The Ultimate Survivor

Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord.
An ancient, noble, haughty name.

He was born in the middle of the 18th century, and inherited a name to conjure with.. It was pronounced something like Tie-around, and if you pronounce it that way in modern France, it stamps you as a familiar of high society. The Talleyrand-Périgords could trace their noble ancestry back more than a thousand years while the Bourbons who ruled France could go back no farther than nine hundred. Réqué Diou was their motto, roughly meaning, in the Périgord dialect, nothing above us but God.

In the extravagant pleasure-loving life of aristocratic families like this one, little boys were not centers of attention until they were old enough to get commissions in the army. But Charles-Maurice could not get into the army, he was lame, he had a club foot which made it excruciatingly painful for him to walk or to stand upright. His mother had taken an antipathy to him from the day he was born, and while his brothers were at least allowed to grow up out of sight around the family house and grounds, he was put to nurse with a poor woman in the suburbs of Paris, and his mother did not get another look at him for four years. According to his account, he had fallen off a chest of drawers when he was a few weeks old and crushed one of his feet, and the nurse never thought of calling a doctor to look at what turned into a round hard mass, a clubfoot. Modern scholars have cast doubt on this story, they claim it is more probable that he was born with an infirm foot.
Whatever the cause, his family was displeased with the infirmity, and showed its displeasure by sending him to a seminary to be made into a priest and eventually into a bishop. Raised without love at the center of a world of power and privilege, he learned how to look at everything and everybody around him with the same cold, bright, merciless eye. “When I look at myself,” he said once, “I am appalled. But when I look at other people I am reassured.”

With that sense of reassurance firmly lodged in him, he could face anything that chance or history might throw in his way with the same easy haughty confident calm.
Five times in his lifetime, his country radically and bloodily turned itself upside down, changed its institutions and its laws, changed what it stood for. Each time, powerful voices were howling for Talleyrand’s blood and each time he came through, not only unscathed, but richer and more respected than he had been before. He was the ultimate survivor.

Naturally, the respect was not universal, he had more than his share of enemies.
Asked if Talleyrand had not sold his soul to the devil, his fellow-revolutionary Mirabeau said that of course he had, and of course he got the better of the bargain as he always did. Because the devil had to pay out heaps of good gold, and all he got in return was a heap of shit.

Once, taking his place at the dinner table between the famous writer Madame de Stael and the equally famous Madame de Recamier, acclaimed as the most desirable woman in all France, he said with a happy smile, “Here I am, seated between Wit and Beauty.” “And possessing neither,” said Madame de Stael.
He repaid the compliment later by telling the world that “Madame de Stael is a very gifted writer. She has succeeded in representing the two of us, herself and me, in the guise of women.” And he went on smoothly, efficiently, adding daily increments to his fame and his fortune.
Of another writer who disapproved of him, he noted: “When no one is talking about him, Monsieur de Chateaubriant thinks he has gone deaf.”

One autumn day in the middle of the tumultuous decade of the 1790's the lovely young Marquise de La Tour du Pin-Governet, who had fled from the Reign of Terror in Paris which was chopping off the heads of people with backgrounds like hers, was quietly boning a leg of mutton in the yard of the farmhouse near Troy in upper New York state where she was living a life of republican frugality with her husband, when suddenly a familiar deep voice boomed out in French behind her. She turned to see one of her oldest friends, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, come hobbling out of the primeval forest, his hair powdered, bringing with him an air of Parisian elegance.
When she had last seen him, in the light-drenched days before the fall of the Bastille inaugurated the French Revolution, he had been a youthful bishop of the Roman Catholic church, and a more dissolute young bishop has rarely been seen, always carousing or gambling or climbing into some duchess’s or opera singer’s bed when he was not conspiring to subvert the monarchy of Louis XVI. He had gone on to be one of the leaders of the Revolution in its early, moderate, days, and he had been the principal author of its most famous charter, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, to which five French republics have successively pledged allegiance in the last two hundred years.
Just now, he too was in flight from the Terror, he was dealing profitably in real estate in rural America, reconnoitering for desirable lots far from the noise and pollution of Manhattan.

The marquise would later record in her memoirs the animated conversation she had with M. de Talleyrand under the clear American sky, gossiping of old friends and of all that was going on in the great world of politics and war. She noted that he was shocked to the core to learn that his friend Alexander Hamilton was thinking of resigning as Secretary of the Treasury of the United States so that he could make more money to pay off his debts. The Talleyrand mind had no mechanism for conceiving the idea that a secretary of the Treasury could be short of cash.
He soon enough had a chance to show how things should be done properly in the upper levels of government. Robespierre had recently been guillotined, and the radical days of the Revolution were over. By late 1796 Talleyrand was back in Paris, having an affair with the wife of M. Delacroix, the foreign minister in the new government headed by Paul Barras. He got Madame de Staël, his partner in a previous affair, to bully her intimate friend Barras into appointing him to succeed Delacroix, who was dying of testicular cancer. He quickly proved his competence in advancing both the interests of the French Republic and his own.
He was born to be a diplomat, and he trained himself to be a conspirator. It was an ideal time to practice both arts.

