Unlikely allies, p.3

Unlikely Allies, page 3


Unlikely Allies

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  Now tall and slender with a handsome face and confident expression, Caron caught the attention of the court at Versailles. The young courtier had many social opportunities, but he hungered for wealth and fame. At that time, public offices in France were routinely bought and sold as personal property. He had an affair with the beautiful Madame Francquet, ten years his senior and the wife of the aged Comptroller of the Pantry. Madame Francquet persuaded her frail husband to retire and sell his office to Caron for a modest annuity. In reality, the comptroller’s job was merely honorary; its only perk was that Caron had the right to promenade into the royal dining room behind the king’s dinner—but it was a start for an ambitious young man. Two months after selling his office, Monsieur Francquet died of apoplexy, and Caron was thus freed from the obligation to make annual payments. Once the estate was settled in 1756, Francquet’s grieving widow quickly married Caron. Caron now had servants, a carriage, a mansion in Paris, and another in the country. Caron was particularly taken with the large country house in Alsace called “Beaumarchais” (or “beautiful walk”). He thought that the name of his wife’s house sounded more suitable to his new rank than Caron, so Pierre-Augustin Caron restyled himself Caron de Beaumarchais.

  Madame Francquet, like Beaumarchais, was a gifted harpist. She encouraged him to redesign the pedals, an arrangement that remains in use on harps today. Beaumarchais organized recitals for his friends at his home, and his reputation as a musician grew. Madame Francquet’s happiness was short-lived, however. The youthful Beaumarchais was unfaithful, and their marriage rapidly deteriorated. She died from typhoid fever in 1757, less than a year after marrying Beaumarchais. Her family immediately challenged Beaumarchais’s right to inherit anything from his wife’s estate. As Beaumarchais had failed to record the marriage contract in a timely manner, a long court battle determined that he was not entitled to any of her property. All he kept was the name Beaumarchais. Once again, he was a watchmaker.

  Louis XV took pity on the recently widowed Beaumarchais. When he learned of Beaumarchais’s musical talent, he invited Beaumarchais to tutor his four daughters, the princesses Louise, Adélaide, Victoire, and Sophie. Beaumarchais earned nothing as a tutor, but access to the royal family was a valuable commodity at the Court of Versailles.

  In the spring of 1760 Beaumarchais was invited to visit Madame de Pompadour’s glittering château d’Etoiles. There he was introduced by Pompadour’s husband to Joseph Pâris-Duverney, one of the richest men in France, who had made a fortune selling arms in the war against Austria in the 1740s. Pâris-Duverney, at seventy-six, was a heavyset man with a double-chin and an upturned nose that veered sharply to the left. He had recently established L’Ecole Militaire to provide military training for the sons of impoverished nobility. Pâris-Duverney had repeatedly invited the king to visit the school, located near Hôtel Royal des Invalides, but Louis XV had little interest in this project. Pâris-Duverney, who could afford nearly anything, was completely frustrated in his efforts to get the king’s attention. When Pâris-Duverney heard of Beaumarchais and his close relationship to the princesses, he set up this meeting. Pâris-Duverney was immediately enchanted by the young man with the dark, intelligent eyes. Pâris-Duverney offered Beaumarchais “his heart, his help and his credit, if he could succeed in doing what everybody has tried to do in vain for nine years.” If Beaumarchais could arrange for Louis XV to visit the military academy, Pâris-Duverney would become his patron.

  Beaumarchais invited the princesses to see the academy first, and they were delighted by the young officers in their handsome uniforms parading on the grounds. They rushed back to Versailles excitedly to tell their father that he really should see the academy for himself. The king agreed to pay a formal visit, and Pâris-Duverney was thrilled. From this small exchange an intense and intimate relationship blossomed between the twenty-seven-year-old music tutor and the seventy-six-year-old financier.

