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  • Gavin Whitehead

Marie Antoinette, The Marriage of Figaro, and the Diamond Necklace Affair (S3BE1)

Updated: May 18



Beaumarchais’s madcap comedy, The Marriage of Figaro, smashed box-office records when it opened in Paris in 1784. The following year, a team of real-life con artists drew inspiration from a crucial scene in the play as they planned—and pulled off—the swindle of the century. Show notes and full transcript below.



Above: A replica of the diamond necklace that Louis XV originally commissioned for his mistress Madame du Barry.


 

SHOW NOTES


A 1785 print depicting Act V of Figaro, created by Jacques Philippe Joseph de Saint-Quentin. This act unfolds in the palace gardens, and a key incident in the Diamond Necklace Affair would similarly play out in the gardens of Versailles.


Jeanne de la Motte, key player in the Diamond Necklace Affair. Her image circulated widely after news of the scandal broke.


Portrait of the Cardinal de Rohan, one of several dupes in the Diamond Necklace Affair.


Portrait of Marie Antoinette in a white muslin dress, a garment she was known to favor. Nicola d'Oliva donned a white muslin dress when she disguised herself as the queen and met with the Cardinal de Rohan in the gardens of Versailles.


 

SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY


---Beaumarchais. The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro. Translated by John Wood. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1964.

---Fraser, Antonia. Marie Antoinette: The Journey. London: Meidenfeld & Nicolson, 2001.


 

TRANSCRIPT


Marie Antoinette was baffled by the letter she held in her hands. It was July 12, 1785. The queen was seated at her desk. The communication was sent by Charles Auguste Boehmer, a leading jeweler in Paris. It read,


Dear Madame,

We are at the summit of happiness to dare to think that the latest arrangements which have been proposed to us and to which we have submitted with zeal and respect, are a new proof of our submission to devotion to the orders of Your Majesty. We have real satisfaction in the thought that the most beautiful set of diamonds in the world will be at the service of the greatest and best of Queens.


Marie Antoinette and Boehmer had done business before but not recently, so what did he mean by “the latest arrangements”? And what set of diamonds was he talking about? Marie Antoinette read the missive aloud to her loyal confidante and First Lady of the Bedchamber, Madame Campan, also in the room. The queen joked that because Campan was so adept at solving brainteasers printed in the newspaper, maybe she could unravel this enigma, too. Madame Campan was just as flummoxed as her mistress, however, and seeing no reason to hold onto the message, Marie Antoinette crumpled it up and set it alight with a candle on her desk. She instructed her maidservant to inform Boehmer that she no intention of purchasing any diamonds. In fact, she never wished to buy from him again.


This was not the last that Marie Antoinette would hear about these diamonds. Before long, all France would hear about them. The gemstones in question would stand at the center of the Diamond Necklace Affair, a scandal that gravely—and unjustly—damaged the queen’s reputation. The French people lapped up plenty of slanderous stories about Marie Antoinette, but they seldom relished tales as juicy as this one. The Diamond Necklace Affair was the product of a conspiracy dreamed up by con artists of the most audacious order. Part of what made the swindle so delectable to the public was that it seemed like a plot from a madcap farce, the kind you watched at a playhouse. Indeed, some observers have suggested that the criminals drew inspiration for their scheme from the runaway theatrical success of the century, The Marriage of Figaro by Beaumarchais. Today, we’ll hear how Beaumarchais’s play made it to the stage despite many setbacks, how the authors of the Diamond Necklace Affair executed their crimes, and how it embroiled the royal family in controversy. This is The Art of Crime, and I’m your host, Gavin Whitehead. Welcome to bonus episode 1 of Queen of Crime . . .


Marie Antoinette, The Marriage of Figaro, and the Diamond Necklace Affair


The Triumph of Figaro


Born on January 24, 1732, Beaumarchais was a polymath who had worked as a watchmaker, inventor, music instructor, revolutionary, spy, and international arms dealer before he went into playwriting. He is best-known for the first two installments in his Figaro trilogy—The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro. Though seldom performed nowadays, these comedies ironically remain famous because they inspired operas that are performed frequently—Rossini’s Barber of Seville and Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.


