• The hands of Robert de Montesquiou at Strange Flowers
In a charming book of memoirs Elisabeth de Gramont, the Duchess de Clermont-Tonnerre, tells of leaning on the railing of her upper balcony one bright spring morning, gazing down onto the Avenue “when,” she writes, “I was suddenly struck by the appearance of a tall, elegant personage in mouse-gray, waving a well-gloved hand in my direction as he emerged swiftly from the green shadow of the chestnut trees into the yellow sunlight of the sidewalk.” This early caller must have been in an unusually conservative frame of mind that day to have appeared in mouse-gray. He might, likely as not, have turned up in sky-blue, or in his famous almond-green outfit with a white velvet waistcoat or in yet more startling examples of his extraordinarily colored and perfectly tailored wardrobe. He selected his costume to tone in with his moods and his moods were as varied as the iridescent silk which lined some of his jackets. Sir William Rothenstein once met him at an all-von Weber concert wearing a mauve suit with a shirt to match and a bunch of pale violets at his throat in place of a necktie “because,” he explained, “one should always listen to von Weber in mauve.” His scarfpins, when he wore a scarf, were exotic examples of the jeweler’s art, ranging in motif from an emerald butterfly to an onyx deaths-head. On a smooth tapering forefinger he wore a large seal ring set with a crystal that had been hollowed out to contain one human tear — whose, he never revealed.
This sartorial eccentric was the Comte Robert de Montesquiou-Fézensac, royalist, social snob, literary dilettante and Symbolist poet… of sorts. There is little doubt that he served as a partial model for Proust’s Baron Charlus although in many ways J. K. Huysmans’ fantastic Des Esseintes, the hero of À Rebours, comes closer to being a direct portrait and Rostand is said to have created the character of the Peacock in Chantecler with him in mind. With ease and contemptuous elegance, he assumed an exalted position in both fashionable and literary circles. Graham Robertson, the English artist who painted appalling portraits but wrote delightful memoirs, said that Montesquiou was “a typical member of that curious little world of amateurs which hangs midway between the worlds of art and society”. The categorizing would have outraged the count, who considered his own literary output anything but that of an amateur. And yet he would never have lowered himself socially to the level of being considered a professional writer. Even his association with certain genuine men of letters was done with somewhat the condescending attitude of the drawing-room liberal who mixes with the working classes.
Slim and graceful as a Siamese cat, he was absurdly handsome, with dark, wavy hair and a silky mustache beneath a proud Roman nose which Jules Renard in his gleefully acid journal likens to the beak of a bird of prey nurtured on vanity. There was something definitely artificial about his skin and Léon Daudet, Alphonse Daudet’s clever and snobbish son, describes him as being “ageless, as though varnished for eternity, every line of his brow cleverly ironed out”.
The count and his family were direct descendants of the dukes of Gascony and it pleased this exquisite to trace his haughty ancestry back through some early crusaders to the barbaric majesty of the Merovingian kings. Touchily proud, and at the same time sublimely self-assured, he held lyrical sway like a perfectly groomed Apollo over a worshipful band of muses, titled ladies with literary aspirations, poetry-conscious society women and a number of effete young Symbolists. He was invited everywhere, to the houses of the high-born and wealthy, into many of the leading salons, he even had entrée into circles of serious literature. He was often asked by the generous and lovable Alphonse Daudets to their apartment on the rue de Bellechasse for one of their Thursday dinners to which the literary world flocked. Edmond de Goncourt, the exquisite and aristocratic old maréchal de lettres, was his good friend. The only genuine symbolist of the whole vaguely irresponsible movement, Stephane Mallarmé, welcomed him in his humble flat up four flights of stairs on the smoky rue de Rome where all the intellectual youth of Paris crowded into a small bourgeois salon that could accommodate fifteen with difficulty for those shimmering and golden Tuesday evenings of the best of philosophical and aesthetic talk and rich discussion. Such evenings might amuse the count but not for long. His native milieu was the world of smart aristocracy to which he felt himself to be of prime importance. When he invited any distinguished men of letters to special ceremonies of his own devising, his engraved invitations, topped with the family crest, invariably wound up with the reassuring information “Ladies of society will be present”. These special ceremonies included his flowery funeral oration over the casket of Leconte de Lisle, his speech at the unveiling of a statue he had arranged to be erected to the memory of the neglected poetess Marceline Desbordes-Valmore and he sent out announcements that he would be present at the funeral of Paul Verlaine, that tragic and sumptuous farce when the persons who had spurned Verlaine in life paid him expensive homage in death. The count also sent out engraved invitations to much of smart Tout Paris asking them to be present at the ceremony of the christening of his cat.
