A Visit with Baron Francois-Xavier de Sambucy de Sorgue
“In the moat! Two kids are stuck in the moat and they don’t know how to get out.”
It was one of the more unusual occurrences which had to be dealt with on a ballooning weekend early in the 1980’s hosted by Malcolm Forbes at Balleroy, his chateau in Normandy, and as such it was part of my job.
The “two kids” (who were rescued in due course) turned out to be Axel and Alexander de Sambucy, young sons of a French Baron, Francois de Sambucy de Sorgue, and his wife, H.R.H. Princess Chantal of France. The family were among the house guests at Balleroy that Spring and I noticed that the father, Francois, was enjoying the scenario immensely.
“Such naughty boys!” he giggled.
“I’m glad the moat is dry,” I said.
And so began a friendship which has lasted more than 30 years. One of the most amusing and sophisticated people I’ve known in my life, it seemed appropriate to include a profile of Francois in this “Portraits” section of the website — a section which might easily be subtitled “Twentieth-Century, Limited.”
Listening to him recount the story of his life is a little bit like hearing a plot outline for a Masterpiece Theatre offering.
“In the middle of the Second World War, some 70 years ago, my beloved parents, Baron Louis and Baroness Charlotte de Sambucy de Sorgue gave birth to me, their fourth son. This was in the shadow of the Benedictine Monastery of Montmajour in Provence, in the wild area of Camargue, near Les Baux, and about a 20 minute drive from the Mediterranean.
“I was born during the German occupation, a particularly difficult time for my family.
“Indeed, their house had been chosen as the local “residence” of the German ‘Wermacht Komandantur’ — the local commander of the occupying forces. This was fraught with enormous tension since my father, about 50 at the time and a World War I veteran, was committed to hiding Jews, foreign soldiers and other local residents who were looking for a place to escape from the Nazis.
“Thinking about it now, I suspect my parents were disappointed not to have welcomed a little girl after 3 sons, but they were kind enough not to show those feelings toward the newly arrived infant. Indeed, I was cherished by the entire family.
“Our family had been in Provence for many generations and my father was a gentleman farmer. In the late 19th century Van Gogh spent time in the area and tried (unsuccessfully) to paint a portrait of my Grandmother. According to her, the painter’s reputation in Arles was dreadful and her mother could not imagine subjecting her beautiful daughter to being painted by “this Dutch guy” — even with a chaperone!
“Perhaps Great-grandmother regretted this decision later on. Perhaps not.”
In 1953, at the age of 8, Francois, like his three older brothers, was sent to a Jesuit boarding school in Avignon, not too far away from the family home. This was followed by studies at the University of Lyon Law School, studies which he recalls with particular fondness.
“What a marvelous experience. Being really away from home for the first time, making new friends, studying, skiing, and parties, parties, parties. What excitement! What temptations! But thank God my parents’ influence did not desert me. It was as if their principles were stamped on my very being and certainly these principles of hard work, loyalty, and a real appreciation of humanity have influenced my entire life. Yes, I was very lucky with my parents. They were quite relaxed in many matters, but strict on honesty and tradition. They were not only an example to me but to our entire family and even to those in their part of Provence.”
Francois’ adult life really began in the late 1960’s when he met Princess Chantal.
“Was it a ‘coup de foudre’ — love at first sight?
“I don’t really know. But I did know, more or less, that it would end up as a lifelong project for us both.
“We married with the Royal blessing of Chantal’s parents, the Count and Countess of Paris, on July 28, 1972 in the royal chapel in Dreux, near Paris.
“That seems such a long time ago! But Chantal and I are still on the same road with three lovely children and now eight grandchildren.”
When I met Francois and his family at Balleroy he was working for IBM — perhaps something of an unexpected career for a man with his background.
‘As a child, my own expectations about my career were very vague. I knew I didn’t want to be a fireman or doctor, but I did want to make some money, be independent and support a family of my own.
