Less Brains than Beauty

March 5, 2012

madame grande

Catherine Noele Verlée (or Worlée) practically assembled all the standard qualities which made a women of her age (we’re speaking about the late 1700’s and Napoleon’s Empire) if not maîtresse-en-titre  for the plump, slightly obtuse King Louis XVI (yes, Marie Antoinette’s cuckold) least a celebrated courtesan rivaling the reputations of Madame de Pompadour and Madame de Montespan through her genuine beauty so fitted in the canons by which women were considered good-catches. As you can independently judge in the portrait positioned above, Catherine had the allure galore, a sylph grace and quite an experience with sensual games, counting the vixen expression on her apparently saintly face, features that impel one to the higher echelons. Alas, she lacked the sole characteristic unanimously met in successful mistresses: a sharp mind ambitiously set on ascension. In fact, her contemporaries say, Catherine was your average goose, anecdotes underlining her stupidity circling around Parisian society with great speed; Louise Vigée Le Brun, the very painter who did the work previously seen, registered a rather awkward moment when Catherine, then wife of respectable M. Talleyrand, giving a dinner for reputed traveler Vivant Denon, was asked by her husband to take a certain book from his library and read extracts from their guest’s adventures in Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign. Surely the pathetic goof could do nothing but grab the wrong volume, embarrassingly reciting a “lengthy portion of the adventures of Robinson Crusoe” and, to top it properly, state such aberration like: “Ah! monsieur, with what pleasure I have just read about your trip! How interesting it is, especially when you meet poor Friday!”… epic fail. God knows how pitiful Talleyrand reacted or if the story was even true… We’re all familiar with the incorrect words put in Marie Antoinette’s mouth (“let them eat cake”, seriously?!) so we can’t fully believe Catherine was dumb enough to identify Denon with Robinson Crusoe or, as often attributed to our silly girl, declare “je suis d’Inde” (I am from India), a phrase easily construed as “je suis dinde” (I am a turkey). She might’ve been uneducated and thick, yet it’s nearly impossible for a statesman like Talleyrand to marry a complete imbecile, thus, most likely, all the negative rumors aimed to diminish his esteem than chronicle the funny mistakes of a vain beauty (nasty French gossipers!).

Either way, Catherine never reached her maximum potential, fame.

Born November 21, 1761, at Karikal Indies Danes in a small French enclave which was about seven miles from the Danish colony of Tranquebar. Daughter of Pierre Werlée, captain of the port not far from Pondicherry and Chandernagore Chevalier de Saint-Louis (his mother, Laurence Allamay, was originally from the Dutch Flanders, and belonged to the gentry) Catherine was obliged to brush a bit the dates in her birth certificate, requested at the time of marriage with Talleyrand under the Consulate, rejuvenating with two years and Christianizing  “Nancy” (her original name)  in “Noëlle”, while the “Verlée” became “Worlée”.  She was smart enough to do that, credit it, please.

At fourteen, “Kate” as she was fondly called, is noted in the local high society garden parties, particularly in M. Chevalier’s, the Governor of Chandernagore. Deemed to be the “most beautiful woman of Calcutta”, tall, blond, like a nymph, our girl was stately and had infinite grace to compensate her naivete,  inspiring the painter John Zoffani to pack her in a blue-green sari and make a portrait which dates back to 1780, probably being completed on the eve of her departure for Europe. She quite seemed the equivalent of Scarlett O’Hara at the beginning of “Gone with the Wind”, the young shrewd maid flaunting her generously endowed body under the wrinkled noses of rich bourgeois. Ghyretti House, the residence of M. Chevalier, was apparently her favorite scene because there she met  her first hubby in the person of M. Georges-Francois Grand, belonging to a family of Vaudois Lausanne, born in Surrey by a mother of Norman origin ( to make him a profile). He had arrived in India in 1776 as an employee of the East India Company (which turned him in an acceptable match), had little time enough to be at ease, leading a life in luxury and idleness  with his friend Sir Waren Hastings, governor of Calcutta (friend with good positions, see where she aimed?). The young man asked the hand of Kate, which was granted without problems, after his appointment as Secretary of the Committee of salts (note: not a minute before). The couple married in Hoogly House July 10, 1777 and settled in a large villa near Halipore, with many servants and a garden paradise, a second Hanging Gardens of Babylon for the picky belle.


And courtesy to M. Grand’s English habits of spending his private time in Clubs without worrying about Kate’s home-alone state, she had enough spare time to do what women love most after jewels: cheat, the oldest hobby in the world.

She had her overly potent lover, Sir Phillip Francis, director of the Government of Bengal, enter her rooms through a rope ladder, quite Renaissance style, and ride our beauty till dawn, when Grand (who ironically wasn’t at all that “grand”), very drunk, sleepy and amazingly gullible, came home to rest in the conjugal bed generously kept warm by their little games, suspecting nothing, like the sympathetic, naive guy he was. The arrangement went unexpectedly well for some good months but, alas, one of those accidental happenings depicted in the best Greek comedies unraveled the whole business with a tam-tam specific to Hollywood soap operas, irremediably compromising Catherine’s reputation of faithful broad.

