His Excellency the Baron Andre Eduardo Massena D’Arnell Vil will very happily receive visitors on most afternoons at his Oak Lawn residence, but only if a proper appointment is made, giving him time to dress for the occasion, to clean and prepare the reception parlor, to dust the sword bestowed upon him by King Juan Carlos of Spain, adjust the bejeweled cigarette holder presented by King Farouk of Egypt, and position the crystal liqueur bottle given him by Queen Elizaheth at her coronation, and to have a proper conversation with Francesca, his “daughter.” a languorously regal housecat who has a tendency to stretch awkwardly at the feet of guests and dart under His Excellency’s feet while His Excellency is attempting to pour the tea.
His Excellency requires a cane these days, he shakes a bit, and he complains occasionally about not being able to remember dates and places, like the precise year he decided to make his permanent home in Dallas, but he has never forgotten that there are certain proprieties in this world that must always be observed, without exception, without fail. “1 know it may sound silly,” he says, beaming from beneath a perfectly groomed thatch of white hair, “but on days when I’m having a bad time of it, when I feel sick and depressed, I can walk over to the park, or out into the courtyard, and meditate, and simply say my name with authority- “You are the Baron Andre Eduardo,’ etcetera, etcetera-and as 1 say that I will square my shoulders, sit up straight, and I will be strong again. My mother was a German princess’- he laughs, and the lines around his eyes spray in all directions-“and she had that horrible guttural German accent. I can’t stand the sound of German. And she was like the Gestapo. I can hear her now. You are selfeesh. You are inconseederate.’ But she never let me forget that I have the guardianship of the family name. When everything else is gone, you still have that.”
In fact, most of the vast holdings of His Excellency’s barony are gone, including the original ancestral estate in France (awarded by Napoleon but lost after the second World War), a castle in Heidelberg (seized by the Nazis), vast lands near Madrid (nationalized by Franco)-everything, in fact, except a 400-room mansion in Nottinghamshire, boarded up since last year when His Excellency’s mother died there, “You can’t keep those places open anymore.” he says. “because of taxes. Not that I would want to. Europe is dead for me. I’ll never go back. I remember a gay Europe, an elegant Europe, the Paris of Edith Piaf and Maxim’s-not the Europe where people can’t walk the streets in safety. I don’t want to see that. I would rather live with my memories. The European nobility are all dead and dying anyway. Last Christmas I think I got three cards from Europe. It’s not there anymore.”
On the day the Baron received me, he was mildly perturbed because an acquaintance had failed to show up to take him to the grocery store, and he was forced to serve instant cappuccino and smoked oysters, the only things he could find in the pantry. “That person,” he said with finality, “will never again set foot in this apartment. She ignored her obligation.”
His Excellency is given to such pronouncements-pronouncements about the decline of civilization, pronouncements about the failure ol’ the Catholic Church, pronouncements about human cruelly, pronouncements about the lack of manners in young people-but there is something about the way he makes them that convinces you he’s a softie underneath. For most of his sixty-one years he has risen each morning and put on a freshly pressed suit, fastened his necktie with one of his 400 ornate stickpins, and sallied forth in a quest for gaiety. He has always been gregarious, making friends quickly and easily, as comfortable in the American Midwest as at the royal court of Morocco. Traveling cross country by train in the Fifties, the Baron stopped in Wichita. Kansas, to visit the family of a friend-and stayed ten years. As a fourteen-year-old boy, living with his mother in Heidelberg, he would sometimes sneak off to Rome with his friends, “even (hough we knew we’d catch hell from the Gestapo when we got back.” It was all part of growing up in the privileged leisure class of pre-war Europe, a class that had intermarried across borders so many times that they were really a people without nationality, citizens of all Europe, guardians of a fading, doomed aristocracy,
His Excellency witnessed the change at close range, when the family estate was taken over by the Allied armies during World War II and the “big house’-where he was living at the time-was used as American and British officers’ quarters. It was ail a grand adventure-the teenaged baron-to-be mixed with the officers and, in a few cases, made friends for life-but after the war he could see his world was forever changed. The only two countries that acted with dignity, he thought, by respecting his family’s title and property, were England and the United States. His debt to England he tried to repay by enlisting in the Coldstream Guards and fighting in the Mau Mau War of Kenya, where an exploding land mine cost him his hearing in one ear. “I hated it,” he says, gesturing rapidly with his hands, as he has ever since learning sign language in the Sixties. “I hate all war. But I would do the same for the United States if they needed my help”
On March 17, 1954-a day more important to him than his own birthday-the Baron became the Baron. He came into his guardianship on the death of his father. His first order of business was to marry the love of his life-the beautiful opera singer Amelia Magri. Unfortunately, his mother didn’t approve. “Theatrics!” she shouted. “You would mix your title with theatrics!” The Baron pleaded tor his mother’s blessing, arguing that Miss Magri, then at the height of her career, had performed for the Swedish king, had been featured by the BBC. and had a permanent invitation to appear on Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town” variety show- was, in short, an artist and not a mere actress. But his mother was unmoved, and so infuriated by the idea of having a working actress in the family, that Miss Magri agreed to retire from the stage, even though she was only in her twenties. It didn’t help the Baron’s disposition. He was still embittered by his mother’s attitude, and informed her that they would be married in America, away from the hypocrisy of her old-school friends.
