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Mysteries & Secrets - Marie Antoinette

Not Buying the world's most expensive necklace.
The royal jewelers, Boehmer and Bassenge, had a frightening business problem. With painstaking care their workshop had assembled a truly astonishing necklace. Precisely 647 glittering diamonds, many as large as cherries, had been mounted in gold to suit the ostentatious tastes of Madame du Barry, the mistress of King Louis XV of France. The asking price was the equivalent of about $8 million in today's currency. Unfortunately, smallpox carried off the monarch before the deal could be concluded. His successor, Louis XVI, had married the Austrian princess Marie Antoinette. Famously frivolous and enamored of luxurious excesses, she seemed the ideal customer for the inimitable bauble but startled the jewelers and her numerous critics by rejecting it twice.

Reconstruction of necklace. Although scornfully referred to as "Madame Deficit" by the people because of the riches squandered upon her parties and her opulent rooms at Versailles, Marie Antoinette was perhaps sensitive to the nation's budgetary problems after all. When thinking about her perspective on her nation's financial situation the historical picture frame of events must be referenced. Her husband's country had spent heavily in support of the Americans and their revolution against the British.

When Boehmer wept and said that he would be ruined, even threatening suicide, the queen sensibly told him to pull himself together and break up the necklace and sell the stones separately. The stubborn jeweler tried the court of Spain but was stymied. Only royalty could afford such extravagance, and royalty was becoming scarce as the concept of democracy swept through 18th-century Europe. Meanwhile, the inexorable interest payments on the gems continued to mount. The necklace seemed destined to become the century's most expensive white elephant.

An Unholy Cardinal

Venal, debauched, arrogant, and fatuous, Louis de Rohan was a descendant of one of the most important families of the country. Despite his scandalous private life, which included many a romantic liaison, he was a cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church, the official state religion of France. From 1772 to 1774, he had been the French ambassador to Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire ruled by Marie Antoinette's mother, the stolid and puritanical Maria Theresa. Although his fun-loving, free-spending ways made him popular with many of her subjects, the elderly empress was outraged that a clergyman spent his days at the hunt and his nights in vulgar amusements. She besieged her daughter with complaints until Marie Antoinette succeeded in having Rohan recalled from his diplomatic post in Vienna.

The well-connected, smooth-talking cardinal rebounded by winning the post of grand almoner, thus becoming the highest ranking cleric at the court of Versailles. It was his duty to officiate at mass on important occasions and participate in other elaborate ceremonies, but Marie Antoinette so studiously ignored him that she could later claim that she had not spoken a word to him for eight years. Rohan, who was racking up huge debts as he refurbished his many inherited properties and supported his hangers-on, was mortified. A man of his birth, charm, and position deserved to be on familiar terms with the royal family, or so he believed, and he became desperate to gain acceptance at court.

The Last of the Valois

The most important, and most improbable, character in what came to be known as the affair of the necklace was the ingeniously deceitful, seductive Jeanne de Valois, the daughter of a drunken poacher and a wayward maidservant. As an unkempt young beggar girl, she had somehow convinced a noble patroness that she was the last descendant of the former royal house, the Valois. Indeed she was, but the genteel convent school to which she was then sent did not long hold her attention. At the age of 22, she ran away with a rakish gendarme, Nicolas de Lamotte. A month after they married, she gave birth to twins.

Sensing that the infamously licentious Rohan would be easy prey, Jeanne wangled an invitation to one of his castles and soon had him under her spell. The cardinal paid off her profligate husband's debts and had him promoted to captain in the dragoons. Untiring in her schemes, and almost unbelievably daring, this unscrupulous adventuress, now calling herself the comtesse de Lamotte-Valois, went to Versailles and staged a fainting fit in a reception room. When her husband explained to the astounded courtiers that she was of royal blood but was suffering from years of malnutrition, the self-styled comtesse was awarded a sizable annual pension.

Such successes merely whetted the comtesse's appetite for more mischief, and, fortuitously, yet another larcenous cohort appeared on the scene. The alchemist known as Cagliostro, who was regularly bleeding the gullible Rohan, told her that the cardinal desperately wanted to rise to a high political position but knew that the queen's dislike of him stood in his way.

