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Franklin Unbuttoned

Mon Cher Papa, Franklin and the Ladies of Paris

by Claude-Anne Lopez
Yale, 404 pp., $7.50

An English historian must tiptoe as he draws near the American Pantheon, stuffed as it is with white marmoreal figures—austere, virtuous, dedicated. No virago here, like Elizabeth I, whose language could rival the porters at Billingsgate and was not above a bedroom tussle with her courtier favorites even though none of them ever sighted the promised land; no homosexual buffoon like James I, no dolt like George III. Indeed no avaricious Burleigh, no power-hungry Walpole, no manic Chatham or drunken Pitt, no weird Dizzy or lecherous Lloyd George. Instead Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Franklin, who shine and gleam with virtue. Here even Lincoln’s dirty stories are forgotten or forgiven. These Founding Fathers in the central hall are lofty with purpose; it seems almost indecent to think of Washington scratching his backside or Jefferson picking his nose. And now we have Franklin thoroughly unbuttoned, although not nearly so unbuttoned as he wished to be. Yet we must be very grateful to Claude-Anne Lopez. She has written a book of exceptional perception: scholarly, tender, full of style. And the Yale University Press has added another book of exceptional physical beauty to its lengthening list.

At seventy Franklin loved to have his neighbor’s wife on his lap and cover her with kisses. He pined for more, begged for more, railed at the Seventh Commandment, but Madame Brillon handled him with such skill that he subsided into a mildly indecorous “Papa” while she rioted in the role of a highly emotional but loving daughter. The hint of incest may have been spice to Madame Brillon but, obviously, for Franklin it proved a tedious game, made tolerable only by his age, which had weakened, although not obliterated, the fires of the flesh. So they poured out tender effusions in the best eighteenth-century pastoral style. Madame Brillon, neurotic, self-involved, delicate in health as she was steel-like in will (her husband’s mistress, once discovered, never stood a chance; she was kicked out of the household and Brillon locked firmly to his wife’s side) reveled in Franklin’s greatness as much as in his devotion. It is hard to know just how genuine were the emotions of these tender yet teasing lovers, one elderly, the other middle-aged. Genuine concern was certainly there on Franklin’s side, plus a definite eroticism that expressed itself in endless kisses or the hopes of kisses. For Madame Brillon the kisses were a tribute to her power, and Franklin’s affection a splended social asset. Even so, she played the game with delicacy, wit, and skill; and their days at Passy possess a Watteau-like quality until one realizes that the gallant has gout, thin gray hair, and teeth “like cloves,” and the girl is a grandmother at the menopause.

SALUTARY TO REMEMBER. Men and women of the eighteenth century possessed no false attitudes to age—love, romance, the ardors of the flesh among the elderly were not comic to them, no more, no less than the fumblings and excesses of youth. There was nothing exceptional in the agony of Madame du Deffand’s burning passion for the young Horace Walpole, nothing comic in the transports of unrequited passion of two middle-aged lovers—Rousseau and Madame d’Houdetot disturbed by the wagoner, as she was about to succumb under the famous acacia tree. Indeed, the tree became the object of romantic pilgrimage. These men and women were wise enough to know that the winds of love never cease to blow and that even in age they could swell into a gale. One of the best loved stories of the century was that of Fontenelle approaching a hundred, discovering Madame Helvétius in déshabillé and exclaiming “Ah, Madame, would I were seventy.” And so, for Franklin to be kissing, stroking, imploring—fifteen-year-old girls, middle-aged women, and matrons of advancing years—was nothing untoward. It was a part of his charm, of his gallantry, of his devotion to the demigod of the eighteenth century haute-monde. Eros: sex, love, affection—these were the essences of life.

And Franklin reveled in them. He was always lusty, and female grace gave a sweetness to his old age that he found quite irresistible, much to the fury of Adams, who loathed his dissipation and hated his women friends. Somehow Franklin got through his toilsome diplomatic work, never quickly, nor indeed expeditiously, and it was a rare day that work was allowed to thrust aside all pleasure. Plain by French standards his style of living might be, but it was deeply self-indulgent. Franklin understood his own nature well enough, and certainly did not disapprove of what he found within his heart and mind. Assured of his place in history, certain of the rectitude of his beliefs and hopes, he acquired an almost immutable dignity and grace, even with a woman of fifty or a girl of fourteen on his knees. In his quiet way he loved praise, which he elicited with unobtrusive but consummate skill. No wonder he though of Passy as Paradise.

