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Crown Jewels

Neither rain nor infernal heat wilted the grand coiffures of the American Friends of Versailles, when they gathered Saturday for a benefit at the palace. Instead, the soft evening sunlight -- day lasts until nearly 10:30 p.m. at the height of the...

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Neither rain nor infernal heat wilted the grand coiffures of the American Friends of Versailles, when they gathered Saturday for a benefit at the palace. Instead, the soft evening sunlight -- day lasts until nearly 10:30 p.m. at the height of the French summer -- bathed couture gowns in a golden light and sparkled through the big jewels.

The biggest gems of all belonged to Nancy Kissinger. When she arrived -- so tall, so straight-backed -- in the gardens, the sunshine set her huge diamond and sapphire necklace ablaze. It was visible from 50 feet away.

Suddenly, for perhaps the first time since the Revolution, all of Versailles was abuzz with an "affair of the diamond necklace" -- as one foiled plot against Louis XVI's sad queen was known.

"I told Nancy, `You've brought back the time of Marie Antoinette,"' said Arnold Scaasi. "She said, `I hope the same thing doesn't happen to me."'

When asked, Kissinger downplayed the regal comparison, demurring so as not to be thought "decadent." In fact, she didn't want to dwell on the sparkler at all.

"You'll have to ask Henry," she replied when asked about its provenance.

"It's from India," rumbled her husband, Henry Kissinger.

For a special occasion?

"It was for an anniversary," he continued, slowly. "That's special."

Dinner followed at the Grand Trianon. A touch gaudy at high noon, the yellow and pink marble pavilion was beautiful in the fading light. U.S. Ambassador Howard Leach and his wife, Gretchen, Susan Gutfreund, Audrey Gruss, Laure de Beauvau Craon, Lee Radziwill and the organization's chairwoman, Catharine Hamilton, whose prodigious efforts made the evening possible, lingered in the colonnade before going in.

There was also a real American dowager on hand: Florence van der Kamp, the Brooke Astor of Versailles. Van der Kamp and her late husband, U.S. ambassador Gerald van der Kamp, were the first Americans to aggressively solicit donations for Versailles, and the millions they raised set the bar for subsequent charities. So she was mad as a wet hen at the suggestion, expressed by some outside observers, that her organization has grown "sleepy" and is being overtaken by the American Friends.

"I am indignant," she clucked, citing the $20 million she's brought to Versailles' coffers, as well as $25 million more she raised to restore Monet's gardens at Giverny. Clearly Van der Kamp, like Queen Elizabeth, isn't ready to abdicate. And she politely makes clear that no heir apparent will unsettle her from the palace."Versailles is a big place," she said. "I'm glad there's another tax deduction."

Meanwhile -- as the future belongs to the young -- the night really belonged to the little buddies of the American Friends. Some of them had barely outgrown their deb dresses, including presidential niece and budding international social butterfly Lauren Bush, whose first trip to Paris was last year for the International Debutante's Ball. Unlike the jaded matrons of the benefit circuit, Bush and her young friends were giddy about the evening -- and still full of big ideas.

"I haven't taken French at school yet," said Bush, after gushing about the party. "But I plan to after this.""

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