Robert de Montesquiou had a constantly shifting set of mannerisms. At the beginning of any conversation, he’d remove one glove and start a series of gesticulations, now raising his hands towards the sky, now lowering them to touch the tip of one perfectly shod toe, now waving them as though conducting an orchestra. His conversation was hardly conversation at all but long monologues filled with exotic anecdotes, mysterious allusions and obscure classical quotations, all told with a rich vocabulary “at the end of which”, according to Léon Daudet, “the count would burst into the shrill laughter of an hysterical woman, then suddenly, as though seized with remorse, he’d clap his hand over his mouth and rear bark until his inexplicable glee was controlled… as though he were coming out of laughing gas.” Probably the reason for his clapping his hand over his mouth was that for all his arrogant handsomeness, the count’s teeth were small and quite black. Many of his hangers-on and admirers… for absurd as this man was, he had a definite magnetism and could exude great charm when he wanted to… aped his mannerisms of speech and gesture. Proust, who was to be his devoted slave, even went so far as copy his laugh and his gesture of hiding his teeth, although in contrast to the count’s, Proust’s teeth were even and white. Regarding his conversation, Jules Renard found it “very refined, very precise, very insignificant”. Gustave Kahn in an article for the Revue Blanche called him “the world’s most laborious sayer of nothing” and Sir William Rothenstein said that Montesquiou had the affectation of Oscar Wilde without Wilde’s touch of genius and without his geniality and sense of fun. And certainly without that Irishman’s capacity for friendship, for the count himself is quoted as saying, “However amusing it may be to speak ill of one’s enemies, it is even more delectable to speak ill of one’s friends.” His talk was mostly on the subject of himself, a subject he treated with respect and elaboration. He once told Mme. de Clermont-Tonnerre (Elisabeth de Gramont) that he was like a Greek temple with exquisite sculptured friezes that were hidden by climbing vines and that now he was about to unveil himself to the world. Mme. de Gramont found his conversation at times sparkling, at other times funny. Full of strange imagery — a combination of erudition and frivolity. It could be startling too as when he asked her if she hadn’t been sprinkling aphrodisiac on her furniture as “the armchairs seem to want to embrace the small chairs, the library is opening out rapturously to receive the piano.”
In later years, Robert de Montesquiou was to reside in the rue Franklin in a house which he chose to name “The Pavilion of the Muses”. During the ’90’s, he lived on the top floor of his father’s Quay d’Orsay mansion in a remote suite of rooms that were reached by climbing a dark, twisting staircase and passing through a carpeted tunnel lined with tapestry. The quarters into which a visitor emerged were partly Japanese, partly Arabian Nights and partly God knows what. Each room, he would explain, was decorated so as to fit a mood and thus he could move from one to the other. The first was painted and hung in tones of red which went from deep crimson to shell pink. The adjoining chamber was a symphony in gray with gray hangings, gray upholstery on gray furniture and four immense gray urns for which he ransacked Paris every week in a desperate search for gray flowers. The search was seldom successful. In a further sitting room, on a spotless polar-bear rug stood a large Russian sleigh while overhead from the beams of a vaulted roof there hung a collection of ancient musical instruments, lutes, rebecs and some objects handed down from an early Montesquiou troubadour which their owner said were mandores and theorbos. Maybe they were. High lancet windows with panes of seventeenth-century glass shed a dim and not too religious light by day and at night there were curious electrical effects which went by the title of “Sunlight through tropical water” or “Moonlight on northern snow”. At one special soirée, the host, by way of entertainment, plunged the room into almost complete darkness and served his guests a series of liqueurs which supposedly blended with gusts of perfume which by some mysterious means were wafted into the room, while the only illumination came from the jewel-encrusted shell of a live turtle who crawled disconsolately about the Persian-carpeted floor, gleaming with genuine diamonds, sapphires and amethysts. The guests survived the ordeal. The less fortunate turtle turned over onto its Fabergé’d back and expired.
Montesquiou’s library was housed in a glass conservatory where the works of his favorite authors, Baudelaire, Swinburne and his friend Goncourt, were displayed on low shelves as a background for a small forest of Japanese dwarfed trees, a rare collection of miniature oaks, century-old pines, and tiny delicate maples… all no bigger than cabbages. Goncourt, who had been one of the “discoverers” of things Japanese, said that seeing them, one was tempted to stroke them as if caressing the bark of a dog or a cat. The count’s bedroom was an Arabian nightmare of heavy curtains, low sofas, satin cushions and hanging brass lamps with colored glass. The bed was fashioned out of a mammoth ebony dragon on which the pillow nestled into a coil of the tail while, serving as a footboard, reared the monster’s head with savage ivory teeth and glaring mother-of-pearl eyes.
Edmond de Goncourt was one of the few elect to be allowed a view of this exquisite’s bathroom. All gauze curtains of muted blues, green walls painted with vague, dreamlike fish, it must have resembled a Gordon Craig setting for an allegorical play by Maeterlinck. Behind a diaphanous hanging with gold and silver flecks was the tub, an immense Moorish bowl whose water was heated by a brass boiler of oriental repoussée. The dressing room was a pretty folly known as the Hortensia Room, partly in tribute to Louis Napoleon’s mother Queen Hortense from whom Montesquiou claimed descent, partly because stylized hortensias along with water lilies were the current rage in “art moderne”. Here, painted, molded, carved, cast in green bronze, hortensias bloomed, climbed, writhed and swooned in fashionable convulsions. The door to the count’s clothes cupboard was of clear plate glass behind which a floodlight could be turned on for the dramatic exhibition of one hundred neckties “aux nuances les plus tendres”, their owner’s fond description. The ties were hung like banners on either side of a blown-up photograph of a certain La Rochefoucauld… not the seventeenth century duke famous for his maxims, but an acrobat of the Cirque Molier, famous for his muscles and the erotic uses to which he could put them. The photograph, which was hand tinted, showed him in bright pink tights exhibiting what Goncourt called “his elegant ephebic form”.
