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NO ONE IN Part 1 of our tale seemed to covet the fabulous necklace commissioned in 1772 by Louis XV for his mistress Madame du Barry. However, in Part 2 things get complicated indeed. With legs stretching all the way to the 20th century.

The Lame-Canard Necklace. Jeanne Saint-Rémy aka Jeanne de la Motte had been getting tight with Cardinal Édouard de Rohan, and jewelers Boehmer and Bassenge reasoned that she might be useful in fobbing off the lame-canard necklace. Jeanne set up the deal in a letter to Édouard from no less than “Marie Antoinette de France.” 

Édouard missed the oddity of this signature. French royals typically signed with only their given names; peasants knew who they were.

The Deal Faux. Édouard went on to negotiate the deal for 2,000,000 livres, to be paid in installments. Wikipedia notes, “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.” (Jeanne: wink, wink.)

Édouard “took the necklace to Jeanne’s house,” Wikipedia continues, “where a man, whom Rohan believed to be a valet of the Queen [another wink, wink] came to fetch it. The diamond necklace was promptly picked apart, and the gems sold on the black markets of Paris and London by Madame de la Motte.”

What with the original necklace broken up, this is a reconstruction, in zircons, not diamonds. Image from the Château de Breteuil.

Quelle Scandale! In the resulting trial, Jeanne and various accomplices were found guilty. Among those let off the hook were Édouard, hooker Leguay (the Marie Antoinette impersonator), and conman Count Alessandro de Cagliostro (aka Guiseppe/Joseph Balsamo, already appearing here at SimanaitisSays on this and other matters

It’s not clear why others were found innocent, but Édouard, after all, was a Cardinal. Not to say a dupe.

Jeanne was condemned to whipping, branded with a V (for voleuse, ‘thief’) on each shoulder, and sent to life imprisonment in the prostitutes’ prison at the Salpêtrière. There’s irony in the naming of this last institution.

Marie Antoinette portrayed as The Beast.

The French Revolution. All this brouhaha didn’t help the populace’s view of Marie Antoinette (she, of “Let them eat cake”) or of her husband. Both eventually lost their heads by guillotine during the French Revolution; Louis XVI in January 1793, Marie Antoinette nine months later.

Fast Forward to the 1840s, then to the 1940s. In the 1840s, Alexandre Dumas the elder wrote Mémoires d’un médecin: Joseph Balsamo, aka Count Cagliostro, a bit player in this necklace tale.

Guiseppe Balsamo, 1743-1795, aka Joseph Balsamo, aka the Count Alessandro di Cagliostro. Sicilian adventurer extraordinaire. Bust by Jean-Antoine Houdon, 1786.

Like the necklace, the Dumas book had legs too: In the early 1940s, a screen version was envisioned. Initially, Balsamo/Cagliostro was to be portrayed by Charles Boyer and then George Sanders. According to Wikipedia, “In 1943, Hedda Hopper suggested Orson Welles should play the lead role. He signed in September 1947.”

Welles said that he was so hypnotized by the scoundrel that he had to play him. The Black Magic plot involves a plan for a lookalike to impersonate Marie Antoinette and buy a frivolous necklace. At one point (Spoiler Alert!), Dr. Mesmer uses the necklace to hypnotize Cagliostro into confessing. 

Ghosts of Versailles. John Corigliano’s 1991 The Ghost of Versailles also suggests the necklace’s powers, not to say its theatrical legs. 

The Ghosts of Versailles, by John Corigliano. Video of trailer from LA Opera.

The Ghosts of Versailles includes Marie Antoinette and her husband, as well as characters Figaro, Susanna, Cherubino, Count Almaviva, and Countess Rosina from Beaumarchais’ Figaro plays, together with a Suleyman Pasha and Beaumarchais himself. It’s both grand opera as well as opera buffo, with—you guessed it—a fabulous necklace being bandied about. 

As already noted, that’s a necklace with legs. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2021 

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