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…

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