Prince of Aesthetes: Count Robert de Montesquiou, 1855-1921
Count Robert de Montesquiou was an aristocrat, poet, wit, art critic, art patron, interior decorator, male beauty queen, and arbiter of elegance. A hollow man, yes; but the more you peel off the layers, the more he is still there. If he was a fake, he was a genuine fake.
He was observed for thirty years, admiringly but implacably, by a writer of supreme genius, who created from him and a few others the most tremendous and awful personage in the twentieth-century novel, the Baron de Charlus in Remembrance of Things Past. We cannot and should not forget that Montesquiou lives, and will live forever, in the hero-villain of Marcel Proust’s search for Time, a fictitious character as comic as Falstaff and as tragic as Lear. Even a genius doesn’t make something from nothing, and Charlus is the big clue to Count Robert’s real worth, the proof that he was more than an expendable eccentric in a vanished, silly era. It wasn’t a silly era, or no sillier than ours, and it hasn’t vanished; it was where we came in, the beginning of modern times, and we are still working out in art and politics its discoveries, its possibilities, its right and wrong turnings. Touch the web anywhere, and you will find a thread leading sixty or seventy years back to Paris, and not far away, though always a bit off center, in a limelight of his own, Count Robert scurrying around and screeching. He was an eccentric, goodness knows, but not expendable. So it becomes all the more important and interesting to dismiss the Baron de Charlus for a while, and find what Count Robert de Montesquiou was like, in real life. This Quest for Montesquiou is the theme of Philippe Jullian’s remarkable biography.
“I LIKE YOU, Montesquiou,” said Anatole France, “because you’re so proud”; though France also remarked of him, with equal candor: “I can’t bear that man who’s always talking about his ancestors!” Count Robert disliked all his relatives—including his father, who replied, when blamed “for making me what I am,” “I didn’t do it on purpose!”—but he adored his ancestors. They went back thirteen centuries (so do ours, but few of us know so well just how), to the Merovingian kings of France, so that he could boast about “my grandfather Clovis,” “my uncle Childebert,” and later to the fourth musketeer D’Artagnan, to courtiers who stalk through the palace of Versailles in Saint-Simon’s Memoirs, to Madame de Montesquiou, nurse of Napoleon’s little son, whom that ill-fated child called “Mama Quiou,” to her son Anatole the Field Marshal, who when reproached for serving the usurper Bonaparte said: “Yes, but for us the Capets were already usurpers.” Anatole’s son Thierry was vice-president of the Jockey Club, and father of Count Robert, who decided to become the genius of the family, “to add to our ducal coronet the glorious coronal of a poet!”
He was a frightened little boy in the 1860s, a hundred years ago; indeed, when a Jesuit schoolteacher made heartless fun of his poor little poem to the moon, the incident was as central to Montesquiou’s whole life as was to Proust’s the mother’s kiss withheld and extorted in the moonlight night of childhood. He reacted in all ways at once, by being brave and aggressive, insolent, vain, generous, and pure, by being so beautiful and clever that everyone would have to admire him, by being absurd on purpose, by making fun of everybody else, by creating a private world that would be fit for him to live in, by forcing the outside world to become part of his private world.
There is something touching, fine, and doomed about these rare men who construct an ideal cocoon as a home for their exceptional minds and bodies, like the Prince Regent in Brighton Pavilion, Montesquiou’s own hero Ludwig of Bavaria at Neuschwanstein, or William Beckford (with whom Philippe Jullian illuminatingly compares him) at Fonthill Abbey. But the gothic Shangri-La of Fonthill was a whole fantastic building, not a mere interior. Montesquiou bought his dream-houses ready-built, furnished them to his current whim—fin de siècle, Japanese, Louis XV, Second Empire, Art Nouveau—and then cut loose, sick of the old fashion, enamored of the new, “One should never move out, only move in,” he said.
He was a lovely youth in the 1870s, a decadent in the 1880s, an aesthete in the 1890s. He became the model for the perverse Des Esseintes in Huysmans’s A Rebours, and the title-hero of Monsieur de Phocas by the detestable homosexual journalist Jean Lorrain, against whom the young Proust fought a bloodless duel with pistols. In this early period his friends were Mallarmé, Sarah Bernhardt (who wrote him love letters beginning “Little brother” or “My Always”), Whistler, and Edmond de Goncourt; he met Wilde, but could not bear him: “Monsieur Wilde is the Antinous of the Horrible,” he declared.
