The Sordid Tale Of The Woman Who Scammed Marie-Antoinette

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Excerpted from Confident Women by Tori Telfer. Copyright 2021 by Tori Telfer. Published with permission from Harper Perennial and HarperCollins Publishers.
Once upon a time, the king of France decided to buy his lover the most beautiful diamond necklace in the world. The year was 1772. The king was the shy, awkward Louis XV, and his lover was Madame du Barry, whose flushed cheeks and milky décolletage were the stuff of legends. She needed a necklace worthy of her beauty, and so the royal jewelers got to work, sourcing diamonds from countries as far away as Russia and Brazil. The resulting 647-diamond, 2,800-karat confection was stunning— and a bit ominous. It was designed to circle the wearer’s throat and creep toward her bosom, while strands of diamonds poured down the back of her neck. There were a couple of frothy little blue ribbons scattered about the necklace, but they failed to soften the overwhelming effect. 
It should have been the most coveted piece of jewelry in the world, but Madame du Barry never had a chance to try it on. Before Louis XV could shell out the 2,000,000 livres necessary to buy it—more than seventeen million dollars today—he died of smallpox, leaving his lover without her bauble and the panicked jewelers without a dime. For a while, the jewelers trudged around Europe, waving the necklace under various royal noses, but no one was charmed by its malicious twinkle, and even if they were, they couldn’t afford it anyway.
So the jewelers returned home to try one last option. There was a new girl in town. A young queen from Austria, famous for her elegant neck. She was said to be a frivolous thing, obsessed with anything that sparkled. Maybe she’d be interested in the piece. 
Sixteen years earlier, a scrappy little girl was born into a world without diamonds. Her name was Jeanne de Saint-Rémy, proud descendant of the House of Valois, and her name meant everything to her. Jeanne’s father was technically the great-great-great-grandson of Henry II. But her father illegitimate descended from Henry II’s mistress, and so while his forefathers had gotten some royal favor, his descendants suffered.
But Jeanne grew up believing that there was Valois money waiting in the wings for her, as long as she could convince someone important to listen. Her parents supported this delusion in their own poisonous ways. When their debts became serious enough, the whole family fled to Paris, where Jeanne’s mother forced her to beg, beating her viciously if she didn’t bring home enough money.  When she was eight years old, her cry caught the ear of a generous lady called the Marchioness de Boulainvilliers, who managed to get Jeanne’s Valois heritage authenticated, and wrangled a small royal pension for them, the equivalent of about $8,000 annually today. This should have been a huge deal for Jeanne, but the ambitious girl was practically insulted by the gesture. She wanted real money. She wanted people to look at her in awe.
Though France was crumbling internally—pouring money into the American Revolution to destabilize their English enemy, and only about a decade away from their own bloody insurrection— the country’s upper class was still glamorous enough to dazzle even the most levelheaded young woman. At the center of all that glamour was the young queen Marie Antoinette, who shamelessly overspent her clothing budget, wore huge sculpted hairstyles, kept her own personal chocolate maker on call, and hired someone to make sure that her rooms were always filled with fresh flowers. With a queen like that, who wouldn’t want a piece of the glamour for herself? 
Charles Boehmer was surrounded by so many diamonds that he wanted to kill himself. He and his partner, Paul Bassenge, were the royal jewelers who had designed the 647-diamond necklace that, as it turned out, had been the worst mistake of their professional lives. The thing was cursed. Cursed! They’d spent the last ten years begging Marie Antoinette to take the necklace off their hands, and the queen had yet to express the slightest interest in it. 
While the royal jewelers pulled out their hair, Jeanne was dreaming of future greatness. By the time she was twenty-four, she’d found a man: a talentless army officer named Antoine de La Motte. When she got pregnant, the two of them scrambled to get married in order to save face. (Jeanne wasn’t afraid to break society’s rules, but only when it benefited her, and being an unwed mother might have hindered her social climbing.) At midnight on June 6, 1780, they were wed, and promptly started calling themselves Comte and Comtesse de La Motte — Count and Countess.
Photo: Roger Viollet Collection/Getty Images.