In every room were elaborate gewgaws… Dresden china, Venetian glass, mounted butterflies, perfumed fans to wave as one sipped Russian tea and bouquets of peacock feathers… “the influence of my dear friend Whistler,” he would say. What Whistler said about him is to be conjectured. Montesquiou’s very absurdity may have appealed to that acid genius. Among the treasures he had after he moved into his Pavilion of the Muses were a number of strange keepsakes… the bullet that killed Pushkin, a cigarette partially smoked by George Sand, a tear (dried) once shed by Lamartine and the slippers of the last love of Lord Byron, the Countess Guiccioli. He kept Mme. de Montespan’s pink marble tub in his garden, filled with rambler roses, and he would show admiring visitors a birdcage that had once housed Michelet’s pet canary, along with a jewel box containing a single hair from the beard of the same historian. On special occasions he might, with great reverence, exhibit a bedpan used by Napoleon after Waterloo. He had also acquired a plaster cast of the knees of Mme. de Castiglione, the femme fatale of the Second Empire Court who, in her rosy time, had had herself photographed one hundred and ninety times. Montesquiou, not to be outdone, had himself photographed one hundred and ninety-nine times.
Here in the home of this exquisite who termed himself a Symbolist poet, one looked vainly for a desk. The inquisitive visitor rash enough to ask him where he did his writing would be given the languorous answer, “My servants bring me the necessary things.” (One is reminded of the remark of Villiers de l’Isle Adams’ hero Axël: “Live? Our lackeys will do that for us.”) The “necessary things” were a small eighteenth-century writing table, a pen made of a peacock feather and ink… mauve or green according to the poet’s mood… kept in a jade phial that was half buried in a goblet of rose petals.
This was the period when the Symbolist Movement was at its height with Mallarmé its leader and prophet, Verlaine its incomparable songbird, Maeterlinck its dramatist, while across the Irish sea was Yeats, its English interpreter. Certainly de Montesquiou’s verse abided by Mallarmé’s tenet that “Symbolism is a mystery to which the reader must find the key.” It is doubtful if there were a key to be found to this man’s poems which appeared in select privately printed editions under the titles of “Bats”, “Peacocks”, “Bending Reeds”, “The Blue Hortensias” and “The Chief of Subtle Odors” (Le Chef des Odeurs Suaves). They were brought out in costly print and with startling bindings. Le Chef des Odeurs had a cover of midnight blue satin, embroidered with golden griffon wings, while Chauves-Souris was bound in gray moiré decorated with a flight of bats made of jet beads. Their author managed to persuade certain amazingly well-known artists to do the illustrations. Chauves-Souris had illustrations by Forain, Gandara and Whistler and Les Hortensias Bleus was fancifully enlivened with sketches by the popular painter Helleu.
These exotic publications enjoyed a brief success of curiosity in the literary world and of snobbery in social circles. Ladies of fashion flocked to hear the poet read selections from his works, sighed “How exquisite!” over the darkly turgid passages they could not remotely have understood and fairly swooned over the names of classical personages culled from their author’s own private mythology… Anabaxare and Anacyndaraxe, Parameizes and Planiandrion.
He took adulation as his due, for his vanity was as prodigious as his exaggerated sense of importance. He had a habit of saying, on his way to the table at a dinner party, “The place of honour is where I find myself.” He once made a trip to England telling all his Paris circle for weeks in advance that he would be traveling “incognito,” a curious precaution since he could hardly have been of serious interest to the British public, few of whom had so much as heard of him. When he got to London, he adopted fantastic aliases, wore strange disguises and stalked like a stage assassin in the shadows of buildings, occasionally darting furtively down side alleys. His friend Graham Robertson said of his visit that “Montesquiou was so wrapped about in thick mystery, no intelligent acquaintance within the three-mile radius could possibly have failed to notice him.”
The same preposterous vanity prompted him to commission innumerable portraits of himself. Jean Lorrain in his “Pall Mall” column said that every season the Salon of the Champs de Mars exhibited, for the delight of an admiring public, a Montesquiou immortalized by the current artist in vogue. And he added that the princely subject always invited some five hundred “intimate friends” from Tout Paris to the unveiling. Jacques Blanche painted him on a narrow panel in tones of gray, to hang later in his Gray Room amid those elusive gray flowers. He posed for La Gandara in a Chinese robe, clasping his knee with tapering jeweled fingers and Mandarin nails. Whistler obligingly made two studies of him. In one he wore black and carried a fur stole over his arm. For the other study the count selected a pearl-colored coat with an edging which was, he said, “of a shade, a shade which cannot be expressed but which my own eyes epitomize.”
There was one portrait which led to a cause célébre of the drawing rooms that became known as “The Affair of the Cane.” The artist was the popularly facile Boldini “who painted the way gypsy violinists play czardas”. In this canvas, the count was seated in a dashingly insolent pose, holding out before him a turquoise-handled walking stick. This gave the boulevard wags a perfect opening for double-meaning comment. They titled it “l’Homme à la Canne” and Jean Lorrain went further (and in print), saying it should be called “Indecision”, or “Where Shall I Put It?” then went on to say, “Monsieur de Montesquiou takes communion before his cane… swooning before it as Narcissus might swoon before a mirror,” and added the lines:
Nous avions l’Homme au Gant,
Nous avions l’Homme à la Canne,
À quand, Messieurs, à l’Encensoir?
[We had the Man with the Glove,
We had the Man with the Cane,
When, Gentlemen, shall we have the Man with the Incense Burner?]