Beaumarchais’s Marriage of Figaro combines comic ingredients that contemporary playgoers would have recognized: sexual misadventures, crafty servants, feckless masters, clever disguises, and mistaken identity, to name a few examples. In Beaumarchais’s play, the sharp-tongued Figaro, valet to Count Almaviva of Andalusia, is engaged to marry the quick-witted Suzanne, a maid to the Count’s wife. The action kicks off on the day of the servants’ wedding, when Figaro discovers that the Count intends to make Suzanne his mistress. Four-and-half hours of tightly-plotted shenanigans ensue as Suzanne and the Count’s wife team up to thwart the would-be adulterer’s amorous ambitions, humiliating him in the process. The hijinks come to a side-splitting climax in the fifth act, which unfolds after nightfall in a palace garden planted with chestnut trees. Thoroughly fooled by the conspirators, Count Almaviva arrives at the grove prepared for a moonlit tryst with Suzanne. Unbeknownst to him, the woman he meets is not Suzanne but instead his wife disguised as Suzanne. When the Countess reveals herself, Count Almaviva kneels before her, mortified, and begs her forgiveness, which she grants. Harmony reigns as the curtain falls.


Beaumarchais’s comedy is not as frivolous as it may sound. A friend of the American—and later the French—Revolution, he injects a heavy dose of anti-aristocratic sentiment into Act Five. Alone onstage and infuriated by the Count’s advances on Suzanne, Figaro rants, “No, My Lord Count, you shan’t have her, you shall not have her! 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! For the rest—a very ordinary man! Whereas I, lost among the obscure crowd, have had to deploy more knowledge, more calculation and skill merely to survive than has sufficed to rule all the provinces of Spain for a century! Yet you would measure yourself against me . . .” In this soliloquy, Figaro boils over with anger about aristocratic privilege at a time when many French audience members would have shared his frustrations.


Beaumarchais completed the original version of his script in 1778, but it would take six years for the play to reach the stage. In 1781, the august theater, the Comédie-Française, agreed to produce The Marriage of Figaro. However, plays were subject to censorship in France, and Beaumarchais’s comedy would have to make it past the censor before the troupe could put it on. Fortunately, the watchdog of theatrical entertainment gave them the go-ahead, requesting only minor revisions.


Other authorities were less willing to tolerate Figaro. Word had spread as far as Versailles about this devilish little comedy that mocked the nobility. Egged on by Queen Marie Antoinette, Madame Campan obtained a copy of the script and organized a private reading at court. Campan arrived at 3 p.m. for the performance, having dined beforehand since it would take several hours to make it through the text. Louis XVI was also in attendance, and he took offense at the repeated jabs at aristocrats. The reading was punctuated with his cries of indignation. “But that’s monstrous! How dreadful!” Later, he ejaculated, “What bad taste! What terrible taste!” Far from applauding Beaumarchais’s handiwork, the monarch forbade performance of the comedy in public. Marie Antoinette showed no indication of sharing his objections.


Beaumarchais would not give up on having Figaro staged. He made revisions to tone down the satire, transferring the action from France to Spain. Nevertheless, a censor rejected the rewritten script. The sovereign and censor’s disapproval only intensified public interest in the comedy. The king had banned public performances of Figaro, but it remained lawful to hold readings of the script in private. Closed-door readings grew so popular that Parisians regularly boasted of coming from or going to one when they ran into acquaintances. Finally, realizing resistance was futile, Louis relented and authorized public performances of the comedy in 1784.


