9 May 2020

Tribute to an Old Etonian

Above: my interview of Clement von Franckenstein (Boulevard France magazine July/Aug 1996 issue) on his role as President of France opposite Michael Douglas and Annette Bening in The American President (director: Rob Reiner)


“Barbara, is your couch free?” The resonant voice on our answering machine with its distinctive English accent belonged to Clement von Franckenstein, the “c” dropped by a certain Mary Shelley writing a first novel. He was heading to England from Los Angeles, his adopted home - but first, a quick stop in Paris.

We’d met in the late 80s at a New Year’s party in LA. I was between husbands on hiatus from Europe, about to spend a year in San Francisco. The host was a friend of my daughter’s self-appointed godfather, British author, explorer, poet - and near-miss member of the House of Lords (he refused to pay the £10,000 “ridiculous” fee "on principle") - Michael Alexander. No sooner had our small group made its entrance when Clem, as we came to call him, dapper in a tuxedo, shot over to greet us. He'd recognize "Eurotrash" anywhere he said, adding wryly, "Join the club!" When Michael told him he’d known his father, Baron (later Sir George) von Franckenstein, Austrian Ambassador to the Court of St. James, it was like a gift from above. Clement had lost both of his parents in a tragic plane accident when he was just nine and had little recollection of them. He came to love Michael, who would recount to him details from that friendship that Clem greatly cherished - and on whose London couch he was crashing when Michael passed away in late 2004.

Trained opera-singer-turned-actor, Clem played cricket in the shadow of the Hollywood sign alongside Julian Sands and was friends with Billy Idol’s mother. On the Gallic front digestifs, Bordeaux wines, Renoir and Yves Montand topped his list. He approved of my French husband, adored daughter Danielle (in a happy coincidence they were once cast as father and daughter in the same film) and was a staple at many family events. His address book throbbed with A-listers and rock stars, and no matter what day of the year we’d land in LA, he'd be off to yet another private bash that same evening, and invite us along: parties in gated mansions overlooking city lights or the ocean, catered rooftop soirées where the hired musicians might sound exactly like The Beach Boys... because they were.

One of my favorite Clem stories was the time he asked me to be his guest at the Viennese Opera Ball to be held at the Beverly Wilshire. We knew it would be quite the occasion but were unprepared for the sheer number of tiaras and felt slightly under dressed. Still, holding our heads high, we entered the Grand Ballroom and waited our turn to be announced as the other guests - including actor Joseph Cotten and an assortment of international glitterati - had been. “Miss Barbara Pasquet James and the Baron Clement von Franckenstein!” As we walked in, flanked by a lineup of smiling onlookers, a woman in a red gown (that "made her look like a London bus" Clem was to quip later) was overheard loudly telling her apparently hard-of-hearing husband, “Honey, that's the name of that monster!” Clem stopped in his tracks and, with all eyes upon him, calmly turned to face her. "My dear Madam," he boomed in his most engaging theatrical voice, "Frankenstein was the doctor!”

Years later over lunch at the Chelsea Arts Club's communal table in London where James Whistler had entertained Monet, Clem said to me, thoughtfully, “You know Barbara, had you married me you’d be the Baroness Von Franckenstein!” I told him it was tempting, pointing out that I wasn't "buxom" (one of many Clem terms) enough for his tastes. And we couldn't stop laughing.

But Clement was, as Michael used to say, "not husband material." An insatiable ladies man, in 2001 he found himself on People Magazine's "50 most eligible bachelors in America" list along with Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett and Matt Damon. He was that rarity in life, a devoted and true friend. He was offensive, hilarious, debonair, outrageous and generous, all at the same time. He could burst into a flurry of insults if cut off in traffic as easily as a litany of limericks. He was in over 80 movies, mostly under-the-radar roles, but for us, his biggest and most starring role was being part of our lives. - BPJ

Clement von und zu Franckenstein
May 9, 2019

He talked too loud. He drank too much. He cursed like a sailor. But he also sang like an angel, let strangers crash on his couch, and cried like a baby when his kitten was sick. He offended some, charmed many, but was forgotten by none.” - From one of his many friends
Below: at Michael Alexander's wake in London w/me, Danielle; Clem helms magnificent Christmas Day lunch in the English countryside; at Berlin red carpet film festival (w/George Clooney, his dear friend Tilda Swinton, Ethan Cohen, Alden Ehrenreich, Josh Brolin, Channing Tatum, producer Robert Graf); joining us in Cadaqués, Spain, his hair dyed blonde for a film role; photographed w/one of his paintings in his LA home last year, one of the last times we were to be with him

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