Although to many of us, the idea of a cosseted life in a palace, flouncing down corridors in flashy clothes and enjoying the undivided attention of the most important man in the country sounds like a pretty nice way to spend a few years, it wasn't all truffles and diamonds for women like Madame du Barry...
Given the intensity of social politics at the Palace of Versailles, hers was very precarious perch indeed, as outlined in the excellent book Sex With Kings, by Eleanor Herman; while her favour was frequently courted by courtiers looking to become favourites, her time with the king was intended to relieve him of his worries, not compound them with politicking. Despite the headaches her, uh, position must have given her, she was not allowed to have them if and when the king ordered her to, er, assume it.
Madame du Barry - born on this day in 1743 - was already well-experienced in the ways of the boudoir when she replaced the late Madame de Pompadour in the official affection of Louis XV in 1769; at the time she was just 26 and he was 59, and each of them was at the height of their respective powers. Far less political than her predecessor, she nevertheless fell a-foul of the new Dauphine Marie Antoinette, whose own upbringing in Austria had seen far less decadence under the formidable Empress Maria Theresa than that of her adopted homeland. Their one social interaction occurred on New Year's Day 1772, after which it was made clear that there would not be another.
In the end, of course, Madame du Barry became one of the more celebrated non-royal victims of the Reign of Terror when she visited the guillotine in December 1793; she was just 50 when she died, yet was overcome with girlish hysterics at the prospect, to the great amusement of the crowd assembled at the Place de la Concorde. Her final words - 'Encore un moment, monsieur le bourreau, un petit moment' ('One moment more, executioner, one little moment') - have resonated with that country's existentialists ever since.
Fortunately for Madame du Barry history loves a whore, and she's never been far from the public imagination since; she's been portrayed in operetta and Broadway musical alike, and in the movies as well, played by such women as Theda Bara, Pola Negri, Gladys George, Lucille Ball, Martine Carol, and Asia Argento. Hers is also the oldest wax figure on display at Madame Tussaud's in London, entitled The Sleeping Beauty, which according to Tussaud family lore may have even been modelled from life by Marie Tussaud herself.
share on: facebook