The elegant life of a bygone era is recreated in “La Vie Elégante”, in which legendary broadcaster Robert Trout explores some of Manhattan’s famous town houses and mansions. He traces their architectural development and the life of the social elite who dwelled in them.
The tour begins at the former mansion of Andrew Carnegie—now a branch of the Smithsonian Institution. Trout departs in vintage style, in a 1929 Duesenberg driven by a liveried chauffeur. In lower Manhattan he recounts the life cycle of the Stephen De Lancey house, now restored as Fraunces Tavern, the place where Washington bid farewell to his officers. He cites the Leonard W. Jerome House–built by Sir Winston Churchill’s maternal grandfather–which is now demolished, So, too, was the fate of the four town houses build by Isaac V. Brokaw at Fifth Avenue and 79th Street for his family—one modeled after the 16th Century Chateau de Chenonceaux.
As each building is profiled, Trout provides intriguing details about the owners of these mansions, as well as the men who planned and designed them: The work of Carrere & Hastings, who later planned the New York Public Library and of McKim Mead & White whose Fifth Avenue house built for Payne Whitney has an entry foyer that evokes the mood of a circular Roman Temple.
These are just a few of the splendid structures that harken back to a time of opulence and luxury. Step inside the doors and witness further extravagances, as the film recreates a chamber music concert in the Villard Houses, now part of the New York Palace Hotel, imagines an evening of entertainment and dining in the 1920s home of Isaac Brokaw’s daughter and a ballroom fantasy in the Florentine-style mansion built for financier Otto Kahn. “La Vie Elégante” provides a fascinating glimpse into a time when those who built the economy were more than willing to flaunt their wealth. This all contrasts with today’s standard of living with the gilded age of formality swept aside by the age of mobility.