So Marcel Proust, Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky and James Joyce walk into a room.
It was against this dazzling backdrop that the “soiree of the century” transpired on May 18, 1922. The hosts, Sydney and Violet Schiff, British rentiers and patrons of the arts, pulled off a coup in a salon at the Hotel Majestic: They brought together five of the greatest artists of the era.
There was Proust, the French author of “In Search of Lost Time”; Picasso, the Spanish painter who broke down form with cubism; Joyce, the Irish author of “Ulysses,” who pioneered stream-of-consciousness narration; Stravinsky, the Russian composer who shocked audiences with his use of dissonance and tempo changes; Sergei Diaghilev, the Russian impresario who staged Stravinsky’s ballets with his Ballets Russes troupe.
Each was a luminary and a quintessential modernist who had revolutionized his art form. And the night of May 18 was the only time they breathed the same rarefied air, making it a momentous occasion in art history.
The course of the soiree is painstakingly re-created in Richard Davenport-Hines’s “Proust at the Majestic.” Davenport-Hines, a British historian, first heard about it as an undergraduate in the early ’70s. His university tutor, Harry Porter, had once been on friendly terms with Violet Schiff.
Decades later, Davenport-Hines set out to write about Proust and the soiree. He tracked down clues in manuscript collections at the British Library and in the dusty memoirs of the glitterati.
Unsurprisingly, given the guests of honor, what he uncovered was anything but predictable.
The evening began not at the Hotel Majestic, but across town at the Opéra Garnier. The premiere of Stravinsky’s “Renard,” performed by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, had just ended. The 1,979-seat theater erupted in applause.
For the composer and his impresario, as well as their dancers and choreographers, the next stop was the lavish Hotel Majestic, where the Schiffs threw them an after-party.
Between 40 and 50 guests were soon mingling in a private salon at the Majestic. All eyes were on the stars of the evening, Stravinsky and Diaghilev.
But someone else caught people’s attention. While other guests were in full evening dress, this fellow had wrapped a faixa — a traditional Catalan sash — around his forehead. The bold sartorial statement probably reflected his desire to steal the show.
This was the great Picasso.
In Davenport-Hines’s estimation, the painter was “the most momentously arrogant and self-sufficient person there.” Ironically, no contemporaneous witness remembered a thing Picasso said or did during the soiree — thus relegating him to this colorful cameo.
But where were Joyce and Proust? By the time dinner was served, circa midnight, the authors still hadn’t shown up.
On the menu were “Russian hors d’oeuvres, caviar and other light delicacies,” followed by meat dishes that included “a leg of mutton with béarnaise sauce,” a “boeuf à la gelée” and “chicken financière.” For dessert, there was pineapple and truffle salad, as well as strawberry mousse.
After dessert came coffee. One of the guests, art critic Clive Bell, wrote in his memoir: “About coffee-time, appeared in the midst of the elegantly dressed throng someone dressed otherwise, someone a good deal the worse for wear.” Bell discerned that this bespectacled, mustachioed man seemed “far from well.”
James Joyce had just stumbled into the room. Since he was an alcoholic, he was likely inebriated. According to Bell, he sat down and remained mum. Meanwhile, according to his biographer Richard Ellmann, Joyce gulped booze to “cover his embarrassment” at being so grotesquely underdressed.
But the best was yet to come. Between 2 and 3 a.m., Bell looked on in awe as a “small dapper figure … clad in exquisite black with white kid gloves” walked in. Although the polar opposite of Joyce, he shared the Irishman’s profession. It was Proust.
Proust captured everyone’s imagination that night. Joyce would later remember him sporting a “fur coat,” resembling “the hero of ‘The Sorrows of Satan.’ ” For his part, Stravinsky was struck by his complexion: “as pale as a mid-afternoon moon.”
Proust abhorred sunlight. By the summer of 1922, he had been a recluse for years. It’s a miracle he overcame his neuroses to attend the soiree.
Proust sat next to Stravinsky and tried to strike up a conversation about classical music. “Doubtless you admire Beethoven,” inquired Proust. “I detest Beethoven,” retorted Stravinsky.
According to Bell, “the situation was tense.” But it got defused when, suddenly, strange guttural sounds resonated across the salon. Joyce was snoring.
Joyce eventually woke up and chatted with Proust. The Frenchman spoke first: “I have never read your works, Mr. Joyce.” In response, the Irishman showed him the same courtesy: “I have never read your works, Mr. Proust.” And that was that for their conversation.
At least that was one version of events. Fitting for a meeting of modernists and surrealists, the Joyce-Proust conversation was remembered differently in various accounts, and they all contradict one another.
So let’s rewind …
Joyce eventually woke up and chatted with Proust. According to Ford Madox Ford, an English writer who knew Joyce, the novelists were sitting on “two stiff chairs,” facing each other. Behind Proust were his excitable fans, behind Joyce his. If this sounds like the makings of a modernist rap battle, what ensued was actually far tamer.
After dissing their respective novels, the authors unexpectedly found common ground. Proust opened up about “a malady of the liver” that plagued him. Joyce interjected: “Tiens, Monsieur, I have almost exactly the same symptoms.” The two writers then spent the rest of the night in unison, waxing lyrical about their myriad ailments — real and imagined — until the break of dawn.
However, according to Violet Schiff, the soiree came to an end when Proust invited her and her husband back to his flat for a nightcap. They hopped into a taxi, only to find Joyce following them around like a puppy.
Inside the stuffy vehicle, Joyce cracked a window open. Blasphemy! Proust had a visceral aversion to fresh air and was convinced inhaling it would make him sick. Joyce then tried to score an invitation to Proust’s, but he was sent home.
The next time the writers crossed paths, Proust was in the ground. The Frenchman died six months to the day after that fateful soiree, and Joyce attended his funeral. The Irishman would join him in the hereafter in 1941, not long after the publication of his mammoth novel, “Finnegans Wake.”
Meanwhile, Diaghilev passed away from diabetes in 1929. Stravinsky continued composing and died in 1971.
As for Picasso, he outlived them all and gave up the ghost in 1973.
A hundred years later, the “soiree of the century” is more than just a droll footnote in the annals of art history. It showcases — in Davenport-Hines’s phrase — “the ruthless, crushing egotism of great creative intellects.”
Despite their fame and fortune, the soiree’s guests of honor still craved adulation like addicts. “What they all want to do is to perform themselves and to have applause,” said Davenport-Hines. He added with a smile, “And that, I think, is a model of how people behave still.”