In January 1976, Jesse Birnbaum, the European edition editor of Time, cabled Edward Jamieson, the magazine’s managing editor, about an unusual table he had received as a gift from French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. The table’s gold-leaf legs supported a plain top, the edges of which were decorated with an “ornate series of nude figures frolicking in a bois” (French for “wood”). More interesting, the table’s surface was purportedly a “section cut from the dance floor of the Petit Trianon,” the small château on the grounds of Versailles remembered as Marie Antoinette’s escape from the pressures of her royal duties.
Birnbaum said he received the table from President d’Estaing along with the “Legion D’Honneur” (Legion of Honour), which was surely in jest, for Birnbaum appears on no list of recipients of that award. His joking tone becomes obvious later in the cable, when he says the table once belonged to French woman of letters Madame de Staël, who “used it as a bed when cavorting shamelessly with Talleyrand and her other gentlemen friends.”
Time writers were always Writing, with a capital W, even in private communications. According to an article in a 1971 issue of the Time, Inc., staff newsletter F.Y.I., Birnbaum had a reputation as “Time’s punniest man.” When Editor-in-Chief Henry Grunwald appointed Birnbaum managing editor of People magazine, he stipulated that Birnbaum print no more than two puns per week.
But back to the table. Did it really exist? If it included wood from the floor of the Petit Trianon, it could not possibly have dated from the 17th century, as the building was not constructed until 1762–68. Birnbaum possibly made the common mistake of confusing the “1700s” with the 17th century, when it was, in fact, the 18th.
Birnbaum’s cable said he was bringing the table—all eighteen feet of it—back to New York. At the time he was transferring jobs from Paris back to the New York office in order to oversee all international editions of Time. But there is no record of such a table at the Time Inc. offices in New York. Archivist Bill Hooper remembers the office furniture was mainly mid-century modern.
So, rather than a literal description of a real table, this note is probably an inside joke lost to time–and to Time. Perhaps the distressed table is Birnbaum himself en route to New York!
This post is by Holly Deakyne, Supervisory Archivist, Time Inc.