madame jean du barry

Remember the scene in Pretty Woman where Viv (Julia Roberts), challenges her roommate to name one hooker who actually ends up with a rich guy, and the roommate replies “Cinder-fuckin’-ella.” She could have also said Madame du Barry, but, spoiler, Madame du Barry‘s story does not lead to a happy ending. Although there is footwear involved!

I balk at the portrayal of Louis XV in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, but the portrayal of no one at court treating Du Barry like a lady, well, that was pretty spot on. For reference, because it’s terrible to talk about movies people haven’t seen, go seven minutes in here, du Barry is the lady in red:


This. This is pretty spot on.

While the court loved Madame de Pompadour to the extent that, when Louis started seeing younger women towards they end of their 20 year long relationship, everyone took Madame Pompadour’s side (against the king of France!) the Court hated du Barry.

That was because, while Madame Pompadour spent her time counseling the King on political matters (she was jokingly referred to as “the pretty prime minister“) and supporting artists and writers of the period, Madame du Barry spent her time literally sitting in the King’s lap at state dinners and tonguing his ear and doing… under the table stuff. You know. Stuff. Suffice to say, she was also known to be a very heavy drinker.

The court basically responded as though the King had gone from dating Meryl Streep to Courtney Stodden.

And I have no doubt that if I’d been there I’d have responded exactly the same way. Sometimes – this is a bit embarrassing – I like to imagine that Madame Pompadour and I are friends. I think we’d talk about our thoughts on Candide, and architecture, and just… things. How obese Voltaire was getting, probably. Do you do that with any historical figures? I’m not saying we’d actually be friends, because Pompadour is kind of great at everything, but I think, in any age, she’s the kind of woman whose friendship it would be wonderful to have.

And in spite of that – in spite of the fact that Madame de Pompadour has my unparallelled admiration – Madame du Barry has my heart. I love her, vulgar, jewel studded hot mess that she is.

In some ways, I think you can actually feel much more for Madame du Barry than for Madame de Pompadour. Pompadour, for all she is, as Dr. Who says “uncrowned Queen of France, actress, artist, musician, dancer, courtesan and fantastic gardener” she was also a very ambitious woman. She did plot to land King Louis.

Personally, I don’t think this is really a negative trait of Pompadour’s – though I will say that one of the only recorded fights she had with Louis XV was when she left her husband. After she abandoned him to be King Louis’s mistress, her husband wrote her a long, admittedly overwrought letter begging her not to leave him. In what seems like an uncharacteristically mean moment Pompdour showed the letter to Louis thinking that he’d find it funny. Louis replied that was inappropriate and that “your husband seems a very decent sort of man, Madam.” Which, well, go Louis.

But, that aside, I do think the fact that she went after Louis indicates that Pompadour knew what she was getting herself into. Moreover, it indicates that she really wanted what she was getting herself into.

Madame du Barry had no idea what she was in for.

How could she?

Unlike Madame de Pompadour, Madame du Barry wasn’t hosting cozy salons for Voltaire to read his newest works before becoming Louis’s mistress. She wasn’t doing that because, before she met Louis, she was a prostitute.

I don’t mean that in the sense that she was a man’s mistress. Everyone during this period seems like they were someone’s mistress at some point. I mean she got passed around for sex and made her living off of it.

That was different.

Also, unlike Madame de Pompadour, she didn’t come from a really charming family where everyone came up with cute nick-names for one another. She was the daughter of a lady’s-maid and a monk called “Brother Angel” who seduced and then abandoned her mother and then… I cannot explain to you how many lovers her mother had when she was a kid.

No, really, I just can’t. I tried to make a chart, and I’m not a chart-maker. I really made an attempt, but it felt like coming into some soap opera you’re unfamiliar with and being mystified, wondering”wait, she slept with him? And also him? And him? And his evil twin brother?”

Madame du Barry’s mother, Anne, was that soap opera character.

Suffice to say, Freud would love this stuff.

Jeanne found another mother figure in the mistress of one of Anne’s lovers (her mother was engaged as a cook at his household), who was known as Madame Frederique. A glamorous Italian courtesan, Frederique allowed young Jeanne to play with her taffeta dresses, perfume bottles and jewels. Jeanne loved dressing up in her outfits as young girl. Frederique also taught her to dance and advised her on how to talk to men.