What followed was a record-setting cultural phenomenon. Never had the theatergoing public of Paris so hotly anticipated an opening night. According to one contemporary, “All Paris from the earliest mounting thronged the doorways of the Theatre Francais, ladies of the highest rank dining in the dressing-rooms of the actresses in order to be sure of their places. The guards were overwhelmed, the doors broken in, the railings gave way before the pressure of the crowds, and when the curtain rose upon the scene, the finest collection of talent the Theatre Français ever possessed was there with but one thought to bring out the best of a comedy, flashing with wit, carrying one away in its movement and audacity which, if it shocked some of the boxes, enflamed and electrified the pit.” Figaro shocked boxes because the wealthiest patrons, some of them no doubt aristocratic, would have occupied those seats. In contrast, it would have electrified the pit because ordinary French people watched the action from this cheaper location. Despite the feathers it ruffled in the boxes, Figaro became the highest-grossing production of the century, running for sixty-eight consecutive performances and bringing in 347,000 livres. (Beaumarchais donated his cut of the proceeds—approximately 41,000 livres—to charity.) His comedy was so beloved that it generated fashion trends. Women waved fans inscribed with Beaumarchais’s verses, while others donned bonnets à la Suzanne, the heroine of the play.


The Diamond Necklace Affair


Suzanne and Countess Almaviva show enormous ingenuity in their plot to ensnare the Andalusian aristocrat. But they might have met their match in Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy, also known as Jeanne de la Motte, the architect of the Diamond Necklace Affair.


Born in 1756, Jeanne grew up the daughter of a prodigal father and a peasant mother. Having suffered a hand-to-mouth childhood, she harbored ambitions of rising above her low station. Her father descended from the illegitimate son of King Henri II of France, a scion of the Valois household who ruled from 1547 to 1559. On his deathbed, Jeanne’s father instructed her never to forget that the blood of a king coursed through her veins, admonishing her not to “dishonor the name.” Like other social climbers, Jeanne haunted the halls of Versailles, always careful to mention her illustrious ancestry. If she sought a private audience with the queen, she never received one. After news of the Diamond Necklace Affair broke, Madame Campan procured a widely distributed engraving of Jeanne and showed it to Marie Antoinette. She had never seen the woman in her life.


In 1780, Jeanne married the gendarme, Nicolas de la Motte. From that point forward, Nicolas adopted the title of Comte and added Valois to his name for good measure. Apparently the free-loving type, the de la Mottes entered a manage à trois with Jeanne’s lover, Rétaux de Villette. Villette had a host of criminal tendencies, including one toward forgery.


Jeanne found use for this particular predilection in 1784 and '85. Around that time, she became mistress to the Cardinal de Rohan, the former French ambassador to Vienna who hailed from a powerful family. De Rohan dreamed of a ministerial appointment but doubted his chances. He had made several crucial remarks about Marie Antoinette’s conduct, remarks that had gotten back to the queen. By 1785, she had not spoken to him for eight full years, and he feared that she would block any effort to appoint him as minister. If he could regain her favor, however, he might have a shot. When Jeanne discovered the cardinal’s aspirations, she wove a web of well-spun lies. Oh, she was, like, constantly at Versailles, kicking it with Marie Antoinette, Madame Elizabeth, and all the other great ladies at court. She’d be happy to put in a good word for him. Soon thereafter, Jeanne delivered a pleasant surprise to the cardinal: a friendly letter form Marie Antoinette. He and the queen began a correspondence, and as they exchanged messages, the tone of hers turned from warm to steamy. The Cardinal was certain that she was falling in lust with him. Of course, Marie Antoinette had not written a word of these love letters—they had streamed from the pen of Rétaux de Villette.


Writing back and forth with the queen was not enough; the Cardinal longed for an in-person meeting. In August 1784, Jeanne helped organize the desired rendezvous. Needless to say, the real Marie Antoinette would not attend. Instead, Jeanne’s husband, the Comte de la Motte, paid a visit to the Palais Royale and requested the services of Nicola d’Oliva, a sex worker who bore a striking resemblance to the queen of France. Veiled by a headdress and costumed in the kind of white muslin dress that Marie Antoinette favored, the imposter met the Cardinal at the appointed time and place—after sundown in the suggestively named Grove of Venus in the gardens of Versailles. Playing her part to perfection, d’Oliva offered de Rohan a rose, a flower the queen had recently appropriated as her personal symbol, and murmured the words he yearned to hear: “You may now hope that the past will be forgotten.”