Franklin was first and foremost an artist—his imagination played successfully with many ideas—scientific, technological, political, economic—but words were his abiding passion. He used them to project his image into posterity: an image carefully cultivated visually as well as verbally, so that the portraits of Franklin fit his autobiography like a glove. And, of course, it was this innate literary skill that made him such a cherished member of one of the most highly articulate societies Europe has known. Light verse, epistles in alexandrines, and mock-heroic odes flew endlessly back and forth—if Madame d’Houdetot received a melon from a neighbor it came with a poem, and thanks went back in verse. Her reception of Franklin with triumphant arches, sententiously decorated with philosophic aphorism, and declamatory verses on liberty and moral simplicity, struck no false note in this verbal paradise. So artificial and mannered to us, for them it was as natural as the telephone.

AND IT WAS A WORLD of more than mere words. Naturally it contained much human diversity—the satirical, the cruel, the oafish, the self-indulgent were all to be found as frequently as in any other society, but they never dominated its ethos. Its ideology was one of benevolence, hope, and charity. Even if these children of the Enlightment failed, they aspired to be good. They might ignore the hunger and poverty at their palace gates, but they believed passionately in equity and justice and within their limited capacities worked for them. When greater social justice came, many of them, ironically enough, finished in the tumbrils. Above all, they were, most of them, immensely tolerant: naturally much more so than the revolutionary bourgeois who were to replace them.

This society in which Franklin moved with such delight has many curious overtones with present-day America. In a sense America has produced an aristocratic bourgeoisie and, in consequence, many intellectual, social, and artistic attitudes of the ancien régime have their counterparts today. The French aristocracy were sharply divided and so is the American middle class. In France an entrenched right wing was passionately concerned to maintain traditional institutions in Church and State, rigorously opposed to new ideas in sex, education, in social thinking, yet it never had the confidence to impose its ancient ideals with the ferocity that the times required. They sensed defeat and so were half defeated, and I suspect that is true of our Goldwaters and their followers. In their bones they know the future cannot be theirs, nor the past perpetuated.

As with the right, so with the left. There were plenty of rich Frenchmen willing to play with advanced ideas, who, like our own liberal middle class, were tolerant of change, easy in morals, speculative, articulate and not without hope for mankind yet, perhaps, somewhat blind to the future that beckoned them. The French liberals, like many of ours, were not very perceptive about the contradictions between their economic situation and the intellectual ideas with which they played. And there are other similarities between the two societies—the ancien régime of Louis XV and LBJ, especially in their artistic, literary and philosophical preoccupations. Both societies show a preference for architecture and the decorative side of art, both are wedded to physical elegance, to the objet d’art, both are very chary of grandeur, passion, and tragedy in artistic expression. Yet both can be regarded as periods of enlightenment, possessing a keen relish for intellectual comment on society and the individual. On the other hand both are bored with religion, myth, and convention; both have found excitement in technological ingenuity and scientific progress. The most enlightened spirits of each age show an acute awareness of the brittle nature of their privileges, aware too of the desperate poverty and hunger of the world outside their gates, but for whom awareness could never be, and perhaps may never be, translated into action. We are poised, like them, on the edge of revolutionary social change; is the Déluge, therefore, just around the corner for us too? Are Robespierre, Danton, Marat, and the rest growing up in San Francisco and New York?

Franklin would have appreciated the irony. Certainly he would have been at home in the most luxurious apartments of Fifth Avenue, glad to find good claret at last in his own country, and certainly wholly appreciative of the Renoirs, happy to enjoy what he had and to miss what might be coming. But I suspect that in our more prudish age neither girls of fifteen nor matrons of fifty would sit on his knee, shower him with kisses, and call him “Cher Papa.”

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