To all such venomous prattle, Montesquiou was superbly indifferent. He brushed it off, saying, “It is better to be hated than unknown.” But then came the incident during the tragic aftermath of the Charity Bazaar Fire, a ghastly holocaust which occurred in 1897 on the afternoon of May 4. The Charity Bazaar was a big annual event sponsored by society and the Church which attracted not only Tout Paris but throngs of ordinary people eager to rub elbows with the high-ranking females whose names appeared daily in the social columns. For this worthy cause, fashionable hostesses and Faubourg Saint-Germain duchesses came down from their pedestals to serve as saleswomen and waitresses at the various booths and counters. That year the bazaar was held near the Place des Vosges in the rue Jean Goujon and set up in a temporary structure of canvas and plywood with floors of Norwegian pine. The overall décor represented a section of medieval Paris with little twisting lanes lined by house façades of painted scenery. On either side of the narrow passageways were some twenty-two booths and counters gay with banners, bright-coloured buntings and paper festoons. The most popular attraction was a primitive motion-picture exhibit. It was a great novelty at the time and every session was jammed. The projection machine was a crude affair which, for some obscure reason, required occasional doses of ether, an open bottle of which was beside the mechanic. A spark from the sputtering mechanism fell into the ether bottle, which exploded and shot a geyser of flame through the flimsy wall. It caught the ribbons and draped laces of an adjoining booth, ran like lightning up the paper streamers to the roof and in seconds the entire place was a roaring inferno. Blazing pieces of wood and smoldering tatters of canvas fell onto the crowd of some two thousand below, igniting women’s tulle ruffs and feather boas, setting fire to straw hats and taffeta capes. Smoke and roaring flames made it impossible to see and indescribable panic ensued. People crowded toward the single exit in desperate attempts to escape, most of them ending up in an ever increasing pile of humanity. The screams were frightful and most horrible of all, according to one witness, “every now and then the sound of a loud report… a skull cracking from the hideous heat.” Amid the frenzy there were scenes of heroism and heartbreaking pathos. The Duchesse d’Alençon, sister of the Empress of Austria, refused the help of a worker who wanted to carry her out on his shoulders. “Because of my title I had to be the first to enter here. I shall be the last to go out,” she said and sat quietly behind her booth awaiting an unspeakable death. And there was the Sister of Charity in charge of a group of blind orphans who held to her smoldering skirts their pitiful whimpering heads while she intoned the prayers for the dying.
The real heroes of this dreadful day were, as always, men of the French laboring class. Some workmen on a nearby scaffolding and the cooks, waiters and porters from the Hôtel du Palais rushed time and again into the raging furnace, their own clothes and hair on fire and dragged out whomever they could reach, saving over a hundred and fifty. Many of the coachmen and valets-de-pied from the private carriages of the bazaar patrons waiting outside in the street made their way through the holocaust to save their employers. A cabdriver named Eugène Geordès grabbed General Munier as he ran down the street, his clothes ablaze, and flung him into the watering trough of the Rothschild stables at 26 rue Jean Goujon. Levelheaded rescue work was done by an intrepid butcher the back of whose shop was adjacent to one of the burning walls. With his cleaver he bashed out the bars of a window, formed his men into a lifeline and saved two hundred people. Other heroes included a plumber named Piquet, a street sweeper named Gustave Dhuy and a rooftiler named Léon Déjardins. The disaster was over in half an hour during which time it literally carbonized one hundred and twenty-seven human beings. Only five of these were men. Amid the heroism of the rescuers and the fortitude of some of the victims, the cowardly behavior of the dandies and young clubmen who had come to patronize the fair was a shocking disgrace. When the fire broke out, they ran like rats to save their well-tailored hides, beat their hysterical way to the exit, using their canes as cudgels, stepping on the bodies of the wretched woman and children they had knocked down. This became an immediate public scandal and roused violent resentment among the peuple who said, “If it had happened in Montmartre, we would have saved our women.”
The rumor got about that Robert de Montesquiou was among the cowards who had fought their way to freedom. This was not true, for at the time of the conflagration he was nowhere near the rue Jean Goujon. The next day, however, he did turn up at the Palais de l’Industrie where the bodies had been laid out for identification. It was a gruesome spectacle, for most were charred beyond recognition. A desperate husband identified his young wife by bits of her new red corset, a dowager was recognized by the pearl dog collar about her blackened neck and pretty Mme. de Luppé’s gold wedding ring was found thrust into her heart as though at the last moment she had held her hand over it and the intense heat had annealed the gesture.
Montesquiou, under the pretext of looking for possible friends but doubtless attracted by the macabre, minced along with the line of frantic relatives and agonized mourners. Before each laid-out corpse, he paused and lifted the covering sheet with the tip of his elegant cane. A gendarme on guard duty watched him as long as he could stand it, then cried out in anguish, “One does not touch the dead with the end of a cane, Mr Clubman! If it disgusts you, I can do the unveiling!”
Jean Lorrain got wind of the incident and lost no time in publishing an account of it in his column “Pall Mall” and the Montesquiou cane became again the subject of the gibes of the drawing rooms and boulevard cafés. This gave rise to the count’s one affair of honor, not with Lorrain, but with the courteous and aristocratic writer Henri de Régnier, a charming and tactful person “and such a gentleman,” it was said, “one would never take him for a poet.” Régnier on one occasion had set tact aside long enough to announce at a soirée of the Baronne Alphonse de Rothschild that instead of a cane, Montesquiou would do better to carry a muff. The remark was repeated to the count, who lost no time in challenging the poet to a settlement with swords. This was a dauntless step to prove his courage after the Charity Bazaar libel and also because he had the assurance that his adversary was as inexperienced a duellist as he.
