Meet Pierre-Andre Helene, passionate storyteller and Paris lover
Pierre-André Hélène is one of the greatest connoisseurs of Paris’ history and a close partner of ArtLuxury Experience. Recognized for his expertise and his talent as a speaker, he holds some of the exceptional guided tours organized by ArtLuxury Experiences, such as the ones at the Opera Garnier and Païva’s private mansion, and allowed us to privatize Maxim’s museum for exceptional events. We met him for a dinner in an exquisite private place at the heart of Paris, the Cercle de l’Union Interalliée…
Good evening Pierre-André.
Good evening !
To begin, could you introduce yourself in a few words ?
In short, I would say that I am a storyteller. This is what I really enjoy doing – telling beautiful stories so that people who listen can learn things in an entertaining way. And it is extremely rewarding because when I finish telling a long story, people tell me they could have listened to me for hours. It shows that a good story works for all ages. So if I had to introduce myself I would definitely say that I am a storyteller. From there, I have done lots of things in my life such as guided tours in Paris, writing, acting, tv shows, radio programs for 8 years and leading Maxim’s museum, of course.
What was your career path, from your academic background to the different jobs you practiced ?
I am a really bad example, an example not to follow (laughs). I have quite never used the knowledge I have acquired at the university. I did a Master in Business Law at Assas (ed : a renowned French university) but never used it because I was not interested in law. Then, I have done a Master in History of Art which was, I have to admit, really more interesting. Though I quickly realized that History of Art offers little work opportunity, so the question was therefore : « What could I possibly do ? ».
In this regard, I like to quote Jean d’Ormesson (ed : a French essayist). He willingly tells about the time his father asked him « Boy, what will you do with your life ? » and Jean d’Ormesson answered : « Nothing, of course ! ». This is exactly the answer I would have liked to tell but unfortunately I was not wealthy enough… and nobody ever asked me this question actually (laughs) ! So as I could not afford to do nothing, I thought « What job could give me the impression to do nothing ? ». That is how I started organizing guided tours in Paris, because telling stories sounded easy to me – and actually it took me 15 years to realize it was a genuine talent.
I did this for 17 years, and then one day I met Pierre Cardin completely by chance. He showed me a depot where he stored all kinds of Art Nouveau furniture and artefacts. One could walk on the furniture, literally. It was stored in a disorderly way, with furniture pieces piled one on top of the other. During the visit, I was saying « this piece is very famous, this piece was made by this artist etc. »… and eventually I told him that he had to do something with this treasure. He answered : « That is a fantastic idea, and you are precisely the one in charge of doing it ! ». And this is how I built up Maxim’s art collection, of which I took care for 13 years until Pierre Cardin decided, at the age of 95, to cease this activity.
So I first did guided tours during which I told stories about more than 250 different themes relating to the history of Paris. I also organized more than 70 cultural trips, especially about the life of Toulouse-Lautrec (ed : French painter and poster artist who happens to be Pierre-Andre’s wife ancestor), in Prag, in Vienna… Véronique (ed : Pierre-Andre’s wife) is a singer so we organized a lot of concerts too : we went to the Avignon Festival, we created a tribute concert to French singer and Toulouse-Lautrec’s muse Yvette Guilbert…
I have been a chronicler in the radio program Voix contre oreille (ed : Voice at the ear) for 8 years too. It was a lot of fun because I had no idea of the topic I would have to address before entering the studio. I had 10 minutes to discover it and find something interesting to say relating to both the topic and the history of Paris. A good way to demonstrate my improvisation skills.
I also appeared on a few historical TV shows all around the world. I have done 3 TV shows for the Japanese NHK, 3 others for the BBC and even shows for Al Jazeera, for German TV etc.
Of course I wrote several books – my main book is about France’s major hotels and palaces.
And today ?
Today I have a YouTube channel (ed : L’Histoire sans Secret, or « History without secrets »), I drive around in my Rolls-Royce, and I work on many projects… Voilà !
So you began your career with visits of Paris… according to you, what makes this city so unique ?
It is definitely because in the eyes of the whole world, Paris is the city of love and romance… and the Parisians do not even realize that. This is why everybody comes to Paris. Those who think that Paris remains the top world destination because of its monuments, its History or its gastronomy are all wrong ! If Paris remains the top world destination it is because the city embodies love and romance. In that regard, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris was very relevant… and I have quite a funny story about him !