And then, in a completely unexpected turn of events, Jeanne’s mother married a butler named Nicolas Rancon. Despite being pockmarked and ten years her junior, Nicolas was hesitant to take Anne as a wife – but her lover arranged for Nicolas to be appointed a shopkeeper to the army commissariat in Corsica. In an attempt to make her life seem more wholesome, Jeanne’s mother soon sent Jeanne off to a convent, where she was supposed to be readied for domestic trade.

Jeanne hated it. Especially the fact that she had to hide her pretty golden hair, which had been so admired, under a plain black veil.  She spent nine years there. Fortunately for her, later in life, dancing was taught, though Jeanne was often punished for dancing through the hallways or admiring her reflection in pots (I love this about her).

She left at 15 and immediately ran back to Frederique, and Frederique was not happy. Jeanne had grown up to be beautiful, and you can only imagine that she felt pretty threatened. Frederique sent her away with only enough money to buy herself a new dress.

Jeanne moved into her mother’s attic apartment (Nicolas was away in Corsica) and began to apprentice for a hairdresser. She quickly seduced the hairdresser – or he seduced her, some manner of seducing went on, accounts vary – and they soon moved in together. The hairdresser’s mother, who wanted him to make a better marriage, was enraged. She was convinced Jeanne was ruining him by spending all his money, which she was, but probably not intentionally. She barged in on Jeanne’s mother, accusing her of being a procuress pimping out her daughter, and threatening to send both her and Jeanne to the Hopital (a prison for streetwalkers).

In an attempt to avoid imprisonment, Jeanne’s mother took the hairdresser to court and accused him of corrupting her daughter. Jeanne supposedly looked so beautiful and innocent that the verdict held. The hairdresser was forced to flee to London.

For a while afterwards, Jeanne worked as a shopgirl at Labille’s, a glamorous toilette where wealthy members of society would buy fans, feathers and hats. The position allowed her to interact with a variety of wellborn men, and she was known to trade her affections for fans, feathers and hats. While the owner of the store disapproved of her morals, and her laziness (she did not show up for work on time) he claimed that he could hardly dismiss a girl who attracted so many potential clients to his shop.

The Prince de Ligne, for instance, writes in his diary of a grisette at Labille’s assumed to be Madame du Barry who is “tall, well made and ravishingly blonde, with a wide forehead, lovely eyes with dark lashes, a small oval face with a delicate complexion marked by two beauty spots, which only made her more piquant, a mouth to which laughter came easily and a bosom so perfect as to defy comparison.”

I always marvel at how, in their private remembrances, men and women of this period describe people they’ve seen as we might describe them to a police sketch artist.

Speaking of which – the police did keep a file on Jeanne during this period. She was described as “a pretty little grisette ready to accept whatever came her way” but since she did not solicit men off the streets, they didn’t really bother her.

But then, her life was about to change dramatically.

She lived with a variety of men, though her situation truly altered only when she met the comte Jean du Barry. While he had a title, and knew many aristocrats, Jean was a notorious gambler and spendthift, and was deeply in debt. Among his friends – and enemies, of whom he had many – he was known as”le roue.”

In truth, he was little more than a glorified pimp. Du Barry used to take in shopgirls and maids of the time and promise them that with his tutelage they might become the mistress to a Duc. He would then send them off to his friends for sex and take a large percentage of their earnings. He supposedly took Jeanne in because he thought it would attract more people to come and gamble with him. I don’t think I even need to tell you that he cheated at cards. He did.

The police did know all this about Jean, but there wasn’t much they could do. However, upon seeing Jeanne, one policeman wrote “he will certainly try to barter her to his own advantage, but one must admit him to be a connoisseur – his merchandise is always of fine quality.”

The comte Du Barry did seem particularly charmed by Jeanne, though. He began to introduce Jeanne as her mistress, and he sent her off to a great deal of notable men – the most notable of which was probably Cardinal Richelieu, who would later be one of her defenders at court.

However, it was only a man who didn’t want to sleep with Jeanne that led to her becoming the King’s mistress.

