An anecdote dating from the Belle Époque tells us that one night at the theatre, Count Robert de Montesquiou was greatly struck by a young man he saw in the audience. The stranger bore a startling resemblance to the writer Alfred de Musset, who had died when Montesquiou was an infant and was buried in Père Lachaise cemetery, along with a number of the count’s illustrious ancestors. After the performance Montesquiou invited the doppelganger to dinner and swept him up into his night’s ensuing revelries. Finally at dawn the count apologised to “Alfred” for detaining him in this realm for so long and deposited the perplexed young man – not at his home, but at the gates of Père Lachaise.
Comte Robert de Montesquiou-Fézensac died in Menton 100 years ago today. He was buried in Versailles at the side of his lover, Gabriel Yturri, who had died in 1905. An angel with a finger to its lips guarding their shared tomb counsels discretion – a don’t ask/don’t tell, do-not-disturb sign on their eternal lodgings. Montesquiou chose not to mingle with the bones of his storied forebears, who included an aide-de-camp to Napoleon, a Maréchal on tu terms with Henri IV and one of the Three Musketeers.
Born in 1855, Montesquiou wore baby clothes that once clad Napoleon’s son, the ill-fated King of Rome, whose governess was the count’s great-grandmother. At boarding school, young Robert subsumed his adolescent longings into poetry whose recondite imagery contrasted with the strict formality of their settings. He became an assiduous curator of his own elegance. He gained the favour of his schoolmates with bitchy aperçus and impersonations; all of these habits persisted into adulthood.
Our visual impression of Montesquiou is largely informed by the great 1890s portraits by Whistler and Boldini. But before them came a fascinating 1879 study by Henri-Lucien Doucet. Here, Montesquiou is not yet Montesquiou. His hands, much admired by his contemporaries, and later habitually clamped to a cane, are clenched in a gesture which suggests something other than the self-possession that the sitter would later whet to warlike acuity. Pale, handsome, with the suggestion of a smile playing at the corner of his mouth, he is still in his overcoat as though he has just arrived or is making to leave. There is a touching hesitation, an uncertainty, a sense that acclamation is desired and not merely assumed as it would be later. Even the background seems unfixed.
Within a few years – certainly by 1884 when his persona suffused J. K. Huysmans’s characterisation of Jean des Esseintes in À rebours – Montesquiou had become Montesquiou. But what does that mean? He was described as a “crank”, “literary lunatic”, “commander of delicate odours”, “sculptor of clouds”, “stringer of pearls”, “great genius of talk”, “grand duke of Sodom”, “professor of beauty”, “born poet”, “legendary friend”, “Apollo of mystery”, “poet of the bats”, “sovereign of transitory things”. Nominally commended to posterity as a poet, so completely does the count elude conventional compartments of fame that he functions more as a talisman of sensibility than an actual figure of history, literary or otherwise. Rare is the francophone masochist who would choose to read, say, his 1892 volume of verse about bats, jewels, fireworks and who knows what across 500 pages. At a time when far more obscure fin-de-siècle writers are available in English, there is a reason that Montesquiou’s works – “vague, shrouded poems … perversely exquisite in spirit and in form” in the estimation of Arthur Symons – remain almost entirely untranslated.
The description of “aesthete”, while nebulous, comes closer. Montesquiou approached aesthetics with cultish intensity, cultivating a freemasonry of ephemera of which he became the ultimate adept. He opposed the tide of industrialisation with Counter-Reformational zeal, a mania for rarity and raffinesse. As Baudelaire once said, “beauty always has an element of strangeness,” and as well as tending the curious blooms in the hothouse of his rarefied tastes, Montesquiou nurtured his eccentricities like spoiled children. He invited society friends to the christening of his cat, wore a ring mounted with a crystal enclosing a single tear, embarked for New York with his Great Dane in a white leather collar studded with turquoise. He had a pet bat which he announced to be the reincarnation of King Ludwig II. His costumed ancien régime play-acting with friends at Versailles was so authentic that two English lesbian academics on a day trip were convinced they had entered a wormhole. His hyper-refinement inspired an entire literary movement.
