverside in California, on the third of July, to - as the French put it - 'assist!' - with the celebration of America's Independence Day. This would add up to be three 'firsts' for me.

Having lived in Germany, Doctor-Professors were not a particular novelty to me, but Art History! Could a cartoonist talk to a Doctor-Professor of it? And what about these art history students who were supposed to the dining room be 'assisting' too? The truth is, people with paint under their finger-nails, fear not history but live bill-collectors.

A corner of the dining room, where up to 25 used to dine - sometimes all night.

I put on my natties and we drove down to La Tourelle in Rochefort-en-Yvelines. It is not far from Rambouillet, but I spent the usual 45 minutes being lost on the way - which I have cut down to 10 minutes today.

The first thing you notice about La Tourelle is that it has a tower. This is at the corner of two long wings, and it is supposed to be the 12th century part. Some of the outer wall along one wing was Rochefort's fortified wall at one time, and this is the 'classé' part.

The second thing you notice is the little enamelled oval notice on the door which says, 'ring the bell.' The bell-pull is hidden in the ivy covering the wall to the left. If it is dark you will not find it. When you pull it, you hear no ring because the bell is far away. Also, back then, if it was dark, nobody would hear it anyway.

Somebody finally opens the small red door just before you start to wonder if you are at the right place. Inside are cobble-stones and the beamed supports of a roof high overhead. Beyond, a vast yard - a park - awaits.

There was a certain confusion on these early arrivals. Anybody inside could have opened the door, and if anybody else happened to be passing, you would be introduced to them - and probably be informed that Richard was having his bath.

A few metres further on, on the graveled yard, you would be introduced to maybe another half-dozen people. With some identities established, you might be directed to leave your bags in one of the 14 rooms spread about. La Tourelle was a bit like a 500 year-old motel, with a couple of sections added in each century.

The bedrooms - mostly small - were also filled with small furniture; for 18th century-sized people. The plainest 'room' was the dormitory, with ten beds, but not overly much headroom. The bedrooms were also filled with an incredible variety of knickknacks and souvenirs, and sometimes paperback books never less than ten years old.

We were told to gather in 'the library' at 21:00 and we were there on time. Drifting along one wing towards it, I was reminded of an Italian movie where there are a bunch of well-dressed people who do not know one another.

Inside the chicken-wire fence - to keep out the geese - we tried to make smalltalk while waiting for Richard, if he had not already put in an appearance wearing a white Richard Carrott' bathrobe, to say he would be late on account of having found a great novel to read while bathing.

Finally, a tall and evenly-tanned man, wearing a 1920's-style tuxedo, arrived. Champagne was then served in hollow-stem glasses in the 'library,' which, although it contained leather-bound books and other curios, was never used for anything else but drinking champagne.

Mr. Richard Carrott, Professor of Art History.

Serving 25 people takes time, but we stayed there until the ladies were laughing gaily at our not-so-witty remarks. In contrast, when Richard Carrott got going and with Ian Robertson-Smith doing counterpoint, the conversation got considerably wittier, even gayer, so that even one of my dullard wise-cracks could sometimes get a laugh. Or maybe it was the champagne?

It would be dark by the time we got back out through the chicken-wire and the frightened geese honked in the night. We would straggle to the dining room, to find named-places and individual 'favors' at one huge and long table, set with hundreds of glasses and tons of silver. The lights were dim and the walls were flaking green paint.

By now, everybody had been given a chore - serve wine, or pass something heavy from the kitchen - where Jeanette grumbled about our delay. 'Dinner' could go on until three in the morning; but on the eve of Independence Day, it packed up half an hour before midnight.

Taking glasses and orphan bottles, we went into the park - in total darkness - to where we were positioned in front of the duck pond, which was hidden by lack of light but signalled by the sounds of grumpy ducks. Maybe the swans were there too.

At midnight - actually few anxious minutes after - the fireworks started at the back of the pond, illuminating Allison dressed as the Statue of Liberty standing on a high-chair in the middle of the mucky black water, holding a huge sparkler aloft, as a 40 year-old gramophone blared out the national anthem from a 78 pressed in 1951. This was Ian's surprise and we were properly stunned, and Richard Carrott looked like the proud owner of a exceptionally clever circus.

This was the preliminary to the real fireworks show, which went off in another part of the park - by the pyramid? - by the fake ruined church? - by the Roman columns? - by the Japanese arch? - somewhere about there.

Guests were falling down from craning their heads back and all the residents of the village who watched from outside the estate's walls cheered when it was over after about a half-hour. As the smoke drifted upwards, we drifted breakfast room to the long room where laundry was normally hung to dry, and Laurence's make-shift hi-fi was put to work to help us dance on the concrete floor.

By four in the morning, some who were still standing got themselves white bathrobes and went for a swim - in the modest swimming pool - not the duck pond or the goose-bath; and I, for one, had a bit of trouble with these dim and blurred ghostly phantoms.

Less than 25 could fit in the breakfast room at La Tourelle.

At La Tourelle, Richard Carrott held some version of this Independence Day celebration every year from the time he moved in, in 1947, until he died in 1990. At his funeral, practically the whole village of Rochefort-en-Yvelines turned out to send him off, joined by many relatives and friends from around the world.

The grandson of Augustus Williamson Green, one of the Nabisco founders, is buried in the ground by modest Notre-Dame de Rochefort church. In Rochefort, he is still "greatly respected as a true American gentleman."

La Tourelle was purchased shortly after the first World War by two sisters who had volunteered for medical service with the army or the Red Cross. They were distant relatives of Richard's mother, and he referred to them as 'aunts.' The abandoned farm they bought was gradually restored while they spent winters in Chicago and summers in France - just as Richard later spent winters in California and summers here.

When France was occupied in the second War, the two 'aunts' fled to Bordeaux, driven in their 1930 Model A Ford, by Eugéne. By the time they returned in 1947, La Tourelle had been used as quarters for German officers and later housed refugees - and there is still an original chalk inscription on one wall which reads, 'Hotel Imperial - Complet,' surrounded by much newer paint.

Richard had volunteered for the infantry as a GI and was captured shortly after the Normandy landings in 1944. In his 20's at war's end, Richard decided to take on La Tourelle in 1947 - and from this year he spent every summer at the estate in the Yvelines department.

While in Riverside, he invited all of his students who were planning European summer trips, to spend their first weekend at La Tourelle - 'to kick jet-lag.' They were also Model A Ford invited to pass their last weekend in Europe at La Tourelle too, and according to Ian, "It became a legend to several generations of American art history students."

The 'aunts' Model A Ford made a run to Bordeaux; Richard painted it black and it still runs.

Besides 'kicking jet-lag,' La Tourelle is probably well remembered because - if Richard had a leitmotif, it could have been, "I am irrevocably opposed to all change."

La Tourelle was locked into the year 1947 - the 'aunts' Model A Ford was in regular use, now all black; the same for the '52 Plymouth station wagon - all black too; and the old 2 CV, also all black; and the all-black telephone. There has never been a TV set in La Tourelle.

It is fifty years since Richard moved into La Tourelle and seven since he moved to the nearby church cemetery. I will probably never see it again after today, and after the property title change goes through in November, nobody will ever see La Tourelle again as it was - an American's French paradise.

For France's 1997 'National Heritage Days,' it seemed more than appropriate to pay a last visit.

For the facts included above, I have to thank Mr. Ian Robertson-Smith, who was a close friend of Richard Carrott for over twenty years.

For me, Richard Carrott never wore his Doctor-Professor title. I will never forget the many times I was invited to share his - authentic and French - paradise - with him, and all the others.


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