To be born is to acquire the privilege of fully developing one’s self.
– Méphistophela, Catulle Mendès
It was always going to be a challenge, this idea of summoning eccentrics and otherwise extraordinary individuals from varying degrees of obscurity. To highlight fabulous, chaotic careers and make them live again for, oh, 800 words or so. To paraphrase an entire existence in the hope that it might inspire further exploration on the part of the reader.
But no-one I’ve written about thus far has so defied summary as Mathilde de Morny. It’s not just that her life was in and of itself a rare and wondrous thing, full of bravery and scandal, adventure and extravagance, but it also embodied so many currents and contradictions of her era as well as inspiring some of its greatest writers (of whom more tomorrow). Paris during the Belle Époque was essentially a World’s Fair of singular personalities and Morny was arguably the most remarkable of all.
Mathilde de Morny was born on this day in 1863, the issue of illustrious bastards, claiming illegitimate descent from at least two imperial houses. Her father, the duc de Morny, was the half-brother of Napoleon III and the grandson of the first Napoleon’s Josephine as well as the great-grandson of Louis XV, while her mother was a Russian princess most likely descended from Tsar Nicholas I.
Missy had an unhappy childhood. Her beloved father, a handsome, womanising rogue and national hero, died while she was still a child. Her mother had almost died in childbirth and never forgave her for it, and in any case regarded any sign of maternal affection as woefully bourgeois. She married a Spanish duke and Mathilde – “Missy” to her friends – grew up intimately entwined with the Spanish royal family.
Although her mother always told her she was ugly, as a young woman Missy became a sought-after beauty, rich and titled and a society trendsetter. In Paris a cocktail was named after her and her “amazonian” riding habits much imitated; her independence and androgynous self-possession seemed to exert power over men which forced them into the role of swooning maiden. Of her numerous suitors she finally accepted the Marquis de Belbeuf.
Missy, who had conducted lesbian affairs for some years, married not to be enslaved but to be free; having fulfilled the requirements of public union she was free to follow her private passions. And so the Marquise de Belbeuf became one of the great seducers of an age which set a high bar for such behaviour. Her conquests ranged from serving girls to the renowned courtesan Liane de Pougy; her brother complained that she stole mistresses from under his nose. One tempestuous affair with a female gardener ended with a large payment of hush money after Missy, in a transport of passion, bit off the unfortunate girl’s clitoris.
Marquis and marquise separated in 1887 and Missy gradually changed from a subject of titillating gossip to an object of withering scorn. After conspicuously mourning a chambermaid lover who had died unexpectedly, a story did the rounds that Missy had broken into the mortuary chamber, crying “I want to have her one last time!” Reaction to the rumours circulating in Parisian salons suggested that the public were as shocked by the class as much as the gender of Missy’s mistresses.
After the death of her mother in 1896 Missy abandoned what few feminine traits she still exhibited, dressing exclusively in men’s clothing and insisting that her servants address her as “Monsieur le Marquis”. Retroactively applying modern attitudes to identity is a risky business, but much in Missy’s life points to her being transgender. She had a hysterectomy, strapped down her breasts or even – according to an unconfirmed report – had them surgically removed. In short, it appears she went as far as the age allowed in reassigning her gender. She certainly didn’t fit prevailing lesbian archetypes of the age; saloniste Natalie Barney, for one, couldn’t stand her and was appalled by her masculinity.
After finally divorcing in 1904, Missy conducted a public affair with the novelist Colette, who wore a dog collar inscribed with the words “I belong to Missy”. In 1907 the two appeared onstage together in a revue at the Moulin Rouge, an event which became one of the great scandals of the age. That the daughter of a duke and niece of France’s last emperor should tread the boards at all was enough of an outrage, even in officially egalitarian France. But that she should do so dressed as a man and proceed to plant a lingering kiss on the near naked Colette was decidedly de trop, and an aristocratic claque heckled hysterically.
This tumultuous scene marked Missy’s final break with society. Her own brothers refused to be seen in public with her and after a few years she broke off with Colette, who was more and more unfaithful. In her later years, Missy’s closest companions were a trio of young men: the Romanian Prince Ghika (who married Liane de Pougy), the fabulously wealthy Auguste Hériot (whom she tried, unsuccessfully, to pair off with Colette), and the actor Sacha Guitry. All three were prodigious womanisers, just as Missy had been in her prime.
The milieu that had rejected her was itself now being rejected by history, and Missy assisted ever more royal and imperial relatives fleeing revolutionary Russia and republican Spain. As the years ground on, Colette’s observation that Missy had “the right, even the duty to never be happy” seemed to be fulfilled. She grew increasingly isolated and in 1944, after an unsuccessful attempt at hara-kiri, finally died with her head in a gas oven.
Tomorrow: Mathilde de Morny in the literary imagination