Audrey Hepburn arrived with her head inside a supersized birdcage. Giant “cats” (actually, butlers in costume) lined the entrance staircase and appeared to be sleeping—that is, until they greeted the incoming guests by pawing the walls. A disorienting labyrinth of black ribbons forced guests to find their way to the festivities. Fortunately, the lurking “cats” were there to rescue those who got lost. Dinner, complete with blue dinner rolls and plates covered in fur, was served on the body of a giant mannequin resting on a bed of fresh roses.
No, this was not your average dinner party. This was Marie-Hélène de Rothschild’s Surrealist Ball, one of the greatest parties of all time. A glamorous French socialite, Marie-Hélène, a member of the prominent Rothschild banking family, was known as one of Paris’ most notable 20th-century salonnieres. For years, her lavish fêtes, which always included an interesting mix of European nobility, artists, fashion designers, and Hollywood movie stars, were the hottest party ticket in France.
Held just outside Paris on December 12, 1972, Marie-Hélène’s Surrealist Ball is a testament to the power of a detail-oriented hostess, a game crowd of attendees, and a fabulous and fantastical theme. Inspired by the surrealist works of artists Salvador Dalí (in attendance, of course) and René Magritte, the Surrealist Ball began before it began, so to speak.
Upon receipt of the invitation, guests were transported into the party’s surrealist universe: the text, printed on a Magritte-inspired, cloud-filled, blue-sky card, was written backward so it had to be turned to a mirror to be read. The attire? The fortunate invitees were directed to wear “black tie, long dresses, and Surrealist heads.” And follow directions they did.
Perfume muse Hélène Rochas capped off her outfit with a giant gramophone. Baron Alexis de Redé wore an ingenious “two-faced” mask designed by Dalí, who was the only guest not dressed to the nines. The artist had either been too busy designing costumes for others or decided his signature look was surreal enough.
Another wore an apple in front of her face in honor Magritte’s “The Son of Man.” Yet another glamorous attendee wore a “remix” mask composed of parts of da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa”, making the painting’s subject appear at once more and less than her iconic self. Another doubled down on the directions with a head on top of another head, prompting party-goers to do delightful, well, double-takes.
A glamorous society couple sported faces painted in gold leaf (her) and a pattern to resemble a cloud-filled sky (him)—a nod to Madame Rothschild’s surrealist invitation, perhaps?
As for the hostess, Baroness Rothschild wore a fur-trimmed white dress and a stag’s head that was shedding real diamond tears.
The venue for the Surrealist Ball—Château de Ferrières, the Rothschild family home—was no less dreamlike than the party’s details. Considered to be the largest and most luxurious 19th-century château in France, Château de Ferrières, with its 80 guest suites, was built for entertaining. On this night in 1972, it was floodlit entirely with amber lighting, making it appear as though it was on fire.
Yes, it was a hot ticket, but the Surrealist Ball begs the question: can a party ever be too good? One socialite threatened suicide if she wasn’t invited to the next Rothschild party, or so the legend goes. A bit overly dramatic, perhaps, but also a testament to the power of a fantastical fête and the perfectionism of a legendary host.