I am happy to welcome back David Burke and his Writers in Paris column. Today's story is a juicy one.
In the summer of 1841 the young Charles Baudelaire’s mother and his hated stepfather, General Aupick, sent him on a voyage to India. They hoped that a long absence from France would make the young man forget about becoming a poet. But after three months, he jumped ship in Mauritius and made his way back to France. With his twenty-first birthday approaching, he was eager to get his hands on his inheritance from his late father’s estate.
In March 1842, a month before reaching his majority, he moved to the Île Saint-Louis, to the house at No. 22 quai de Béthune, where a plaque marks his stay. He received his legacy the following month and immediately plunged into a dandified Bohemian style of life, spending freely at the finest tailor shops, and buying paintings and objets d’art. And as befit a young man of means, he also took a mistress. She was Jeanne Duval, “La Venus Noire,” the illegitimate daughter of a mulatto prostitute from the West Indies, and a bit-part player in a vaudeville house when he met her. He installed her in a nearby flat at No. 6 rue le Regrattier. She was a drinker, a drug user, and an unfaithful woman, without heart or mind by most accounts, who held him in the trap of his sexual attraction to her during their tempestuous twenty-year-long affair. “The strange thing about Woman, her preordained fate,” as Baudelaire would later write, “is that she is simultaneously the sin and the Hell that punishes it.” But Jeanne Duval also inspired some of his finest poems, such as “Parfum exotique”:
“Warm autumn nights when, eyes closed, I breath
The scent of your welcoming breast
I see spreading out before me happy shores
Drunk on the fire of a monotonous sun”
In June 1843 he moved to the magnificent seventeenth-century Hôtel Lauzun at No. 17 quai d’Anjou. Impeccably restored, this gem of a grand siécle mansion is one of the most beautiful in Paris. But in Baudelaire’s day, writers and artists lived in it. His three-room flat was on the top floor, rear. He continued to play the dandy, supporting his mistress and ripping through his inheritance at a breath-taking pace. Yet, as Théophile Gautier, another writer in residence, observed, “An English coldness seemed to him the height of good taste.” Both were members of the Hashish Eaters Club, which met in the grand salon. Some dipped heavily into the jar of jellied green substance passed around during the meal, but Baudelaire was not one of them, despite his well-merited reputation as an opium user years later.
Young women came to the soirées, most notably the bright, gorgeous artists’ model Apollonie Sabatier. Then in her early twenties, she was at the peak of her physical beauty. Baudelaire’s poem “L’Invitation au voyage” (‘Luxe, calme, et volupté’) was inspired by her.
But by the summer of 1844 Baudelaire had run through half of his inheritance. To prevent him from squandering the rest, his mother and stepfather obtained a court order placing his legacy under the control of an administrator. A frugal person could have lived comfortably on his monthly allowance, but not Baudelaire. For the rest of his life he would systematically blow his stipend, borrow money, and beg his mother to cover his debts.
In June 1845 he wrote a suicide note and tried, not very convincingly, to kill himself with a knife. His mother responded by moving him into her and General Aupick’s residence on the Place Vendôme.
Baudelaire’s three glorious years on the Île Saint-Louis were at an end.
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