A woman is not born an It girl, she becomes one. Throughout most of history, female living legends owed their cachet as much to bloodline and politics as to personal allure and self-invention. Cleopatra was an offshoot of the Ptolemaic line; Marie Antoinette, a Habsburg daughter and a Bourbon bride, traced her ancestry back through Emperor Augustus Caesar to the sun god Apollo. These formidable females inspired awe not just because they were seductive or stylish but because they occupied positions widely believed to have been conferred upon them by divine right.
Nowadays, this brand of feminine mystique has gone the way of antlered Egyptian headpieces and hoop-skirted French court dress; The Crown notwithstanding, it has been dethroned by an all-powerful, media-driven cult of celebrity. In his seven-volume novel, In Search of Lost Time, set in the pampered classes of fin de siècle Paris and published between 1913 and 1927, Marcel Proust portrayed the rare birds who brought this shift about. Like Truman Capote a half-century later, Proust fixated on a covey of grandes dames who dazzled him with their patrician glamour and whom he immortalized, their identities only thinly veiled, in his writing. His muses were Elisabeth de Riquet de Caraman-Chimay, Vicomtesse (later Comtesse) Greffulhe; Laure de Sade, Comtesse Adhéaume de Chevigné; and Geneviève Halévy Bizet Straus.
In the final decades of the 19th century, this trifecta reigned over an aristocratic social milieu traditionally closed to commoners and Jews—two labels that applied to Proust himself. These women furnished him with the material he would later use to create the legendary Oriane, Duchesse de Guermantes, his fictional queen of the Parisian high nobility.
As young women entering society in the 1880s (while Proust was still a boy), they redefined their generation’s ideal of upper-class distinction and allure. At a moment in French history when the hereditary nobility was enjoying its last gasp of supremacy as a bellwether of sophistication, soon to be eclipsed by a more freewheeling, egalitarian culture of mass appeal, they became superstars by looking both to the past and to the future. While they embraced the old guard’s aristocratic ethos of exclusivity, pomp, and lineage, they also curried favor with the press, courted popular opinion, and developed unique personal styles. Negotiating between the warring demands of elitist privacy and democratized publicity, lofty inaccessibility and brash self-promotion, they set the template for subsequent icons of fabulousness, from Capote’s swans to the Kardashian sisters.
Historically exempt from working for a living, the grandees of fin de siècle Paris treated pageantry as their full-time job. They were known as the monde, or grand monde (“great world”), and the gratin (“upper crust”), and devoted themselves to a never-ending stream of dinners, concerts, plays, balls, cotillions, charity bazaars, costume parties, and embassy soirées.
The ladies of the monde, or mondaines, were not only the chief organizers and ornaments of this 24-hour party culture; they were its gatekeepers, and they extended few invitations to plebeians, whom they collectively termed “the Losers’ Club.” Then as now, their airy scorn for outsiders only increased the fascination these women held for that ostensible club’s members, fueling an explosion in the presse mondaine: an aggregate of daily, weekly, and monthly broadsheets that existed to gratify the general public’s insatiable curiosity about how the one percent lived. This booming industry prefigured the juggernaut of celebrity tabloids, gossip blogs, reality shows, and social media that pervades our culture today.
Whereas their peers shunned the Fourth Estate, press-savvy Elisabeth, Geneviève, and Laure regaled select journalists and editors with juicy details about the fetes they hosted. If Elisabeth threw a party at home in the Faubourg Saint-Honoré—in a walled compound so vast and imposing that neighbors referred to it as the Vatican—a breathless enumeration of her royal and noble guests, the delicacies served, and the dresses worn would invariably run on the society papers’ front pages. The same treatment was given to the private theatricals and recitals that Geneviève and Laure organized in their own respective salons, typically starring performers so famous that crowned heads from all over Europe clamored to be invited.
Their reward came in the fulsome praise they received from the presse mondaine, which eagerly honed each woman’s personal mythology according to her own exacting specifications. Beyond their entertaining feats and their exalted friends, the trio fed the chattering classes information on their families and fashions. By highlighting their bloodlines, they perpetuated the nobility’s belief that pedigree makes the woman. With their interest in eye-catching clothing, they glamorized the image of the well-born society dame, making it fresh, aspirational, and fun. They were the original Real Housewives, at once alien and familiar to a public that avidly kept track of their relationships, their fashion statements, and their brazen pursuit of the limelight. Had they lived in our era, Elisabeth, Laure, and Geneviève would surely have thought of themselves as brands. To heighten their mystique, each cultivated a distinctive persona. Elisabeth was the Beauty; Laure, the Bad Girl; and Geneviève, the Bohemian. Together they formed the three unforgettable faces of a new hybrid species: the celebrity mondaine.
