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Authors: Eleanor Herman

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BOOK: Sex with Kings
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In March 1687, Nell had a stroke. She seemed to be slowly recuperating when two months later she suffered one even more devastating. Paralyzed, she lay in her great silver bed, the one royal Charles had christened so many times, and there she breathed her last at the age of thirty-seven.

“More in need of pity than anyone else”

It was not Madame de Pompadour but her successor, Madame du Barry, who had the misfortune to lose Louis XV to death while she was still

At sixty-four the king, who had always enjoyed a morbid fascination with dead bodies, caught smallpox after examining the coffin of a girl about to be buried. His face, covered with boils, turned the color of bronze, and he suffered horribly.

After Madame du Barry had nursed her royal lover through
the ravages of the disease at great risk to herself, she was dismissed from the stench of sweat and putrefaction so the king could receive absolution for his earthly sins. When the king, roused from a feverish sleep, asked for her and was told she had left, he asked, “What, already?” and wept.
Before administering the comforting rites, the priests forced the dying monarch to sign a letter imprisoning his faithful mistress in the moldering convent of the Pont aux Dames. The faithless lover, trembling before the gates of hell, signed the despicable document.

The new king, young Louis XVI, at his wife's prodding, banished everyone with the name of du Barry from court, and many relatives who had been the objects of her bounty quickly changed their names. But Marie Antoinette's mother, Maria Theresa of Austria, reproached her daughter for gloating over an “
unfortunate creature
who had lost everything and was more in need of pity than anyone else.”

As Louis's stinking corpse, packed with aromatic herbs into a lead casket, was carried to its final resting place, the former favorite went with a heavy heart to her imprisonment. A few loyal friends at court arranged for her to have a maid and a wagonload of plain furniture—a bed, a couple of chairs, a little rug, and a screen to shield her from drafts. Armed with these small comforts Madame du Barry was confined to a narrow room in a dank thousand-year-old convent.

Though the nuns were scandalized to have such a notorious woman in their midst—some were afraid that even looking at her would blemish their souls—they soon grew to admire Madame du Barry's pleasing ways. Her convent education assisted her in falling right into place. She gladly helped with chores, was never late to prayers, and within weeks of her incarceration had wrapped the prudish nuns around her little finger. A year later, when she was released, they wept as her wagon rumbled away.

She was initially banished from coming within ten leagues of both Paris and Versailles, but her exile was soon lifted, and she returned to the small château of Louveciennes, outside Versailles, which her royal lover had given her. She became the patroness
of the neighborhood, dispensing charity to the poor and sick and entertaining lavishly.

But Jeanne du Barry was not destined to live out her life in bourgeois luxury. The French peasants who starved while she played with the king had long memories. In 1789 her world began to fall apart. The Bastille fell, Louis XVI was guillotined, and Madame du Barry's lover the duc de Brissac was torn apart on the streets, his head affixed to a pike. Sweet, naive, and stupid, Madame du Barry lived in a fantasy world at Louveciennes. She ordered statues for the garden, gowns for herself, new furnishings. When her jewels were stolen and turned up in London, she obtained papers from the revolutionary government to sail to England to identify the items. At a time when thousands were trying to escape France by any means to avoid the guillotine, Madame du Barry
sailed back to France.
She returned to her château to soak in scented baths and meet with her dressmaker.

But shortly after her return Madame du Barry was taken prisoner, found guilty of trumped-up charges of treason and espionage, and sentenced to be guillotined. She made a bargain with her executioners—she would tell them where all her valuables at Louveciennes were hidden in return for her life. For three hours they dutifully recorded her statements about jewels buried in the garden, silver concealed in the pond, paintings secreted in the old mill.

And then they sent the man to cut her hair and bind her hands. Fainting, this king's darling was loaded onto a tumbrel with other prisoners. Moaning and sobbing, she was forcibly dragged up the steps to the guillotine, crying, “You are going to hurt me! Please don't hurt me!”

As her shorn head fell into the basket, a cry went up of
“Vive la révolution!”
The most beautiful woman in Europe, the last great
was dumped in an unmarked grave beside other victims of the French Revolution.

“Take that woman away out of my sight”

While touring Italy in 1796 Wilhelmine Rietz, countess of Lichtenau, was informed that her lover of twenty-six years, King Frederick William II of Prussia, was dangerously ill. A high-level official wrote her that “only the presence of Countess Lichtenau could perhaps save the King, who was anxious to see her.”
She set out at once for Berlin.

Upon her return, Wilhelmine found the king greatly altered by his severe illness. Upon seeing his beloved companion, however, he began to feel better at once. She nursed Frederick William faithfully, arranging for plays to be performed in his sickroom, instructing the cooks to prepare his favorite meals. The pain-ravaged king was irritable unless his countess was by his side. Most courtiers agreed that she prolonged his life.

But after eighteen months of gradual recuperation his condition worsened, and it became obvious to all that he was dying. Wilhelmine's friends recommended that she flee the country with her jewels worth 50,000 crowns, and her drafts upon the Bank of England, worth another £120,000. But Wilhelmine was literally faithful until death. She wanted to be there, at her lover's side, at the moment of passing. Only then would she look to her own concerns.

Frederick William's legs swelled horribly. Plays and music were no longer appropriate diversions for the dying man. Wilhelmine brought in courtiers whose conversation amused him. She read to him from books he found interesting. As the king's agonies increased, Wilhelmine fell into convulsions. The doctors in attendance advised her to return home and get some rest. They would notify her if the king either improved or deteriorated. Drained, Wilhelmine complied. When she approached the crown prince, Frederick William's twenty-seven-year-old son and heir, he cried, “Take that woman away out of my sight.”
It was a sign of things to come.