 When Jean sent Jeanne to met with Minister Choiseul, who promptly dismissed her claiming “she was not at all to my taste.”

Jeanne later had Choiseul exiled.

Disappointed, Jeanne decided to watch the King as he walked from Mass to dinner. This wasn’t uncommon at the time, crowds would gather to do so.

At this point, Louis was 53. He was still considered very handsome, but he was in a deep depression, brought on from the nearly simultaneous deaths of his beloved Madame de Pompadour and his Queen. France was also deeply in debt, and he felt that he had lost the love of his subjects. He was also deeply disappointed by the Dauphin (Louis XVI) who had proved himself to be overweight, unattractive, not bright, and shockingly socially inept. But a really good lock maker. (Louis XV might have been more sympathetic if he knew that by today’s standards Louis XVI is commonly thought to have had Asperger’s).

Basically, Louis XV was in a position where he needed a whole lot of love.

And Jeanne du Barry was willing to provide it.

He apparently caught sight of her in the crowd and fell immediately in love.

Joan Haslip writes in Madame du Barry, the Wages of Beauty, that “King Louis was bewitched at first site of that lovely smiling face, so singularly pure and innocent, on which all her sordid experiences had left not a trace.”

I have no idea how that works. Suffice to say, he instructed his valet, Lebel, to bring her to him. Lebel wondered if she was to be an addition for Le Parc aux Cerfs (the deer park) where Louis housed a number of younger women (Madame Pompadour had, half jokingly, suggested he put together a house for his young women. He did so, and following her death, made great use of it). The weirdest depiction of it might be from this 1934 film called Madame du Barry:


Louis XV explained to Lebel that he was in love. Lebel attempted to explain Madame du Barry’s past to him – she was well known by that time. It made no difference to Louis. He immediately took her to Versailles and installed her there as maitress en titre.

The specific way in which he went about doing this – catching sight of a beautiful woman from a distance, deciding he was in love at first sight, installing her as his mistress immediately – seems to bear so many similarities to Louis’s relationship with Madame de Pompadour that I wonder whether or not Louis was trying to recreate her on some level. If that was his intention, he was not terribly successful.

I mean, this is a Cinderella story, except for how everything that comes afterwards is awful.

Madame du Barry, for all she had met with aristocrats, was not well versed in the ways of court life. Moreover, while the king may not have known her history, everyone else seemed to.

I know that this may not really seem problematic – hey, Du Barry was the King’s mistress! She could buy all the fans and feathers she wanted now! – but Madame du Barry really did not ask to come to a place where everyone hated her. Again, they would have hated anyone, because no one would compare to Pompadour, but, given that her background had been one of a shopgirl and prostitute, Madame du Barry just didn’t even have a chance. And they just attacked her relentlessly.

Du Barry’s manners were immediately shown to be brazen and out of place in the court. I mean, she got an African boy to parade around after her dressed up in a turban holding the train of her dress. This would be kind of like if someone moved into the – where is someplace respectable – the White House and did that. Oh, she had the boy wear a pink velvet jacket. Seriously. Add that into that image in your head.

And she wore diamonds, everywhere. Not that diamonds weren’t popular – the Queen wore them on the soles of her shoes – but the Queen wore them on the soles of her shoes. You weren’t supposed to drip with them.

I think, remarkably, du Barry was never remotely ashamed of her upbringing. She was one of those people who can stroll into a black tie party in blue jeans and exclaim “please, I don’t want everyone to apologize for being over-dressed!”

This was not necessarily beneficial at that time.

While Pompadour had been tutored in the intricate, almost symbolic language of the Court, Louis sent no such teachers for Madame du Barry. Thus she can’t really be faulted for not knowing what was an was not appropriate – and it helps to remember that Versailles was a place where even certain words – like “cadeau” instead of “present” – were never spoken because they were seen as belonging to peasants. And it wasn’t like a “rich people say ‘sofa’, poor people say ‘couch'” thing. The word “cadeau” was never spoken. 

Up until du Barry “dressing an African boy up in costume and making him run after you” was probably never considered.

Poor du Barry. She couldn’t even walk right. The “Versailles Walk” perfected by ladies at court required taking tiny little running half steps, so it always appeared as though women were gliding rather than actually stepping. Du Barry was incredibly vain about her foot size and insisted on wearing shoes a size too small so she was often seen stumbling through the halls.