By September 1781, she learned that her old benefactress, the marchioness, was staying with a very important person: Cardinal Prince Louis de Rohan, from one of France’s best and oldest families. Interesting, thought Jeanne. Rohan was full of potential. He was a handsome, tall, white-haired man of almost fifty, who spent money like it was going out of style. He was also hopelessly in debt, and Marie Antoinette herself couldn’t stand him. Being disliked by the queen was a social and professional death sentence; Rohan had convinced himself that her disapproval was the only thing standing between him and his goal of being prime minister. So he tried desperately to win her love—once, he even put on a disguise and tried to sneak into one of her parties—but nothing worked. He was growing desperate. He would have given anything for the queen to like him. Anything.
When Jeanne met Rohan, she saw a man consumed by a single, obvious desire. And as Jeanne knew well, desire made people defenseless. Desire was a crack in the armor. An opportunity. A little door, just begging to be walked through.
With a new benefactor at her beck and call, the world was Jeanne’s oyster. She rented rooms in both Paris and Versailles, and Jeanne began pretending to be much richer than she actually was. She blew her pension on extravagant outfits. She bought expensive silverware to impress her guests—and then pawned it the very next day.  She was trying to creep closer and closer to the center of all wealth: the king and queen of France, who could fulfill all her dreams with just a snap of their fingers. Queen Marie Antoinette was famous for her charity, and Jeanne was sure that if she could just explain the whole Valois situation to her, the queen would restore her and her family to their old glory. The problem was that everyone else at Versailles was on a similar mission. So in order to attract Marie Antoinette’s attention, Jeanne had to get creative. She started lurking around Versailles, hoping to “accidentally” run across the queen in one of its many hallways. Then she began dramatically fainting in front of various noble- women. Nothing worked. 
By the beginning of 1784,  Jeanne had to come up with a new plan. If Versailles was already a rumor mill, she thought, why not take advantage of it? Her scheme was simple, but daringly genius: she started telling people that she and Marie Antoinette were friends. 
To make this narrative seem more believable, Jeanne struck up an acquaintanceship with the gatekeeper at Marie Antoinette’s private Versailles estate, the Petit Trianon. Late at night, Jeanne would make sure people saw her creeping out of the gate, as though she’d just come from an intimate late-night hot chocolate with her royal pal. From there, the gossipmongers did the rest of the heavy lifting. It wasn’t long before Rohan heard the rumor and thrilled to it. How convenient for him that his best friend Jeanne was so close with his future best friend, Marie! 
Like a shark scenting blood, Jeanne smelled Rohan’s desperation from a mile away. She told him that she’d talk to the queen, and then returned with the greatest news in the world: Marie Antoinette was open to reconciliation. In fact, she wanted Rohan to send her a letter...
The letters that started to fly between Cardinal Rohan and “the queen” were warm, friendly, and a little bit sexual. Sometimes the queen wrote to him on paper edged with blue flowers, sometimes on paper decorated with gold. Her letters often mentioned, offhandedly, that Rohan should give Jeanne a little something to thank her for bringing them together. Rohan did so, happily. Before long, Rohan was imploring the queen to let him visit her, but the queen kept responding that it wasn’t the right time . . . yet. Rohan would have died of shame if he’d known that the letters weren’t being written by Marie Antoinette at all, but by a shifty soldier with a penchant for calligraphy. Jeanne had teamed up with Rétaux de Villette, who was both her lover and her official forger. She would dictate the missives to Villette, and he’d write them down dutifully and sign them with a flourish. His handwriting looked nothing like the queen’s, but Rohan was too starry-eyed to notice.
For a while, the letters satiated Rohan, but Jeanne couldn’t put him off forever So she found who could pass as Marie Antoinette: A pretty, naive sex worker named Nicole le Guay. Jeanne told Nicole that she was friends with the queen and that the queen wanted Nicole to do a favor for her in exchange for a nice little reward. Jeanne then told Rohan that the queen would meet him at midnight, in the Park of Versailles, where she would hand him a single rose. When the fateful night came, Jeanne hid in the bushes and watched. 
