Sometimes diamonds really are not a girl’s best friends – this essay is going to prove that much. It has three main leads: a necklace, a queen and a con artist.
Let’s start with the necklace because, although it was just an object, it stirred the public opinion of the whole kingdom of France as the first. In 1772, Louis XV decided to make Madame du Barry, one of his mistresses whom he was infatuated the most, a special gift at the estimated cost of an incredibly high amount of 2,000,000 livres . He requested that Parisian royal jewelers, Boehmer and Bassenge, create a marvel which would surpass all others in grandeur. It would take the jewelers several years and a great deal of money to amass an appropriate set of diamonds. In the meantime, Louis XV died of smallpox, and du Barry was banished from court. Still the necklace was duly created and waiting for a buyer.
How much is an object worth? Only as much as anybody is prepared pay for it. As you can imagine it wasn’t exactly easy to find a customer willing to purchase such an expensive piece of jewellery, consisting of many large diamonds arranged in an elaborate design of festoons, pendants and tassels, reflecting the elaborate style and taste of those times. Boehmer and Bassenge hoped that the new Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, known for her love of fashion, could be tempted. Indeed in 1778 Louis XVI offered to purchase the necklace as a present to his young wife but she, very sensibly, refused. According to Madame Campan the Queen said that the money would be better spend equipping a man-of-war. Other sources stated that in fact Marie Antoinette didn’t want to wear any jewellery that had been designed with another woman in mind, especially as that woman was a low courtesan. She was the Queen and she deserved better. I admit that version rings true to me – at least from the psychological point of view. Finally, after a while, Louis XVI allegedly changed his mind – why to ruin yourself for a present your wife clearly doesn’t want, a constant remainder of a royal mistress she despised? That’s how the jewelers were left with a very expensive product nobody could or wanted to buy and a lot of debt they couldn’t pay. They were becoming more and more desperate.
After having tried and failed to find a customer outside of France, a task neither easy nor safe at that time, they attempted to sell it to the Queen again. The occasion was splendid – the birth of the dauphin (so the heir apparent), Louis-Joseph in 1781. Marie Antoinette refused again. It became clear that without a clever scheme the jewelers would go bankrupt and their beautiful necklace could be dumped in the Seine like a cobblestone.
After meeting the necklace and the Queen, let me introduce the final heroine now: Jeanne
de Saint-Rémy de Valois, a.k.a. Jeanne de la Motte, the con artist. She was born on 22 July 1756 in Fontette (northeastern France near Bar-sur-Aube) to a very poor family although with aristocratic blood. Her father, Jacques de Valois de Saint-Rémy (1717–1762) had royal Valois ancestors, descending from Henry de Saint-Rémy (1557–1621), an illegitimate son of King Henry II. Unfortunately Jacques himself was known as a drunkard living from expedients. Jeanne’s mother, Marie Jossel, was a debauched servant girl he had married because what the hell, he could do what he wanted. As you can imagine the household of a former servant without a dowry and a wastrel was chaotic at best. The three surviving de Valois de Saint-Rémy children, Jacques, Jeanne, and Marie-Anne were neglected, went barefoot, tended the cows, and often found it necessary to beg for food. According to Count Beugnot, as written in his Mémoires, they were rescued by the abbot of Langres. According to another source, the family moved to Boulogne near Paris where a priest and one of his rich parishioners, Madame de Boulainvilliers, took care of them.
In any case, their Valois ancestry was ascertained by a genealogist at Versailles. As a result legal dispositions were set up as the King used to help financially children from poor nobility: Jacques was granted a yearly stipend of 1000 pounds and a post in a military academy, Jeanne and Marie-Anne went to a boarding school in Passy and were given a stipend of 900 pounds. Without an appropriate dowry the girls were supposed to become nuns in the Longchamps monastery afterwards, but instead they chose to go back to Bar-sur-Aube where they lived with the Surmont family. On 6 June 1780, Jeanne married Marc Antoine-Nicolas de la Motte, Mr Surmont’s nephew and an officer of the gendarmes. While the de la Motte family’s claim to nobility was dubious, both husband and wife assumed the title comte and comtesse de La Motte Valois. Of the three siblings, Jeanne would be the only one to achieve notoriety. Jacques died on military duty on Saint-Louis Island; Marie-Anne went back to religious life. None of the three Saint-Rémy children had descendants.
