A Tale of Two Duchesses

The duchesse de Gramont-Caderousse
Several years ago, I visited the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri and discovered a portrait of Marie-Gabrielle de Sinéty, the Duchesse de Gramont-Caderousse by Elizabeth Vigree Le Brun. 

I have gazed upon thousands of portraits in my travels and throughout my years of research, but something about this lady's face captured me.  Perhaps it was her delicate nose, flushed cheeks, and open, expressive brown eyes that gave her an air of innocence and insouciance.

I confess, the fashionista in me coveted her black velvet jacket with the slashed sleeves.  I adored the way the sleeves were fastened to the jacket with red silk bows.  Who doesn't find an ensemble in red and black utterly dramatic and appealing?

But there was something else that drew me to the portrait, that had me standing there, gazing at it for nearly a quarter of an hour.  A familiarity that seemed to haunt me...

A Faithful Friend
I would soon learn that the Duchesse de Gramont-Caderousse was one of Marie Antoinette's friends, a trusted member of her coterie.  This discovery sparked imaginations of the women strolling arm-in-arm through gardens at le hameau, pausing to inhale the perfumed aroma of a rose.

A few years after first gazing at the Duchesse's lovely face, I met a brown-haired French beauty who possessed startlingly similar expressive brown eyes and an equally delicate nose.  I felt an instant familiarity, as I had felt when gazing at the Vigee Le Brun painting.  I didn't know it then, but the French beauty would become my best friend, the most trusted member of my coterie.

But this is not another of my stories about the startling nature of serendipity.  It is not a tale of odd coincidences.

The Two Duchesses
This is a piece about two rather privileged duchesses.  One would live a long life, the other would end her privileged days with her neck in a blood spattered lunette (the moon shaped recess where victims of the guillotine would place their neck).  Both would witness unspeakable violence.

After discovering Elizabeth Vigee Le Brun's portrait of Marie-Gabrielle de Sinéty, I found myself wanting to know more about the pretty duchesse.  Naturally, I turned to Souvenirs: The Memoirs of Elizabeth Vigee Le Brun. 

The artist confessed that she had a prejudice against hair powder and went on to write, "I persuaded the lovely Duchesse de Grammont-Caderousse not to wear any when she was painted.  Her hair was as black as night, and I parted it in front and arranged it in careless locks.  After my seance, which finished at dinner-time, the Duchesse did not alter her head-dress, and went to the theater without altering it.  Such a pretty woman setting the fashion caused it soon to become popular."

I noticed that Vigee Le Brun spelled the duchesse's name Grammont and not Gramont, as had been printed on the plaque in the museum.  With no disrespect intended toward the venerated curators at the Nelson-Atkins, I assumed they had spelled the duchesse's name wrong and elected to continue my research for the Duchesse de Grammont-Caderousse - with two M's.

Vigee Le Brun does not mention the lovely duchesse again, so I turned to Simon Schama's Citizens.  Then, on page 827, I read something that made my heart drop.

"Sharing their tumbril were the Princesse de Lubomirski, the Duchesses de Chatelet and de Grammont..."

Grammont.  Spelled with two M's.

If the Duchesse de Grammont had been in a tumbril (a cart used to transport the condemned to the guillotine), she had surely died during the Revolution.  I shuddered to imagine that sweet-faced woman, with her basket of fruits and flowers, a victim of such a horrific death.  I imagined her red satin slippers slipping on the blood soaked sawdust, her wide eyes glistening with tears. 

The image filled me with an incomprehensible melancholia. 

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view), there were two duchesses of similar name.  The Duchesse de Gramont-Caderousse and the Duchesse de Grammont (also, confusingly, spelled Gramont, with one M).

A little more sleuthing and I learned the Marie-Gabrielle de Sinéty, AKA the Duchesse de Gramont-Caderousse, was not the duchesse in the tumbril.

The Duchesse de Gramont
The Other Duchesse Gramont
The lady who - on a bright Spring day in 1794 - found herself an unfortunate occupant in a rough wooden cart, crushed between a haughty princess and a trembling duchesse, was none other than Béatrix de Choiseul-Stainville, duchesse de Grammont Béatrix was not nearly as lovely as Marie-Gabrielle.  Her portrait was not painted by Vigee Le Brun but by Alexander Roslin, an eighteenth century Swedish court painter. 

Less-than-lovely Béatrix was the wife of the duc de Gramont and the daughter of François Joseph de Choiseul, marquis de Stainville, a diplomat.  She is mentioned in the memoirs of the lothario, soldier, and politician, Armand Louis de Gontaut-Biron, the duc de Lauzun.  (In fact, Lauzun once fancied himself in love with Beatrix).   Madame de Grammont is mentioned in twenty different passages in Lauzun's Memoirs. 