Queen Marie Antoinette Seizing upon this slender straw, the comtesse began dropping hints to the cardinal in 1784 about her "dear friend" Marie Antoinette. She promised Rohan that the queen would nod meaningfully toward him at the next court affair. The grand almoner, seeing what he hoped to see, was grateful for the imagined royal nod and rewarded his go-between with money. Next, the indefatigable comtesse enlisted the talents of another lover, her husband's friend Retaux de Villette, to act as her "first secretary" and forge notes on gilded paper decorated with the royal fleur-de-lis. This sham correspondence urged the credulous Rohan to be discreet while assuring him that the queen had at last forgiven him.

Proof of Fidelity

The cardinal was not completely hooked and landed, however, until the comtesse hit upon the daring scheme of pretending to arrange a rendezvous with the queen near the Grove of Venus in her private gardens, which even the king could not enter without her permission. First, comte cle Lamotte went to a favorite Paris hangout of prostitutes and found a dim-witted young woman named Nicole who resembled Marie Antoinette.

The clever pair dressed Nicole in a white gown that looked exactly like one in a well-known portrait of the queen and gave her a few lines to memorize. On a moonless night the grand almoner crept among the pines, cedars, and fig trees and bowed deeply when he glimpsed the supposed queen. Tentatively following the script, Nicole softly breathed, "You may hope that the past will be forgotten." But before she had to strain her thespian talents, a manservant in palace livery rushed up, warning, "Come away quickly, quickly." As Rohan ran off, he saw the man's ace, as he was meant to.

Now certain that his ambitions would soon be realized, the poor cardinal was even more receptive to the machinations of the pretty Valois. When she reported that the queen wanted to help an impoverished noble family but was a little short of funds herself, he readily handed over 50,000 livres in cash. Deep in debt himself, however, he had to borrow the sum from a moneylender. When the queen supposedly asked for more money a few months later, he pawned his household goods. Of course, both of these sums were pocketed by his young mistress.

The monstrously greedy comte and comtesse began spending princely sums of money so openly that suspicions should have been aroused, but they seemed to be living a charmed life. In fact, their next victims sought them out. Believing the rumors about the close friendship between the Valois and the queen, Boehmer and Bassenge asked the consummate schemer to act as intermediary in convincing Marie Antoinette to buy the famous necklace. On December 29, 1784, the comtesse was shown the stunning creation.

Whatever a Queen Desires

Subsequent events defy belief. For that reason, much of the French populace would later suspect that the tale was a cover-up to protect Marie Antoinette. The evidence available, however, tends to support the following scenario.

The comtesse told Rohan that the queen wanted to buy the costly diamonds without letting Louis know. Moreover, thanks to Marie Antoinette's newfound confidence in the cardinal, she felt that only he could be trusted to carry off the deal in secret. The naive Rohan agreed to buy the necklace by paying four installments of 1.6 million livres over a two-year period. His wily mistress allayed any doubts by taking away the purchase contract and reappearing with the word "Approved" beside each paragraph and the queen's own signature at the end, "Marie Antoinette de France. "After the necklace was delivered to Rohan's house, a young man soon appeared and intoned the phrase, "By order of the queen." The jewels were handed over forthwith, for this was the manservant Rohan had been allowed to glimpse in the queen's gardens.

The First Nagging Doubts

Though briefly ecstatic, Cardinal Rohan soon became disturbed that the queen was not wearing the remarkable jewelry on public occasions. The resourceful comtesse replied that her intimate royal friend was fearful of showing off such a monumentally expensive trinket. Could the price not be lowered? The jewelers readily agreed to cut the price by 200,000 livres, and on July 12, while delivering some other gems to the palace, Boehmer sent the queen a note affirming the price reduction. Characteristically, Marie Antoinette did not read the entire note and tossed it into the fireplace.