Photo: DeAgostini/Getty Images.
It was the illusion of the century. Nicole really did look like the queen, especially in the darkness, and Rohan was so blissed-out that he went home and named one of the walks at his summer palace the “Promenade of the Rose.” Little Jeanne from nowhere had just conjured up the queen of France herself. She was powerful now, in Rohan’s eyes—and she used it. In letters, “the queen” started asking to borrow larger and larger sums of money, and Rohan obliged happily. Jeanne took the money and treated herself to a country house in the village where she grew up. Whenever she was there, she put on her finest gowns and threw lavish dinner parties. Look at me, she seemed to be say- ing to the villagers who knew her when she was just a kid, scrawny and wild and infinitely hungry. I told you I was special.
Thanks to the gossips of Versailles, the rumored friendship between Jeanne and the queen eventually reached the royal jewelers, and their ears pricked up. Maybe they couldn’t convince Marie Antoinette to buy an eye-wateringly expensive piece of jewelry—but Marie Antoinette’s best friend certainly could. So one day, the jewelers brought the necklace itself over to Jeanne, and asked her if she could find it within her gracious heart to help them sell the damn thing.
Jeanne looked at the necklace: the most beautiful, burden- something in the world. She saw the perfectly round diamonds, sourced from all around the globe. The frilly little ribbons, a desperate attempt to soften the dreadful weight of the piece. The massive teardrop-shaped diamond at its center, gorgeous and inscrutable as the heart of a queen. This was a challenge worthy of her intellect, her courage, her Valois blood. And so she agreed to help them.
In short order, “Marie Antoinette’s” letters to Rohan began hinting that she could really use his help with a sensitive matter. Rohan would have to be extremely discreet, because, well, there was this necklace, and though she couldn’t be openly involved in the purchase, the trinket was so beautiful, so suited for her long neck, that she simply had to have it. Would Rohan be a dear and arrange the purchase for her? She’d pay him back, of course. Eventually.
Somehow, this request didn’t strike Rohan as suspicious, probably because the real Marie Antoinette was infamous for running up huge debts. Still, Rohan was deeply in debt himself, and the necklace was staggeringly pricey. He visited the jewelers and agreed on a discount and a payment plan: 1,600,000 livres, to be paid in four installments. Jeanne pretended to deliver a contract to the queen, and brought it back with Marie Antoinette de France scrawled on the bottom. This was an amateur mistake— the queen only ever signed papers as Marie Antoinette—but everyone was too excited to notice. And just like that, after thirteen years of agony, the necklace was sold.
For the next couple of days, Rohan and the jewelers waited on pins and needles. Every time Marie Antoinette appeared in public, they panicked. Why wasn’t she wearing the necklace? 
Meanwhile, people noticed that Jeanne was suddenly a lot richer than before. Her gowns were better, she was buying nonsensically extravagant objects like a mechanical bird that could actually fly, and her new carriage was shaped like a hot air balloon. (Hot air balloons were very trendy at the time.) In fact, she was blowing through more money than most of France’s nobles spent in a year, though she tried to explain it away by saying that she’d, um, won a lot of money at the horse races. But the clock was ticking. Jeanne knew that it was only a matter of time before the jewelers demanded their first payment, or Rohan contacted Marie Antoinette directly to ask why she wasn’t clinging to his neck in gratitude for helping her purchase the necklace, or both.
So as usual, Jeanne decided to go on the offensive. She met with Bassenge and told him, solemnly, that Marie Antoinette’s signature on the contract had been forged. In other words: the whole thing was a con — a con masterminded by somebody else, of course. It was a chess move so audacious that it could have worked. But there was just one problem: the gossips. Boehmer heard from one of Marie Antoinette’s ladies-in-waiting that the queen had never purchased the necklace after all. Rohan saw an example of Marie Antoinette’s actual handwriting and realized with a shock that his letters from the queen looked completely different. Finally, the anxious jewelers went straight to the queen for an explanation. Had she purchased the necklace?