She was also a member of Marie Antoinette's inner-circle, having proved her loyalty early on in a skirmish with Madame du Barry that had tongues all around Versailles wagging!  One night at the theater, Béatrix refused to make room for Marie Antoinette's rival, Madame du Barry.  The king's mistress complained and had Béatrix banished from court.  Marie Antoinette appealed to her grandfather-in-law and Béatrix was allowed to return.

If one searches, there are quite a few references to the Duchesse de Grammont/Gramont (for it is spelled both ways) in various contemporary memoirs and letters.

This less-than-lovely duchesse made a mark that the passage of time did little to erase.

The Elusive Duchesse de Gramont-Caderousse
Vigee Le Brun's lovely duchesse, with almond shaped eyes and slightly parted lips as if in the throes of a self-conscious smile, proves to be far more elusive.  Time, it would seem, has nearly obliterated her mark.

She was born in Marie-Gabrielle de Sinéty in 1760.  She married André Joseph Hippolyte de Gramont-Vacheres, the duc de Gramont-Caderousse in February of 1779.  The duc, her husband, was Lord of Cap-Cornu, governor of La Tour-de-Crest, and a Knight of Malta.  They had four children.  From her family tree, I learned three of her children grew to adulthood and had children of their own.  She died on April 24, 1832 at the Château de Caderousse.

There are no memoirs detailing her exploits through Europe or her dangerous liaisons with dashing lotharios.  I could unearth no clues as to how she survived the bloody Revolution that took the lives of her king, queen, and the other Duchesse de Grammont.

Her portrait is her enduring mark.  Her secrets lie hidden in her dreamy gaze.  Her slightly parted lips tease us with tales that will not be told...

Vigee Le Brun's portrait of the duchesse de
Gramont-Caderousse in the fabulous
Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City.
Shot yesterday by Leah Marie Brown.


Confessions of a Seasonal Crafter: Marie Madness

I'll admit it:  I am a seasonal Martha Addict.  Each year, as autumn brushes the world in an ochre hue, I find myself inexplicably drawn to Martha Stewart, that peddler of crafty pastimes.  I know I should focus my energies on writing and home obligations, but the temptation becomes too great.  As the air turns crisp and crackly leaves litter the sidewalks, I suddenly start watching Martha's television show and reading her magazines.  I will sit with a plate of Fuji Caramel Apple Cookies with Brown Sugar Icing (a Martha recipe) balanced precariously on my lap, watching as the Gandhi of Gardening, the Diva of Domesticity single-handedly builds a dovecote out of Popsicle sticks and fills it with birds she humanely captures with silken ropes or bakes a million puff pastries which she then uses to recreate the Taj Mahal.

I've watched Martha Stewart successfully try her hand at cake decorating, sewing, scrap booking, woodworking, pottery, painting, and gardening, and I always walk away thinking, "I could do that!  I should do that!"

Usually, I don't.

I am not a crafty sorta gal.  It's not that I don't like crafts, I'm just not that good at them.  (Truthfully, I have never been good at crafts.  My first grade teacher wrote one, terse word on my report card to describe my efforts with scissors: "hopeless".  I failed my high school Home Ec class when the elastic on the shorts I was required to make and wear to broke.  Humiliating experience, that.)  Some might even say I am artistically challenged when it comes to crafting.

But something strange happens to me in the Fall.  Maybe it is the bright colored leaves on all of the trees that sparks an irrepressible optimism in me; or maybe there's some sort of bacteria in autumn-harvested apples that affects the memory ( I do eat a lot of those Fuji Apple Cookies and consume my fair share of cider).  Whatever the explanation, each October I find myself standing in Michaels Craft Store, clutching the handle of a basket laden with hot glue sticks, glitter paint, and assorted accouterments, thinking, "If Martha can do it, so can I!"

One year, Martha made a stunning Christmas tree centerpiece using Styrofoam, metallic ribbons, and jewel tipped pins.  It seemed simple enough: cut the ribbons to a pre-measured length, loop them, stick them into the Styrofoam cone and then - VOILA! - you have a stunning hand-crafted Christmas Tree that will wow your family and mystify your neighbors. 

