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Return to Hobcaw: Daughter of Belle Baruch’s groom recalls growing up on plantation

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Chris Daoudi opened a stall door at the stables of Bellefield Plantation on Hobcaw Barony last week, and memories came flooding back from her childhood. A half century has passed since she walked the grounds where she grew into a young woman.

Chris and her husband, Said, residents of San Diego, wanted to see Bellefield and put flowers on her father’s grave, and George Chastain, executive director of the Belle W. Baruch Foundation, welcomed them.

Her father, Jean Darthez, was Belle Baruch’s head groom and trainer for a quarter century. He was friends with Belle, but he loved her horse, Souriant III. Darthez called him Toto, and when Belle bought him from Paul Larigant of the French resort town of Pau in 1932, the trainer came along to America.

Darthez moved his wife, Lucie, son, Gerard, and daughters, Yvette and Christiane, into a little house near the stables at Bellefield six years later and continued to train Souriant and Belle’s other horses for steeplechase competition. Darthez knew he had a champion in Souriant, a once-in-a-lifetime horse. Though Belle got the credit as rider, the trainer gave her a horse that would not lose.

Souriant — the name means Smiling One — was bred as an Anglo-Arab, half-Arabian and half-thoroughbred, a popular mix for steeplechasers. The Arabian provided strength and stamina and the thoroughbred, jumping ability and disposition.

“Souriant was a character,” Chris said. “He had a personality.”

Darthez insisted the horse be treated like royalty, often butting heads with Belle over his travel costs.

“Souriant had to have special straw in his stall,” Chris said. “He only traveled first-class: the flagship Ile de France and the Orient Express railway.”

Belle brought Souriant and her other horses, along with the whole Darthez family, to Bedford Falls, N.Y., for the summer of 1939 to get away from the heat and mosquitoes at Hobcaw. The next three years she rented a small farm in Monkton, Md., for their vacation. Darthez continued to work the horses. Chris remembers one that gave him trouble.

“That was ‘Lionceau,’ Lion Cub, a very appropriate name,” she said. “He was rather wild, not easy to manage, but a good jumper. Once in Maryland, he got tired of being in the paddock with the other horses — it was their vacation as well — and he decided he wanted to go back to his stall. He galloped and jumped this tall fence, clearing it by a mile. He was a great jumper. He would have been great if Belle had been more fond of riding him, but she preferred Souriant.”

Fame had its privileges. Souriant was allowed to disembark a transatlantic steamship before the passengers in steerage. The only ill treatment Souriant and his stablemates ever received came at the hands of German soldiers who stopped their train to check passengers’ papers. Chris said her father got off the train, demanding water for the horses. “I don’t know that the Germans could understand him, but the words for water are similar in French and German,” she said. “Father was insistent, and the guards let him water the horses but demanded he get back on the train.”

In European equestrian competitions prior to World War II, Belle was competing against cavalry officers and horses — and defeating them. After Belle’s victory at Aachen, Germany, Adolf Hitler tried to buy the horse his country’s riders couldn’t defeat.

“Imagine,” said Lee Brockinghton, senior interpreter at Hobcaw, “how Hitler felt after being defeated by an American woman with a Jewish name. What a huge insult.”

Belle declined the Führer’s offer and realized her time in Europe was growing short.

Once the world was at war, Hobcaw played a significant role. A weary and sick President Franklin D. Roosevelt came there to rest at the invitation of the Baruchs. He stayed at Hobcaw House, ate some meals at Bellefield and fished in its pond.

“We didn’t know it was happening,” Chris said. “It was a very big secret. But secrets get out in Georgetown.”

The Darthez children knew something was going on because there were soldiers everywhere, and they were told their school bus could no longer enter the plantation gates. They would have to walk out to the road.

Darthez, however, was approached by Roosevelt.

“The president wanted to see the horses jumping, and father put on a show at the pasture,” Chris said. “He was delighted about it.”

Chris never saw FDR herself. “We weren’t allowed to go anywhere near him,” she said. “I saw his car going by. His little Scottish terrier, Fala, came trotting out of the house and was sniffing around. I loved dogs and wanted to talk to Fala, but he turned his nose up at me as if to say, ‘I’m the first dog.’”

Chris and her sister, Yvette, were invited to watch a movie with the soldiers who were guarding the president. An outdoor screen was set up, and the girls sat on a Jeep to watch a Rita Hayworth film with handsome young men in uniform all around them. “They were delighted to see Rita Hayworth,” Chris said, “and Yvette was delighted too.”

Souriant’s medallions remain on display at the Bellefield stable, a long row of engraved silver. His nameplate is on his stall, the same as it was years ago.

Chris remembered the day she saw her first snake at Bellefield. “Father gave me two eggs to take to Belle for her breakfast,” she said. “I was skipping along the bricks, and suddenly I saw this thing coming. I froze.”

Chris instinctively clenched her fists, breaking both eggs. She ran back to the stable, yelling “Snake! Snake!” Her father came running and found a copperhead.

Life at Bellefield suited the horse trainer and his children, but Darthez’s wife remained isolated and lonely in the dark woods with the moss-covered trees. She had trouble learning English, and the family always spoke French in the house. The Darthez children went to Winyah School in Georgetown while the children of the plantation had their own one-room school. Bernard Baruch, and later Belle, too, insisted the children descended from former slaves living at Friendfield Village get an education. She was the self-appointed truant officer.

Chris remembers Belle dismounting and chasing boys playing hooky at Clambank into the swamp.

“Belle was easy with me,” Chris recalls, “but she could be strict, hard at times when she was not in her best mood.”

Chris said most of her memories of Belle were of fox hunts and parties with friends at Bellefield, things she watched from afar. “When Belle took an interest in flying,” Chris said, “father was disappointed that she spent less time with the horses.”

Chris remembered Bellefield’s azaleas, all gone now, during a drive to the stables last week. She was glad to see yellow jasmine.

She opened Souriant’s door and recalled a frightening day when Darthez found the horse down on the stable floor. She pointed to a beam that was nailed to the stable walls that her father used to lift the horse back to his feet by means of a sling and pulley. The trainer knew that his horse would die if he stayed down.

Chris said her father nursed Souriant for two weeks. “When he recovered, my father fell ill,” she said. “He made such a great effort, he may have had a slight heart attack. They both got better. Horse and man, so close, they had known each other since the beginning.”

Chris said her sister left Bellefield to get married in 1944 and moved to San Francisco, and her brother joined the army and became a liaison between French and American troops with his language skills.

The Darthez family listened to the radio every night for news of the war. Abner, a member of the live-in staff at Bellefield, was killed at Normandy, and everyone at home was stunned when the telegram arrived with the news. When France was liberated, her father ran to the stables and began ringing the fire bell in joy.

By 1950, Chris was working for Belle, running errands into Georgetown to send a telegram or pick up mail and supplies. “Belle didn’t like going into town,” she said. In 1953, Chris left the plantation and Georgetown to “travel as much as I could.”

Souriant died in 1956 and was buried between Bellefield’s house and stable. Cancer claimed Darthez three years later on Belle’s birthday, Aug. 16. His wish to be buried overlooking the pasture where he trained the horses was granted. “He liked his solitude,” Chris said, “and to be close to the horses.”

Stable Road has been renamed in his honor.

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