Let’s return to Jeanne. She was described as having been slender with small breasts, white skin, chestnut-brown hair, limpid blue eyes, and a “winning smile”. The Abbé Georgel, Cardinal de Rohan’s loyal servant, describes Jeanne as having “the wiles of a Circe”, meaning undoubtedly that she was intelligent and savvy, perfectly aware how to use her looks.
Just one month after her marriage Madame de La Motte gave birth to twins. The boys were baptized July 6, 1780: Jean Baptiste and Nicolas Marc. They survived only a few days. After that sad event the marriage between Jeanne and her husband, most likely a matter of pure convenience from the very beginning, went completely to the dogs. Although they continued to live together they were both unfaithful. Jeanne took a lover, Rétaux de Villette, a common gigolo, an occasional pimp and Nicolas’s fellow officer in the gendarmerie who also knew some aristocrats at the court; for some time they lived together in a menage a trois. Still Jeanne aimed higher. Around 1783, she met Cardinal Prince Louis de Rohan, a man known of his lasciviousness, venal lifestyle and ambitions. The thoroughly unscrupulous Jeanne quickly became his mistress and confidante, seeing it as an opportunity to get rich quick. Neither her nor Nicolas had much money to their name but both had the kind of habits and delusions of grandeur to eat up what money they did have. First Jeanne obtained from the Cardinal a commission for her husband in the Comte d’Artois’s bodyguard unit but the income it secured was not enough . When it became clear that Nicolas was unable and/or unwilling to meet the couple’s financial needs and maintain them in the extravagant style that she avidly desired, Jeanne resolved to ask a more generous pension from the royal family. She was a de Valois, wasn’t she? There was royal blood in her veins as well. She decided to approach Marie Antoinette as she felt the Queen, being a woman, would be more sympathetic to her plight; Jeanne therefore made frequent visits to Versailles in the hope of catching the Queen’s attention and ensuring her support. At that time, any ordinary citizen dressed in suitable attire could enter the palace and its gardens, and observe the royal family. Nevertheless, Marie-Antoinette had been told of Jeanne’s questionable lifestyle and refused to meet her. Jeanne had to find another way to further her interests.
She quickly realized that the Prince Cardinal wanted nothing more than to win Marie Antoinette’s approval and, with her support, become a prime minister like the Cardinal Richelieu. Nevertheless, the Queen shunned de Rohan because he had attempted to thwart her marriage to Louis XVI and dissed her mother publicly. Of course his scandalous lifestyle didn’t help either.
Jeanne, with the active help of her husband and de Villette, who had introduced her to different courtiers, concocted a plan to use this situation to their financial advantage. De Villette was also a master forger and wrote fake letters from ‘the Queen’ to the “comtesse” in which the Queen stated that she wanted the necklace, but was aware of the reluctance of the King to buy it due to the current dismal financial situation of the country. She hoped that the Cardinal could lend her the money as a secret favor. Jeanne de la Motte was named as the Queen’s agent. The Cardinal believed these letters to be authentic and agreed to buy the necklace for the Queen. The Cardinal knew very well that the Queen never met Jeanne in public, but believed that she was her trusted agent due to a secret liaison. This began an alleged correspondence between Rohan and the Queen, the adventuress returning replies to Rohan’s notes, which she affirmed came from the Queen. The tone of the letters became very warm, and the Cardinal, convinced that Marie Antoinette was in love with him, became enamoured of her. He begged Jeanne to arrange a secret night-time interview for him with the Queen, and the supposed meeting took place in August 1784. In the garden of the Palace of Versailles, the Cardinal met with a woman whom he believed to be the Queen. This woman was in fact a prostitute, Nicole Lequay d’Oliva, who had been hired by Jeanne because of her resemblance to the Queen. Rohan offered d’Oliva a rose, and she, in her role as the Queen, promised him that she would forget their past disagreements.
Jeanne de la Motte took advantage of the Cardinal’s belief in her by borrowing large sums of money from him, telling him that they were for the Queen’s charity work. With this money, Jeanne was able to make her way into respectable society. Because she openly boasted about her relationship with the Queen, many assumed the relationship was genuine. Such rumours couldn’t escape the ears of two unhappy jewelers with too many diamonds and too little money on their hands. They contacted Jeanne, offering her a handsome commission for the help in arranging a successful transaction. Jeanne didn’t refuse – she wanted to be a princess and such a lifestyle was very costly.