As the victorious armies of the Republic under talented young generals like Napoleon Bonaparte were changing the map of Europe, kings and dukes and cardinals and ambassadors and other interested parties were swarming into Paris to try to get the new boundaries drawn in ways that satisfied them. The new Minister of Foreign Affairs got to be on good terms with all of then, invited them to fabulous dinners, fascinated them with his brilliant conversation, and let them understand that if they wanted to get business done with the French government efficiently and amicably, it was necessary to make sure that Citizen Talleyrand could go on living in the proper style. In short order he was salting millions of francs in banks abroad while displaying to all the world the infinite charms of the Talleyrand way of life.

One way to glimpse that style today is to visit his home, the chateau de Valençay in the Loire country, with its 180 rooms, 225 kilometers southwest of Paris.

It is not quite as its famous owner left it. His 15,000-volume library and his collection of Rembrandts and Rubenses and Riberas is no longer there. But much remains, or has been replaced. Visitors today can see the state dining room where everyone who counted for anything in Europe longed to be invited to eat a meal prepared by Carème, the greatest chef of his time..
Talleyrand set standards in eating at Valencay which, more than two centuries later, are observed all over the world. He was, for example, the first to decree that cheese, which he loved though it was then considered a rather plebeian food, should be served as a separate course before the dessert. He was especially proud of a succulent form of goat cheese produced on his estate called pyramide de Valençay. It was originally made in the form of pointed pyramids, but the host with his customary fact did not wish to remind Napoleon every time he came to dinner of his disastrous expedition to Egypt, so he had the tops cut off, giving them the truncated shape they bear to this day when they appear on the tables of the well-to-do..

After the dining room, visitors may be taken to see the secret staircase connecting his bedroom with that of his niece, the Duchess of Dino, not that there was anything secret about their liaison. And there is the little anteroom where he sat for an hour or so every morning, talking gossip or affairs of state with his distinguished guests while he bathed his deformed foot -- a hard round knob of flesh, said his autopsy, with five nails sticking out like claws – in water brought specially from the mountain village of Barrèges.
There is the very table, brought from the Kaunitz Palace in Vienna, at which he sat through the long days when he was entertaining, cajoling, dazzling and hoodwinking the crowned heads and foreign ministers of the victorious allies into allowing France back into the community of nations after the fall of Napoleon.
There is the magnificent desk offered to Talleyrand by Joachim Murat, King of Naples and Napoleon’s brother-in-law, a real conspirator’s companion with its half-dozen secret drawers and its two concealed racks for rifles.
There are portraits without number, of Talleyrand himself in various costumes under various reigns and regimes, and of his family: his cynical uncle the archbishop and his foppish father the colonel; his narrow-minded mother who always regarded him as a monster, though he remained devoted to her and at no small risk to himself, protected her life and her property through all the calamities of the time; his sweet great-grandmother the Princess of Chalais who took care of him during the ages of four to six and was the only kind and unselfish person he was to know in all his life.

Valençay was not a family inheritance. Talleyrand bought it is 1803 for a price that was beyond his own resources, even considering that he had just wangled a ten percent commission on the Louisiana Purchase, which he had just played a major role in negotiating. But as always, he had a friend when he needed one. By this time, having been a principal figure in the conspiracy which brought Napoleon to power, he was the foreign minister for the new ruler, who was willing to advance him a few million livres for his new estate.

The estate was immense. It stretched over 19,000 hectares of ploughland and pasturage and game-stocked forest, including 25 towns and villages, all the personal property of the master of Valençay. In the middle was a park of 150 hectares dotted with ornamental trees and statuary; and, in the midst of that, with splendid views of the whole, was the chateau itself, massive and elegant, hundreds of years in the building. It was so vast, with its 25 master apartments and its great gallery 70 meters long, that it took Talleyrand and his wife three days just to walk though it.

Napoleon, who was crafty enough in his own way, expected to get maximum value out of his investment in Valençay. Talleyrand was one of the very few men of whom he was slightly in awe. He admired him for his intelligence, his lucidity, his total lack of scruples, his skill at finding honeyed phrases to justify and glorify any aggression, any crime, any breach of faith. Most of all, he admired him for his aristocratic manners. He was at the same unruffled ease in any situation, and knew how to put others at ease if he wanted to. He knew how to talk, and when to be silent, and how to keep at all times a cool look on his smooth, handsome, somewhat feline face. This was he kind of man Napoleon wanted to add some class and teach some manners to the rough soldiers and boorish adventurers who were his generals and his courtiers. In partnership with Fouché, who ran the police, Talleyrand provided Napoleon with a stable efficient administration through the years when he was off winning his immortal victories.
In gratitude, he made Talleyrand Prince of Benevento, a small but sovereign state in the south of Italy which he had filched from the Pope. It was a title which allowed his foreign minister to sit and talk on equal terms with emperors and kings at their dinner table.