  Pâris-Duverney, who was unmarried and childless, pursued the young man like a prize, buying him extravagant gifts and launching him in a number of ambitious business ventures. “I love you, my child,” Pâris-Duverney gushed to Beaumarchais in a letter. “From now on I will treat you like my son. Only death will prevent me from my commitment to you.” Pâris-Duverney gave him an annuity of 6,000 livres (about $46,000 today). He taught Beaumarchais the business of arms trading and gave him a percentage of his military contracts. He loaned Beaumarchais a considerable sum to purchase the offices of Secretary to the King, Lieutenant General of the Chase of the Tribunal, and Bailiwick of the Warren of the Louvre, responsible for enforcing hunting regulations on the king’s property—all sinecures from which Beaumarchais derived a small income. Pâris-Duverney also helped Beaumarchais purchase a mansion at 26 rue de Condé, where Beaumarchais lived with his father and younger sister. Over the next decade Pâris-Duverney gave or lent Beaumarchais at least 800,000 livres (about $6 million today).

  For his part, Beaumarchais offered the older man companionship, youth, and affection. For nearly a decade the two men were inseparable. Beaumarchais composed romantic songs for Pâris-Duverney and penned intimate letters. Their ambiguous correspondence suggests that Pâris-Duverney may have been more than a patron to the beautiful young inventor. Beaumarchais teased Pâris-Duverney affectionately, calling him “dear little girl”: “How goes the dear little girl? It is a long time since we embraced. We are queer lovers. We dare not see each other because our parents frown at us; but we still love each other. Come now, my dear child. . . .”

  Some biographers have suggested that this language was a quaint form of salutation, but it was hardly customary among men, even in its time; other biographers have insisted that Beaumarchais was writing to Pâris-Duverney in what they called their secret “oriental” code. Yet there was nothing “oriental” about the language, and why would two grown men have found it necessary to disguise the contents of their private letters? The plain language of their few surviving letters and the circumstances of their relationship suggest that theirs was not merely a “father-son relationship,” as some biographers have described it. Whether or not their relationship was physical, there were at least homoerotic overtones, which would hardly have shocked anyone around Versailles. While sodomy was officially outlawed in France, same-sex relations were neither uncommon nor well hidden at the court, where courtiers winked at men with what they called the “Italian taste.”

  Pâris-Duverney introduced Beaumarchais to the world of politics and diplomacy. As a military veteran and an ardent nationalist, Pâris-Duverney believed passionately in the necessity of revenging France’s defeat at the hands of the British in the Seven Years’ War. He impressed upon Beaumarchais the historic conflict between these two powers and the rightful place of France as the Continent’s dominant power. Only France could safeguard European society and check the power of Britain’s navy, Pâris-Duverney argued. To do that, Pâris-Duverney believed France must first divide Britain’s colonial empire, which was the source of its economic power. This strategic lesson was not lost on Beaumarchais.

  While Pâris-Duverney tutored Beaumarchais in business and politics, he also encouraged Beaumarchais’s playwriting. At first Beaumarchais showed little talent as a playwright, and his early plays were poorly received. One of his early works, The Two Friends, was about the moral relationship between two businessmen. It was probably based in part on Beaumarchais’s partnership with Pâris-Duverney. The play was a failure. On a poster outside the theater advertising The Two Friends one wit scrawled: “By an author who has none.” Nevertheless, Beaumarchais kept tinkering with theater in the same spirit of experimentation with which he had tinkered with watches and musical instruments. During a business trip on behalf of Pâris-Duverney to Madrid, Beaumarchais was inspired to write a play set in Spain—a farce about a clever barber who helps a young suitor to insinuate himself into a noble household as a music tutor, and it ends with some confusion about a marriage contract. The Barber of Seville, which eventually b
ecame one of his most successful plays, and inspired Rossini’s classic opera, drew on his experience as a music tutor and entrepreneur.

  BEAUMARCHAIS WAS DETERMINED to salvage Eugénie after the withering criticism it had received. He quickly revised the second and third acts and reopened the play two days after it had ignominiously closed. The response was vastly different—literally overnight. The critics now roared their approval and audiences flocked to it. Eugénie went on to shatter performance records at the Comédie-Française. Suddenly, Beaumarchais was the bright young talent of the Parisian stage. It made no sense to him, but he smiled at the fickleness of his audience. Beaumarchais’s fortune often swung from disaster to triumph.

