La Comtesse du Barry was neither a countess nor a du Barry. She was born Jeanne Becu in the Province of Champagne in the year 1743, to an unmarried seamstress and domestic maidservant. It is unknown who the father was, and it was likely a mystery to the young mother as well. The Province of Champagne is incidentally also the birthplace of Joan of Arc, but the two women have very little else in common. From the age of seven she was brought up in a convent, and after having left the cloister, she became an apprentice hairstylist, a companion to a wealthy dowager, and then a shop girl at a millinery. It was while she was working at Maison Labille that she was discover by the Comte Jean du Barry.
Du Barry operated a gambling house in Paris, filling its premises with the most beautiful girls in France, a distraction and a compensation for the rich and the titled who could marvel at them and flirt with them as they lost vast sums at cards. These lovely shills were to humor and keep company with the dukes, counts, princes, and magnates who patronized du Barry’s establishment. These meetings quickly went past flirtation and du Barry was the master procurer for the richest and most powerful men in France. As beautiful as his other girls were, Jeanne Becu outstripped them all, and when du Barry saw her he knew he’d made his fortune. She was so sublime in feature, and ravishing in form, that the only fit consort for such a miraculous beauty was the King of France himself. And so, after a few years of polishing and tutelage in du Barry’s household, she was dispatched to Versailles. In that age, the public was free to tramp about Versailles and gape at the enormous palace and its bedizened denizens, and it was no great difficulty to put Jeanne in a place where King Louis’ eye was certain to fall upon her.
Louis XV couldn’t properly be described as a philanderer or a womanizer. At the Parc-aux-Cerfs, he kept a house full of young, beautiful women, not a harem for that would imply a group of permanently abiding concubines, but rather a retreat to which girls were brought and then turned out after a few nights. Louis bedded and then grew bored with women by the hundreds if not thousands and in his satyriasis he more closely resembled Sardanapalus, Caligula, or Egalobalus than any contemporary European monarch.
Jeanne went to Versailles, Louis saw her, and from that moment on his bed and his heart were hers and hers alone. He was intent of bringing Jeanne to court, having her formally presented, and then making her his official mistress. There was one difficulty. None of this could be done without impropriety unless she were married. Du Barry, himself regrettably already married, found a solution in a rusticated older brother who was promptly brought to the capital and married to Jeanne, now the Comtesse du Barry. The nuptials concluded, the bridegroom eventually returns to the country, and Jeanne moves on to Versailles. The court was scandalized, not because the king was sharing his bed with a woman to whom he wasn’t married, but because the official mistress was expected to be of noble birth, and Jeanne was of the lowest extraction, daughter to a woman who washed other people’s clothes.
However much his courtiers and their ladies might be mortified to keep company with a guttersnipe, however much his new Austrian daughter in law Marie Antoinette might be appalled that he lives with a harlot, Louis is happier than he’s been for decades. It’s not only that Jeanne is the only woman alive who can bring him to an erection, she’s also rejuvenated him. He loves the girls, however mean her origins, however unsavory her reputation, however shadowy her past. She’s given a suite in the palace, and nothing that French artistry and craftsmanship can produce is spared in its appointment. The furniture, the chandeliers, the piano in the corner, the clock against the wall, are all masterpieces of the rococo style. A fortune is spent on her toilette, her clothing, her jewelry, rings, necklaces, pins, bracelets tiaras glittering with diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and sapphires. Now, more than ever before and ever since, Paris is the fashion center of the world and she is its cynosure.
The cost of all this is ruinous, but the ruin is still years away and it is disease not bankruptcy that puts an end to this insupportable arrangement. The king falls ill, the court physicians fall on him with their clysters and their leeches, and he grows worse. Red blisters appear on his face. Louis XV has smallpox and sixty-four year olds don’t recover from smallpox. Jeanne, at danger to her own life, sits with him and nurses him until nearly the end. Once he knows beyond any hope that he’s about to die, he summons a priest, confesses his sins, renounces his paramour, and receives the Sacrament. Jeanne is exiled from Versailles, and after Louis is dead, a triumphant Marie Antoinette has her shut away in a convent.