For it is easy to forget that Montesquiou – regardless of his own work – was not merely emblematic of Decadence, he was essentially patient zero in its viral spread. If Stéphane Mallarmé had not visited Montesquiou’s profoundly eccentric chambers on the Quai d’Orsay – Linderhof and Fonthill Abbey compressed beneath a mansard roof – and if he had not related his impressions to J. K. Huysmans, then À rebours and the entire Decadent movement might never have happened, thus no Picture of Dorian Gray – and so forth.
Of course, to some this would have been quite the more preferable outcome. As artist Richard Hawkins observed in the catalogue for a 2005 exhibition of latter-day Decadence, Montesquiou is “almost always characterised in biographies and histories of the period as the worst of the clichés and bad humour of the fin de siècle, as if everything unseemly of the period could be packed into one little 5-foot-7 faggy snit.” That we have a more rounded figure available to us than this unjust caricature is largely the work of writer Philippe Jullian. Just as the cult of Baron Corvo owes much to the work of biographer A. J. A. Symons, it was greatly to Montesquiou’s favour that a champion as insightful and sympathetic as Jullian came along while there were still (just) living witnesses to his subject’s life, including Princess Bibesco, Natalie Barney and the count’s only niece. His 1965 biography Un prince 1900 is as much evocation as description, reconstructing the recherché pleasures of the Belle Époque around the reader.
Jullian shows us that Montesquiou’s true lineage was not to be found in the names engraved in Père Lachaise but in a network of similarly narcissistic aesthetes, living and dead. Proust would imitate the mannerisms of Montesquiou, some of which he had cribbed from Whistler. Montesquiou communed with Ludwig II, Empress Sissi, Sarah Bernhardt (who, while not dead, chose to sleep in a coffin). As the 19th century came to a close, the count partook in the ultimate sacrament of these secret inheritances. He had long been obsessed with the Countess de Castiglione, the Second Empire courtesan who became the mistress of Napoleon III in 1856, at which point she began her astonishing artistic project of staging events in her life in photographs. They continued for four decades, as she lived out her half-mad dotage on the Place Vendôme, conducting a long funeral rite for her own beauty just as Des Esseintes had publicly mourned his virility.
The count had never encountered the countess in life, but as the news of her death circulated throughout Paris in late 1899, he seized the opportunity, hurried to the Place Vendôme and there caught sight of her corpse just as the lid was being lowered on her coffin. So profound was the impact of this moment that it took him over a decade to formulate it in words. By the time he published his tribute La Divine comtesse in 1913, he had collected many of the objects with which she furnished her solitude as well as a trove of those extraordinary photographs. He shared his obsession with his friend the Marchesa Casati, the “living work of art”, while the photographs would end up in the possession of much-married diva Ganna Walska. Each of them sought the mirror that only another narcissist can supply.
Like that opening anecdote, Montesquiou’s communion with Castiglione speaks to both the count’s parlour mysticism – his insistence that he was in touch with other planes – but also a life shaded with sorrow. Montesquiou was a high-functioning melancholic; his mother, he said, had given him the “sad gift of life”. He referred to himself as a “future corpse”, adding fin-de-siècle morbidity to the dandy’s habitual melancholy. Naturally Montesquiou aestheticised mortality, because Montesquiou aestheticised everything – posing as John the bodiless Baptist, carrying a photo of Sarah Bernhardt in her coffin, wearing an onyx death’s head as a scarf pin. “Robert de Montesquiou was to see the world as a place of vanities, in which, under a heap of roses, ivories and carved goblets, one discovered a skull of exquisite proportions.” These words are from Philippe Jullian, who goes on to evoke the lines from Platen which became the count’s motto: “He who looks Beauty full in the face/Is already dedicated to death”. It was not a slave whispering “memento mori” to Montesquiou, but a mirror; it isn’t difficult to trace the crepuscular traits of Des Esseintes.
