Biographies & Memoirs


“The King of Diamonds”

The second day of December 1804 was the coldest of the year. Freezing snow was followed by battering rain, but still the people took up their positions on the streets leading toward Notre-Dame. At the Tuileries, every moment had been dedicated to prepping for the forthcoming celebrations. Hairdressers had been at such a premium that many ladies were coiffed the previous evening and forced to sleep upright to preserve their hairstyle. Some courtiers had not had time to go to bed. Josephine seized a few hours’ rest, only to be awakened before six so that Isabey could paint her face with the rouge Napoleon so loved. The hairdresser teased her hair into ringlets around a pearl and diamond diadem. Her ladies dressed her in the white satin gown, embroidered in gold, with a low neckline and the ruff as a collar. A diamond belt circled her waist.

Then Josephine had to wait. Napoleon’s elaborate dress took over an hour longer than planned. He wore so many jewels that he looked like a walking mirror, and he had plucked the huge “Regent” diamond from his sword and attached it to his hat. He was delighted by his appearance, though, but others noted that the Renaissance dress of a short coat over puffed knickerbockers was hardly flattering to his apple-shaped form. “Perhaps successful on the drawing board,” commented one woman, “it was unbecoming on the Emperor, who is short, fat and awkward.” More like an overdressed child than an awe-inspiring ruler, she thought he looked “like the King of Diamonds.”

In high spirits, the King of Diamonds bounded down the stairs and, almost two hours late, left the Tuileries in the imperial state coach at ten A.M. Josephine was by his side, Joseph and Louis facing them, similarly awkward in ruffs and stiff outfits that bore an unfortunate resemblance to costumes. Eight bay horses drove the Fontaine-designed riot of gold, bees, and diamonds; the coach had eight huge glass windows through which Napoleon and Josephine could be seen. The spectators seemed more inquisitive than thrilled. “I noticed there was no real enthusiasm anywhere,” Napoleon noted, although at least, he admitted, there was no active dissent. The state coaches rumbled through the narrow streets, with the ministers, the grand chamberlain, the Bonaparte princesses, and the diplomatic corps all putting on their best look of royal dignity for the crowds. The people warmed their hands with hot pies and admired the horses.

As the imperial couple arrived at Notre-Dame, the sun came through the clouds, and amid the roar of cannons, Napoleon and Josephine stepped from their coach. Josephine was fortunate that her husband had not forced her to dress in hoops and farthingales. Her clinging gown and gold decoration were an instant hit with the crowd. Still, all the gold in the world could not hide her origins. “What beauty!” recalled one spectator. “But for me, she would always be Barras’s mistress.” Barras, in exile, had created them both, but neither Napoleon nor Josephine had a thought to spare for him.

Inside the cathedral, the spectators had been waiting since the early morning, surreptitiously eating sausages to keep warm. The elderly pope had sat on his freezing throne for hours, saying prayers and begging God to show mercy for what he was about to do. As a final insult, Napoleon had informed him that he and Josephine would not take the coronation communion. Poor Pius, once again, was humiliated by the irreligious nature of the man he had traveled so far to crown.

On arrival at Notre-Dame, the pair moved to a robing room to don their imperial robes. Napoleon attired himself as a Roman emperor, wearing a long satin gown and a mantle of purple embroidered with bees and attached at the shoulder and the waist. He was crowned with a laurel wreath and carried a scepter. Josephine donned her robes and a tiara composed of over a thousand diamonds set in platinum.

After an hour in the robing room, the procession began with the heralds-at-arms, pages, grand master of ceremonies, and Josephine’s own equerries and chamberlains. General Murat bore her crown on a cushion. Then the empress emerged, walking slowly under a canopy. Her huge mantle was carried by the five Bonaparte princesses. Despite the triumph of having their own trains carried, they were resentful of following “la vieille” and not afraid to show it. They barely lifted the mantle and let it drag on the ground so that Josephine struggled to walk. The emperor was last to appear, his crown, sword, necklace, and globe carried by his marshals. Impatient as ever, he was so eager to get to the altar that he used his scepter to prod Cardinal Fesch to hurry up.