They met at an early hour in a deserted park at Neuilly. The park didn’t remain deserted for very long, however, for the count had sent out invitations to all his friends and acquaintances and they arrived on the premises in varying states of sincere concern or of wild amusement. One palpitating titled lady had brought along her family chaplain to administer a possible last sacrament. Some hundred or more, they flocked to the scene as though to an outdoor pageant. The pageant must have been well worth the ten-kilometer trip. Neither contestant had the remotest idea of how to handle a sword. After the signal to start, Montesquiou leaped to and fro posturing like an amateur d’Artagnan, Régnier stood stiff and pallid, his monocle shaking visibly. Eventually Régnier managed to snip Montesquiou in the thumb, an indulgent surgeon pronounced the slight incision to be a wound, the onlookers applauded and the count retired to a hero’s couch (that carved dragon affair) from which he received a steady steam of worshipful visitors. He himself announced that it was the best party he had ever given. The next day, cool, collected and perfectly groomed in faun color, he gave a conference on d’Annunzio.
Most people found Robert de Montesquiou fantastically absurd. Yet many toadied to him for he had entrée everywhere… through the doors of the most exclusive clubs and restaurants, into the drawing rooms of the Plaine Monceau, past the crumbling posterns of the old aristocratic houses of the Faubourg Saint-Germain. He was a welcome guest in the salon of that beautiful and unchallenged sovereign of sophisticated Paris, the Comtesse de Greffulhe as well as in that leading intellectual cenâcle on the Avenue Hoche which Mme. de Caillavet maintained for the pleasure of Anatole France. He went occasionally to Mallarmé’s Tuesday evenings but couldn’t have enjoyed them much because Mallarmé and not he was the respected deity of these occasions. Edmond de Goncourt was as close a friend as ever Montesquiou could have had and was often his champion, yet he seldom patronized that author’s literary Sundays in his famous grenier, finding them “trop vulgaire.”
That he should make such a comment about the Goncourt gatherings was a typical Montesquiou affectation. Edmond de Goncourt was a polished “aristo” from the tips of his fine fingers to the points of his white mustache and his grenier was anything but vulgaire. It wasn’t an attic at all, but a perfectly appointed salon of his elegant fiat in Auteuil. This “grenier” was in the best of what then was considered intellectual good taste. It was filled with original drawings and crayons by Chardin, Boucher and Gavarni, Japanese bronzes, delicate porcelains and, above all, carefully preserved records and testimonials of whatever pertained to his dead brother Jules. This sentiment for the person with whom he wrote the first nineteen years of the famous Journal and with whose sensitive collaboration such excellent novels were produced, was probably the only great love of Edmond de Goncourt’s life. Twenty-odd years after the death of Jules, Edmond seemed constantly to be turning to his younger brother for the joint observations and opinions they had shared for so long. They had always given the impression of being one single entity even to the point when if one of them started referring to himself in the first person singular, he’d instinctively and almost immediately go into the first person plural… “I saw such-and such and we thought,” etc. Whereas in their stupendous Journal, the “two merge into one in a continuous first person singular… I saw”… “he wrote me,” etc. It was a strange relationship, almost like Siamese twins of the mind and spirit. At one period, they even shared the same mistress and felt no compunction in admitting it. Emile Bergerat once wrote:
“Did you ever watch Edmond de Goncourt going down a street? He isn’t going straight ahead, he’s following someone. It’s a habit he acquired years ago with Jules during their observation promenades. The younger man alive, petulant, nervously darting on everything the fire of his black eyes, always ten paces ahead. The elder brother, more absorbed, less tender, more docile toward the overall and more apt to coordinate, kept his distance. They never exchanged a word during this ambulatory work. Only when something extraordinary struck Jules, he’d half turn to consult Edmond with a mere look; the latter had caught whatever it was at the identical second and had it classified. It was “in the basket”! Jules took the clippers and Edmond the basket… one was the poet, the other the philosopher. Today, the elder man had kept the habit of this four-legged march. The genius of Jules still drifts ten paces ahead, and even sometimes turns back; the accord takes place, the annotations made and entered in the workroom at the double desk. Edmond writes with both hands and does double work.”