Then for a long heyday of twenty years he made himself, in Proust’s words, a Professor of Beauty, lecturing, dressing up, collecting, fascinating, quarreling, intimidating, party-giving, proliferating an infinity of poems and epigrams. He was tall and sinuous (“I’m like a grey-hound in a great-coat,” he said complacently), with fierce, crisp black hair and mustache, a predatory noble nose, pink, wrinkled, rouged, and powdered cheeks (“like a moss-rose,” remarked Proust), a maniacal laugh, and a voice that began baritone but rose to soprano with excitement, till he screamed in a deafened and terrorized drawing room like a great black macaw in an aviary. Léon Daudet called him “Hortensiou” (after Count Robert’s favorite flowers, the hortensias which we nowadays name hydrangeas), the painter Forain called him “Grotesquiou,” La Vie Parisienne called him “Thankiou,” and Jean Lorrain referred to his disciples as “all the little Montesquitoes.”
COUNT ROBERT was a dedicated patron not only of himself but of a spiral galaxy of writers, artists, and musicians who are still celebrated—such as Verlaine, D’Annunzio, Whistler, Fauré, Debussy—or are now being rediscovered or ripe for rediscovery—such as the painters Gustave Moreau, Paul Helleu, Jacques Emile Blanche, or the Art Nouveau masters Gallé and Lalique. It is true that he quarreled with Blanche as early as 1889, and called him “the Auteuil shaving-brush” (“le blaireau d’Auteuil,” not, I think, as the translators render it, “the badger of Auteuil,” for Blanche looked more like a guinea pig), and when he saw one of his paintings in a noble lady’s drawing room he would yelp: “Isn’t it high time you put this piece of linoleum under your bathtub?” But I am delighted to find Philippe Jullian praising Blanche as “an excellent painter,” who “borrowed from the Impressionists the brilliance of palette which was changing the muddy pictures praised at the Salons.” At his later best, it seems to me, Blanche deserves an honorable place among the post-Impressionists, and his portrait of young Jean Cocteau, gaunt and angular in grey on a dauby green garden lawn, is one of the beautiful pictures of our century. For these and other favorites Montesquiou gave public lectures and private parties, wrote poems and articles indefatigably, and extracted invitations and commissions from society hostesses. In 1903 he even gave a lecture tour in the States. “The beautiful Count is coming to Boston,” said the newspapers; one reporter observed with pinpoint accuracy that he had “a low pink voice studded with emeralds.” “I understand you have a Steel King, an Oil King, a Railway King.” Montesquiou began, “but where is your Dream King, your Poetry King?”
His last years, after the high summer of the Belle Epoque, were sad and lonely, Rostand had caricatured him as the Peacock, “Prince of the unexpected adjective,” in his farmyard comedy Chantecler. He had no guests, for he had blacklisted everyone, a process which he called “widening, by cutting down the undergrowth of pointless friendships, the avenues that lead to my solitude.” “I loved my parties better than my guests, who were perhaps aware of the fact,” he confessed. Hostesses were terrified of inviting him, because he would find their drawing rooms full of the people he had forbidden them ever to ask. The First World War put an end to parties and Art Nouveau, but released a new revolutionary art with which, although hitherto always one jump ahead of fashion, he could not catch up. He refused to be introduced to Cocteau, and pretended to mistake him for Anna Pavlova: “No, I’ve met her already,” he said. The fame of Marcel Proust, a growing suspicion, which he gracefully concealed, that the Baron de Charlus was modeled on his own august person, both gratified and distressed him. “I, too, should like a little glory,” he complained, “I ought to start calling myself Montesproust.” He fled to the mimosas of the Riviera, and died of nephritis in December 1921, aged sixty-six. In a magnificent letter here first published by Philippe Jullian, addressed to the dead man’s niece Elaine. Duchesse de Gramont—daughter, that is, of the Duc and Duchesse de Guermantes, niece of Charlus, wife of Saint-Loup!—Proust prophesied: “He will come back all the same. Injustices have their day. And at least in spirit and in truth he will be reborn.” Well, that has now come true. Montesquiou, already immortalized in Proust’s novel, is reborn and justified in Philippe Jullian’s book.
