The superbly crafted, well-researched book The House of Fragile Things swirls around the themes of entanglements and attachments. Author James McAuley focuses on four Jewish families who belonged to the French grand bourgeoisie in the late nineteenth century. They were deeply entwined with one another, through the bonds of marriage, through the exclusiveness of a Right Bank neighborhood, and through the full calendar of their social lives. The Camondos, the Cahens d’Anvers, the Reinachs, and the Rothschilds all also felt a deep attachment to the Third Republic; its ideal of civic equality, transcending differences of religion and race, inspired feelings of intense and unwavering loyalty. Until the military defeat in 1940, the patriotism of these privileged citizens seemed to be reciprocated. They were blessed with unimpeded opportunities to acquire and transfer wealth, and they could adopt with almost no ridicule the habits and practices of the nation’s most venerable Catholic grandees. This social success was achieved despite the sting of antisemitic attacks from the scurrilous press, and despite the eruption of the Dreyfus affair.
Thus the members of the Jewish upper caste could surround themselves with elegant furnishings and could devote themselves to the collection of works of art. None other than Renoir could be hired as a portraitist. His painting of Mlle Irène Cahen d’Anvers (1880), which is reproduced as a color plate and on the dust jacket of McAuley’s book, is as riveting as its fate. After the fall of France, the collector who briefly seized the portrait was Hermann Göring. When the sitter managed to survive the war, she got the painting back, but then she sold it to a German-born Swiss arms manufacturer who had collaborated with the Nazis. The painting now hangs in Zurich. A photograph of “la petite Irène,” taken in 1958, five years before her death, serves to illustrate this book. A painting from childhood and a photo taken in old age devastates in their revelation of the ravages of time. Fragility indeed.
Across about three-quarters of a century, McAuley deftly tracks the genealogical links, the sheltered lives, and the aesthetic indulgences that great wealth permitted. These families relished the thickness of material belongings, but were far less prey to spiritual longings. Their dedication to Judaism was usually modest — rarely explicitly repudiated, but not cultivated either. The happy endings were very few; Nissim de Camondo, the beloved son of the patriarch Moïse de Camondo, was killed fighting in the First World War. His sister, who was married to Léon Reinach, died in Auschwitz three decades later. The death certificate that McAuley found for Louise Béatrice de Camondo notes: “Mort pour la France.” She did not die for France however, the author insists. “If anything, she died because of France, and specifically because she had been Jewish in France.” Such attachments proved to be lethal.