I love Martha, but she lied.  (Forgive the offensive language but the Ribbon Tree Debacle still upsets me)  I cut the ribbon into premeasured strips, looped them, stuck them in the Styrofoam cone, but there was no VOILA!  I did not get a stunning centerpiece.  My lopsided tree with tattered, randomly pinned ribbons looked like the artistic endeavor of a drunk toddler (not that I've ever seen a drunk toddler).  It was not a good thing.
Since the Ribbon Tree Debacle, there have been German glass glitter covered gourds (messy, expensive, and, frankly, tacky), handmade Chenille slippers (True story: I tried to donate them to a local homeless shelter for teens but the coordinator kindly rejected the slippers because she said they were "sad"), and assorted embellished canisters, chocolate candies, and dipped candles.

It was my painful and scarring attempt at candle-making that had me vowing to break my Martha Habit and start living a clean life, free from the clutches of that crafty, diabolical Guru of Glitter.  I told myself my pride was greater than any transitory nesting instinct. 

This October, I watched the leaves change from Granny Smith green to Candy Apple red all the while fighting the nefarious desire to watch Martha.  There would be no marzipan Mayflower on my table at Thanksgiving, nor would there be a side dish of humiliation as another of my crafts crumbled, imploded, or spontaneously burst into flames before my eyes.

The technicolor days of October faded into the monochromatic days of November without a single gourd glittered or bedazzled.  I didn't watch Martha on television.  I resisted the urge to listen to her on Sirius radio. I averted my gaze when I walked down the magazine aisle in the grocery store.  As I packed up my turkey platter and gravy boat, I felt positively euphoric that I had nearly made it through the Fall without attempting a craft.  I imagined myself at a 12-Step Program, standing before a semi-circle of fellow addicts, saying, "My name is Leah Marie and I have been clean of crafting for 11 months and 8 days."

But before you sound the applause and cue the cheers, notice I used the word nearly.

That's right, brothers and sisters, I recently suffered a relapse.

Earlier this week, I stepped off the wagon and into a Hobby Lobby.  Like any addict, my overwhelming longing lead me down the path of temptation and delivered me far from the straight and narrow. 

Although I hadn't gone to the mecca of crafting stores on a Martha Mission, I was still there to satisfy my twisted needs (to craft).

A few years ago I saw a beautiful flocked Christmas tree decorated with baubles inspired by my beloved queen, Marie Antoinette.  Since then, I have dreamt of having a similar tree. 

So there I was, pushing a squeaky, right-pulling cart through the cluttered aisles of my local Hobby Lobby, silently telling myself that I had nothing to feel guilty about, that one little indulgence did not an addict make.

Soon, I was happily skipping through the aisles, capriciously tossing bottles of paints and ornaments into the cart, imagining the grand, opulent flocked tree adorned with baubles that would grace my office.

It was going to be magnificent, marvelous, très fantastique!  Maybe I would even send a photo to Martha herself...and she would be so impressed she would invite me to be on her show...and we would go to Laudree after filming to sip tea and eat macaroons!

Before I knew it, my cart was loaded with an expensive tree and hundreds of dollars in baubles and bling.  That's when I realized I was in trouble, standing alone, watching the wagon drive away from me.  The first step to recovery is acknowledging you're sick, right?

So, I flagged down an older woman with silvery hair and a kindly smile.

"Help me, won't you?" I asked, a note of desperation in my voice.

I explained to her my tendency to over-commit, overspend, and over-estimate my abilities when it came to crafting and then I told her all about my passion for Marie Antoinette and the beautiful baroque Christmas tree.

She politely listened to my confession and then tilted her head and said, "Does it have to be a tree?  What if you made a wreath instead?  It's smaller, easier to manage, and much cheaper."

I swear a beam of light shone down from Heaven onto the head of that dear soul.  And I am pretty certain I heard a choir of angels singing.

What she said next had to have been divinely inspired.

"Just plan it out and take your time, Dear, and I am sure it will look lovely."
I thanked the woman, returned most of the items in my cart, and headed to the cash registers.  I already had an wreath in storage that was a perfect candidate for a little re-purposing.

I started as soon as I got home.  I gathered supplies and then made a list of the steps I intended to take to transform my dusty, old bourgeois wreath into something a princess would covet.

For three days, I sprayed, sprayed, sprayed, glued, decorated, embellished, twisted, and tortured the plastic pine needles.  Finally, I stepped back and looked at my creation and do you know what?  I was pleased, maybe even a little proud.

My flocked wreath looked fluffy and festive.  The hand painted and beaded ornaments looked store-bought.  Nothing melted, exploded, shrank, crumbled, toppled or spontaneously burst into flames.

So now, for the first time in nearly fifteen years, I can proudly proclaim, "My name is Leah Marie Brown and I am a seasonal Martha Stewart Addict."