  Beaumarchais lived much of his life onstage, and it was not merely his theatrical productions that were mounted as public spectacles. His inventions, music, writing, romances, legal problems, and political battles were public performances, part comedy and part drama. But the most fascinating plot Beaumarchais ever imagined was the one he enacted behind the scenes—the one story he never had the chance to write.

  CHEVALIER D’EON, Captain of Dragoons

  by J. B. Bradel, 1779

  Reprinted with permission of the

  Bibliothèque Nationale de France.



  London, 1771

  The crowd at Jonathan’s coffeehouse in Change Alley was glad to be warm and dry on a Saturday in late March. No one minded the stench of pipe tobacco or the noise. For two pence a waiter brought you a “dish” of tea, coffee, or hot chocolate. You could trade political news, and you could conduct some business as well.

  Jonathan’s was located in a wood-framed building with small windows near the Royal Exchange and was one of London’s most famous—some would say notorious—coffeehouses. In 1771, it was the hub of stock trading in Britain. The main room was up a narrow set of stairs on the second story. It was sparsely furnished, the floor was rough-hewn, and the walls were stained brown from generations of smoke. There were usually knots of well-dressed bankers, merchants, and stock traders, the latter known derisively as “stock jobbers,” clustered around the few tea-stained tables. Most English gentlemen regarded these stock jobbers as gamblers whose wild speculation would lead to their financial ruin. Though the better classes snubbed these men, Jonathan’s patrons would eventually form the London Stock Exchange. In addition to trading shares, the clientele at Jonathan’s regularly bet on the occurrence of almost any event. There was always someone willing to scratch out a betting contract on whether the government would fall, or whether a famous person would die, or whether France would go to war.

  On this particular Saturday the room grew unexpectedly quiet at the appearance of an extraordinary-looking stranger wearing the crisp dark green-and-crimson uniform of a captain of the French dragoons bedecked with military honors. It was the Chevalier d’Eon. That very week, articles had begun appearing in the London Evening Post, the Public Advertiser, and the Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser about wagers as to whether or not the French diplomat and soldier was a woman in disguise. Hundreds of pounds sterling were being bet on this unlikely proposition.

  The assembled stock jobbers—with their frilly Irish linen blouses, embroidered jackets with contrasting waistcoats bordered in gold and silver, three-cornered hats, and silk stockings in a dizzy array of purple, blue, white, and black stripes, specks, and patterns—were not accustomed to being confronted by a French military officer in their cozy coffeehouse. In a thick accent the chevalier demanded to know if a certain “money-broker” Mr. Bird were present. The chevalier had a handsome face with a prominent nose and a strong chin. His muscular body moved with a swagger. He appeared taller than he was in his knee-high boots. The chevalier’s right hand rested on an ornate walking stick that he wielded like a weapon. When Bird meekly stood up, the French captain angrily accused him of initiating these “impudent” bets and warned Bird that he had better “beg his pardon.” The banker fumbled for the right words to apologize. After all, he had done nothing wrong; English law permitted anyone to place a bet, even concerning the royal family. But d’Eon was in no mood for legalisms. He demanded satisfaction and challenged the whole roomful of incredulous stock jobbers to fight him. No one would dare to cross sticks with this accomplished swordsman. The terrified stock jobbers fell silent. They avoided his glare, looking down at the reflection in their shiny black high-heeled shoes. The point was made. No one doubted the chevalier’s mettle. Yet, his intemperate outburst only underscored in everyone’s mind that d’Eon was an unpredictable creature. And that may have been precisely the chevalier’s intent.

  ONE OF D’EON’S BIOGRAPHERS later wrote that he was “one of the strangest challenges that history has ever offered to fiction.” The unusual circumstances of d’Eon’s astonishing life continue to be a subject of scholarly inquiry and debate, and the chevalier’s luminous writings have only obscured the truth and enlarged d’Eon’s mystique.