A little while later, Rohan negotiated the purchase of the necklace for 2,000,000 livres, to be paid in installments. He claimed to have the Queen’s authorization for the purchase, and showed the jewelers the conditions of the bargain in the Queen’s handwriting. After the transaction Rohan took the necklace to Jeanne’s house, where a man, whom Rohan believed to be a valet of the Queen, came to fetch it. As you can guess the necklace never found its way to Versailles. Jeanne de la Motte’s husband started to disassemble it; first he sold some of the stones in Paris and then secretly took the necklace to London, where it was broken up completely in order to sell each of the large individual diamonds separately.
When time came to pay, Jeanne de la Motte presented the Cardinal’s notes, but these were insufficient. Boehmer complained to the Queen, who told him that she had neither ordered nor received the necklace. She had the story of the negotiations repeated for her. Then followed a coup de théâtre. On 15 August 1785, the Feast of the Assumption, while the court was awaiting the King and Queen to go to the chapel, the Cardinal de Rohan, who was to officiate, was taken before the King, the Queen, the Minister of the Court Breteuil and the Keeper of the Seals Miromesnil to explain himself. Rohan produced a letter signed “Marie Antoinette de France”. On reading this, the King became furious that Rohan could have let himself be fooled like an ordinary commoner, since at that time royalty didn’t use surnames and he, as a courtier, an aristocrat and a former ambassador should have known that much. Rohan was arrested and taken to the Bastille; on the way he sent home a note ordering the destruction of his correspondence. Jeanne was not arrested until three days later, having a chance to destroy her papers and to flee. She stayed in Paris.
The police imprisoned the prostitute Nicole Lequay d’Oliva and Rétaux de Villette, who confessed that he had written the letters given to Rohan in the Queen’s name, and had imitated her signature. The noted charlatan Cagliostro was also detained, although it is doubtful whether he had any part in the affair.
The Cardinal de Rohan accepted the Parlement de Paris as judges. Pope Pius VI was incensed, since he believed that the cardinal should be tried by his natural judge, i. e. himself. However, his notes remained unanswered.
A sensational trial resulted in the acquittal of the Cardinal, d’Oliva and Cagliostro on 31 May 1786. Jeanne de la Motte was condemned to be whipped, branded with a V (for voleuse, “thief”) on each shoulder, and sent to life imprisonment in the prostitutes’ prison at the Salpêtrière. In June of the following year she escaped from prison disguised as a boy; then she took refuge in London and in 1789 she published her Mémoires Justificatifs, in which she once again accused the Queen. Meanwhile, her husband was condemned in absentia to the galleys for life. The forger Villette was just banished – mainly because of his willingness to name the names and provide juicy details to the prosecutors. He went to Venice where he lived and died in poverty. The original necklace was lost forever.
Despite the findings to the contrary, many people in France persisted in the belief that the Queen had used the La Mottes as an instrument to satisfy her hatred of the Cardinal de Rohan. Various circumstances fortified this belief. There was the Queen’s disappointment at Rohan’s acquittal, and the fact that the Cardinal was afterwards deprived by the King of his charges and exiled to the Abbey of la Chaise-Dieu. In addition, the people assumed that the Parlement de Paris’s acquittal of Rohan implied that Marie Antoinette was somehow in the wrong. All of these factors led to a huge decline in the Queen’s popularity and encouraged an image of her among the masses as a manipulative spendthrift, interested more in vanity than in the welfare of France and the French.
Jeanne de la Motte Valois died in London as a result of injuries sustained after falling from her hotel room window. A report in The Times contemporary with her death stated that it was an accident which left her “terribly mangled, her left eye cut out – one of her arms and both her legs are broken.” Some people believed she was murdered by royalists, but all the known circumstances rather suggest she was trying to hide from debt collectors when she fell. She died on 23 August 1791, two years before Marie Antoinette, who went to the guillotine in 1793. Jeanne, along with her amibitions, is buried in St. Mary’s Churchyard in Lambeth, London.
In 1792, the sentence against her and her husband was reversed by the revolutionary government (on a technicality, but reversed nonetheless). Monsieur de La Motte accordingly spent several years being paid to keep his silence. He held various posts and positions, largely due to the help of Comte Beugnot, who was an influential member of successive governments. La Motte died in November 1831, some forty five years after the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. He was in his late seventies, probably 77 years old.