Cinderella’s slippers: they did not fit.

I know Louis was getting old and sick and tired by this point, but I still think it’s a bit unforgivable that he did nothing to help her out.

Well, that’s not quite fair. He did get her married to Jean du Barry’s brother, which gave her an authentic title of Countess, and he designed a coat of arms for her.

 And all of the vitriol aimed towards her low-breeding and ineptitude in the ways of court life would have been easy to dismiss except, as with Madame de Pompadour, Jeanne had to be presented at Court. In order to do that, she needed an aristocratic lady to sponsor her, and there was not a single woman who was willing to volunteer. The King was eventually able to enlist someone, but she balked before the presentation. He was then able to enlist someone else – she balked too. It took three tries to get Madame du Barry actually presented at Court with the King backing her.

And the mockery only intensified.

People began to joke that the only way for Louis XV to salvage his reputation would be to marry the Archduchess Elisabeth of Austria – one of Maria Theresa’s daughters who was known for being especially intelligent and witty, though smallpox had ruined her looks.

Startlingly obscene verses were composed about du Barry – including one novelette called “Vie de Bourbonaisse” which details, well, it probably actually details a lot of stuff that actually happened. Choiseul, who disapproved of Madame du Barry violently thought that he could turn Louis’s daughters to his side and perhaps have Madame du Barry removed from court, but the verses being circulated were too vulgar to share with them. So he enlisted a group of court gentlemen to compose less obscene poems which could be sent on to the Princesses. One runs:

Lisette, you adorn
The world where you reign
Though the Duchesses show scorn
And the Princesses complain
We know Venus was born
On the foam of a main

Incidentally, I’d share the more obscene poems with you, but no biography seems willing to share them with me.

And, while she did ultimately have Coiseul exiled, other humiliations continued. A common complaint at court about Jeanne was that she had no sense of humor – and Madame Pompadour was famously funny – but I do think it’s pretty hard to be witty when everyone is laughing at you.

The Comte de Lauraguais performed one practical joke which Madame du Barry wrote that she found especially wounding, as she had considered him a friend. He took a woman to Versailles who he introduced as the Countess de Tonneau. Over the day, it became clear to everyone that the “Countess de Tonneau” was a prostitute from one of the most celebrated brothels in Paris. When it became clear, the Comte said he thought they were in fashion, now.

WHY WAS EVERYONE SO MEAN TO HER? She just wanted a little African page to wear a turban, and hold her parasol. There’s nothing wrong with that. Except a lot of things, but you know, it’s fine. IT’S FINE, JEANNE. YOU’RE FREE TO BE YOU.

Her most powerful enemy, though, wasn’t Lauraguais or Choiseul, it was Marie Antoinette.

It’s possible that Marie Antoinette hated du Barry because minister Choiseul had been instrumental in arranging Marie Antoinette’s marriage to Louis XVI.

It’s possible that Madame du Barry laughed at some story told slandering Marie Antoinette’s mother (really. This was supposedly something she did that enraged Marie Antoinette).

It’s possible that, if people at Court made some allowances for du Barry’ presence, it was largely due to the fact that they knew that the King was still mourning Madame de Pompadour. Marie Antoinette, new to court from Austria, and only a teenager, had no such knowledge.

Or it’s possible that Marie Antoinette just thought that du Barry was unspeakably vulgar. This seems possible because Marie Antoinette certainly declared this enough to everyone.

Madame du Barry tried to befriend the Queen the only way she knew how – by sending her diamonds. Marie Antoinette sent back a message saying that she (Marie Antoinette) already had quite enough. Moreover, she told the court that she was not going to say a single word to Madame du Barry. Which was unfortunate, as it immediately estranged her from King Louis XV, whose advice might have been useful to the young queen at Court. It’s odd – people periodically said mean things about Pompadour, and the King was very lenient with them, but he was wildly protective of du Barry.

Marry Antoinette was eventually convinced to talk to du Barry. At Court, during a ball to celebrate the New Year, Marie Antoinette said only one sentence to du Barry, which ran “there are a lot of people at Versailles today.”