  Christened Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Eon de Beaumont, he was born in 1728 in Tonnerre to a petty noble family with an ancient lineage of eccentric personalities. (Indeed, one of his twelfth-century ancestors had claimed to be the only son of God.) Tonnerre was a rural town with a population of a few thousand along the Armançon in Burgundy, more than a hundred miles east of Paris. D’Eon lived near the center of the small town in an impressive stone mansion built by a duke in the 1500s. D’Eon’s father was the mayor of Tonnerre, and the rest of his paternal family was equally if not more distinguished.

  From an early age, d’Eon was an accomplished student, athlete, and swordsman, and, much like Beaumarchais, he showed considerable musical talent and a keen wit. At thirteen, he entered the College of Mazarin in Paris, where he studied civil and canon law, graduating with distinction when he was twenty-one. Like his father and uncles, he became an attorney in the Paris courts and Secretary to the Intendant of Paris, who was the king’s principal agent overseeing the city government. He harnessed his remarkable mind and warm personality to his ambition. By twenty-five, d’Eon had published serious works on finance and government that won him approval from the court at Versailles.

  People often noticed d’Eon’s exceptional appearance. In his twenties, his yellow hair fell softly around his face in perfect ringlets. He had a beautiful face with piercing blue eyes, high cheekbones, a delicate mouth, smooth skin, and a slender frame. On his left cheek was a small birthmark, a faint port stain under his ear that was easily covered by hair. Once, while serving in the French embassy in St. Petersburg, a Russian commented that he was so angelic-looking he might be mistaken for the baby Jesus. Affronted by this infantiliz ing remark, d’Eon nodded, “[T]hat’s right, which is why I’m in a filthy manger.” Even in his middle years, d’Eon maintained his remarkably androgynous appearance. Though his voice was soft and high, he was neither effeminate nor frail. He smoked, drank, and swore like any hardened soldier.

  In 1755, at twenty-seven, d’Eon was invited by a family friend, the powerful Prince de Conti, Louis XV’s cousin and close adviser, to join the king’s elite network of about two-dozen secret agents known as “le secret du roi.” Louis XV created “the Secret” to expand French influence in Eastern and Central Europe without alarming France’s suspicious ally, Austria. Louis XV selected his talented cousin to lead the Secret, and Conti recruited the young d’Eon for a secret mission to Russia.

  In the War of the Austrian Succession, which lasted from 1740 to 1748, France and Prussia were allies against Britain, Russia, and Austria. Since then, France had switched alliances to join with Austria in recapturing lands taken by Prussia. By 1755, France found itself without strong allies to check Britain’s growing military power. Austria was weak, and Spain, France’s traditional Bourbon ally, was preoccupied by its rivalry with Portugal. That left Russia as the greatest potential ally for France. But France and Russia were at that time rivals on the Continent and had not had diplomatic relations for fou
rteen years. Louis XV had sent several envoys to St. Petersburg to try to reestablish diplomatic relations, but Russia’s chancellor, Count Bestuchef, hated France and would not allow them to meet the empress, Elizabeth I. Chancellor Bestuchef had even imprisoned France’s most recent emissary. The Russian empress herself was believed to favor a rapprochement with France. Under these circumstances, Louis XV would have to find some other means to communicate with the empress secretly.

  What happened next is a subject of historical speculation. According to d’Eon’s version of the story, Louis XV and Prince de Conti secretly wrote to the Empress Elizabeth trying to establish a diplomatic connection, but the empress wanted some assurances that her letters would be kept secret. She suggested that Conti send her a discreet, young, educated Frenchwoman who could assist her in translating her French into a secret code that only Prince de Conti could read. Conti and the king selected d’Eon, whose intellect, courage, and androgyny made him uniquely suited to this intrigue.

  According to d’Eon, Conti invited him to his lavish home at the Hôtel du Temple in Paris. There he was ushered into the bedcham ber where the prince was propped up in bed. Conti asked d’Eon to put on a skirt “in the service of a great foreign princess who is rich and powerful and who is aware of your talents and how much I love you.” He ordered d’Eon to go to Russia disguised as a female tutor for the empress. D’Eon protested, but the prince promised d’Eon that this service would guarantee d’Eon’s professional future. Reluctantly, d’Eon agreed to go.

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