Goncourt’s grenier meetings lacked the warmth of the good and simple gatherings at the hospitable hearth of his close friend Alphonse Daudet. They also lacked the intellectual stimulus of Stephane Mallarmé’s Tuesday evenings in his bourgeois little apartment on the rue de Rome where the schoolteacher poet conducted a brilliant cenacle of advanced young intellectuals who sat in worship at his feet. The leader of the Symbolists and author of l’Après-Midi d’un Faune held forth with the appealing simplicity of an Athenian philosopher. William Rothenstein, who never missed a Mallarmé Tuesday, said of this profound aesthete that “while his poetry was obscure and rather difficult, his conversation was crystal-clear.” The atmosphere of Goncourt’s grenier was more conventional, more formal. His assemblage included, in addition to Alphonse Daudet, Joris-Karl Huysmans, François Coppée, Clemenceau, occasionally Ernest Renan and sometimes Mallarmé himself, in addition to any amount of young writers who shook with terror when the master of the house entrusted their awkward hands with a fragile and precious bibelot to admire. With a white scarf wound about his aristocratic neck, Edmond de Goncourt received them all with a manner both cold and courteous. During the 1890’s he was a beautiful old man with silver hair, an aristocrat in bearing and intellect… anything but a liberal, a passionate collector of art especially of the smaller art objects. Whatever his shortcomings, he has bequeathed to his country the Prix Goncourt which, even if he did bequeath it in a certain spirit of spite against the Academy to which he was never admitted, stands for one of the country’s most coveted rewards for literary merit. And to the world in general he and Jules too for the time he was alive to collaborate have left the fine novels and the incomparable Journal. The Journal begun by the two brothers in 1851 was originally intended not to be published until after their death. After Alphonse Daudet persuaded Edmond into letting some of it appear in the Figaro Illustré in ’85, Renan protested that such publicizing was indiscreet (and anyone who has dabbled in the Journal can vouch that in many entries it is not only indiscreet but downright salacious). To this Goncourt replied, “Ever since the world has existed, any interesting memoirs have been written by the Indiscreet. My only crime is that I am still alive.”
In the estimation of certain people, mainly himself, Robert de Montesquiou passed for a wit. He undoubtedly had wit of a rather satanic sort. Certainly he had the talent for making amusing and rather lacerating remarks, and was, to quote his own words, “Addicted to the aristocratic pleasure of offending.” A frivolous little society woman of questionable morals was the mother of five small children and he called her house “La rue des Cinq Pères.” He couldn’t abide bores and when one fatuous old dowager blocked his way into an art exhibit with an exuberant “Ah, mon cher comte, comment allez-vous?” the “cher comte” answered, “Très vite, madame!” and beat a hasty retreat. He had an obsessive loathing for all social climbers. When one parvenue hostess tried to wheedle him into procuring her an entrée into a particular salon because, she said, it was so exclusive, de Montesquiou snorted, “Impossible, madame! For the moment you appear there, it will cease to be exclusive!”
Living in Paris was a Mrs. Kate Moore, an American millionairess, kindly, generous, socially ambitious and not a little absurd. Like other American international hostesses even down to our present day, she was an easy target for the fashionable wags. She entertained lavishly and those same fashionable wags accepted her invitations with alacrity. For the series of the Italian operas held yearly at the Châtelet, she bought a subscription that included thirty grand tier boxes all of which she filled nightly with the people who formed the trellis for her constant climbing. At one of her dinners, Mrs Moore suddenly burst into floods of tears saying that she had swallowed a tooth, an announcement which convulsed her guests whose muffled laughter deeply offended her. The maitre d’hôtel got control of the situation by announcing in calm and all too clear tones: “Rest assured, madame. Madame has not swallowed her tooth. she only forgot it and left it on the dressing table. La voilà!” and he handed her the porcelain incisor on a gold platter. Mrs Moore was determinedly out for titles. The more dukes, duchesses and princes she could snare for her parties, the happier she was. The great triumph of her life was when she finally managed, after machiavellian maneuvering, to get Edward VII for dinner in her Biarritz palace which she called her “Folly.” The King was amused by her good-natured vulgarity and her blatant social ambition. “You should have lived in the days of Louis XIV, madame,” he said. “In those days there were kings everywhere.” Kate Moore was not above making munificent gifts of money or negotiable art objects to certain people who could get her into soirées in the upper circles, and those certain people were not in the least bit above accepting the gifts. When she died, the kind silly woman in a number of legacies remembered generously those who had managed to hoist her up a rung or two of the society ladder. Montesquiou’s comment was: “Mrs Moore has departed from life as she would from the Ritz, handing out tips.” When another American, the Princesse de Polignac, formerly a Miss Winarella Singer and heiress to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune, sent the count an invitation to a buffet supper which was then called “supper at little tables” he accepted, saying “It will, I know, be charming, your supper at little sewing machines.” Needless to say, Robert de Montesquiou was anti-Semitic along with most of the social snobs, and during the Dreyfus commotion he proudly flaunted his prejudice. He did stoop low enough in his own estimation to ask a Jewish banker he knew – a man generally admitted in social circles – to lend him some jewels to wear for a costume ball in which he wanted to appear as a Persian prince. The banker politely excused himself on the grounds that the pieces Montesquiou wanted were family jewels, to which the count coldly commented, “I knew you had jewels. I didn’t know you had a family.”
It gave him infinite delight to entertain with huge receptions and outdoor fêtes. Not the least of the delights was the making up of two lists of people: one, the “inviteds,” the other the “excluded,” the latter affording him endless glee. Though never a person of great means, he spared no expense for these fabulous galas. Debts meant nothing to him and he was quoted as saying “It is bad enough to have no money. It would be worse if one had to deny one’s self anything.” During one season he rented a seventeenth century house at Versailles where at an elaborate housewarming, with the grand manner of Louis XIV distributing favors, he received an array of titled gratin, men of letters, actresses and sycophants. In his torchlit garden was a small marble amphitheatre where Sarah Bernhardt and Julia Bartet recited poems. The poems were written by the host, of course, and one ran imagine the tongue-in-cheek languor of the divine Sarah as she intoned:
J’aime le jade
Couleur des yeux d’Hérodiade
Couleur du sang de Jean-Baptiste
[I love jade
Color of the eyes of Herodias,
Color of the blood of John the Baptist]
Montesquiou adored Bernhardt and she was curiously fond of him. He was even reported to have had a twenty-four-hour love affair with this incandescent and unpredictable woman, followed, alas, by a week of vomiting. But despite this unfortunate interlude, if indeed it was true, theirs was a warm friendship until some years later when Sarah opened in L’Aiglon. The actress’s appearance as a young man in white skin-tight trousers offended the count’s aesthetic sensibilities and he felt that, regretfully, he must never speak to her again.