Elisabeth de Caraman-Chimay, the daughter of a cash-strapped Belgian prince, was married off at 18 to the colossally rich 29-year-old Henry, Vicomte (later Comte) Greffulhe. She got her first taste of public adulation on her wedding day, when 4,000 aristo-watchers mobbed the plaza in front of the church in Paris where she and Henry were married. Within months, Elisabeth learned that her husband was a brutish, inveterate philanderer—he kept up to 300 mistresses, by his own accounting. She compensated by using her good looks—a tall, willowy frame, lustrous brown hair, and huge eyes “the color of crushed pansies”—to make the public fall for her instead.
As she told a confidant: “There is no ecstasy in the world that can compare to that of a woman who feels she is the object of every gaze.” She reenacted the myth of Narcissus for two different photographers, posing both times in rapt contemplation of her image in a pond. She also wrote a series of odes, “Litanies at the Mirror,” to her own reflection. In an essay she published under the alias the Swan, she likened the admiration of the masses to “a great, anonymous caress” she couldn’t live without; her list of New Year’s resolutions for 1892 included the reminder: “Always say to myself when meeting someone else: I want this person to carry away from our encounter an image of prestige like none other.”
To enhance her natural attractions, Elisabeth spent liberally from her 300,000-franc annual clothing budget. (To put this sum in perspective: A bespoke three-piece suit from a top-flight tailor cost 160 francs.) Summoning the wizards of the Paris couture to secret meetings in her mansion—a practice that tricked the public into thinking she designed all her clothes herself—she would review their offerings and then order them to “make me anything but that!” She went in for flamboyant pieces that ranged from a gown covered entirely in pearls to a fascinator sprigged with real butterflies.
For the gratin’s showiest revels, its bals costumés, Elisabeth favored ensembles that showcased her as a queen. At a peasant-themed do where the other 1,700 guests wore rustic, homespun garb and crude wooden clogs, she came dressed in a jewel-encrusted gray satin robe à la française and an ermine-lined purple cloak: a replica of the outfit worn by Louis XIV’s prettiest granddaughter in a famous portrait at Versailles. At a costume ball held for Bertie, Prince of Wales, Elisabeth showed up as Queen Elizabeth I in a red velvet court dress, a priceless ruby crown, and a lace ruff the size of a wagon wheel. Bertie did a double take when she swept into a curtsy at his feet.
By design, Elisabeth’s grandiose costumes recalled her own quasi-royal ancestry, which, she liked to remind her media contacts, included the Merovingian king Clotaire II and Emperor Napoléon I. In private, she urged her husband to support the political machinations of the Comte de Paris, an exiled claimant to the French throne. Because the comte had a conveniently homely, hatchet-faced wife, Elisabeth imagined herself as the dazzling de facto queen of his future royal court. Though this scenario never materialized, she had Charles Frederick Worth, the era’s premier couturier, make her a black velvet sheath dress with white appliquéd lilies—the emblems of the French monarchy—extending from shoulder to hem. Elisabeth used a photo of herself in this dress as the image on her official ID card.
The Bad Girl
Like Elisabeth, Laure de Sade entered into an arranged marriage while in her teens and found little happiness with her older husband, the introverted Comte Adhéaume de Chevigné. While Chevigné was a pauper compared to Greffulhe, he did provide Laure with one invaluable asset: entrée into the retinue of the Comte de Chambord, the Comte de Paris’s cousin and rival royal pretender. Banished from his homeland since 1830, this depressive Bourbon prince reigned over a miniature court at Frohsdorf, a dreary Austrian schloss where Chevigné worked as his private secretary. When Laure first arrived there, as a 19-year-old bride, she found the place so bleak that she dubbed it “the kingdom of shadows.” But she soon discovered that on her frequent trips home to Paris, her noble companions were eager for news of the man whom few of them had met but who many of them hoped would one day return to power. They venerated Laure as a proxy for their absent would-be king. So did the royalists of the presse mondaine, who hailed her as “the belle of Frohsdorf.”
To live up to this label, Laure regaled her fellow Parisians with audacious yarns about her hijinks with Chambord, even going so far as to imply that he, rather than Chevigné, had fathered her two children. As a great-granddaughter of the Marquis de Sade, the smuttiest and most depraved author in French literary history, Laure was a gifted raconteur who never (in defiance of aristocratic bon ton) shied away from salty words; to this day, she is remembered as the first Parisian noblewoman ever heard to say, “Merde!”
Although “decent” mondaines recoiled at the very mention of her maiden name, Laure spoke proudly of her great- grandfather’s X-rated opus. Channeling his sexually liberated antiheroines, she satisfied her avowed love of “fucking” in a slew of torrid affairs. In a further challenge to the norms of feminine propriety, Laure pioneered a gender-bending sartorial style, having the tweedy, sporty suits of her lovers (all leaders of the horse and hound set) copied for her by an exclusive men’s tailor.
