October 25, 2014
People
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Italy
Her Venetian Mask

She was a beautiful French lawyer, who could walk for miles in her Manolo Blahniks. She changed our lives.

By Harriet Brand

“A thousand euro a night?” My husband Rick gasped as the desk clerk pointed to the price of the suite Jacqueline had reserved for us at The Danielli. “Without breakfast,” the clerk added.

The Danielli is one of the most beautiful hotels in the world, with its pink marble walls, stained glass windows, gold leaf columns and Murano glass chandeliers. Staying there was way beyond our budget.

If our hostess didn’t show up, we would be paying for this Venetian vacation for a long time.

We had been invited to Venice as guests of Jacqueline*, a French lawyer we had befriended when she rented an apartment from us in New York for her younger sister, Martine.

A Life-Changing Friendship

Meeting Jacqueline had changed our lives. Jacqueline, 35, and her two sisters, Scherazade, 25, and Martine, 24, were three of the most beautiful and urbane women I had ever met. They were tall and slender, and could walk for miles in Manolo Blahnik stilettos. Jacqueline, shapely in her couturier dresses (she favored plunging necklines) looked strikingly like Catherine Zeta Jones.

When Jacqueline periodically visited Martine and Martine’s boyfriend Christian in New York, she would take us to the city’s most expensive restaurants. She introduced us to caviar at Alain Ducasse, and to escargot at La Cirque. At Jacqueline’s dinners, the best French wines flowed. Evenings were always capped at the club of the moment, where we sat in the VIP room drinking bottles of Kristal.

Rick was smitten. To be surrounded by these sophisticated French women was a testosterone dream. Yet Jacqueline’s largesse made me uncomfortable. We had no way to reciprocate. She showered us with gifts, and always refused to let us pay.

Rick and I guessed that Jacqueline’s lavish lifestyle flowed from her family’s shipping business.

During our New York evenings, Jacqueline told us many stories about Carnivale in Venice. She loved the pageantry and spectacle. But I suspected that something else drew her. Carnivale, its roots in 13th century Europe, involves two weeks of processions, music and festivities, but is centered around the masquerade. The winding streets are the right setting for a festival centered around intrigue and concealed identity.

Musicians, acrobats, theatre troupes and revelers from all over the world participate in the dozens of masked balls and gala dinners. Dressing as royals from the Middle Ages is popular. Many of these events are very expensive, since they take place in museums and palaces, but Jacqueline had managed to secure admission for her 11 guests, all friends and family.

In Jacqueline’s Venice

Of course she showed up; why had I worried she wouldn’t? She also attended to every detail of our six-day visit. Within hours of her arrival, she was shepherding us along Venice’s twisting lanes to a costume shop.  There, among racks of 16th and 17th century costumes, she selected the personalities we were to assume for the week. For Rick, who loves naval history, she picked out an admiral’s uniform, with gold epaulets on the shoulders, six large gold buttons, and ballooning pantalets. With his tri-cornered hat and cloak, he looked like Lord Nelson.

I stepped into the shop as a middle-aged Manhattan mother, and stepped out navigating a hoop skirt nearly three feet wide. It was harder to maneuver than a truck, especially with a powdered wig on my head. A corset bound my chest so tightly that it was difficult to exhale, but it cinched my waist and lifted my breasts to heights they had not seen since I was 16. Around my waist, Jacqueline had tied a stiff, gauzy skeleton that sculpted a bell shape below my wide skirts. Above that were my layers of petticoats. My gown was the color of marigolds, and had a plunging neckline. With the addition of masks and cloaks, Rick and I became members of Jacqueline’s royal court.

On the way back to the hotel, Jacqueline and Christian pointed out the sights of Venice: the Piazza del Marco, already filled with hundreds of costumed revelers; the Grand Canal, where gondoliers in their black and white striped sweaters and ribboned hats waited for tourists.

At the Bridge of Sighs, Jacqueline stopped.

“This is my favorite spot in Venice,” she said dramatically, pointing to the stone bridge spanning the canal. “See those windows at the top? It’s where prisoners saw their last sight of freedom.  The bridge connects the palace to the prison.  Lord Byron said you could hear the sighs of the condemned as they walked stooped toward their fates.”

The rest of the week was a blur of masked balls, dinners and brunches, which we attended in period costume. I spent the week in a photographic frenzy, clicking at the 18th-century masquerade dresses crafted from shimmering fabrics of every hue. Costumers borrowed from the high fashion of the 1700s, and from the theatrical “Commedia dell’Arte style. Of course, no one was more elegant and beautiful than Jacqueline, who now reminded me of Olivia de Havilland, who played the sweet southern belle with backbone in “Gone With the Wind.”

Several months later, Martine and Christian moved back to Paris, promising they would return to spend Christmas as our guests in New York. On December 20th, the phone rang. I heard Christian’s voice, gasping through sobs.

“Jacqueline, that bitch,” he said. “She has destroyed my family.”

Slowly, he explained that Jacqueline had been accused by a major European bank of working with one of its officers to steal over $30 million euro over 10 years. The courts of Monte Carlo had ordered the incarceration of the whole family — except, he said, for Jacqueline, who had managed to escape.

*Some of the names in this story have been changed, to protect the privacy of the family.

When not traveling, Harriet Brand and her husband Rick run Brand Bed and Breakfast in New York City.

One comment about “Her Venetian Mask”

  1. Phill Danze says:

    What an intruiging story to read; thank you for sharing.

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