I want to start by saying how incredibly proud, thrilled and encouraged I am that Dr Rowley’s government took on the task of restoring Mille Fleurs. For years we wondered if the building would, and then could, be saved. We were therefore surprised to learn —through the papers—of its reopening a couple of weeks ago. By ‘we’, I mean the Salvatori family, who, unbeknownst to many, made Mille Fleurs it’s home for over five decades.
I applaud everyone involved in the restoration process—it is indeed imperative we keep our built heritage standing. But as the Covid-19 pandemic has reminded us, it is as important to keep alive and pass down the personal stories that were lived within its walls. Here is my family’s history with the house.
My memories of Mille Fleurs start from when I was about six or seven years old, in 1968. Having recently broken her hip, my great-grandmother was old and unwell, and I remember my mother visiting and playing her the piano. My sister and I liked to stay outside—we played in the yard, tried to climb the trees, and jumped the steps leading up to the main entrance. I remember once falling on those marble steps, hurting my wrist and getting a bump in the process.
But my family’s relationship with the house stretches much further back, to 1920. My great-grandfather purchased the property from the Prada family for “what seemed, at the time, the exorbitant price of $29,000,” as per his son’s records.
Many of you may recall my great-grandfather’s name, Joseph Salvatori. He had grown up in Corsica, a poor uneducated farmer, until he set off for the new world in search of fortune at the tender age of 17. He landed first in Carupano, Venezuela, in 1897, and quickly became versed in the trading of cocoa. He remained there for over ten years, but travelled frequently to Trinidad to link with cocoa farmers to gather and ship beans back to France. On one of these trips, he fell for a lady named Cecilia Olivieri. They married in 1911 and purchased, together in 1913, Wilson Sons & Co, a dry goods concern located at the corner of Marine (Independence) Square and Frederick Street. With Joseph’s incredible flair and foresight, the firm was quickly transformed into the Caribbean’s leading department store: Salvatori, Scott & Co Ltd. To most, it was simply called ‘Salvatori’s.’
At this point, Joseph is also Consul of Italy, and will go on to assume, amongst a host of ambassadorial titles, the position of Honorary Consul of Spain. For his contributions to the Free French movement during World War II, he will become a personal friend of French President General Charles de Gaulle. For a man with such great ambition—and looking out at a renovated Mille Fleurs today—it is befitting that Joseph Salvatori elected a Magnificent Seven to make his home.
Joseph and Cecilia hosted grand dinner parties, receiving officials and artists from across the world. One of my uncle’s favourite stories to recount is that of Joseph welcoming Arturo Toscanini, one of the most acclaimed classical musicians of the 20th century. When Joseph asked him to play something on the piano, Toscanini started but quickly stopped. He couldn’t play it because two of the notes were sticking, he said. To which my tone-deaf great-grandfather responded, “A great pianist like you? Surely one or two keys wouldn’t make a difference…”
Family lore has it that he also hosted the infamous convict, Henri Charrière, who had escaped a penal colony in British Guiana and whose autobiography was turned into the Steve McQueen-starring, Hollywood film – Papillon.
Back then, fruit trees and a vegetable patch ran along the neighbouring archbishop’s house, from where herbs were picked for the latest fare. Cecilia loved her garden and her kitchen, and the Salvatori residence was one of the only places in the West Indies you would have been able to find “Canapés-au-Caviar,” “Paupiettes de Sole Foyot,” “Aspic de Foie Gras Jeannette,” and certainly the “Salade Trinidad.”
When their son, Henri, returned to Trinidad from military service in France, he was reluctant to join the family business. He was inclined to the arts and was learning Trinidad anew, falling in love with its nature and its distinct culture and parties. My uncle, his son, likes to recount the story of him creeping up Mille Fleurs’ stairs as he returned from a party early one morning. He found his father looming from the landing: “You really think you were going to sneak in here without me knowing?”
Joseph and Cecilia lived at Mille Fleurs until their deaths, in 1959 and 1969 respectively. Their daughter, Marie ‘Dolly’ Rose, inherited and sold it to Mr George Matouk in 1974, at around the time our family was emigrating from Trinidad. The house sat unused for many years until Mr Matouk sold it to the Government. For many years again, it sat idle. I came back to live in Trinidad in the early 1990s, and one of my very first projects was a retrospective of my grandfather’s, Henri Salvatori’s, paintings. The only place that felt right to exhibit was the house he had grown up in.
Today, with Mille Fleurs befittingly entrusted to our National Trust, we believe it paramount its history be told in its entirety. This is the case for the Salvatori family, but also the scores of others who set foot in and out of that building these past 100 years. Only then can we wholly appreciate the complexity of our heritage as a family allowing us to further build on our sense of identity, pride, and empathy towards one another.
By Lorraine O’Connor and Plantain: We write family history books, and helped Lorraine document her great-grandfather’s story