It was around 1898 that Robert de Montesquiou found Marcel Proust… or rather that Proust found him. They met in the salon of Madeleine Lemaire, a popular woman artist who had, according to the young writer, “created more roses than anybody after God.” She painted pretty pictures which sold well, illustrated a number of books with equally pretty sketches and watercolors and she ran a pseudo-intellectual salon where one met the better-born of the literary set and ate delicious little cakes. Madeleine Lemaire was said to be less famous for her paintings than for her petits fours.
Montesquiou proved to be one of the most rewarding finds for that insatiably observant chronicler of times past. The count, with magnificent condescension, allowed himself to be a patron of the pale, delicate author with his oriental features, his hacking asthma and his religious passion for the upper crust. It was a passion not so much that of the social climber as of the watchful student constantly gathering material and endless minutiae of customs, dress and décor for his meticulously detailed writings. The fashionable world was Proust’s field of study. Léon Daudet said perceptively that “the monde mattered to him as flowers matter to a botanist, not as they count to the man who buys the bouquet.” Montesquiou was the passkey to that hitherto off-limits zone of the genuine remaining aristocracy living in their elegant hôtels privés of the fashionable Right Bank or desiccating with austere formality behind the peeling walls of the Faubourg Saint-Germain… fabulous personages to the dream-struck novelist, behind whose ancient titles he beheld all the pageantry of the great families of France. They were the prototypes for his Guermantes, his Villeparisis, his Swann. And yet, Proust’s characters are none of them direct portraits… he took the type of one person, gave it the character of a second, added the mannerisms of a third and gradually made up the entire person. Swann was probably partly the Prince de Polignac and a greater part Charles Haas, that popular man-about-town whose charm alone gave him entrée everywhere for he had neither fortune nor family; moreover he was a Jew, the only one in the Jockey Club or the Cercle Royale except the Rothschilds. He was a close friend of the Prince of Wales and the Comte de Paris, a steady member of the Comtesse de Greffulhe’s coterie as well as the salon of the Princesse Mathilde and when he journeyed to England he always went out to Twickenham to pay his respects to the Empress Eugénie.
Proust’s Duchesse de Guermantes was also a composite, the main components being the two most enchanting hostesses in Paris – the Comtesse de Chevigné and the Comtesse de Greffulhe – and added to them the occasional flashes of wit of Mme. Straus. Laure de Sade, the Comtese de Chevigné, was a noblewoman whose family dated back to twelfth century Avignon and her ancestress that other Laura, the inspiration of Petrarch. She was spirited and satirical, courageous and gracious. She dressed with simplicity and style and continued to dress in the same style which, even when it was no longer in vogue, suited her royally as Queen Mary’s manner of dressing suited her. Mme. de Chevigné, lithe, energetic, took a brisk two-hour walk every day of her life, wearing a smart tailored suit from Creed’s and a tiny hat with a veil. Young Proust waiting in the shadow of a building to see her daily emergence into the rue d’Anjou, as later the narrator of Guermantes’ Way would wait for the sight of his unattainable duchess, said that she made of her morning walk “an entire poem of elegance.” When she was well over seventy some housepainters on a scaffolding watched her slim, graceful back and her free stride of a girl of eighteen, and one of them called out in admiration, “Ah, la belle gonzesse!” to which the countess cheerfully called back in her husky voice, “Attends un peu, mon petit. Tu n’as pas vu le devant!” [“Ah, the beautiful babe!” and the countess replied, “Wait, little one, you haven’t seen the front view!”] She had a way of addressing people, even those she didn’t know, in the intimate second person singular. For all her noble bearing, there was a lot of the gamine in her and something completely beguiling about her cracked voice of the heavy smoker that she was. When Proust met her, she was no longer young. Before their introduction, he had written her a note saying, “Madame, you live a few houses from me but far more, whether you will or no, you live in me in the light of an eternal summer.” And when at last they did meet and he saw at close hand the clarity of her wise blue eyes and the shimmer of her softly piled hair, golden red like that of Petrarch’s Laura, he felt that this ageless lady had drunk less at the Fountain of Eternal Youth than at the Fountain of Eternal Loveliness and paid her the graceful compliment: “You were as lovely years ago as you are today.”
Laure de Chevigné was home-loving and liked to receive her friends informally in her own drawing room. Her husband Adheaume de Chevigné, an elderly Royalist who was in the active service of the Comte de Chambord and a tireless worker for the King-in-exile, returned every day for lunch, departed immediately afterward for his club, and at two on the dot, the countess’s faithful coterie would arrive… elderly adorers who came daily to perch on uncomfortable little chairs in a small, dark drawing room for two hours, partly through blind devotion to their lively and lovely friend, partly through blind jealousy of each other. They were for the most part some of the more intellectual “aristos” and politicians. They were so used to this daily ritual that they hardly greeted each other or even their hostess. The talk would be relaxed, witty. No refreshments were ever served. Laure de Chevigné would chain-smoke Caporal cigarettes in an amber holder and occasionally one of her elderly beaux would help himself to a Vichy pastille from a candy box kept open for the use of the dyspeptic. Sometimes distinguished visiting Europeans would drop in, the Grand Duchess Wladimir, a British viscount or a titled Italian. Mme. de Chevigné had friends all over Europe. She started the Cercle Interallié and was its president until it began to have too many members. Sometimes young Jean Cocteau would put in an appearance and Proust came as often as she’d allow him to. Her interests were varied and never precious. She liked to hear about new trends in the arts, but didn’t go overboard about them. There was something distinctly earthy about this exquisite noblewoman who would undoubtedly have far preferred the Bouffes Parisiennes to the Russian Ballet.
