After checking into my hotel in an unknown city or district, one of the first things I like to do is take a walk around the block, just to see what is in the immediate vicinity before I get on a bicycle and venture further afield. By doing this I found the Mumm Champagne Company and Foujita’s chapel in Reims, for example, and the headquarters of the French Communist Party in the 19th district (arrondissement) of Paris.
Well, when I started walking down Rue Poussin from my hotel in Auteuil, in the far southwest corner of Paris, I knew I wouldn’t find any Communists this time, and in fact I had walked less than three hundred meters before I came across the exact opposite, namely the entrance to Villa Montmorency, a gated, guarded and walled-in community of over a hundred luxurious mansions for the ultra-rich.
The word Villa is often used in France to mean not just a free-standing house, but a gated community. For instance, I once peeped in through the gate of Villa Mozart in Passy, which rather impressed me at the time, but it turns out that Villa Mozart is a poverty zone compared to Villa Montmorency.
All you loyal readers of my Montmorency posts may recall that from the tenth to the seventeenth centuries, the town of Montmorency (now a northern suburb of Paris) was ruled by an aristocratic family of the same name, one of the most ‘distinguished’ and powerful families of the French nobility. Generation after generation, members of the Montmorency family were Sires, Cardinals, Bishops, Admirals, Generals, Regents, Constables of France, Marshals of France, Grand Officers of the Crown and Grand Masters of various knightly orders. And of course they were rich, and still are.
In 1822 the Duchess of Montmorency bought a ten-hectare tract of land in Auteuil, which at that time was not yet a part of Paris. In 1852, her heirs sold the land to a businessman and real estate investor named Emile Pereire (1800-1875), who proceeded to subdivide it and develop it as an exclusive neighborhood for the wealthy. He named it Villa Montmorency after its former owners, because theirs was one of the most prestigious names in French history.
In the 21st century there have been several waves of reports in the French media about a crisis in Villa Montmorency. One reason for this was that Bertrand Delanoë, who was the mayor of Paris from 2001 to 2014, was determined to make a start at overcoming the city’s social divide by building subsidized housing for the poor in all 20 districts of the city, including rich districts like the 7th and the 16th. (Auteuil is one of the four quarters of the 16th arrondissement.)
Construction of a subsidized apartment building on the site of the former Auteuil railway station, within sight of the Villa Montmorency, was blocked for several years because of law suits by the local (wealthy) citizenry, but when I was there in 2015 construction was again well underway.
At that time the city’s most exclusive real estate agencies were listing between fifteen and twenty-five mansions in Villa Montmorency that were supposedly up for sale (at inflated prices), but not everyone was convinced that the owners really wanted to sell and move out. Rumor had it that these owners were trying to reduce their French taxes by claiming to live in other countries, and were only putting their mansions up for sale (pro forma) to convince the French tax authorities that they really do live elsewhere.
Now, two years later, the dreaded subsidized housing project is finished and is populated by poor people who — surprise, surprise — have turned out to be perfectly orderly residents and are barely noticed by their more affluent neighbors.
By the way, you can see from my first photo that there is a speed limit of 25 km/h in Villa Montmorency, which I find interesting because rich motorists in France typically insist that they are entitled to drive at double that speed through other people’s neighborhoods.
These signs at the entrance say:
Circulation of pedestrians
and vehicles and parking
reserved for residents
for their visitors or for
their authorized suppliers
and their vehicles
Of course I did not attempt to enter the grounds of Villa Montmorency, but I did take this photo through the fence. I was not arrested for this, or even reprimanded.
A sunlit apartment building by the entrance. This building is not a part of Villa Montmorency, as far as I know.
Across the street there is a real estate agency called “La Villa Montmorency”, but I don’t know if it belongs to the Villa or is just cashing in on the name. In any case, it offers advice and free estimates in French and “Luxury French Properties” in English. (Perhaps they meant “luxurious”?)
While continuing my walk around the block from my hotel, which in this case meant walking around the outside of the Villa Montmorency, I came across an impasse (which in the UK would be called a “cul-de-sac” and in the US a “dead-end street”) called Rue Pierre Guérin.
On this modest-looking house at number 38 there is a plaque in English and Russian (but not in French, oddly enough) identifying the house as the final residence of Prince Felix Felixovich Yusupov. The plaque gives the full names, titles and dates of Yusupov and his wife, but omits the juicy details such as his habit of cross-dressing and his involvement in the murder of Grigori Efimovich Rasputin in December 1916.
The English text of the plaque reads: “This is the house of Prince Felix Felixovich Yusupov, Count Sumarokov-Elston born on March 23,1887, St Petersburg, Russian Empire who passed away here on September 27, 1967 married to Princess Irina Alexandrovna of Russia born on July 15, 1895, Peterhof, Russian Empire who also passed away here on 266 February 1970, the only daughter of Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich of Russia and Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna of Russia and the only niece of Tsar Nicholas II”
Looking down Rue Pierre Guérin, with the Yusupov House on the left. The stone wall on the right is (I believe) one of the outer walls of the Villa Montmorency.
My photos in this post are from 2015. I revised the text in 2017.
See also: The family and town of Montmorency, France