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It's only a 15-minute speech at Cafe de France, but Jane Robert's been rewriting it in her head for a month now.
All she has to do is tell members of the Alliance Française and the Société Française about the imminent visit of a charming young prince, Louis de Bourbon, descendant of St. Louis' namesake and legitimist heir to the throne of France.
But she has to do it on July 14.
At a dinner celebrating Bastille Day.
The day Frenchmen stormed a medieval fortress on the east edge of Paris and loosed the tide of republican revolution against the Bourbon monarchy.
"That was his family," winces Robert. "This is very awkward."
She has only herself to blame: Bringing the prince to St. Louis was her brainstorm, back in May 1999. She read an interview with him in France-Amerique, the U.S. edition of Figaro, and realized that not only did he know all the right people in France and Spain (King Juan Carlos is a first cousin once removed), but he represented, in royal flesh, our city's cultural and historical roots. We could start the new millennium by inviting him to the annual Aug. 25 French Mass in honor of his ancestor King Louis IX, she thought.
Friends from the Alliance Française (of which Robert is president), the Société Française and the St. Louis-Lyons Sister Cities Committee hailed the idea as brilliant, then fell silent. Would he come?
Robert read them the France-Amerique interview, in which the 26-year-old prince said he was determined to represent the Bourbon family legacy and eager explore its cultural manifestations in other countries. Then she reminded them that he also happened to be an aspiring international banker eager to make social and commercial connections in the U.S. Besides, she noted, our city was named for Louis IX, with whom he shares an April 25 birthday....
Determined, she called her friend Jean-Louis Turlin, the publisher of France-Amerique, who connected her with the Bourbon publishing house. She invited its publisher and editor to lunch with her at La Mangeoire, in Paris' 14th arrondissement, that July. By the time the créme brûlée arrived, they'd agreed to convey her proposal to the prince. By October, he'd accepted.
Ecstatic, Robert flew into action, planning how St. Louis would entertain the prince. Everyone she asked to help -- from the University of Missouri-St. Louis to the mayor to Georgia Frontiere, owner of the Rams -- acceded instantly. The itinerary started out stiffly formal but quickly spun into something younger and more casual. "He's a jock," says Robert with a grin. "He plays ice hockey for a club in Spain, and rugby; he goes kayaking and canyoning and horseback riding and rafting." They arranged a box for the baseball Cardinals, drafted the Young Entrepreneurs Organization and the Young Friends of the Art Museum. No hotel, no limo; he could stay at one of the historic mansions on Lindell Boulevard, and people from St. Louis' French community could drive him.
The prince was delighted.
Louis de Bourbon, duc d'Anjou and head of the House of Bourbon, will arrive in St. Louis on Wednesday, Aug. 23. A young St. Louis couple, Russell and Ann Perry, were initially drafted to "take him down to Balaban's that evening and just kind of hang out," reports Russell Perry. "But then we thought he could fly down to Dallas in (Georgia Frontiere's) jet, see a preseason Rams game and fly back."
The next morning, Robert's husband and son will take the prince to Old Warson Country Club for a round of golf. Friday evening, Archbishop Justin Rigali, whose diplomatic responsibilities in Rome polished his French, will say the Mass of St. Louis at the Old Cathedral. Saturday morning, the prince will tour Ste. Genevieve and the French-heritage corridor. Saturday evening he'll attend a gala fundraiser at the University Club, with proceeds going to Alliance Française tuition and scholarships. (The $175 tickets are being snapped up by local dignitaries, monarchists and mothers of single daughters.)
On Sunday, if all goes well in the archives of France, the prince will present Rigali with a relic of Louis IX at the St. Louis Basilica. Then he'll be whisked off for the best photo op of all: a big prince (6-foot-4 or so) alongside a 9-year-old Little Prince, star of Antoine de Saint-Exupery's famous play. It's being staged by Characters and Company in Kirkwood, and Louis de Bourbon will answer questions from children in the audience.
"What if they can't come up with any?" asked a nervous committeewoman. "Tell them to ask if he wears a cape," Robert suggested brightly, explaining that he comes from the Capetian family, descendants of the ninth-century French king who styled himself Hugh Capet (Hugh the Caped). "The mayor of Kirkwood should be there, in a tie," she continued. "We should all dress up. And the prince should always be the last to enter -- or, better yet, he could go backstage and talk to the cast first and then come out. That's how they did it in Britain with the queen of Belgium."