Monday, September 2, 2013

That very bad woman: the great seductress, Madame Helvétius

“I should have set her down for a very bad one altho Sixty years of age and a widow. I own I was highly disgusted and never wish for an acquaintance with any Ladies of this cast. . . .”
-Abigail Adams

Abigail Adams never understood what anyone saw in that "very bad" French woman. Adams first met Anne-Catherine de Ligniville, Madame Helvétius, (nicknamed Minette) at a dinner party surrounded by a bevy of adoring men, smartly dressed Angora cats in sateen jackets, and pampered lapdogs. During the meal, Minette raised her coquettishly, short petticoats to show more than "a foot," and with silver bell laughter touched the back of Mr. Adam's……chair. (Gasp!) Such scandalous behavior must have thrown Mrs. Adams into a tizzy!
           Her salon in Auteuil, known as the La Societe d'Auteuil, was a mecca for the greatest freethinkers, including Voltaire and Diderot. Her husband had been one of the controversial philosophers of his day, amassing a small fortune as a tax collector. As his widow, Minette had freedom most women of the Enlightenment could only dream of, and she exercised that liberty with the restraint of a robber baron. Even in her sixties, she plowed through paramours like a sickle through wheat, gathering an impressive harvest of Paris' most desirable heartthrobs. Benjamin Franklin loved her to distraction eventually asking for her hand in marriage. When Minette teased him about not spending the night with her, Franklin smoothly replied, `Madame, I am waiting until the nights are longer.' Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot proposed to her twice, never marrying due to his devotion to her. Minette turned them all down, preferring to remain her own master.

What was this great seductress's secret? To start, beauty was not her weapon of choice. With her tangle of medusa hair and wizened, mole covered face, Minette was hardly your typical beauty queen, even by eighteenth-century standards. Instead, she crafted her seduction from a different kind of witchcraft. Like a true high priestess, she charmed men with cerebral challenges, biting wit, and the holy grail of love: the promise of eternal youth. Benjamin Franklin said he felt like "a little boy" in her presence, and author Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle followed her around like a lovesick puppy. She simply made all her devotees feel a little more light-hearted, always creating one big bacchanal feast of perpetual gaiety. That was heady stuff in the world of dour American politics and stuffy, corseted etiquette – something that Abigail Adams would never understand. 

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