On the evening of Tuesday, December 8, 1778, while he dined at the tavern “Le Gallais,” a nosy fellow burst in to caution that Sir Francis had been seen climbing a rope ladder to his wife’s chamber and was allegedly still there doing…things.

The perfect set for a funny scene containing a Tom&Jerry chase blended with fine quality adulterous affairs.

M. Grand angrily arose from the table, took him as witness, and went straight home just to find three men, firmly tied to a chair, the servants explaining they were mounting guards at the time when M. Philip Francis tried to get out of Catherine’s place and attempted to detain him by force to prove his crime. Madame Grand, however, frightened, opened the window and hysterically shouted “For God’s sake, help, they want to assassinate him!” Coincidentally, a friend of Philip, Mr. George Shee, was in the vicinity of the villa and, assisted by two guests at the manor near by,lords Archdekin and Shore, came to lend support to his desperate pal. Sir Philip was able to evaporate while the three men came to the rescue were tied to chairs in his place.

An agitated night full of false hopes as Philip didn’t actually prevailed but was summoned to trial by the fuming cuckold. Despite accusing M. Grand to have mounted a trap to his political injury, in fact bluffing,  justice has been truly made and he was sentenced to pay a not-so-insignificant fine of 50,000 rupees, the fair price for being negligent in such dangerous liaisons.

Naturally, the two husbands never saw each other, though she wasn’t legally divorced until 1798.

Kate lived for several months on her parent’s domain at Chandernagore but the life there became so monotonous and dull she jumped at the first opportunity to move with Philip, though, amusingly, he continued stating they were sharing nothing but platonic love which fooled his credulous wife to a certain extent (she always pleaded his innocence…) but was obviously mocked by society. This pleasant intimacy lasted no more than a year, to November 1780, Catherine deciding India was no longer a sufficient playground and embarking for Europe together with a Mackintosh.No strings attached.

After living for some weeks in London, during the Season, of course she couldn’t refrain visiting the fashionable Paris with Caroline, the young Indian woman who served her, an obligatory accessory for the chic woman of 18th century, and, mesmerized by the vivid city with its numerous promising distractions, she settled there, evidently sustained by a pretty alimony her darling husband never ceased to provide.

She rented a smart house in Rue Sentier from an idle M. de Presle and shorty became the convenient crush of many rich neighbors like soon to be Minister of the Legislative, M. Valdec de Lessart, a stockbroker’s attorney with a suggestive name, Rilliet- Plantamour and Louis Monneron, banker and deputy. They contributed to her expensive tastes and records show she relished every bit of the French experience, buying tons of silk ribbons, fox furs, shoes, ostrich feathers and sparkly jewels, owning a carriage lead by white horses to make constant trips to Versailles, renting an Opera box where people could admire her brand new gowns and even giving a ball the papers discussed about for weeks. The satin and silver symphony of a dress was, needless to say, bought by her enthusiastic wooer, M. Lessart.

Not long before, Marie Antoinette’s favorite painter, Mme. Le Brun, who lived at the Hotel de Lubert when in town, not far from her Rue Sentier residence, had done her fabulous portrait and, most likely, the party was arranged majorly to publicly display it, after which she sent it to the biennial exhibition of painting and sculpture in 1783, where it enjoyed great appreciation.

Meanwhile, Kate was leading a comfortable life, in 1782, Valdec de Lessart securing, for his beloved, an annual pension of 800 pounds, which she supplied the capital, amounting to 8,800 pounds. Those funds were undoubtedly intended to give her the chance to wait for the first proceeds of dividends as a shareholder of the East India Company, obtained after separation by mutual agreement with her husband in 1778. Madame Grand had many suitors that were buzzing around like the Count of Chabrillan, son of Madame des Verdeilhan Forniels, and Nicolas de Lessart, only son of Mme de Valdec Lessart who seemed unfaithful to his official mistress, Mme de Flaghac, born O ‘ Morphy, formerly known at the Parc aux Cerfs by the nickname of Morphise Mlle.

Tired by the small house on Rue Sentier, Mme Grand moved on Rue d’Artois n. 13, in a rented building with a garden at 4,200 pounds a year, which suggests that its revenues had increased considerably and her beautiful eyes kept deceivingly charming the unfortunate suitors, which kind of gained her a courtesan’s reputation. Born in an anglophone family, to correct her grammatical mistakes and prevent being laughed at (which she couldn’t stop, in the end), Catherine hired a master teacher. And to complete her cultivated facade, she spread Voltaire and Jean Jacques Rousseau volumes across her rooms, surely without reading them.

Revolution almost didn’t touch her as she was very flexible and instantly adopted the tricolor cockade but the massacre she attended to, a poor Swiss slaughtered by the heated mob exiting from Tuilleries before her dazzled stare, scared Kate enough to run to Dover where she seduced a young naval cadet, Nathaniel Belcher, to recuperate her things from Paris.