Miss Magri had Just two final concerts: La Traviata in Athens, and a BBC telecast. She never made it to either place. In 1956. on the day of her scheduled performance in Greece, the Baron received a telegram in New York. She had died suddenly and mysteriously, of a brain hemorrhage. Thal same day, the Baron says, his hair turned the purest white, and has remained so ever since. That night he slit his wrists, but botched the job and survived. Within a week he was asking for an audience with Pope Pius XII.
“I didn’t know where else to go,” he says, “I was a lapsed Catholic. I really didn’t believe in a God that would let my Amelia die. And so I used my title to gel an audience. Those magic words ’His Excellency’ still carry a great deal of influence in Europe. So I used that. When I finally got in there I said simply, ’How could this happen? Why? Never sick a day in her life. Why did it happen this way?” And I’ll never forget what that silly cow said to me. He pointed his finger at me, raised his finger, I should have bit it off if I ’d known what he was going to say. He said. ’Oh. Your Excellency, we must never question the wisdom of God.” And 1 looked at him, standing there in his white frock, and 1 said, ’I’m very disappointed.’ And he said ’Why. my son?” And I said, ’Because I expected a better answer from the leader of my church.’ And he ended the audience very quickly. I suppose he was embarrassed. And religion left me that day and flew right out the windows of the Vatican, and I have never again set fool inside the Catholic Church.”
His love for Amelia Magri continues to this day, and he has in his parlor several keepsakes of hers. His restlessness after his fiancee’s death carried him across Europe and much of the United States, seeking companionship, new places, trying to recapture the lost innocence of the Thirties. He never found it again, but in the late Fifties one of his closest friends, an American officer who had lived with the Baron’s family during the war, suffered an almost identical tragedy when his wife died. The two old friends decided to share a bachelor’s apartment, and moved to Dallas together in 1%9. When the friend contracted cancer seven years ago. the Baron used much of his remaining fortune to pay for chemotherapy and other medical bills, until death came a year ago. Shortly thereafter, the Baron was diagnosed as having Parkinson’s disease. “The doctor said the stress of taking care of him caused me to blow a fuse. I’m all screwed up now. 1 hope you aren’t embarrassed by it.”
The disease itself, with its attendant tremors, speech difficulties, and slow, jerky gait, is not the Baron’s problem. “No matter how bad it gets, I’ve been able to train myself to deal with it.” He no longer has a household staff of thirty-seven, as he once did in Europe-but his apartment remains spotless, because he spends two hours a day doing the cleaning himself. He cooks for himself and is self-sufficient in almost every way. His real problem has been nothing physical, but his discovery that many people no longer want him around. At a well-known Oak Lawn cabaret, an establishment he had frequented for over a year, sometimes lipping waiters as much as $100 at a time, he was asked never to return after it was determined that “his shaking bothers some of the customers.” One day, while walking near Turtle Creek, he had a palsy attack more violent than usual, and fell down. He remained on the ground, waiting for the shaking to subside, and two joggers jumped over his legs rather than help him to his feet. “It’s the shaking,” says the Baron. “People don’t want to see it. They don’t want to see me, even though I’m still here. I’m still a citizen. But it’s an embarrassment,”
Always a sentimental man, prone to easy tears, the Baron noticed a newscast one night in which a person with AIDS had been evicted from his apartment. Stung by the injustice of it, remembering the way his old friend had been treated by ignorant people who believed they could catch cancer from being near him, he decided to register as an AIDS-patient volunteer, even though “I can’t stand the swishy ones. Noel Coward never acted that way. Edith Piaf never acted, that way. They were homosexuals too, but they were dear people.” The Dallas Gay Alliance is located Just a fifteen-minute walk from the Baron’s apartment, but he allowed three hours to get there on a Sunday afternoon- and was still a few minutes late. “I fell once over on Lemmon, and that set me back, or I would have made it.” Once there, he signed up as a volunteer-and was never called back or notified. A few weeks later, infuriated that the DGA continued to request volunteers, he took a cab to the offices, yelled that the people there were “hypocrites.” caused a scene, and went directly to the Oak Lawn Counseling Center, where he was put to work immediately. Ever since then, when he’s able, the Baron sweeps up, washes windows, and helps prepare meals at one of the AIDS care facilities, “If these people would just realize it,” he said, “everybody can do something. But those first people didn’t want me the way lam. They didn’t want my shaking, either.”
Embarrassed by these rejections, the Baron spends more and more time in his apartment. Occasionally he has been invited to church services, but he’s just about given that up, too, ever since he went to a Church of Christ prayer meeting and was accepted with open arms-until he told them he worked at the AIDS center. “They told me, these religious people told me AIDS was disgusting,” he says. “They said I should be supporting Scottish Rite Hospital instead. And so I told this one woman, this silly cow, ’Madam, I have been supporting Scottish Rite for seventeen years! Talk about some thing you have knowledge of!’ They actual ly told me that AIDS was God’s way of cleaning the earth of homosexuals and pros titutes. And so I asked them to explain the two-year-old girl with AIDS, right here in Dallas. I guess God’s trying to cleanse us of her, too. I sent them a routine note after the meeting, thanking them for their hospitali ty, and it was returned unopened, with a message that said something to the effect that you can’t be too careful about diseases. This is why 1 hate religion. I’m sorry about it. because it’s making me bitter, and I don’t like to he that way. I never was that way. But there is a disease much worse than AIDS or cancer. It’s inhumanity. It’s cruelty. And it’s in these religious people that you find it. It makes me very lonely.”