Decades pass and the Queen relents, remitting her old enemy’s exile, and Madame du Berry is living in comfortable retirement not far away from Paris at Louveciennes. She is popular with the local peasantry, feting them on the grounds of her estate or under her own roof, succoring them in their sickness and poverty. Outside this quiet setting, things are not well and great events are occurring. The Estates-General is convened, the Bastille is stormed, the King and Queen are made prisoners.
Jeanne has always been a true friend to the House of Bourbon and during the Revolution she becomes a supporter of the emigres abroad. She makes repeated trips to England, meets with exiled nobles and gives them money for their food and shelter. She meets leaders of the Counterrevolution, only in a social capacity but it’s clear where her sympathies lie. Many eyes track her passage and watch her movements and meetings. She sends these donations through her bankers, the Vandenyvers, and while they are not trained as secret agents, their activities lack not only tradecraft but common sense and prudence.
At the instigation of a Jacobin agitator who lusts for her body and her death with equal fervor, she and her bankers are arrested and questioned. Jeanne is very careful to implicate only those who have already been guillotined or are already safely across the English Channel. She is found guilty and sentenced to be guillotined. Back in her cell, she’s overcome with terror, and writes an abject letter, offering to buy her life in exchange for treasures brought away from Versailles and buried on the grounds of Louveciennes. Her jailers accept her offer and her life is saved. Or so she thinks. The letter names the exact locations of the valuables and as soon as she’s dead, her captors can dig them up at their leisure. She’s shocked and outraged when the executioner comes to cut the hair from her neck and bind her hands. Jeanne Becu was taken by tumbril to the Place de la Revolution and beheaded on December 8, 1793.
Historians have not been kind to the memory of Madame du Berry. Most who chronicle the French Revolution abhor and despise her. Contrary to the facts, they claim that she implicated many of her former friends to save her own worthless life. They paint how she went to her end sobbing, begging for mercy and contrast it with the dignity and courage with which her betters faced the same death. They contend that in disgracing the crown and draining the treasury, she helped to bring on the Revolution to which she fell victim.
While she was never a working prostitute, she did sell her body for a life of ease, comfort, and luxury. All the gold, porcelain, crystal, and silver garniture of her apartments, the endless gowns sewn by an army of ateliers, the gilded carriage, the thousands of gemstones that hung in chains around her body or studded everything that surrounded her, the retinue of liveried servants that attended her, were all a drain on the finances of the state that the French nation couldn’t afford. While she enjoyed her exquisite, pampered lifestyle, the poor starved and died. And in the end, she went to her death, whimpering, and blubbering, and screaming as they dragged her to the guillotine.
It’s easy for the historian, in the safety and comfort of his study, to deplore her morals, and to shake his head over the cowardice with which she met her death. Jeanne Becu had no physical courage. She wasn’t brave nor did she ever pretend to be. She spent her life avoiding violence, and when it was in her power, preventing it. She used her influence with the most powerful man in Europe, not to punish or imprison those who libeled her, but to plead for the pardons of men and women about to be executed whose relatives had come to her in their behalf. She was always kind, generous, amiable and merciful.
A fallen Chief Minister to Louis, a man who’d set pamphleteers to call her a drunkard, wretch, whore, filth, to print canards and false stories about her, who’d tried to devise her ruin, is now close to bankruptcy. Having always felt entitled to live like royalty, he has done nothing to curb his spending now that he’s lost his position. Although his means are great, his prodigality is even greater. One of his friends comes to Jeanne and ask that she use her influence with Louis to secure him a pension. She agrees and only after much pleading and many tears, she gains a pension for her former enemy, a man who’s always hated her and will always hate her, even now.
The manner of her death is not dignified but it would only be contemptible if she herself had dealt in violence. As to the charge that she turned the French people against the monarchy, it might be remembered that Kennedy’s dalliance with Marilyn Monroe did more to burnish than to tarnish his legend. There was great tenderness and feeling between Louis and Jeanne, despite the more sordid trappings of their years together, and while we can’t look upon their relationship with admiration, we can view the failings of a man and woman who loved one another with indulgence. Madame du Berry always showed kindness and forgiveness to strangers and enemies, perhaps posterity will do the same for her.