She remained in London a while, yet the English traditionalist society didn’t welcome her and, after the fall of Robespierre , she returned to the French capital, now peaceful, although her name still figured on the list of emigres, at the arm of her Genoese lover, M. Spinola. The two were arrested, he was deported, and Mme Grand remained under close police scrutiny. At a point indicted of espionage, Madame de Stael’s protege, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand (1754-1838), an old acquaintance from the Versailles court, freshly made Minister of Foreign Affairs,came to her assistance and wrote to a member of the Directoire, Barras: “She is Indian, very beautiful, very lazy, the most frivolous woman I have ever known. I ask for your interest on her behalf.”


Naturally, having him fight for her cause with all diplomatic means, the Government dropped Kate’s charges and she was able to stay in Talleyrand’s bed at the official Minister of Foreign Affairs house, which, if we judge by the indignant complains the concubinary couple received from their guests, was a very uninspired idea. The jealous wives of more Ambassadors felt offended a woman of Catherine’s “morals” should live in such a formal place, making a public figure like Talleyrand lapse in her sins, and reported them at the First Consul.

But Kate, however silly and indolent, had her tricks to play: she practically stormed at Josephine, who was pretty fond of her, and made one of those scenes which either leave one senseless or incite him to react in your favor. For the irresistible Kate it was nothing to convince the reasonable Josephine plead her case as Talleyrand had become her only supporter and the sole key to her success.


Luckily, the benevolent Empress did even more, obtaining the crying Mme. Grand an audience with Bonaparte, where she was forced to accept legalizing their relationship or beak up, an ultimatum Talleyrand didn’t think twice, hasting to chain himself with the restrains of marriage by taking a woman who was not only reckless but also badly reputed and almost forty. Everything was in his disatvantage, yet he agreed.

A divorce was obtained, and Grand (remember him?) received a handsome stipend and was packed off on a permanent mission to the Cape of Good Hope.

The couple was then free to join their destinies and didn’t hesitate:on September 9, 1802, the nuptials were celebrated in the presence of the First Consul and Mme Bonaparte with Count Pierre Louis Roederer (1754-1835) as witness. She thus gained the title of Grand Princess Mme de Talleyrand, and, when in 1806 Napoleon appointed her husband Prince of Benevento, Kate moved to Valençay, the castle her sweet hubby purchased to celebrate.

By forcing the aristocratic Talleyrand, a former Bishop of the Roman Catholic Church, to marry a divorced woman, a previously suspected spy, and a courtesan, Bonaparte thought he was insuring the loyalty of his opportunistic Minister. And, indeed, with this marriage, Talleyrand lost all his political ambitions, in addition annihilating the last remnants of affection he had shared with his ex-mistress. It was far from being a win-win situation.

Kate could not reach Mme Récamier’s status and was, complementary, growing exceedingly stout, threatening to age disgracefully to Talleyrand’s displeasure, who began searching satisfaction in the arms of younger companions.He sought to distance her from ceremonials and bureaucratic issues to avoid gossips but she loved luxury and openly dwelt in it so the whole Paris talked of her follies.

Nevertheless, when the Empire fell, in part because of Talleyrand’s scheming, she was still performing her duties as wife of the Minister and this state of affairs lasted until her husband went off to the Congress of Vienna with his beautiful niece in tow. It was the ultimate sign her charms had faded so, humiliated,  outraged, she left Paris for London, then went to Brussels before settling again to the north of Paris, at Pont-de-Sains. With the passage of time, she became devoutly religious and a fanatic royalist just to trouble her stressed husband more. Talleyrand obliged her to hide her convictions in London for a brief perieod, needless to add on his expense, but she couldn’t refrain returning to the city she most preferred.


He must’ve breathed a sigh of relief when, on December 10, 1834, at her Rue de Lille residence, Kate, aged 73, finally died.

Of course, she had to incite a concluding incident that occurred at her bedside. Paris papers didn’t give it importance yet the story was published by the English newspapers which say the Princess de Talleyrand, during her terrible agony, had given the archbishop of Paris for a sealed box for the Countess Esclignac.He attempted to deliver the mandate but then came an officer of the Prince who claimed it. A violent quarrel arose on the spot and justice had to intervene.

Juicy. What was in that case if the incident recounted is true? Could it be papers the Prince de Talleyrand wanted to destroy, perchance documents relating to Elisa-Alix-Sara, said Charlotte, who was born in London October 4, 1799, of unknown parents, supposed to be Talleyrand’s daughter with Kate, born before its time? We may never know. The instance decided the Countess of Esclignac was to receive 200,000 francs in exchange for the mysterious box and, since then, it completely vanished.

Catherine was buried on December 12, 1834 at the Montparnasse Cemetery, her funeral conducted in the presence of Pierre-Mathieu and Charles Goussot Demon (Talleyrand’s agent), friends of the dead, quite poorly.

She had been living quite resplendently, brazen,lavishly, ingenuous and abundantly, satisfied with what she got but we can only wonder: would’ve she done more if she hadn’t had less brains than beauty?

Contemporary voices called her “la Belle et la Bête réunies en une seule personne”…


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