Racing to New Life


American in Paris Becomes Wife of Monaco’s Ambassador

Ellen Noghès, the French-speaking, American-born wife of Gilles Noghès, the ambassador of the Principality of Monaco, says that “when I’m here, I’m American, and when I’m in Monaco, I’m Monegasque. I feel at home in both countries.”

From the moment Monaco opened its first embassy here last fall (see also September 2007 issue of The Washington Diplomat), Ellen has made a splash with her well-heeled Kalorama neighbors and other Washingtonians fascinated with the new representatives of a place as glamorous as Monaco—a tiny but incredibly wealthy microstate whose 35,000 people live in one glitzy square mile along the Mediterranean.

“No, unfortunately, I never met Princess Grace,” said this American blonde, answering the most obvious question first as we sat in the couple’s Wyoming Avenue embassy, a combination of a chancery and residence. The front living room is filled with regal and intimate pictures of the late Prince Rainier III, his iconic wife Grace Kelly, and their three children. Of course, the current reigning monarch, 49-year-old Prince Albert II, is depicted in photos as well, understatedly handsome whether donning an elegant white tie or bundled in Artic gear (as the first head of state to reach the North Pole).

In fact, Monaco’s new residence in Washington—the home that Warren G. Harding left in 1920 to move into the White House—feels a bit like a museum, with its original elaborate plaster moldings, authentic pewter sconces and a Steinway that has been in the house for 85 years. Add all the sparkling silver frames, the Andy Warhol depiction of Princess Grace, and other precious keepsakes from the 50-year reign of Prince Rainier and you have a fascinating and impressive mélange.

With great style, Ellen pulls it all together using a red-and-white décor theme (Monaco’s official colors). Her collection of underwater coral is especially showcased in the slip of a powder room upstairs and is a can’t-miss if you visit the residence.

“Many of these pictures and mementos belonged to Gilles’s father Antony, who not only created the Monte Carlo Rally in 1911, but Monaco’s Formula One Grand Prix back in 1929,” Ellen proudly explained. “The Monaco Grand Prix was the first car race ever to be held on city streets. His father also designed the checkered flag of victory, which is still used today.”

Ellen herself was closely connected with the motor racing industry, handling team sponsorship and event management not only in Monaco, but in San Marino, Calif., and Montréal, Canada, throughout the years. But she didn’t meet her husband on a racetrack. You have to go back to Ellen’s early life in Dearborn, Mich., to understand how she would eventually cross paths with her husband, himself a fifth-generation Monegasque whose family settled in the principality in 1820.

As a girl attending public schools in Dearborn, Ellen began learning French in the second grade. “That probably changed my life,” she said. “From then on, I always had a passion to go to Europe and live in Paris. As soon as I could, I did.”

Indeed, after two years of college in the United States, she looked for a job that would help her achieve her dream. “First, I worked in Detroit for Valeo, the largest French automotive supplier. There was a large French population in Detroit then and many people used to work for Renault. I then convinced Valeo that I should go work for them in France,” she recalled.

“I adored Paris but Valeo only sent me for three months, by which time I had a wonderful apartment on Île St.-Louis, in the center of the city. So I kept my apartment, went home to resign, and took my accrued sick leave from Valeo and came straight back to Paris to look for a job.”

Ellen’s passion for Paris did not run in her genes. “No one else in my family had this wanderlust or dreamed of living in Europe,” she said. “My brother Bill became the CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts and has just retired. One sister, Jean, is crazy about horses. She’s a real equestrian and has a horse farm in Ann Arbor. And my younger sister Laurie is a grant administrator in the public schools there.”

But Ellen set her sights on a different course. Following Valeo, she landed a job in financial marketing for Edouard Cointreau of the famous liqueur family business. “After a while, I wanted to go back to the South of France, which I also loved. I convinced [Edouard] that it would be cheaper to have me run his telemarketing from outside of Paris. He put me in charge of the whole department! I loved Nice and Aix en Provence, but a tiny town inland from St. Tropez, Figanières, stole my heart. I lived in a beautifully restored 100-year-old bergerie [cottage] where shepherds and their sheep once slept.”

As romantic as all this sounds, in the fall of 1987, reality set in for this American from Michigan living in France. “I was 35, not married, and I thought that maybe it was time for me to head back to the States. But just before I was about to leave, an old friend who was the director of Air France in Chicago called and said that Monaco was setting up a new tourism office in Chicago and that I couldn’t say no to that job.