As these clothes best suited a boyish frame, Laure exercised vigorously and smoked constantly in order to stay thin. Her skinniness stood in stark opposition to the curvy, cream-puff womanly physique more conventionally prized at that time. Between her bony frame and her pared-down, androgynous garb, Laure anticipated by more than a quarter of a century the streamlined silhouettes of Coco Chanel, whom she would eventually befriend and champion. In 1921, when Laure was in her 60s, the abiding modernity of her look landed her a full-page photo portrait in Paris Vogue.
In the aristocratic, predominantly Catholic gratin, Geneviève Halévy Bizet Straus was an anomaly because she was a Jewish bourgeoise. Yet her family tree boasted branches illustrious enough to qualify her for provisional adoption by the monde. Through her mother, Geneviève descended from a 1,600-year-old Sephardic clan so august that its 18th-century offshoots had refused an offer of ennoblement from Louis XVI (a mere parvenu by their standards). On the paternal side, she belonged to a formidable artistic dynasty. Geneviève’s father, Fromental Halévy, was one of the most celebrated composers of the 19th century; his brother, Léon Halévy, was a renowned playwright, as was Léon’s son, Ludovic, who brought still more honor to the family name with the runaway success of his novels and librettos. With his election in 1884 to the Académie Française, Ludovic became the first-ever Jew in that 40-member pantheon of Gallic genius.
One of Geneviève’s earliest memories was of her father receiving a personal summons to visit the recently deposed King Louis-Philippe in London, the king’s expulsion from France having left him homesick for its greatest living composer. During Geneviève’s adolescence, when Napoléon III ruled the land, she saw the emperor’s half-brother, the Duc de Morny, pay fervid court to her cousin. Despite his unbounded political influence, Morny’s most cherished ambition was to write for the stage like, and with, Ludovic Halévy. That Ludovic obliged him only increased the Halévys’ singular cachet and brought other artistically minded grandees into the family orbit. Many of these noblemen would later become regulars in Geneviève’s weekly salon, alongside the brilliant “bohemian” talents—Edgar Degas, Charles Gounod, Alexandre Dumas—among whom she had also grown up. This piquant mixture of creativity and class, a rarity in the gratin, would make invitations to her gatherings among the most coveted in Paris.
Geneviève further added to her luster when, at 20, she married Georges Bizet, 30, one of her father’s most gifted protégés. Bizet’s premature death six years later exponentially increased the vicarious fame she already enjoyed, for it quickly followed the premiere of Carmen, an opera whose titular heroine he had explicitly based on his spirited and exotic spouse. This work catapulted its creator to posthumous glory, drawing requests—which she cleverly leaked to the press— for command performances from the sovereigns of Russia and England.
In another canny PR move, Geneviève styled herself “the Widow Bizet,” wearing full mourning—head-to-toe black—not just for the customary first year following her husband’s death, but for three more years after that, and for the premiere of every major Parisian revival of Bizet’s work. This somber garb offset her dark eyes, to which her liberal use of morphine lent a febrile, languorous air.
Once she retired her widow’s weeds, Geneviève switched to a half-mourning palette of white, lavender, and gray. These muted tones were meant to ease the transition back to a wardrobe without any color restrictions, but she stuck to them for the rest of her life as a constant reminder of her link to the great Bizet. She managed to keep up her faithful-widow act despite her 40-year second marriage to Emile Straus, a balding, bullying lawyer whose main appeal seemed to lie in his rumored status as an illegitimate son of one of the world’s richest men, Baron James de Rothschild. When Geneviève’s friends asked her why on earth she had married Straus, she replied, “It was the only way to get rid of him.”
Among her artistic friends, Geneviève’s signature half-mourning earned her the sobriquet “the Mauve Muse”; many of them, including Degas and the novelist Guy de Maupassant, used her as inspiration for their own works. In so doing, they led the way for one of the youngest regulars in her salon, a high-school friend of her son’s. His name was Marcel Proust, and the spell she cast on him would draw him into a lifelong mental love affair with her and her rarefied kind. She gave him his first glimpse of a socialite at once backward- and forward-looking, a bearer of tradition and an avatar of change. Readers of In Search of Lost Time can discern her outlines—and those of his two other muses—in the Duchess of Guermantes, whom, in the space of a few pages, Proust describes as a goddess, a snob, a clotheshorse, a swan, and a famous actress eagerly awaited at the stage door by a starstruck fan who does not know her, but whose dreams she dominates all the same. Back then, that fan was Proust, the Everyman from the Losers’ Club. Today, that fan is anyone who worships at celebrity’s unholy altar, in the temple that Geneviève, Elisabeth, and Laure built.
Adapted from Proust’s Duchess: How Three Celebrated Women Captured the Imagination of Fin-de-Siècle Paris, by Caroline Weber, to be published May 22, 2018, by Alfred A. Knopf.