Whether Marie Antoinette meant that simply as an observation, or a dig at du Barry’s common background, you can decide for yourself.

Soon after that, Louis XV fell victim to smallpox. Before he died her renounced Madame du Barry, saying that he would always have tender feelings o friendship towards her. Those tender feelings did not last long since he died almost immediately afterwards.

Following his death only 15 aristocrats visited Madame du Barry with their respects, and Marie Antoinette forever afterwards referred to the people who had as “one of those 15 carriages.” Amusingly, when her brother, Emperor Joseph – who quite liked du Barry – went to visit Marie Antoinette to offer sex advice on how she and Louis XVI might produce an heir, he referred to himself as “the sixteenth carriage.”

Jeanne du Barry left Versailles weeping in such a way that even Marie Antoinette was said to have remarked – sincerely – that it was obvious she loved the King. And then Marie Antoinette had her exiled from Court.

Madame du Barry went to live at the Château de Louveciennes. She had a few affairs – one particularly awful one with Henry Seymour who ended the affair by sending her a portrait with “leave me alone” written on the bottom – and remained there until the revolution. Since she didn’t pay much attention to affairs of state, du Barry did not know about the revolution until a mob of angry citizens chopped off the head of one of her lover’s and brought it to her door.

Which was surprising, as, by all account, du Barry had been very kind to the villagers. The portrait painter Madame Vigee-Lebrun wrote in her memoirs that:

She did a lot of good at Louveciennes, where all the poor people were helped by her.  We often went together to visit some unfortunates, and I still remember the fury into which she flew, one day, at the home of a poor woman who had just given birth and was in need of everything.  “What is this,” said Madame du Barry, “you have been sent neither linen, nor wine, nor broth?” “Alas! nothing, Madame.”  We returned immediately to the chateau; Madame du Barry summoned her housekeeper and the other servants who had failed to carry out her orders.  I cannot tell you how she stormed at them, as she commanded them to make up a packet of linen in front of her, which she made them take to the sick woman immediately, with broth and Bordeaux wine.

Remarkably, she was able to flee to England – and, more remarkably (stupid, stupid, stupid) returned to France. She was immediately arrested for crimes against the revolution. Thinking she could save her life by revealing the location of her considerable jewelry collection, she told her jailers where to find them, saying, at least, “does not each word give me a second of time?”

Not enough time, as it turned out.

She is largely remembered today for the scene she made before she was guillotined. At a time when stoicism was expected of aristocrats on their way to death, Madame du Barry screamed, wept, and implored the crowd to help her, asking why they wanted to hurt her. Her last words to the executioner were “encore, un moment!” (one more moment). I cannot imagine what it is that made Madame du Barry want to live so desperately – her life was one fraught with abandonment and cruelty – but she did. She really did.

Dostoyevsky wrote of her execution in The Idiot and said:

After all this honour and glory, after having been almost a Queen, she was guillotined by that butcher, Samson. She was quite innocent, but it had to be done, for the satisfaction of the fishwives of Paris. She was so terrified, that she did not understand what was happening. But when Samson seized her head, and pushed her under the knife with his foot, she cried out: ‘Wait a moment! wait a moment, monsieur!’ Well, because of that moment of bitter suffering, perhaps the Saviour will pardon her other faults, for one cannot imagine a greater agony.

Dostoyevsky captures this so beautifully, but this is what I always remember about her:

When she was at Versailles, Madame du Barry had a pet bird she named Fifi. Never happy in its cage, Fifi was constantly trying to escape by flinging itself against the sides. One day, Madame du Barry came home to see that it had bashed its head in against the walls of its cage and died. Madame du Barry claimed she was that bird. She had it entombed in a glass pyramid.

Poor Madame du Barry. There was never, I don’t think, a period when she got to be happy, even if the King did love her. She tried so hard to get out of that cage, and she only succeeded in having her head lopped right off. Sometimes people are more fascinating for their failures than their successes. All that said, I think we come to the final question which is…

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Additional reading:

Madame du Barry: The Wages of Beauty

The Book of Courtesans, A Catalog of their Virtues

Memoirs of the Comtesse du Barry, with Minute Details of Her Entire Career as Favorite of Louis XV