“On Nov. 11, 20 years ago, I drove one and a half hours to Monaco for my interview with the director of tourism,” Ellen said, “but as I tell everyone, he offered me ‘a much more interesting contract.’” That director was Gilles Noghès.

“I thought I would impress him with the fact that I had been involved in Monaco’s Grand Prix for the two previous years and that, in fact, would help me get the job,” Ellen recalled. But when she told Gilles her racing connection, he responded with: “Do you know my connection with the Grand Prix? My father created it.”

“I nearly fell off my chair,” Ellen said. “After our interview, he took me to lunch. I didn’t get the job, but we were engaged on my birthday, Dec. 9, and married the following March—20 years ago.”

When the couple married, Ellen also became an instant parent, rearing Gilles’s son Yann-Antony from age 8 until he was 14, when he went to live with his biological mother. “I was excited but not necessarily prepared,” said Ellen, who ended up being the disciplinarian. Since then, Yann-Antony has chosen to continue his studies at an American college.

Later, speaking to Ambassador Noghès, he reflected on their two decades together. “I believe the greatest strength of my relationship with Ellen is the bicultural partnership we form. It has given us both a larger perspective on life and taught us to respect the differences,” he said.

“After our marriage,” Ellen said, “I continued to do freelance consulting for Camel cigarettes, the sponsor for Team Lotus and then also for Chrysler Corp. and Lamborghini. In my work for Chrysler, I also organized the European launch of several new vehicles including the Viper, a low-slung Ferrari-type sports car.

“For this, we welcomed over 80 American and European journalists who traveled with us in 23 red Vipers from Paris to Germany and back again to race the Vipers on three different Formula One circuits,” Ellen said, noting that “the American, Phil Hill, a former Formula One world champion, was also on this trip. Now, Gilles and I are both honorary life members of the prestigious Automobile Club of Monaco.”

Sounds like life in the fast lane. But dig a bit deeper and you’ll find a woman who is not only savvy, but serious, having beaten cancer three times.

“My friend Calliope [Efthyvoulou], wife of the Cypriot ambassador [to the United Nations], and I gave a ‘pink party’ for 75 diplomatic wives one October during National Breast Cancer Month to highlight the need for women to reach out to each other,” Ellen recalled. “We discovered that when we knew each other in Paris, we both had breast cancer and went through radiation, but didn’t tell each other. Later, when we met again in New York and discovered our twin battles, we decided to do what we could to encourage women to reach out to each other.”

Nane Annan, wife of then U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, joined the pink party, as did Prince Albert, who wore a pink tie for the occasion.

“I’d like to do something like that here … and I have already spoken with Nancy Brinker about it,” Ellen said, referring to the U.S. chief of protocol and founder of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure breast cancer foundation.

Ellen was in New York for her pink party while Gilles headed Monaco’s U.N. Mission there—prior to which the couple spent 10 years in Paris when he served as deputy chief of mission, as well as a brief posting in Switzerland.

Now Gilles serves as Monaco’s first-ever ambassador in Washington, while Ellen runs the couple’s four households on different sides of the Atlantic, including furnishing the new Washington residence and chancery from scratch. “We don’t have dining chairs or bar glasses yet,” she noted.

“I also have the honor of serving on the American board of the Prince Albert Foundation, which was created to respond to today’s environmental concerns,” she added. “Nature has always been part of my life. Much like Prince Albert, his maternal grandmother, his mother Princess Grace and his sisters, summer after summer, we all went to American summer camp, an institution we don’t have in Europe. And for me, I know that the love of nature that camp instilled in me will never go away.”

For Ellen, the hardest part of her busy life is finding enough time for everything. “I’m always juggling time,” she said, and at this particular time, Ellen calls her current job “the thrill of my lifetime.”

“The Grimaldi family of Monaco is the oldest reigning dynasty in Europe. And as an American-Monegasque, this is ‘the ultimate’ for me to work with my two countries in Washington, the top diplomatic post in the world. I want to use my American know-how to help my husband in promoting the principality and, on my own, the Prince Albert Foundation. This is an incredible opportunity.”

About the Author

Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and lifestyle columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.