In an 18th century Paris absolutely bursting with amazing characters, few if any could match Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. His life reads like a picaresque novel. Born in 1732, the son of a clockmaker in Paris, he was clockmaker to the court of Versailles at twenty-two, thanks to an ingenious invention that made watches run on time. Two years later he married a wealthy aristocratic widow and added “de Beaumarchais” to his name. In rapid succession he became harp teacher to the Louis XV’s daughters, a royal financier, secret agent, arms dealer, inveterate pamphleteer, publisher of the complete works of Voltaire when they were officially banned, founder of the Société des Auteurs Dramatiques to protect the rights of playwrights, and most famously a playwright himself, writing two of the finest and most important plays of the 18th century, The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro.
In the spring of 1775, two months after his first big hit with The Barber of Seville, Beaumarchis was sent to London as a secret agent by the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Throughout the year he developed close relations with Americans and anti-George III English supporters of American independence in London. He came to genuinely believe in the cause, but also saw the rebellion as a great chance to capitalize on England’s distress. In reports passed on to Louis XVI, he argued for French military support for the Americans. But Louis was afraid it would lead to war with England. To get around that, the king’s advisors convinced him to allow it by clandestine means. Beaumarchais was chosen to set up and run the operation.
On October 6, 1776, he moved to the Hôtel des Ambassadeurs de Hollande, a splendid 1660 mansion at No. 47 Rue Vieille du Temple in the Marais, home to his undercover business, and began buying canons, rifles, and all sorts of other military supplies and leasing ships to transport them. In the spring of 1777 he shipped enough weapons, gunpowder, and other supplies to equip 25,000 men. They would prove crucial to the defeat of the British and surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga in October -- the first victory for the Americans and the turning point of the war. Convinced now that the rebels could win, France began openly began shipping a massive flow of arms and materiel and committed the all-import involvement of the French navy, leading eventually to the victory at Yorktown.
In 1778, while the arms business was still going on, Beaumarchais wrote the most important French play of the 18th century, The Marriage of Figaro, but the government censors saw its mockery of the exorbitant privileges of the aristocracy as dangerous and refused to let it be performed. But after six years of royal foot-dragging, Louis XVI, who had once declared “This play will never go on,” finally caved in to pressure from Marie-Antoinette and others who had read it. On April 27, 1784, at the Comédie-Française’s big new 1,900-seat Théâtre de l’Odéon, The Marriage of Figaro finally had its premiere.
In it, the valet Figaro outsmarts his master Count Almaviva and holds him, and by inference, his whole class in contempt:
Because you are a great nobleman you think you are a great genius … Nobility, fortune, rank, position! How proud they make a man feel! What have you done to deserve such advantages? Put yourself to the trouble of being born -- nothing more!
The play was a smash hit. Even the aristocrats had to laugh at the mirror Beaumarchais held to their faces -- only five years before the Revolution.
Vestiges of Beaumarchais in Paris:
In 1787 (a year after Mozart’s version of Figaro opened in Vienna) Beaumarchais bought a large piece of land fronting on what is now Nos. 2 through 20 Boulevard Beaumarchais and built an Italianate villa and magnificent gardens. He died in 1799 (the plaque in his honor at No. 2 has him dying nine years too early) and was buried in a simple, non-religious tomb in his garden. But in 1825 the government appropriated Beaumarchais’s property to run the Canal Saint-Martin through it (the canal runs under the esplanade of the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir, where the open market is held on Sundays).
Beaumarchais’s remains were transferred to the Père-Lachaise Cemetery. Sadly, the soft stone of his tomb has deteriorated badly and is hard to locate. Half of the Beaumarchais name has chipped away. Fortunately his birth name of Caron is clear to read.
In the Marais, a vigorous bronze statue of Beaumarchais stands on Rue Saint-Antoine at the foot of Rue des Tournelles, near the Place de la Bastille.
The charming Hôtel Caron de Beaumarchais at No. 12 Rue Vieille du Temple in the Marais, down the street from the Hôtel des Ambassadeurs de Hollande where he ran his gun-running operation, is a mini-museum of the time of our hero.
Vestiges of Beaumarchais on line:
For a fascinating historical account entitled “Beaumarchais and the American Revolution” researched by by the CIA go to: https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/kent csi/vol14no1/html/v14i1a01p_0001.htm
David Burke is the author of Writers in Paris, Literary Lives in the City of Light, and the personal tour guide of David Burke’s Writers in Paris Walks. To learn about the book and the walks and the writer go to www.writersinparis.com. David is also a documentary filmmaker and former 60 MINUTES writer/producer who came to Paris for what he thought would be a year, but turned into more twenty. He now divides his time between Paris and New York.
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I am happy to announce the launch of Eye Prefer Paris Cooking Classes. Come take an ethnic culinary journey with me and chef and caterer Charlotte Puckette, co-author of the bestseller The Ethnic Paris Cookbook (with Olivia Kiang-Snaije). First we will shop at a Paris green-market for the freshest ingredients and then return to Charlotteís professional kitchen near the Eiffel Tower to cook a three-course lunch. After, we will indulge in the delicious feast we prepared along with hand-selected wines.
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