One of his duties as Napoleon’s foreign minister was to give dinners to 30 or 40 guests, prepared by Carème, in his Paris home, which is now the Hôtel Matignon, the official residence of the Prime Minister of France. At Valençay he would do the same, on a still grander scale. Every fall he would receive foreign dignitaries and ambassadors and offer them superb food, hunting, brilliant conversation, gambling and other delights. I want your guests, said Napoleon, “to feel that an invitation is a reward to the representatives of sovereigns with whom I am pleased.”
Though Talleyrand affected a languid aristocratic air, he had a good eye for modern efficiency, and recognized a valuable piece of real estate when he saw one. At Valençay he promoted a cotton-spinning machine and Merino sheep and new crops, and soon he was adding a substantial amount of income from the property to what he was also getting in salary from the French government and under-the-table contributions from foreign governments.
Then in 1808, Napoleon, who had given so much, decided to take something away.

It was in that year that Napoleon, as Talleyrand saw it, went mad. He was dreaming of endless foreign conquests, Russia, India, and, to begin with, Spain. He invited the Spanish royal family to cross the border and visit him in Bayonne and having received them royally he kidnapped them and informed then that Spain had a new king, in the person of his dim-witted alcoholic elder brother Joseph. Then he handed them over to Talleyrand with orders to keep them quietly and comfortably locked up in his chateau of Valençay.
Talleyrand of course obeyed, with his customary courtesy and efficiency. His royal guests expressed their heart-felt thanks for the many services he rendered them during their six-year stay. They had everything they wanted, from prayer books to lady friends, delivered to their door. The Spanish flag flew over the chateau roof, and Spanish guitarists played boleros in the park at dusk.
Talleyrand did not much care for the expense of looking after his royal guests. This was galling enough, but even more so was the ignominy of being forced into the role of a mere jailer. This may have been the final stroke which turned Talleyrand from faithful servant to deadly foe of the emperor. At all events, it was in 1808 that he began treasonable correspondence with the czar of Russia, setting in motion the fatal machine that was to rumble on to Waterloo.

Once again he was jumping the political fence as he had done when he supported the revolution in 1789 against the hapless Louis XVI, and ten years later Napoleon’s coup d’état against an incoherent republican government.
Napoleon appears to have got some wind of what he was up to, and fired him from his post of foreign minister. Later, at a formal reception in the Tuileries palace, with all the big names of the government in attendance, Talleyrand was leaning painfully against the frame of the grand fireplace when Napoleon came charging into the room and headed straight for the fireplace. He shook an accusatory finger into Talleyrand’s face and shouted, “You are a piece of shit in a silk stocking,” and stormed back out of the hall, slamming the monumental door shut behind him. Every one was dumfounded, they waited in a dazed silence for the door to reopen and an order to come through directing to have M. de Talleyrand shot. Only M. de Talleyrand remained perfectly calm. “What a pity,” he said in his usual calm aristocratic voice, “that so great a man should have such bad manners.” And that was the end of the matter, for Napoleon was still a little in awe of his ex-minister’s grandiose self-assurance, and perhaps thought he could still make use of him. In any case, no one was shot, and Talleyrand could go on discreetly preparing for the day when Napoleon would be booted out.

In that same climactic year 1808, he was looking for a suitable match for his nephew Edmond, and his researches led him to the Duchess of Courland, a Russian subject of lofty character and immense wealth, who had one unmarried daughter aged 15 living on one of her vast estates in the East. The girl, Dorothée, was dark and thin and willful and romantic, and madly in love with an aging Polish patriot. Her family convinced her that the Pole had secretly married another woman, and dragged her to the altar with Edmond, a booby with whom she had little to do for the rest of her life.
Her new uncle was another matter. He had formed a liaison with her mother, the duchess, he loved her dearly for many years and employed her as a go-between in his secret dealings with the czar. Gradually he transferred his affections to the daughter. How he kept them happy under one roof (with his wife along occasionally as well) is a secret that died with ancien-régime diplomacy.

Dorothée betrayed him with younger man (there was, after all, a disparity of some 40 years between her and her Prince) but she was devoted to him, made an admirable mistress of his household, helped him run his affairs and - although it was never formally acknowledged – gave him a lovely daughter, Pauline, who was the delight and consolation of his old age.

