A hundred and twenty years ago in 1890’s, the world was a very different place. The centres of power, industry and culture were on the other side of the Atlantic. You might even think that France mattered more than America. It was a racy time in Paris. The Impressionists had taken the art world by storm. Toulouse Lautrec was drinking himself to death in the cafés of Montmartre, and the risqué dancers of the Moulin Rouge were shocking the world.
In French politics, everything was taking second place to l'affaire Dreyfus (The Dreyfus Affair), a complicated story involving an army officer who had been imprisoned largely for the crime of being Jewish.
The President of the day, a charming man of simple origins, was Félix Faure. He was a surprise appointment, chosen because he had the smallest number of enemies in the Republican party (does that sound familiar?)
I think I would have liked him. Faure had a job to do, representing the young Third Republic before the great states of Europe. Victoria still reigned as Queen-Empress across the channel in England, and Kaiser Wilhelm II had taken the reins of Chancellor Bismarck’s Germany and was looking for war. The Tsar of Russia in all his enigmatic grandeur might be an enemy, or an ally. Still, Félix Faure, son of a cabinet maker, gave nothing in dignity to kings and emperors.
Faure was handsome, and dressed well. He cared for himself, and changed clothes perhaps three times in a day. He also loved ladies, and people believed that he had impressed a formidable list of them very deeply.
One of the ladies he impressed was Madame Marguerite Steinheil, the wife of a painter. Faure became a frequent visitor to the family home, and Marguerite began to visit the President privately. She claimed to be his ‘psychological advisor’.
Her visits settled into a routine. In her memoires, she later wrote “A private detective dispatched by the president would accompany me to the Elysée Palace. I always entered through a little door overlooking the gardens. I crossed the ground floor, and reached the Blue Drawing Room where the president was waiting for our work session.”
On 16th February 1899, Marguerite was alone with Faure in the drawing room when screams were heard by the President’s staff. They rushed into the room and found President Faure dying on the sofa. That much they were agreed on.
What they could not agree on, or perhaps could not talk of without disrespect, was Madame Steinheil. You can imagine that, in a small town like Paris, rumours began to fly in minutes. Let me give you the most generally accepted scenario:When the President’s aides flung open the doors of the Blue Drawing Room, they found the President breathing his last on the sofa. Kneeling between his legs and struggling to get free, was a partially clothed Marguerite. She had been giving her lover a blow job and done it so well that his climax was final. He expired with his hands so firmly gripped in her hair that she had to be cut free. She was discreetly hustled away through a side door.
The Parisian press did not let her escape so easily. The President’s life had been ‘sacrificed at the altar of Venus’ and everyone knew just how it had happened. They also knew about Marguerite and although they did not print her name, they did talk a lot about la pompe funèbre. Now that is an unfortunate phrase in French because while it normally refers to funeral solemnities, a pompe is also slang for a blow job. Poor Marguerite was famous for all the wrong reasons.
Marguerite was thirty at the time, and had suddenly become a symbol of the grandeur and hedonism of her time.
Fame brought a surprising number of rich lovers, presumably drawn to sample her skills in bed. Life went very well until 1908 when she became involved in another strange incident. One night, her apartment was broken into, and her father strangled to death. Her stepmother beside him also died - by suffocating on her false teeth. There were no sensible theories about why the murders had happened, and an immediate attempt was made to pin the incident on Marguerite. In the end, commonsense prevailed and the police accepted her alibi - she had been found gagged and tied to her bed by the intruders.
Marguerite moved to England and faded from the public stage. In 1917, she married Robert Scarlett, a naval officer and the 6th Baron Abinger and by the greatest good luck a film clip of her wedding survives here . She died in a seaside nursing home in 1954, a world away from that terrible day in the Blue Drawing Room.
Jacqueline lives in Far North Queensland, on the shore of the Coral Sea. She keeps herself busy with her cats and garden, and by writing books - some of which are far too naughty for her own good. You can find out more about Jacqueline and her books at www.jacquelinegeorgewriter.com