The crown prince had word sent to Wilhelmine that his father was doing well to prevent her from returning. And so King Frederick William II, at the last, strode into the abyss without her hand in his.

Wallowing in a bed of sorrow, Wilhelmine soon learned that additional blows awaited her. Friends disappeared overnight. No one called to console her. Her own servants abused her. Worse, the new king sent agents to search her house for state papers and demanded the keys to her desk and cupboards. The papers so sought after proved to be romantic poems, songs, and love letters.

Nonetheless, three days after the king's death she was put under house arrest. Her ailing mother was removed, along with her faithful maid. Her frightened children threw themselves into her arms but were dragged away. For six weeks soldiers guarded Wilhelmine as she remained alone inside her shuttered house mourning her lost lover. Finally, the commission investigating her crimes permitted her a two-hour daily walk. When she walked near her lover's palace, she burst into tears.

Wilhelmine was charged with numerous crimes, including taking rings from the fingers of the dying king, as well as a large diamond known as the Solitaire. In response, Wilhelmine described the cabinet in the king's bedroom where the Solitaire and other jewelry could be found. She had removed the rings at the king's request so he could wash his hands. Afterward, when she wanted to put them back on, she noticed how swollen Frederick William's fingers had become. Not wishing to alarm him, she deposited them in the cabinet.

Wilhelmine languished under house arrest a total of three months from the day of Frederick William's death. Finally, a messenger visited her one evening with the decision of Frederick William III. She was permitted to retain any furniture and jewelry the dead king had given her and keep a small pension of four thousand talers a year. However, she would trade her country estate and Berlin palace for a fortress prison in Silesia. Without shedding a tear, she packed her bags and left immediately.

But Wilhelmine had some influential friends willing to stand up for her against the tide of royal displeasure. They reminded the new king of how poorly Louis XVI's treatment of Madame du Barry had reflected on him. A friend of hers, the Italian poet Filistri, frequently cautioned the new king about dishonoring his father's memory. He also set to work on the queen mother—the
dead king's neglected wife—the young queen, the princes, and the ministers to free Wilhelmine from her fortress. After only two months' incarceration she was set free. A few years later Napoleon, visiting the court of Berlin, interested himself in her case and, hearing that she was living in great poverty, persuaded Frederick William III to return a part of her confiscated fortune.

But the chastened mistress did not go quietly into retirement; she had a series of lovers. At the age of fifty she married a young artist, who left her only two years later. She moved to Vienna and then to Paris, and died in obscurity in 1822 at the age of sixty-eight.

“I was never a Pompadour,
still less a Maintenon”

Because of her age and the length of her relationship with Austro-Hungarian emperor Franz Josef, Katharina Schratt was accorded the greatest deference upon the death of her lover. She had assuaged his grief in 1889 when his only son, Crown Prince Rudolf, murdered his seventeen-year-old mistress, Maria Vetsera, and committed suicide at the royal hunting lodge of Mayerling. She had been his only solace when his beloved wife, the empress Elizabeth, was assassinated in 1898. And for thirty-three years she had comforted him as his unwieldy empire fell apart at the seams.

In 1916, when the emperor expired at the age of eighty-six, his mistress was sixty-six. No longer the tempting actress the emperor had first seen in the imperial theater, Katharina had grown stout and matronly. During World War I, good-hearted Katharina opened a hospital for wounded soldiers, personally supervising the preparation of nourishing food, which was becoming increasingly difficult to find.

During her visits to the widowed emperor, the two were seen tottering around the garden. Sometimes she read imperial documents to him, as his eyes were failing. She soothed the shattered little man who had borne an empire on his slender shoulders for nearly seventy years, sinking now under the weight of a world war.

As soon as the emperor died, Katharina was called to the palace. She cut two white roses from her greenhouse and took a carriage the short distance. Her former enemy, the emperor's daughter Archduchess Valerie, ran to her weeping, thanking her for her lifetime of care of her father. Katharina entered the death chamber, saw Franz Josef on his narrow bed, his body shrunken and empty without its spark, and placed the roses in his folded hands.

With the real estate and jewels she had earned as imperial mistress Katharina supported her family and dependents in the awful period between the wars. Known for her generosity, she took in numerous dogs abandoned by owners who were no longer able to feed them.

In the 1930s journalists pestered her for a statement about her relationship with the late emperor. Publishers begged her to write her memoirs. Katharina would always reply, “I am an actress not a writer and I have nothing to say, for I was never a Pompadour, still less a Maintenon.”

One day when she was eighty-six, Katharina—who had lived in the glittering twilight of the Habsburg Empire, a time of horse-drawn carriages, elegant waltzes, and bustled ball gowns—looked out her window and saw Hitler's motorcade in a triumphant procession through Vienna, passing right in front of her home. Finally, fifty-six years after becoming imperial mistress, Katharina made a political statement. She pulled down all the blinds.

“What is to become of me?”

In 1910 sixty-eight-year-old King Edward VII lay dying, his ox-like constitution finally broken by a lifetime of dissipation. Hearing the news, his mistress Alice Keppel rifled through her papers to retrieve a letter he had written her eight years earlier after he had recovered from a severe attack of appendicitis—during which her path to the sickroom had been firmly barred by Queen Alexandra. In this letter the king requested that Alice be allowed to visit him should he suffer a serious illness again.

BOOK: Sex with Kings
2.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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