Philippe Jullian’s biography is literature in its own right, as graceful and strong as his marvelous illustrations of Remembrance of Things Past, with the same breathtaking profiles of the young, the raddled hostesses, the deliquescent faces of corrupt old age, the crazy furniture, the tendrils and arabesques of line, the period sense and human compassion. The translation is vivid and accomplished, but if you can, and enjoy French prose in the great manner, I would recommend you to read the original as well. He is a writer in the line of Morand, Giraudoux, even Cocteau, with their kind of fertile fantasy, extreme intelligence, and underlying solidity.
PHILIPPE JULLIAN has had access to Montesquiou’s colossal unpublished archives, preserved by his last fading pretty male secretary in 500 files, no fewer, containing all that even the terrible Count considered too dreadful to print, and all the letters he ever received. New letters are quoted from Sarah Bernhardt, Whistler, Colette, Bernard Berenson, Raymond Roussel, and one that ends (after a visit to London in 1884): “Be certain at all events that each time you reappear you will give much pleasure to Yours faithfully Henry James.” He has talked with Montesquiou’s surviving friends and relatives. He has a unique inside knowledge of the secret history of that lost society—a culture in both the ethnographical and the bacteriological sense—and of the symbioses and cross-fertilizations of the art that it fostered with its network of human relationships, its close communications between producer and consumer. It was blown to pieces by the First World War, and the whole modern movement, with all its immense triumphs, has been only the upward and outward explosion of its fragmentation. The debris settles, or revolves in outer space, the great geniuses of the twentieth century are dead, or in their eighties, or in their cots awaiting the next culture or culture medium, which may never come. When I feel, as who cannot, that poor Montesquiou was a hollow man, I wonder who today is as intelligent and sensitive, who is tagging so absurdly but devotedly in one city after so many greater men than himself, who today is being observed by a Proust?
I lived with Montesquiou, so to speak, for eighteen years, while I was writing a biography of Proust. He became less and less dead, and the impression that he was still alive grew even stronger when afterward people who had known him began writing or speaking to me about him. A Polish baron in California praised his inspired interior decoration; an American woman who had championed James Joyce sent photographs of rooms in Count Robert’s Pavillon des Muses which corroborated this; Princess Marthe Bibesco loyally remembered the kindness with which he befriended her first book, sixty years ago; a great-niece of Montesquiou, daughter of yet another model for Saint-Loup, spoke of his visits to her home when she was a little girl. “He used to ask to see the presentation copies of his poems,” she said, “and then turn green with spite because he thought my parents hadn’t had them put in expensive enough bindings.” This was a glimpse of Montesquiou-Charlus, and another came from an obviously cultivated and amiable stranger who, he confessed, had frequented and thoroughly enjoyed the homosexual brothel kept by Proust’s friend Albert Le Cuziat, the original of Jupien’s establishment in Time Regained. “Montesquiou came sometimes,” he wrote, “but only for conversation.” The gross and blatant vice of Charlus derived from another model, Baron Doasan, whom Proust met along with originals of Cottard and Brichot in the salon of Mme Aubernon, an original of Mme Verdurin. Even Montesquiou accepted this: “I never more than glimpsed the Baron,” he wrote to his “dear Marcel,” “with his waxed moustaches and waxed hair, who lacked all the breeding you have bestowed upon him.” Montesquiou, strange in everything, was that rare creature, a chaste homosexual, content with his blameless connubial relations with his successive secretaries, the charming and coffee-colored Yturri, whom he had stolen from Baron Doasan, and the powdered Henri Pinard, to whom he left his entire fortune. Philippe Jullian calls him (in allusion to the title of Sartre’s book on Jean Genet) Saint Charlus. I was grateful and relieved to find from this candid but compassionate biography, which has taught me so much I did not know and which puts Montesquiou for the first time in his rightful place at the front of the stage, that we had both been looking at the same man.