The swindlers had their dupe, and soon they had their scheme. It revolved around one of the most magnificent pieces of jewelry in the world. About thirteen years earlier, in 1772, King Louis XV desired a diamond necklace to outshine all others—a gift for his mistress, Madame du Barry. The king made this request of Parisian jewelers Charles Auguste Boehmer and Paul Bassenge. Over several years, the jewelers collected gemstones to fashion a multi-segmented necklace, complete with elaborate festoons and pendants. The accessory boasted 167 diamonds sourced from South Africa, weighing a total of 2,800 carats. The precious stones glistened like so many stars, as if the owner wore a miniature solar system around her neck. The value of the piece was appropriately galactic—2,000,000 livres, though Boehmer and Bassenge priced it at a “more affordable” 1.5 million livres.


By the time Boehmer and Bassenge had finally finished the necklace, however, they no longer had a prospective buyer. Louis XV had died of smallpox, and when his grandson and successor, Louis XVI, ascended the throne, he banished Madame du Barry from court. Boehmer and Bassenge hoped the new king might purchase the necklace for Marie Antoinette, and indeed in 1778, he offered to buy it for her. To the jewelers’ dismay, she politely declined. “She found her jewel cases rich enough,” was her reply. Slightly desperate to sell the necklace, Boehmer and Bassenge turned to other European royals, having a paste replica made and exhibited at various courts, to no avail. When the merchants made fresh appeals to Marie Antoinette, she rebuffed them as she had before. By one account, she declared, “We have more need of ships [that is, a stronger navy] than of necklaces.”


Given wide gaps in the historical record, it’s hard to pin down how Jeanne and company proceeded with their plot, but the chain of events appears to have unfolded something like this. One day, the Cardinal de Rohan received a letter form the queen, again by way of his mistress, Jeanne. Marie Antoinette had evidently changed her mind about the necklace. Much as she wished to enrich her jewel cases, however, she lacked the requisite funds. Furthermore, She also preferred to avoid the optics of making this extravagant purchase during a time of economic hardship in France. She instructed the Cardinal de Rohan to acquire the accessory on her behalf. He would pay for it in installments—not to worry, he had her word that she would repay him. The sender signed this (and other) letters Marie Antoinette de France. In the meantime, Jeanne had somehow won the confidence of Boehmer, furnishing letters ostensibly written by Marie Antoinette. The jeweler was informed of the queen’s proposal that the Cardinal obtain the necklace for her as well as of his willingness to pay for a portion of the total cost. All too eager to make the sale, Boehmer consented.

Once the Cardinal had put down 30,000 livres, Boehmer agreed to deliver the necklace to Her Royal Majesty, assuming she was good for the rest of the money. The necklace would never reach the queen’s hands. The Cardinal de Rohan dropped it off at the home of Jeanne de la Motte, where a man he presumed to be the queen’s valet received the package.


After the cardinal went on his way, the conspirators prized each and every diamond out of the necklace, damaging some in the process. Then, Jeanne’s husband, the Comte de la Motte, took the loose gems to London and presented them to jewelers named Grey and Jeffries. De la Motte claimed to have inherited the bounty from his mother and offered to part with them at an astonishingly low price. One of the jewelers suspected theft and contacted police. Told that nobody had reported any relevant burglaries, the jewelers went through with the transaction. Nobody knows what became of the diamonds. However, de la Motte appears to have stuck around in London, a wise decision considering the scandal that lay on the horizon.


The Scandal Breaks


By July 1785, Boehmer had not received his payment. After writing to the queen without a reply, he made inquiries with court officials. It fast became clear that Marie Antoinette had never received the necklace, and she claimed not to have authorized the purchase.