“No”, said the queen. Just like that, Jeanne’s elaborate ruse was punctured, and the whole thing deflated with sickening speed, like a hot air balloon falling from the sky.
On August 17, 1785, Jeanne was at a fancy dinner near her hometown when she heard that Rohan had been arrested moments after leaving an audience with the king.The next morning, Jeanne was arrested and taken to the Bastille. Five months later, the trial was underway.
Jeanne tried every trick in the book to bolster her case. She laughed if she thought it would help her; she wept when weeping seemed more appropriate. She denied that she had ever claimed to be Marie Antoinette’s best friend. She bit her jailor on the arm. She hid naked under her bed to avoid being taken into court. And she argued her case with the vigor of a thousand lawyers. How crazy did they think she was, she cried, to try and pull off such a crazy swindle? 
The whole affair was so wonderfully sleazy. And at the center of it all, a diamond necklace: no longer just a pretty bauble that rich ladies wore around their throats, but a sinister weapon that smacked of ambition, greed, status, sex, and ruin. As the trial progressed, an entire cottage industry of Jeanne-themed merchandise sprang up on the streets. Jeanne may have been locked up in jail, penniless and busily biting people on the arm, but she’d achieved at least one of her childhood goals: her name was on everybody’s lips.
Though Marie Antoinette was truly innocent here, the whole affair damaged her reputation more than Jeanne could have ever anticipated. Her reputation had been fragile before the necklace went missing, but now it was being dragged through the dirt. People whispered about how Rohan really had seduced her in the bushes of Versailles. Pornographers went wild, with one pamphlet called The Royal Bordello snarking that Rohan was actually the father of some of Marie Antoinette’s children. Even though the queen’s entire role in the affair had been conjured up by Jeanne, much of France was now convinced that their queen was a diamond-addled slut—and that their monarchy was a joke, and should be destroyed.
Marie Antoinette couldn’t stop crying when she heard that Rohan had been set free. By letting him go, the French court was admitting that Rohan could have conceivably believed the queen would be willing to meet with him in the bushes. In other words: her reputation was already so trashy that poor Rohan’s only mistake was buying into it. 
The main punishment was reserved for the scrappy little girl from nowhere, the one who had been identified as the true mastermind of what was becoming known as the “Affair of the Necklace.” All of Jeanne’s property was seized by the king. She was flogged. She was branded with a V on each shoulder— for voleuse, “thief”—though she writhed so much during the branding that the sizzling metal missed one shoulder and landed on her breast. 
She was then imprisoned for life. None of this agreed with the self-described comtesse, who seemed to think that she would be declared innocent and sent back into high society in a golden carriage. But she didn’t have to endure prison for very long. Within a year, Jeanne began receiving anonymous messages from someone who wanted to help her escape, and by June of 1787, an almost thirty-one-year-old Jeanne scrambled out of jail, disguised as a man.
To Marie Antoinette’s horror, Jeanne had a lot to say. She fled to England and from a safe distance, she announced that she was going to publish her memoirs. Once Jeanne started writing, she couldn’t stop. She wrote so much that she even wrote a sort of meta-memoir about her memoirs, titled An Address to the Public Explaining the Motives Which Have Hitherto Delayed the Publication of the Memoirs of the Countess de Valois de la Motte. Her actual memoirs were stuffed to the gills with furious capital letters, dramatic italics, and grandiose declarations of her own innocence—e.g., “The public must at length pronounce between HER MAJESTY and the atom she has crushed.”
Jeanne was no atom, but she was far from invincible, either. In August 1791, when she was thirty-four, she was visited by men who frightened her so much that she actually jumped out of a window to escape them. Jeanne landed on the pavement with her thigh splintered, her arm fractured, and an eye knocked out of her head. She never recovered. Two months later, local papers reported, “The noted Countess de la Motte, of Necklace Memory, and who lately jumped out of a Two-pair of Stairs Window, to avoid the Bailiffs, died on Tuesday Night last, at Eleven o’Clock, at her Lodgings near Astley’s Riding School.” 
Just like her birth, the circumstances of her death were sad and inglorious, but at least the papers used the title she’d given herself: Countess.

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