“I was attracted by foreign countries and corporations and after my military service and extensive job research, I joined IBM in Paris. I owe this marvelous and dynamic company many things including much of my business education. It really became like a second family to me.”
Eventually, and shortly after I met the family, Francois was transferred to IBM headquarters in Armonk, New York.
“I was put in charge of new product assessments which meant a move to the United States. We bought a lovely house in Ridgewood, New Jersey and the family enjoyed our life there very much. The comfortable suburban lifestyle, the proximity to Manhattan, the host of new friendships we made — life was a permanent series of discoveries and really something of a dream come true.”
“There are so many amusing stories associated with that time in our lives,” recalls Francois. “I remember one night we were at a fashionable dinner party in Manhattan. Chantal was seated next to the CEO of a famous American bank when he turned to her and asked, all of a sudden, if she were a real Princess. She smiled and nodded silently. The banker looked at her closely, thought about it for a few seconds and asked,’But where is your crown?’
“You know,” answered my wife, “it is so heavy, I prefer to leave it in your bank vault.”
And then there was the evening he and his wife found a treasure.
“One night we were invited to a famous charity ball in Manhattan. Chantal was in a long dress (no crown!) and I was in black tie. We left Ridgewood in our Buick station wagon and suddenly Chantal noticed a chest of drawers on the side of the road. It had been put out for garbage collection but Chantal decided it was exactly what we needed to complete a son’s bedroom. We stopped immediately. I took off my dinner jacket, loaded the precious piece of furniture into the station wagon, and headed off to the Plaza Hotel laughing all the way.”
When the de Sambucy family was preparing to return to France, furniture was again part of the story.
“We had sold our house and held a garage sale in the American tradition. At that point our children were already back in Provence and with their French nanny. On the day of the sale (a very hectic and tiring one), we’d sold almost all the furniture that was not going with us — including the salvaged chest of drawers. I went upstairs to take a well-earned nap leaving Chantal in charge. All of a sudden she rushed into our room, ‘Hurry up,’ she said to me,‘Get up! There is a couple downstairs who have decided to buy that bed and they’ve just paid for it!’ I had no choice but to forego my nap.”
And what are Francois and Chantal up to now apart from being doting and attentive grandparents?
“Chantal is a well regarded painter,” Francois says with obvious pride. “She has had exhibitions every year and is represented in many important private collections around the world. The Russian Fine Arts Academy invited her to become one of its foreign members in 2011 during an official visit she paid to Moscow and St. Petersburg at the invitation of the Russian government.
“And I myself have been busy as an art consultant, specializing primarily in old masters. Also, since 2000, I have been running a “Think Tank,” named le Cercle Montherlant in honor of the 20th Century French writer. We have about 150 members and meet 5 times a year at the Jockey Club in Paris to hear a guest speaker. These speakers have included government ministers, ambassadors, corporate CEO’s, and important scholars from many disciplines. It’s exciting and stimulating and we’ve been provided with first-hand information on economics, politics, history and art. Fascinating stuff.
“Ten years ago I also joined two friends, Gilbert Cotteau and Mondher Abdennadher, in setting up an NGO (non-government organization), Toledo, which is dedicated to encouraging the understanding and appreciation of diversity among inner-city elementary school children. This group sponsors conferences in France throughout the year and also hosts an annual forum in Paris which attracts some 300 participants. The hope is that it will initiate some real change in attitudes.
“I have joined a choir as well and I sing with them as a baritone. We have a major concert twice a year on behalf of charity.”
In conclusion, Francois, who still thoroughly enjoys rollerblading, was asked what he considered his greatest achievements.
“It’s difficult to answer this,” he reflected, “having had so many experiences in so many diverse and different circumstances. Perhaps the answer would be that I am most proud of my family, serving my country and nurturing my friendships. Also, of maintaining optimism and a sense of humor as much as possible. And, most important, of trusting in God and relying on His wisdom.”