A Philanthropic Journey from Normandy to the United States

Denis de Kergorlay, the president of the French Heritage Society and the Cercle de l’Union Interalliée, is a passionate advocate of maintaining historic sites and promoting French-American friendship. This Norman aristocrat and former backpacker, a friend of Joan Baez, and a leading patron of the arts, looks back on his “bumpy road” and his lasting memories of America.
Denis de Kergorlay. © Luc Castel

The Comte de Kergorlay welcomes us to one of the salons at the very chic Parisian club that he has chaired since 2009, the Cercle de l’Union Interalliée, on Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré. He has just returned from the gala of the French Heritage Society in New York City. He also chairs this organization, which has 11 chapters in Paris and the United States, and appeals to generous donors to maintain French heritage sites on both sides of the Atlantic. But against all odds, instead of discussing French-American philanthropy – to which he has devoted part of his career – the good-natured and charmingly old-fashion seventy-something first talks about his time in Asia. A far cry from his noble origins, Norman château, and beloved old stones.

Who is Denis de Kergorlay? In short, he could called a ci-devant, as fallen aristocrats were nicknamed during the French Revolution, since his family can point to a millennium of past achievements. One of his ancestors even fought in the Battle of Hastings of 1066, after which William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, became King of England. Yet this question is a tricky one, given the multiple lives lived by this undefinable character. The only unwavering theme is that each chapter has been connected to the United States, a country that he remains both fond of and fascinated by. Everything started in New York City. After studying law at the Université Panthéon-Assas and Sciences Po, Denis de Kergorlay spent two years at Columbia, where he discovered a different kind of teaching and a more free-flowing world. In the America of the late 1960s, conservative values were being firmly rejected.

“In France, I was as happy as a caged bird,” he says. “The United States let the bird out of its cage.” Instead of finance and business, the young rebel, pacifist, and environmental activist preferred to pursue adventure. He turned down his father’s offer to take over the management of his family’s land in Normandy when he returned to France, and arrived in Bangkok in 1976, where a position as cultural attaché at the French embassy awaited. But a career in diplomacy didn’t interest him, either. As the war in Vietnam drew to a close and the war in Cambodia began, he joined the French NGO Doctors Without Borders, helping refugees throughout Southeast Asia. He even briefly worked at the American embassy, issuing visas to Vietnamese refugees.

His father’s death pushed Denis de Kergorlay to return home and take over the family estate – an immense Renaissance château set among 740 acres of lawns, forests, and ponds. The property has been in the family for centuries and is located in Canisy, between Mont-Saint-Michel and the D-Day beaches. “I realized that this was where my duty lay,” he says, referring to this new “turning point” in his life. With the help of his aunt, a nurse hardened by the First Indochina War, the count transformed the château into a guesthouse in 1978. With 18 suites, it offered a haven for travelers, both a retreat and a luxury residence welcoming lovers of music, art, and politics. American singer Joan Baez, whom he met during the March for Survival of Cambodia in 1980, had her own room there for ten years.

The de Kergorlay family château in Normandy, between Mont-Saint-Michel and the D-Day beaches. © Château de Canisy
Denis de Kergorlay with U.S. Ambassador to France Denise Bauer (left) and French Heritage Society Chairwoman Elizabeth Stribling at the organization’s gala in Paris, 2022. © Dominique Maître
The Canisy estate has hosted many important figures, including the future king Henry IV of France, thinker Alexis de Tocqueville, General Bradley, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and singer Joan Baez. © Château de Canisy

One of the “Seven Wonders of the Manche Département

In 1989, Denis de Kergorlay married Marie-Christine de Percin, a lawyer, and a new chapter began for the estate. “My wife, who was more of a realist than I was, made me realize that I was one link in a long chain,” explains Denis de Kergorlay. “To survive, the château had to be restored to its original grandeur. I had to plan for the long term, to become more of a professional.” This was followed by a lengthy renovation project supervised by an official architect of historic monuments, combined with a meticulous interior revamp to enable the space to host concerts, conferences, and other private events. The Aspen Institute, a network of think tanks devoted to cultural diplomacy, held several meetings there. The house, which served as General Bradley’s headquarters during the Battle of Normandy, also drew in American visitors as part of the 50th anniversary of the Normandy landings in 1994. “They are always very sentimental, and delighted to be welcomed to a magnificently restored château.”

In the process, the count developed a passion for preserving historic sites. This would be his third life, after serving as treasurer of Doctors Without Borders and mayor of Canisy. A “chatelain in spite of himself,” he was vice-president of Europa Nostra, a federation of European heritage groups, and became president of the French Heritage Society in 2008. This American nonprofit run by Elizabeth Stribling, founder of a Manhattan brokerage firm, follows in the footsteps of the great patrons of the arts, such as the Morgans, the Carnegies, and the Rockefellers, who were responsible for the revival of Reims Cathedral and the Château de Versailles after World War I. Since its launch in 1982, the French Heritage Society has funded 670 restoration projects, including private palaces, gardens, abbeys such as Fontenay in Burgundy, and public monuments such as the National Archives and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris. And in the wake of the Notre-Dame fire in 2019, it raised three million dollars in just 24 hours!

“This outpouring of generosity has continued,” says Denis de Kergorlay as he looks back over the major projects of his lifetime. “At Canisy, I hope to have done something in the general interest. And I believe that I am now pursuing this mission with the French Heritage Society, whose vocation is to find patrons to maintain France’s heritage. At the Cercle Interallié, created in 1917 by Marshal Foch, I am the heir to and upholder of a tradition of hospitality and dialogue between political, economic, diplomatic, and military leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. Along the bumpy road of my life, America has never left my side.”

Article published in the January 2024 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.