Meanwhile, a reputable diamond merchant reported to the police that valuable stones were being offered around Paris for suspiciously low prices by one Retaux de Villette. When questioned by the minister of police, the redoubtable "first secreta" honestly answered that he was acting as agent for the comtesse de Lamotte-Valois. The impressive title sufficed, but the comtesse, sensing danger, sent her husband off to London to sell the remaining jewels from the destroyed necklace.

But even this masterly tactician could not finally avert the inevitable, the due date of the first payment. Gamely, she tried a bold assault, telling the jewelers that the queen's signature was a forgery and that they must pry their money out of the rich cardinal. But Boehmer and Bassenge knew that Rohan was indebted to the limit. Desperate for the money and certain that the queen had the necklace in her possession, Boehmer went to see Marie Antoinette at Versailles.

The King Goes Too Far

The queen's name day and the important feast of the Assumption both occurred on August 15, an occasion for the ritual gathering of the entire court. When Rohan used his position as grand almoner to gain admittance to the king's chamber before the ceremonies, he was greeted by cold stares from ministers, the averted gaze of the queen, and an abrupt question from Louis: A want to know all about the diamond necklace which you bought in the queen's name."

The king was merciful enough to consider having him taken away quietly, but the angry, tearful queen demanded that he be arrested immediately, in front of everyone. As the puzzled crowd grew fearful about the delay of the ceremony, the cardinal, resplendent in his robes of office, strode out into the glittering Hall of Mirrors. Behind him an old enemy, the Baron Breteuil, roared out, "Arrest Monsieur le Cardinal!" The horrified astonishment of the assemblage soon gave way to anger. Even as Rohan deftly smuggled a note to a servant ordering the fake correspondence destroyed, the disaffected nobility and clergy were plotting revenge upon Marie Antoinette.

The cardinal, who was connected to the noblest lines of France, was taken to a narrow stone cell in the infamous Bastille. But the queen soon became walled up within her own apartments, a prisoner of hostile public opinion. When she went to the theater, the audience hissed her.

A Tactical Error

Once again, Louis unwisely listened to his outraged wife on a political point and ordered that Rohan be tried before the parliament. The resulting brouhaha weakened the monarchy. Pamphleteers published slanders, and antiroyalists were heartened. As one said, "A cardinal disclosed as a thief, and the queen implicated in a most unsavory scandal .... The crozier and the scepter are being bespattered with mire! What a triumph for the ideas of liberty!" In the public proceedings, of course, the comtesse made wild accusations to save herself, but the unwitting prostitute, Nicole, and the "first secretary" told the truth. The comte was never seen again.

On May 31, 1786, throngs began gathering at five in the morning outside the Palace of Justice to hear the verdict, even though the deliberations were likely to take hours. Finally, by a vote of 2.6 to 22, Rohan was acquitted "without a stain upon his character," as was Nicole and the alchemist Cagliostro, who had been drawn into court by the comtesse's scattershot charges. Retaux de Villette was banished, and his friend, the comte, was sentenced in absentia to the galleys.

Only the comtesse would be severely punished. She was to be flogged, branded with a "V" for voleuse, or thief, and then confined to prison for life on a diet of bread and lentils. But this harsh punishment backfired, still further damaging the reputation of the queen. Although 13 men tried to hold down the struggling comtesse to be branded, she fought so savagely that her clothes were ripped and the branding iron scorched her breast. She fainted dead away. Reports of this horrible spectacle aroused sympathy for the prisoner, and the most fashionable people of Paris lined up their carriages to visit her in jail. When the comtesse escaped to England within weeks, disguised as a boy, Marie Antoinette's enemies suspected that she was being rewarded for keeping silent about the queen's actual role in the affair of the necklace.

But the future dealt harshly with more than one participant in the scandal. Cagliostro was banished by Louis and eventually died in rison in Italy. Rohan was barred from court and Forced to live out a quiet life in the countryside. In 1791 the self-styled comtesse, apparently delirious, jumped to her death from a window of a house of ill repute. King Louis XVI and his consort, Marie Antoinette, were beheaded by the guillotine when the fires of revolution - stoked in part by the lies surrounding the affair of the necklace swept through France and destroyed forever the old order for which they stood.

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