He might grow old, but there was no slackening in his presence in the middle, or behind the scenes, of the political stage. When Napoleon’s empire collapsed in 1814, he and Fouché were ready to take charge of forming form the provisional government which welcomed back a Bourbon, Louis XVIII, to the throne of France. Fouché expected to hold on to his job, but it was hardly possible to forgive a man who had voted for beheading the new king’s brother and his wife Queen Marie-Antoinette, and he was forced into exile. Talleyrand on the other hand fitted easily into the post of the new king’s foreign minister, representing France at the Congress of Vienna which was redrawing the map of Europe, and he used all his immense capacities for diplomacy and intrigue to let France come out of two decades of disastrous war with its old boundaries virtually intact and recognized as a Great Power along with England and Russia and Prussia.
He served the restored Bourbons loyally for a while, but he was soon convinced that they were hopelessly stuck in a dead past, unprepared for the great changes weeping the world, and he begin in his usual way to quietly plot their overthrow.

He found time to help along the careers of various young men whom he considered promising. Among them was a rising and extraordinarily talented painter whom, according to all the evidence, Talleyrand had fathered a quarter of a century before on the wife of the man who preceded him as foreign minister. The painter’s name was Eugène Delacroix.

One night in 1830 he was hosting a dinner party in his Paris home when suddenly all the church bells in Paris began ringing, as they did on momentous occasions like the accession of a new monarch. “We triumph,” he said. One of his guests was bold enough to ask, “Who are we?” “I will tell you tomorrow,” said Talleyrand, and went on eating his dinner.
“We,” as he knew perfectly well, turned out to be the king’s cousin the Duke of Orleans who became Louis-Philippe the citizen king, marking the eclipse of the old aristocracy and the coming to power of the old middle class, the bourgeoisie.

Talleyrand was glad to serve this new master as Ambassador to England from 1830 to 1834, and he had the opportunity to use his diplomatic skills for the last time by helping to keep the great powers from stumbling into another general European war over what had once been the Spanish, then the Austrian, Netherlands, and now became, at Talleyrand’s urging, the sovereign kingdom of Belgium.
He preserved his dignity and his deviousness to the end. When he was dying at the age of 84, lying in excruciating pain, moved around by ropes and pulleys on his silk sheets to keep the open sore on his back from rubbing against the mattress, he determined that it was time to make peace with the Roman Catholic Church, which had many grievances against him – notably including the way he had discarded his bishop’s miter as if it had been an old shoe. He minutely negotiated the terms of his repentance and readmission to the fold, and when the documents were all ready, he kept putting off signing them. He felt it would be undignified to go on living as merely a repentant old sinner. He waited until he was sure his last agonies had begun and then announced that he would sign between five and six A.M. on May 17, 1838. And, gritting his always well polished teeth against the pain, (“Do you know, sir,” he said politely to the doctor who was poking with a scalpel in a gaping hole in his back, “that you are hurting me terribly?”) he held on to the appointed hour, then signed the dovuments in front of five witnesses, received the last rites of the Church, and peacefully expired,

©2007 Robert Wernick
An abbreviated version of this text appeared in Smithsonian Magazine November 1981

A Footnote on Valençay:

In the summer of 1944 soldiers of an SS division, hastily evacuating the southwest of France after the Allied breakthrough in Normandy, was passing by Valençay when some shots were fired at them from the vicinity of the chateau. The commander of the division, who had already achieved distinction by killing all the inhabitants of the village of Oradour-sur-Glane for a similar effraction of the rules of war, determined to make another example, and ordered every one who was in or around the chateau at the time to come out and line up against a wall, where he informed them that they were to be shot and their chateau razed to the ground.
Before he could give the final order, a distinguished-looking gentleman stepped out of the line and informed him in commanding German tones that he was the Prince de Ligne, one of the oldest and most honorable titles in the German Empire (he did not bother to add that he was also the last of the Talleyrand-Périgords),that he was the owner of the chateau, and if the chateau were to be destroyed, the man who gave the order would feel the full wrath of his Führer.
For Adolf Hitler was notoriously a passionate admirer of Greek statuary like the Venus de Milo and the victory of Samothrace, which he considered supreme expressions of the Aryan genius. And the Venus de Milo and the Victory of Samothrace were at present within the walls of the chateau, where they had been sent for safekeeping, along with hundreds of other priceless works of art, from the Louvre in 1939 when there was fear of a German bombardment of Paris at the outbreak of the war in 1939.
The SS commander listened carefully, then he called off his firing squad and marched on. And a year later, the Venus de Milo and the Victory of Samothrace were safely back in the Louvre.

Valencay is now a museum,, visited by thousands of tourists, and it is tempting to think of the old prince coming back to life and looking out one of the grand windows on the immaculately-kept grounds and seeing his look returned by a camel or one of the other exotic creatures now kept there; and quickly calculating what these phenomena could teach him about the current state of French society, and how much money he could make off that camel.