By LENNOX MORRISON (WSJ)
French impressionist Yves Lecoq talks about renovating châteaux
Behind massive wrought iron gates extends a golden autumnal avenue, positioned to deny the passer-by a view of Château de Villiers. The gates swing open electronically and, deeper into the grounds, I finally come upon an imposing Louis XIII edifice. Inside, in the oak-panelled and tapestry-hung winter drawing room, within a mantel of veined ox blood marble, logs crackle behind an embroidered screen. On a circular wooden table, beneath a chandelier, a bottle of Krug champagne nestles next to a box of Lenôtre chocolates from which someone has already plucked his favorites.
The scene has been set by owner Yves Lecoq who, despite employing a maître d'hôtel, makes me midmorning coffee. When I comment on the flavor he switches from French to English and, in George Clooney's voice, says, "It's Nespresso -- what else?"
At Château de Villiers Yves Lecoq enjoys the peace of the countryside.
The uncannily good impersonation is no surprise. As France's leading impressionist, Mr. Lecoq has a repertoire of 200 voices, from Woody Allen to Zidane Zinedine. Not to mention his controversial takeoff of the nation's first jogging president, Nicolas Sarkozy.
What's less well known about our host is that thanks to more than 30 years of show business success and a French fiscal regime that deals kindly with owners of officially classified historic properties, he has become a collector of châteaux. Since 1975, when he was 29 years old, he has purchased five, all in states of disrepair.
"There's a sort of love affair between myself and these buildings. When I first discover them it's like love at first sight," says Mr. Lecoq, whose lavishly illustrated book, "Fou de châteaux" ("Crazy about Châteaux"), is published this month by Editions du Chêne.
His main home at Villiers-le-Bâcle is in a pretty countryside 30 minutes drive south-west of central Paris. Set within wooded 40-hectare grounds where deer and wild boar roam, the 40 rooms are furnished in a finely judged mix of period style and modern comfort (central heating, flat-screen TVs concealed behind framed Louis XIV tapestries.)
Having rescued the property from Sleeping Beauty dilapidation, Mr. Lecoq plays tour guide with great courtesy. Were he in a more reclusive mood, however, he could retreat to Château de Maisonseule, his fortified medieval manor secluded deep within the rugged mountain ranges of the Ardèche in south-central France.
"There's silence there and a great sense of well-being," says Mr. Lecoq. "It's a place where, when I encounter disappointments, I can go and recharge my batteries and get back on track."
Should he hanker for a rustic riverside idyll, he could head to Chambes, his 16th-century manor in Charente Limousine, western France.
"Villiers is about my everyday existence," he says. "At Chambes, I get away from it all. I feel very much at peace there."
The interior of Château de Maisonseule.
Far from being born into grandeur, Mr. Lecoq is the son of a navy officer turned sales rep for agricultural equipment and was raised the youngest of five children in a cramped attic apartment within the grounds of a 17th-century mansion in Paris. As a boy he peered down longingly at the magnificent residence below and followed the comings and goings of the marquess who lived there.
From his maternal grandmother, an antique dealer, Mr. Lecoq inherited a love of art and of architectural beauty. Through her marriage to a baron he is entitled to the surname Lecoquierre-Duboys de La Vigerie. When I ask him why he doesn't use it every day, he says simply, "It's unpronounceable." Nevertheless, at 63, with his height, well-cut features and clear blue gaze, Mr. Lecoq has a naturally aristocratic appearance, coupled with great warmth.
Ironically, Mr. Lecoq can indulge his château habit because of money earned imitating -- and often making fun of -- the rich and famous. At six, he entertained his family by singing like French songsters Gilbert Bécaud and Juliette Greco. By 18, his repertoire included Cliff Richard and Sacha Distel. School friends nicknamed him "Juke Box."
Today, the TV show he is best known for introduces a cold blast of irreverence into the often unhealthily cosy relationship between French politicians and the media. Inspired by British television's "Spitting Image" series of the Thatcher years, "Les Guignols de l'info" presents spoof newscasts featuring latex puppets of anyone who's anyone in French politics and also foreign leaders such as Barack Obama.
Running for more than 20 years, the primetime series on Canal+ attracts three million-plus viewers each weeknight. Lately, the sketches sending up a pint-sized Nicolas Sarkozy and the meteoric ascent of his student son (both voices courtesy of Mr. Lecoq) are said to have stirred presidential displeasure.
The first house Mr. Lecoq bought, at 27, was a restoration project on a modest scale -- a suburban villa with garden, but without heating or bathroom. It was when he began thinking of a half-timbered farmhouse in the country that his agent handed him the French property bible, "Indicateur Bertrand," saying, "For the same budget, why not buy a château?"
Which is how, before turning 30, Mr. Lecoq acquired Château d'Hédauville in northern France, an 18th-century construction with classic stone and red brick façades but also a leaking roof and gardens turned to cattle pasture. He reinstated its original glory and furnished it with antiques gleaned when touring the country with his own stage show.
When burglars struck he lost many treasures but the insurance payout and then sale of Hédauville helped fund the purchase of an even more spectacular property nearby -- Château de Suzanne, a turreted Louis XIII edifice, renovated during the reign of Napoleon III with a grand marble staircase and painted ceilings reminiscent of Versailles. On this palatial scale, builders and decorators were busy for 18 years.
Not in the ranks of the super-wealthy, Mr. Lecoq borrows money to realize his dreams. Villiers, he says, he expects to "earn its keep," mostly by rentals to film crews. When the likes of Michelle Pfeiffer take over the master bedroom -- as she did for the filming of Stephen Frears's "Chéri" last year -- Mr. Lecoq decamps to the presbytery on the grounds.
Financial considerations forced him to sell Suzanne. By then, however, he'd acquired Maisonseule and Villiers and last year he fell for Chambes, a two-tower country house with water mill, close to where one of his ancestors served as administrator in the days of Louis XIV. (He also has a traditional style white-walled villa in Tunisia with direct access to the beach at Hammamet and an unimpeded view of the Ottoman fortress.) No wonder estate agents continue to call Mr. Lecoq with fresh propositions.
Two veteran horses roam the grounds at Château de Villiers.
As with all previous restoration projects, Mr. Lecoq is often on site at Chambes and acts as his own interior designer, taking equal delight in picking up a hand-forged period door handle in a flea market as in more ambitious schemes. At Maisonseule, he had a walled stone enclosure built overlooking the valley. From below, it looks like an ancient annex but it actually conceals an outdoor swimming pool with a breathtaking mountain panorama.
Mr. Lecoq considers the time and money invested in his properties as his contribution to the national heritage. I ask whether his homes make him feel like a true lord of the manor.
"It's a term I don't like to hear because everyone knows that I'm the curator and the project manager," he replies. "There are fleeting moments, like today when I'm sitting at the fireside, or I'm in the middle of a dinner, when I have a sense of playing lord of the manor. After nearly 40 years of restoration projects I think I'm entitled to feel like that from time to time. But it's not the real life of a lord of the manor. That belongs to another age."
—Lennox Morrison is a writer based in Paris.