David Bruce being knighted in Burgundy in 1951
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The man who liberated the Ritz

David Bruce: “the last American aristocrat” renowned for his oenophilia

This article is taken from the December/January 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

I am indebted to Professor Kenneth Weisbrode, the historian and biographer of ambassador David Bruce, for reminding me that not only was this consummate diplomat legendary for his grace and his elegance, for his wit and for his unique triple crown as the United States’s plenipotentiary to France, Germany and Great Britain, but that “the last American aristocrat” was also renowned for his oenophilia.

A scion of the Old South, by the time of his birth Bruce’s inheritance was already gone with the wind and he was obliged, with a little help from his family name, to make his own way in the world. America’s entry into the First World War helped him get as far as Paris by the time he was 20. It was there he began a love affair that was to last the rest of his life.

He at least had the consolation of 93 bottles of Mouton Rothschild 1945

David Bruce fell for France: its language, its haute cuisine, its art and architecture, its culture, and, of course,
its fine wines — for which he acquired the nose of an expert. Along with his nose came his wallet, for he was aided and abetted by his marriage in 1926 to Ailsa, daughter of US banker and Cabinet Secretary, Andrew Mellon.

The Mellon millions undoubtedly set the wind fair behind Bruce, enabling him to restore the fortunes of his family estate at Staunton Hill, Virginia, but he was no flibbertigibbet. Stints in the state legislature and then the US Secret Service saw him return to his beloved Paris in the Second World War — where in 1944, legend has it, he and Ernest Hemingway were the first to liberate the bar at the Ritz, and the Café de la Paix and the Travellers Club, from the Wehrmacht.

David K. E. Bruce boarding a plane with his wife

The next morning, as de Gaulle marched down the Champs-Élysées, Bruce breakfasted with typical chic on omelette and Chablis. As his diplomatic career grew out of the ashes of war, so did his superb wine collection. For that he had to thank not only Mellon money but also the wine merchant, Raoul Boyer, who helped his friend select the best vintages from only the choicest chateaux.

We are lucky enough to see inside his cellar thanks to correspondence between him and fellow connoisseur William Burden, US ambassador to Belgium, as Bruce negotiated the sale of his Paris stocks to his colleague. It must have been disheartening for the claret-loving Burden to read that he was being offered only two bottles of Château Léoville-Poyferré in a collection numbering over two thousand items.

However, he at least had the consolation of 93 bottles of Mouton Rothschild 1945 (current cost about £180,000 a case) and 83 of the Haut-Brion 1905. These are noble wines and as such they have long been the preserve of the patrician classes from le grand couvert to the Great Republic. It is said that US ambassadors are the modern equivalent of the Roman proconsuls. David Bruce, through charm, tact and perspicacity certainly commanded the respect of one. He commanded the wealth of one too. Thus in each of his embassies he was able to offer up the cry of the ancients, with one important cod emendation: veni, vidi, vini. “I came, I saw, I consumed.”

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