But in contrast to Des Esseintes, Montesquiou maintained an active social life. Contemporaries invariably noted the hysterical high-pitched laughter which would follow his put-downs; he would hold his hand in front of his mouth to hide his rotten teeth – something he shared with his idol Ludwig II, although he never ran to fat like the Bavarian king. In fact Montesquiou was rejected for military service for being “excessively thin”, although he did win bronze in an equestrian event at the 1900 Olympics. For elegance and hauteur he had no podium rivals; in some caricatures his head is thrust so far back he looks like a gymnast about to embark on a floor routine. It was said he could dress in cabbage leaves and still possess un chic suprême. He could discern gradations of grey invisible to the lay eye. And in fairness it should be noted that he supported the work of younger writers and artists – Colette, Romaine Brooks, Gabriele d’Annunzio, Claude Debussy, Anna de Noailles and – to his lasting regret – Marcel Proust.
But there was a venomous edge to Montesquiou’s tastemaking which recalls the axiom attributed to Gore Vidal (among others): “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.” When Montesquiou hosted a party, for instance, he would draw up two lists – one of the invitees, the other of those knowingly excluded. “The truth of the matter is I prefer the parties themselves to the people I invite to them … I have always regarded them as an inseparable – shall I say unavoidable? – detail of any reception, but a detail that is, alas! all too often recalcitrant.” He further complained that guests didn’t “stand in the position suggested to them in a well-ordered gathering,” unlike his beloved bibelots.
At formal occasions, Montesquiou settled those awkward questions of precedence and placement with which his milieu busied itself by announcing “the place of honour is where I find myself.” He was largely repelled by the men of his class and their preoccupation with hunting (pheasants, soubrettes – it made little difference) but he would sometimes lend the more adventurous of their wives his queer eye. While Montesquiou excelled in malice, in part this was the tenor of his set. One night he was dining with fellow dandy Boni de Castellane and the painters Giovanni Boldini and Jean-Louis Forain, all of whom rivalled the count for waspish obloquy. So greatly did each of them fear leaving first, knowing that he would be the object of the remaining trio’s merciless aspersions, that they agreed to rise together and leave as one.
But Montesquiou’s mockery was never turned inward; his vanity and elitism were entire, self-enclosed and unabashed. When imitators tried to recreate the interiors so rapturously imagined by Huysmans, Montesquiou moved on. Mere refinement was insufficient; he had to be utterly original. When burglars broke into his Le Vésinet property but later attested in court that “there was nothing for us there”, Montesquiou accepted this as high praise. The count neither sought nor attained the attentions of the boulevard.
He didn’t need wider acclaim, of course, because he had the means and the social standing to fuss with his gewgaws as much as he liked. Unlike Jean Lorrain, who had risen to become the highest paid journalist in Paris. Philippe Jullian, who penned biographies of both men, claimed that Lorrain was driven “by the assurance of having more talent and the fear of having less taste” than Montesquiou. Lorrain spread a story that Montesquiou had been at the tragic fire at the Bazar de la Charité in 1897, and had used his cane to beat women out of the way as he saved his own skin. It was a terrible calumny; Montesquiou was nowhere near the blaze but the story gained purchase because people could imagine him doing such a thing.
Poet or not, Montesquiou was more comfortable with images and objects than words, and as well as sitting for an extensive body of photographs inspired by Castiglione, he was a sought-after subject for painters. In addition to Doucet they included Giovanni Boldini, Jacques-Émile Blanche, Antonio de la Gándara, Philippe de Laszlo and most famously James McNeill Whistler. The excursion to London to attain immortality under Whistler’s brush brought out the full spectrum of Montesquiou’s eccentricity. He travelled under elaborate aliases although, as W. Graham Robertson (another cane-wielding Whistler subject) commented, “he might have walked down Piccadilly accompanied by a brass band without anyone being much the wiser.” In the exacting sessions Montesquiou felt that Whistler was “emptying him of life”, and he availed himself of “Vin Mariani”,a cocaine-laced “restorative”; like everyone from Decadent provocateuse Rachilde to Pope Leo XIII, he also shilled for the makers. As the long sittings drew to a close, Whistler countered Montesquiou’s antsy impatience by appealing to his vanity; “Look at me for an instant longer, and you will look forever!” (“perhaps the most beautiful phrase ever spoken by a painter” reflected Montesquiou).
