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The Lives and Loves of French Mistresses and Their Masters

Over drinks Sunday evening with author David Downie (“Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light,” Transatlantic Press, 9/2005), the conversation transitioned from discussing former French president François Mitterand’s “follies” now that we’ve just passed the 10th anniversary of Mitterrand’s death (January 8, 1996), to Mitterand’s “mistresses.” The “follies” being the “Grands Projets” he left on the Paris landscape — the Pyramide du Louvre, the Bibliothèque Nationale, the Arche de la Défense and the Opéra de la Bastille. In Downie’s recent book, his essay titled appropriately “François’ Follies” scoffs at his attempts to position himself in our memories as “‘Pharaoh,’ ’emperor’ and ‘king.'”

Although these monuments may have left an undeniable mark by Mitterand, for all their assets and liabilities on which each of us seems to have an opinion, what comes first to my mind is the scene at his funeral when under a steady drizzle, Mitterrand’s wife Danielle and their two sons stood side-by-side with the ex-President’s natural daughter Mazarine and his longtime mistress Anne Pingeot. The next day, the picture of wife and mistress on the front pages of the press caused outrage amongst the French, not because of the spectacle but that the media had intruded on such a private affair! To top it off, Mazarine is apparently now changing her name to Mazarine Pingeot-Mitterand, as she announced two weeks ago in an interview on France 2.

Juxtapose this with the U.S. scandal when former President Bill Clinton dared to deny his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, and caused moral outrage across the country. Headlines here in Europe presented it as prudish: “To world-wise, sophisticated Europeans, the spectacle is a curious sideshow and another reason to mock and disdain the puritan morals of their American counterparts.” (Andreas Gerstlauer) I must admit, we here on this side of the Atlantic got a good chuckle from what seemed an absurdly bad use of time, money and media.

The role of the mistress in France has always been something of a celebrated institution. Being a king’s official mistress had great compensations. Louis XV’s mistress for 20 years, Madame de Pompadour, was installed in a sumptuous purpose-built apartment in the Palace of Versailles, adorned with great works of art. Wikipedia, the online free encyclopedia, notes French royal mistresses like a laundry list to include such revered women as Diane de Poitiers, mistress of Henry II and Madame du Barry, mistress of Louis XV.

But what’s good for the gander is good for the goose, no? If French men are openly taking “mistresses,” then are French women openly taking “lovers?” (Thank goodness, we don’t call them “masters!”)

In another of Downie’s essays, Coco Chanel, who was one of France’s greatest fashion queens, writes that she was “…a man-eater, an extreme conservative/right winger, probably anti-semitic, a friend and lover of Nazis. So, a great mistress, a great designer and a problematic historical figure.” Downie explains, too, that “Unloved, she lived for love.” Her “pet celebrities” included the likes of Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau.

Last week at a reading at The Village Voice English Language Book Store, Hazel Rowley, author of “Tete-a-Tete: the lives and loves of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre,” spoke about this legendary couple and their free-thinking, existentialist, philosophical, notoriously, controversial lives and loves. Beauvoir (affectionately called “the Beaver” by Sartre) and Sartre were equal in their tempestuous affairs while they committed themselves wholeheartedly to one another.

I found it fascinating that when reading through the reviews on Rowley’s latest biography, that the male reviewers took a rather prudish stand: “…their double-dealing mendacity looks better if you hide it behind philosophical jargon…,” while the female reviewers saw the value in their equal relationship: “…a rare attitude at a time when it was frowned on for women to go to cafés, let alone bars. He wouldn’t marry her, but he wanted her to act as freely as he did. They pledged to have an open relationship, in which they would tell each other everything and have other loves, but these would always be ‘secondary,’ while their own was absolute.


In the recent film “Brokeback Mountain,” just released this past week in Paris, whose tagline is “Love Is a Force of Nature,” E. Annie Proulx’s story about a forbidden and secretive relationship between two cowboys and their lives over the years, takes on an even newer definition of “mistress!”

And here I sit as a single woman after more than a decade in France of personal struggles with multitudes of cultural crossings, I ponder the question of how I really feel about fidelity. With Simone de Beauvoir, I must agree: “On the day when it will be possible for woman to love not in her weakness but in strength, not to escape herself but to find herself, not to abase herself but to assert herself — on that day love will become for her, as for man, a source of life…”

A la prochaine…

Adrian Leeds
Editor, Parler Paris
Email [email protected]

P.S. Authors David Downie and photographer wife Alison Harris of “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light” will be speaking about their viewpoint of Paris over dinner at Chez Jenny at the Living and Investing in France Conference on March 18, 2006. Dinner is included in the price of the conference for all attendees, but open to the public, so you are invited to attend. Click here for more details and to register or reserve your place.

P.P.S. Visit /parlerparis/books/index.html to learn more about these authors, their books and how to purchase them online.


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