Drama Unfolds of a Little Empire

In the centre of Manhattan, Mark Wallace talks to the ruler of a 350-year-old model nation that he calls ‘total theatre’.
Financial Times, weekend section, January 20/21, 2001 (approx. 930 words)

The recent election season may have had Al Gore and George W. Bush on the edge of their seats, but one world leader who worries little over such bothersome tasks as campaigning for office is Barry Alan Richmond.

For the past 36 years, Richmond has presided over what would seem to be a model nation. It is a country that, though more than 350 years old, has never gone to war.

Its government runs no budget deficit, offers political asylum to almost anyone who requests it, and lobbies for a variety of enlightened causes – including Kurdish autonomy and the internationalisation of the Vatican city-state.

Within its borders lie a century-old theatre and half an airport. Despite its long history, it is only now in the process of establishing its first foreign mission (in an undisclosed location in South America), and has never experienced any significant border disputes – an especially notable accomplishment in light of the fact that The Most Serene Federal Republic of Montmartre lies entirely within the boundaries of the US.

Though you won’t find it on a map, the bulk of Montmartre’s territory is situated in an area from “roughly 39th to 59th Street with a strip up the Hudson River to where the boat basin is, and from the middle of Fifth Avenue over to what international laws call the thalweg, which is the navigable channel in the middle of the Hudson River,” Richmond told me recently.

Apparently, a group of 17th century French settlers from what was then the village of Montmartre, outside the city of Paris, established a colony on the island of Manhattan “in what is roughly contiguous with what is now the theatre district”. The year was 1636.

Just a decade before, Peter Minuit had bought the island from its native inhabitants in exchange for trinkets.

“The original colony was cut off from the motherland during the fighting between the French and the British,” Richmond says, referring to the French and Indian war of the 1750s and 1760s. “A treaty was signed with the British, which the US later had to accept, and to this day we have an independent country inside North America. The original settlement on the island of Manhattan is occupied by the US in a legal concept similar to that of the Panama Canal Zone.”

Since the 17th century, Montmartre’s government has multiplied: the country’s listing in the Manhattan telephone directory names 11 government agencies, among them the Gowanus Canal Zone Authority, the Semi-Official News Agency OCIDL, and the Montgolfier Brothers International Aerodrome Authority. (“We own half of what Americans call Kennedy International airport,” Richmond explained.)

These days, the government of Montmartre, in the person of the avuncular President Richmond, now in his mid-60s, is concentrating on a revival of the Montmartre national theatre, the Grand Guignol. Once a feature of French nightlife in the Parisian neighbourhood after which Richmond’s country is named, the rights to the comically grotesque theatre style now reside with the Montmartre chancery on East 70th Street, according to the president.

Funding for the project is to come from the sale of Richmond’s vast collection of theatre and movie memorabilia, which includes original programmes from such films as Star Wars and Gone With the Wind.

Richmond’s second love, not surprisingly, is an obscure discipline known as micropatriology, the study of tiny nations. These include the island of Tavolara off the coast of Sardinia, the Land of Look-Behind in the interior of Jamaica (where the natives were so fierce that the British colonists were forced to ride two on a horse, one facing front and the other “looking behind”), and a small mound of earth in the path of the Rio Grande.

“The US and Mexico are constantly going crazy with the Rio Grande because it has changed course over a number of years and sometimes it’s left parts of the US or parts of Mexico on the other side; so they’re constantly adjusting the border,” Richmond said.

“There’s even been a little independent country that was set up on an island that was cut off from both sides. And neither the US nor Mexico wanted to declare jurisdiction over it, because they weren’t sure who owned it.”

Is Montmartre really another such tiny nation?

Richmond almost never breaks character but he did give his game away in a lawsuit in the 1970s. In July 1977, the Los Angeles Times quoted court papers filed by Richmond, in which he said: “I set up a political fiction that 300 and some years ago, Frenchmen came here, settled on Manhattan, got cut off from France and became an independent republic right in the heart of Manhattan . . . The purpose was for total theatre; the construction of our own buildings and a new financing system for the arts, humanitarian efforts, political satire and laughter.”

Richmond has certainly brought laughter and it is probably fair to say that Montmartre’s Vatican Commission, its Military Mission to the Kurds, and a thus-far unsuccessful bid to join the International Whaling Commission could be construed as “humanitarian efforts”.

The real story is harder to discern. Which parts of Richmond’s story are truth and which fabrication is equally impossible to determine.

While his commitment to his country is unmistakable, it is hard to see what has possessed a seemingly sane man of retirement age to have spent half his life as the quixotic ruler of a “political fiction”.

Richmond won’t explain: “One could say I’m the father of my country. My greatest fear is someday meeting somebody that knows more about my country than I do.”