As the 20th century advanced, Montesquiou retreated further into the past, indulging his Bourbon nostalgia by buying a palace modelled on the Grand Trianon, the “Palais Rose” to match his rival Boni de Castellane’s similar residence in central Paris. Montesquiou was already overshadowed by Des Esseintes when in 1913 Marcel Proust issued Du côté de chez Swann, the first in what would eventually be a series of seven novels which included the character of the prodigiously homosexual Baron de Charlus. Proust had first met Montesquiou twenty years earlier at the home of Madeleine Lemaire, painter of floral studies (“only God created more roses” as Dumas fils maintained). Despite the author’s initial protestations, Charlus was largely inspired by the count. At this point the Montesquiou persona began to slip the surly bonds of mere existence and drift into undying artifice.
“Is it admissible,” Montesquiou once asked, “is it desirable, to see a fictional character overtake its model, to the point of relegating him to the background and almost replacing him in people’s memories?” He was speaking about the treatment of his ancestor d’Artagnan (at the hands of Dumas père), but could very well have been referring to himself. But surely it was better to front up to eternity in the more flattering guises tailored by Proust and Huysmans than, say, as the “Priest-Petronius and Mecaenas-Messiah, volatile volatiliser of words” in Edmond Rostand’s Chantecler, the “Duc de Fréneuse” in Lorrain’s Monsieur de Phocas, “Jacques de Serpigny” in Le Mariage de minuit by Henri de Regnier (with whom Montesquiou fought a duel over the Bazar de la Charité slander) or “Montautrou” (“arse-climber”) in Lord Lyllian, Jacques d’Adelswärd-Fersen’s roman à clef of Satanism and sodomy in high society.
The count continued to maintain an interest in the avant-garde of his day, and cultivated a friendship with the writer Raymond Roussel, something of a next-generation Montesquiou – handsome, gay, wealthy, dandyish and deeply eccentric. But a deceptively minor incident in the friendship between the two men is of unimprovable symbolic value in illustrating the difference in their artistic sensibilities and the simple passing of time and fashion. Shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, Montesquiou gave Roussel a bloom meant only for the hothouse; Roussel earned the count’s ire by instead planting it in a windswept garden. The count’s carefully tended art, interior without true interiority, could not be transplanted to the great febrile landscapes that issued from the younger man’s mind.
They say “count no man happy till he dies” – may we count the count happy? He would probably have regarded conventional notions of happiness as appallingly petty bourgeois. But as he grew older and his health worsened the endless shades of grey tended to gun-metal. The return of Charlus in the second volume of Proust’s magnum opus in 1919 seemed to drain Montesquiou of much of his remaining vitality. His world of rare perfumes, neurasthenic décor and titled dowagers was gone, and he knew that he was at a remove from, as he put it, “Picasso’s artistic conceptions, from Czechoslovakian aestheticism or Negro art”. His luxury limited editions of corseted alexandrines could scarcely have been more apt to repel the attentions of the between-the-wars sophisticate if their pages had been pasted together.
Even the manner of Montesquiou’s demise was démodé, Beardsley-esque. Suffering from uremia, the sixty-six year old count decamped to Menton, where he died on 11 December 1921. Ten days later he was laid at Yturri’s side in Versailles in the company of Natalie Barney, Ida Rubinstein, Maurice Barrès and Lucie Delaure-Mardrus. Eulogist Paul-Louis Couchoud admirably evoked the count’s essential nature without planing away his sharp corners. “We shall no more see his tall figure thrust back, his princely brow, his deep and pensive eyes, his mocking and sincere mouth … At once the haughtiest and most candid of men, proud but sensitive, refining all properties and breaking all conventions, master of the art of pleasing and attracted by the aristocratic pleasure of displeasing, irritated to excess by the slightest baseness, infinitely exalted by the most obscure sign of spiritual grandeur, stating that the only bearable things are things in the extreme …”.
Montesquiou’s persona is captive in arts and letters of more talented contemporaries, and more recently evoked in Julian Barnes’s The Man in the Red Coat. This just leaves Montesquiou the man who was – as Arthur Symons pronounced in the ne plus ultra of fin-de-siècle shade – “merely real”.
Dress-down Friday: Robert de Montesquiou
The countess in the afterlife
The hands of Robert de Montesquiou
Places: Palais Rose, Le Vésinet
The poet of the bats
Pearls: Robert de Montesquiou
The ghosts of Versailles