The sponsor of the Russian Ballet who was first responsible for bringing Diaghilev to Paris was the other ingredient of Proust’s duchess. She was the beautiful Comtesse de Greffulhe, leader of the smart intelligentsia and unchallenged queen of the upper monde. Besides the ballet, she had brought Chaliapin out of Russia, she had been the backer of Moussorgsky and Stravinsky, an early devotee of Richard Strauss and the discoverer of Caruso. Earlier she encouraged Debussy by heading the subscription committee which made possible the first performance of Pelléas et Mélisande. Her interests were countless. She organized exhibits for impecunious but always worthy artists, including an “Apotheosis Showing” of the works of Alfred Stevens at the Georges Petit gallery where she herself pushed the old painter around in a wheelchair. She made greyhound racing popular and she arranged, through President Poincaré, for the physicist Edouard Branly to receive the Osiris prize at the Pasteur Institute for his invention of the radio-conducting tube, a first step toward the wireless.
Mme. Greffulhe carried out most of these activities at a distance, for she seldom went beyond the elegant confines of her mansion and gardens on the rue d’Astorg. She and the guests who flocked regularly to her salon were known as the “d’Astorg Set”. They were very pro-British and very smart. Elisabeth de Gramont in describing Mme. Greffulhe’s life, which was anything but a constant social whirl, says “One cannot be frivolously pleasure-seeking and be the most beautiful woman in France.” She was that indeed, she couldn’t help but know it and she went only to functions where she would be the chief attraction. Her entrance into her box at opera or theatre was like that of royalty and when she passed through a drawing room, it was with the swiftness and grace of a doe. Her litheness was almost legendary. A Diana by Houdon which stood by her mantelpiece was her double. Her daughter, who later married the Duc de Guiches, wrote poems at the age of six to her lovely mother. One of them goes:
Mamam walks like a flower.
I would like to plant her in my garden.
But I would never pluck her
For to break her stem would break my heart.
Her feet and hands are leaves.
How beautiful, how beautiful she is!
The count, her husband, was a fine sportsman and an art connoisseur who every morning would make the rounds of the galleries and antique dealers to keep his eye trained… as he’d explain: “One must correct one’s aim and keep firing tirelessly.” The count was also a gay blade and another of his daily rounds was a series of calls on those charmers his wife called “the little women who enjoy performing on mattresses”. His calls were done with such regularity that his horses would stop of their own accord before the door of each of his houris.
Mme. de Grefflulhe was a cousin of Robert de Montesquiou, who took Proust to one of her outdoor fêtes. The writer was immediately struck by that incomparable loveliness which made Boldini, Lászlo and all the portraitists of Europe want to paint her. “All the mystery of her beauty,” he wrote, “is in the enigmatic light of her eyes. I have never seen a woman as beautiful.” He loved her bell-like laugh, which he likened to the carillon of Bruges. The countess didn’t especially take to young Proust, and didn’t ask him to her house, but in one quick encounter he was able to make a mental sketch to help construct his final portrait of Oriane de Guermantes.
Robert de Montesquiou initiated Proust into what he termed the “poetry of snobbery”. He himself, in all unconsciousness, posed for much of the unforgettable portrait of Baron Charlus. The “sittings” cost the artist much patience and incessant blows to his self-respect for Montesquiou treated him with insolence and sometimes with cruel mockery. But the indefatigable disciple put up with it for the sake of study of his model and the further models this patron made available. Moreover, according to André Maurois, Proust “understood the thirst for admiration with which Montesquiou burned and quenched it generously.” Polite, self-effacing, ingratiating, he trotted meekly in the wake of the ambivalent eccentric, lavishing those extravagant compliments which made people who received them call him “the hysterical flatterer”. His letters to Montesquiou are embarrassingly fervent. “You mind is a garden filled with rare blooms,” he says in one, signing it “You humble, ardent and wholly fascinated Marcel Proust.” In another, referring to the count’s rented villa at Versailles, Proust effuses: “When will you return to that Versailles of which you are the pensive Marie Antoinette and the conscious Louis XVI? I salute your Grace and Majesty.” The pensive Marie Antoinette and conscious Louis XVI took such flowery adulation in his mincing stride and Proust kept following his guide “through the inferno or paradise of aristocratic society” and storing up reams of notes. As Elisabeth de Gramont points out, “Proust flattered him like the fox in the fable. Montesquiou opened his large beak and out fell the prize.”
Marcel even went so far as to write a short eulogy entitled “The Simplicity of the Count de Montesquiou.” Be it a testimonial to the integrity of the Paris press that no newspaper would ever publish it.
• Le Paon dans les Pyrénées — a review of Julian Barnes’ The Man in the Red Coat (2019), which contains a lot about Montesquiou