I welcomed Woody Allen for 2 hours at Maxim’s. Actually, I welcomed 3 famous film directors at Maxim’s : Stephen Frears, to whom I lent furniture for his movie Chéri, Robert Zemeckis and Woody Allen. And when Woody Allen came at Maxim’s with his crew, I only spoke to the first assistant director because Woody Allen was standing aside, listening to nothing, looking at nothing, probably thinking of something else. After 2 hours they left the place and I noticed this incredible phenomenon. His crew split in two – like the Red Sea in the Ten Commandments – so that Woody Allen could reach the door and tell me the one and only word I would ever hear from his mouth « au revoir » (laughs)…
Did he shoot scenes at Maxim’s ?
Yes, indeed. When Owen Wilson goes back in time to the Belle Epoque (ed : the Golden Age in France, a period from the end of the 19th century to the eve of the First World War), the car takes him to Maxim’s. So it seems like Woody Allen liked the place, eventually… I keep this story for my memoirs (laughs).
What are your favorite places in Paris ?
Without a doubt and in first place, I would say the Opera Garnier. It’s a marvelous place. Professionally, the Opera is great visit, a total fairy tail. The Ghost (ed: of the Opera) is an extraordinary story to tell, by the way based on a true story! So it mixes up magic, reality… It’s fantastic!
Beyond that, there are plenty of marvelous places in Paris. I certainly have a preference for the “Hôtel de Soubise” which is partly used by the National Archives in the Marais. It is a sumptuous palace built in 1704 with gorgeous inside decorations, with nobody inside. L’Hôtel de Soubise is Versailles but even better, because it is Versailles without hordes of tourists.
What is the History of this Hotel ?
So this hotel was built between 1704 and 1709 for the Prince and the Princess of Soubise who came from Lorraine to settle in Paris. They bought the old Hotel de Guise and almost totally destroyed it – because we must not forget that “Ancient” doesn’t exist at this time. Only they didn’t have any money. Madame de Soubise, as an intelligent woman, started a relationship with King Louis XIV. And Saint-Simon said : ”Madame de Soubise wore some nights an emerald ornament to indicate to the king that her husband was absent” and he added “Thanks to the husband’s intelligence, and the know-how of his wife, expenses, pensions, benefits and hats, rained all over the house”. We assume that this relationship ended a few moments after the building was finished being paid (laughs)… This is what I should tell in “L’Histoire sans secret” ! (ed: his YouTube Channel)
Talking about historical anecdotes, what is your favorite one from Maxim’s ?
Oh… It is true that there are a lot of them! But maybe the one about the famous benches.
In the main hall, there were leather benches, which stayed there from 1898 when the decoration was made, to 1959. They were back then sixty years old – also let’s say they were extremely « authentic » and it was time to change them (laughs). Hence, workers came to replace them, thinking about nothing. But each time they pulled off one, they heard tinkling on the floor what remained stuck between the back and the bottom of the benches: Louis d’or, rings, diamonds… but the courtesans would not pick them because they knew that the morning after they would have twice more (laughs) !
So what will we find in twenty years when we will move ours ? Some used credit cards, it will be much less funny (laughs) !
What is your definition of luxury ?
As a personal statement, I would say that luxury is the gathering of things that makes my happiness complete. Now a more general definition would be hard to express. Because luxury is not an accumulation of expensive things, but certainly the fact of having the opportunity to have access to exceptional and extraordinary things. It can mean Time, more material things, and so much more…
So to you, what would be the greatest luxury ?
Leaving without caring about where I go, driving my Rolls Royce…
Any future projects ?
I am full of it !
I am preparing two books with an editor from whom I’m still waiting for the answer. I will also write a new play for someone else. In a year and a half, I will go on stage again for a one-man show. I have an exhibition on Sarah Bernhardt in 7 cities in Japan in 2018-2019, and going to Japan makes me so happy because I’ve never been to and it has to be an amazing experience. Here are my projects for the next two years…
Do you have a motto ?
My favorite one is : “Modesty is such an extraordinary quality that, with it you have to be extremely generous and to leave it entirely to the others…” (laughs)
From who is it ?
It is mine of course! It is not even from Sacha Guitry (laughs)
Pierre-André, thank you so much for this interview !
I was delighted to share this moment with you. Thank you very much.
Want to learn more about this incredible storyteller ? Check our offers to visit the Opera Garnier and Païva’s private mansion, with Pierre-André as your guide.