Gerald Van der Kemp, as a young art connoisseur and Sorbonne graduate, had just escaped enemy hands in Normandy when he was assigned to take up watch of French art treasures in a secret chateau for four years during World War II.

As a reward the French government gave him (at age 33) a palace.

So to speak. He first became a curator of the Versailles Museum, which is the Palace of Versailles, Louis XIV's eye-boggling and sumptuous palace, grounds and gardens. Eight years later he became chief curator and moved in with his wife Florence, a former Washington resident.

He has never tired of the palace, he explained last night at a dinner party that William McCormick Blair and his wife Deeda gave for him and his wife.

Many of the guests, friends of the Blairs or the Van der Kemps, had vsited Versailles in the past.

"Many, many, many times," said Deeda Blair. "I'm spoiled. I used to wander around the rooms being done."

Others had not been -- including the new owner of the Fairfax Hotel, John Coleman, who has just finished redoing the hotel. "I've never even toured it," he said with the faintest of smiles.

But for those who live there...

"Everyday I go to the park for five or 10 minutes to admire something," Van der Kemp said.

The Van der Kemps live in the apartment of one of Louis XIV's ministers. Unlike Washington apartments, it has two floors and includes reception rooms, according to one party guest who had been there.

When Van der Kemp arrived at Versailles, it had been ravaged -- paintings damaged, wall panelings burned, furniture vanished. He restored it, redoing roofs and building exteriors with government financial support and replacing furniture.

"Some friends gave me some furniture, some gave me money to buy furniture at auctions," he explained. He estimates $30 million has been spent over the past 10 years for the restoration, much coming from private contributions to foundations set up in France and the United States to help Versailles.

The restoration is a success and Versailles is enormously popular, attracting 8 million to 9 million tourists annually during its sunrise to sunset hours.

Van der Kemp wrinkled his nose when asked if that's just too many people for him and agreed it really is. As a result, his favorite time at Versailles is "early in the morning when you have it all to yourself."