There’s no glamour or glory in suicide. It’s a desperate, appalling course of action, devastating to loved ones and liable to turn up all sorts of loopholes in your insurance coverage. That said, few of us can deny a morbid fascination with those who break from the script with a self-penned exit, all the more so if it involves a grand, Tristan-style gesture rather than a pedestrian wrist-slash or cliff-jump.
French poet Jacques d’Adelswärd-Fersen set a high bar for elegant self-destruction in his Capri villa on this day in 1923. Already gravely ill, he took his last meal, then dissolved five grams of cocaine in a glass of champagne and expired. A Greek princess of his acquaintance applied rouge and lipstick to the corpse and placed a coin on his mouth to pay the ferryman, a classical reference Fersen would no doubt have enjoyed.
It was a death as decadent and self-willed as Fersen’s life had been. In his later years it was a waking dream, much of his time spent in Chinese robes, smoking opium in a specially outfitted room in the cellar, attended by Ceylonese houseboys and pining for his capricious Roman lover Nino. The Caprese frankly preferred it when Fersen was ripped to the gills; in his more lucid moments he was notorious as a menace to the island’s adolescent males.
Born Jacques d’Adelswärd to minor nobility and a major fortune, he later added the second barrel to his name in honour of his ancestor, the Swedish adventurer Count Fersen who was a favourite — and possibly lover — of Marie Antoinette. After his arrest in 1903 for hosting lewd black masses in his Paris apartment, the young poet became persona non grata in France.
Following a failed suicide and an equally unsuccessful attempt to join the Foreign Legion, he withdrew to Capri where he was welcomed by a pan-European colony of like-minded exiles. He built Villa Lysis among lemon trees and olive groves, at once handsomely neo-classical and prophetically mausoleum-like.
There Fersen dedicated his life to sensuality and poetry, his humid verse thick with opium smoke, heavy with self-pity and over-ripe with classical allusion. A contemporary critic said that he produced some good verses “but an infinite amount of very bad ones”. What self-awareness he possessed was saved for the 1905 roman à clef Lord Lyllian, which parodied his own downfall.
But the work of Jacques d’Adelswärd-Fersen, indebted as it was to the Symbolists and Decadents, was already unfashionable before his death and is all but forgotten now. So is the man himself, more or less. Even the wonderful (and otherwise comprehensive) Dedalus Book of Literary Suicides: Dead Letters finds no place for him. That leaves his house as his most lasting monument, where, above the entrance, you can still read the words which summed up Fersen’s obsessions: “AMORI ET DOLORI SACRUM” – dedicated to love and sadness.
The Villa Lysis is currently for sale at €7 million. After checking down the back of the sofa I am pleased to announce that I am only €6,999,998.63 short of this goal.