Things came to a head on August 15, which marked the feast of the Assumption of Mary. The Cardinal de Rohan was slated to preside over a service at Versailles, but before the mass could begin, he was summoned to appear before the king and queen. Louis and Marie Antoinette grilled him by turns about the diamond necklace. She demanded to know why the cardinal thought it plausible that she would enlist him of all people to facilitate this purchase when she had not spoken a word to him in years. Embarrassed, de Rohan admitted, “My desire to be of service to Your Majesty blinded me.” Yet he had come to the palace prepared to defend himself. Reaching into the billowing pontifical robes he had worn for the occasion, he produced one of the notes he had supposedly received from the queen. Louis took one look at it and knew it for a forgery. The signature alone revealed as much: Marie Antoinette de France. As any courtier would have known, queens across Europe signed with their baptismal names. In her case, Marie Antoinette would have simply signed "Marie Antointee"--she never would have added "de France." Louis dismissed him from the Hall of Mirrors, commanding him to return with a full account of “this enigma.” The cardinal followed orders, but when he came back, his telling of events did not satisfy the king. Louis suspected the cardinal of forging his wife’s signature—why, he couldn’t say, but that could wait for later. In what most historians consider a rash and reckless misstep, Louis ordered the cardinal’s arrest and had him escorted to the Bastille. On the way there, the prisoner sent a note to one of his servants, instructing him to destroy his correspondence with the false queen. The servant obeyed, and for this reason, the finer details of this debacle remain shrouded in mystery.


With the clergyman’s arrest, news of the scandal broke. The public never tired of lurid gossip about Marie Antoinette, and journalists made contradictory claims about her complicity. Some maintained that she masterminded the scheme simply to ruin the Cardinal de Rohan. In this scenario, owning the necklace was of little importance; it was primarily a tool to undo her enemy. Yet others speculated that she had desired the jewelry and coaxed her pawn into paying for it himself. In both cases, she came across as manipulative. Those who believed that she wanted the necklace considered her disgustingly extravagant. Meanwhile, pornographers exploited the double entendre of the word, “bijoux,” which literally meant “jewels’ but colloquially referred to the female genitalia. One caricature depicts Marie Antoinette with her legs spread. A male courtier ogles her while a female courtier holds up the necklace.


The Diamond Necklace Affair provided additional entertainment value because it so strongly resembled the plot of a stage play. Several aspects recalled The Marriage of Figaro. Villette and Jeanne’s forged letters to the Cardinal de Rohan may have reminded some of a subplot in Beaumarchais’s comedy, in which Figaro sends spurious messages to the Count. More than any other episode, however, the Cardinal’s get-together in the Grove of Venus with the veiled Nicola d’Oliva harkened back to Count Almaviva’s meeting with his wife, disguised as Suzanne, in the gardens of his palace. In her biography of Marie Antoinette, Antonia Fraser even suggests that the con artists borrowed this gambit from Beaumarchais: “The resemblance between this scene and that at the end of Figaro, where the Countess Almaviva appears, veiled, in a dark shrubbery, to her own husband in the guise of her maid Suzanne, is too great to be coincidental. The pity of it was that the Cardinal did not reflect on the coincidence himself.”


The public watched, rapt, as the accused went to trial. The Cardinal de Rohan was acquitted of wrongdoing. Jeanne was convicted and condemned to public torture. Before a mass of prurient onlookers, torturers first flogged the confidence woman and then branded both shoulders with a letter “V,” which stood for Voleuse, French for a female thief. After her public humiliation, the authorities threw her in the Salpetrière, a prison for prostitutes. In a fittingly farcical resolution to her ordeal, she escaped the penitentiary disguised as a boy. The Comte de la Motte was tried in absentia. Villette, meanwhile, was convicted of forgery and banished from France.


Each and every victim of the con suffered immensely. Though exonerated of guilt, the Cardinal de Rohan was permanently disgraced and exiled from Paris. Boehmer went bankrupt. De Rohan’s descendants paid off his debt to the jeweler’s family, but it took until the end of the nineteenth century to make the final payment. Finally, the fiasco irreparably damaged Marie Antoinette’s reputation, turning general dislike of her into near-hatred. The Diamond Necklace Affair may have played like a comedy at certain moments, but those affected suffered tragic consequences.


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