Although the procession had been excessively magnificent, the service itself was short and arranged so that only those closest could see. French kings traditionally had lain full-length, facedown in front of the altar, for the blessing, but Napoleon knew that doing so would only invite ridicule. He was wise: Josephine prostrate on the floor would have inspired dozens of cruel cartoons. Instead, Napoleon had decided that he and Josephine would kneel at the altar for the pope’s triple unction of holy water on their heads and hands after High Mass.

At the high point of the ceremony, the pope blessed the two crowns and placed them on the altar. Quick as a flash, Napoleon seized the biggest crown and popped it onto his head. It was an act of shocking affront and typical of the emperor. The great showman had been planning it, borrowing the idea from the tsar of Russia, who had crowned himself—but the onlookers thought it all spontaneous. Sidelining the pope altogether, Napoleon then took Josephine’s crown and held it out, signaling her to come toward him. As Claire de Rémusat put it, she knelt with “such simple elegance that all eyes were delighted with the picture she presented.”1 He placed her crown first on his own head and then on hers, over the diadem she already wore. Josephine burst into tears.

He was almost playful, as Josephine’s lady recounted, “He put it on, then took it off, and finally put it on again as if to promise her that she should wear it gracefully and lightly.”2 Her carriage and bearing were so majestic that some of those watching became a little carried away. “I have had the honor of being presented to many real princesses,” gushed Laure Junot, “but I never saw one who, to my eyes, presented so perfect a personification of elegance and majesty.”3

The elegance had not come without a struggle; at the crucial moment, the Bonaparte sisters had tried to take their revenge. When Josephine walked up for her blessing, the sisters all at once loosened the mantle, threatening to let go. The empress staggered backward. Napoleon spotted it and whipped around to give his sisters a sharp reprimand. Ashamed, they huddled to resume their positions and Josephine carried on, head held high. After blessing the new rulers and completing Mass at the altar, the pope retired to the sacristy, preferring not to witness Napoleon’s civil oath to the Republic. To the presiding officers of the legislative bodies, and in resounding tones, Napoleon declared that he would “maintain the integrity and territory of the Republic, to protect political, civil and religious liberties, and the irrevocability of national property.” Even during the ceremony, he was making plans that would contravene nearly every oath.

At three P.M., the newly crowned emperor and empress departed Notre-Dame, taking a longer route back so that even more Parisians could witness their grandeur. Their carriage was surrounded by five hundred pages carrying torches to allow everybody a proper view of their rulers in the descending winter gloom. Every building was illuminated, and giant laurel-leaf “N”s hung from the balconies. At the Place de la Concorde, a huge star stood at the spot where Louis XVI had been executed. “Never have I seen on any face an expression of joy, of contentment, of good fortune, to compare with that which animated the figure of the Empress,” recalled Mademoiselle Avrillion. But the royalists scoffed at Napoleon’s sisters, “who had left their laundry behind and now appeared in all their finery and diamonds to carry the train of Barras’s former mistress.” Monarchists and revolutionaries alike were scandalized by the elevations of, as Madame de Staël said, “the bourgeois and bourgeoises of Ajaccio” (Napoleon’s hometown).4

Rather than hosting a ceremonial dinner, the emperor decreed that he would dine privately with his empress, much to the fury of his family. Napoleon whisked Josephine into the private salon, where he asked her to wear her crown for the meal, “because no one could wear a crown with more grace.”5 It was a triumphant moment for her. Replete with success, she watched, with bitter irony, the courtiers who had so recently snubbed her all scrambling to please her. Confident in her position, she was inclined to be much more kindly disposed toward the Bonaparte sisters and to the other members of her husband’s entourage she distrusted—and this only added to Napoleon’s esteem for her.

Bonaparte’s improper act of crowning himself became gossip across Europe, discussed in horror by scandalized royalists and all those he had exiled. It appeared that the man’s ambition knew no bounds. It also proved a logistical headache for Jacques-Louis David, the former revolutionary who had been declared the court painter, as he had been commissioned to produce the official portrait of the coronation. For months, David struggled to find a way to show Napoleon crowning himself without making the picture appear ridiculous. After watching his master in torment, an apprentice suggested he paint Napoleon crowning Josephine. Napoleon approved the idea, and the problem was solved. Four years later, he and Josephine visited David’s studio, where the emperor spent over an hour scrutinizing every aspect of the picture. Much had been changed: Josephine and Napoleon were made to look younger and more statuesque; Madame Mère, who had left Paris in a temper, was painted into the congregation; and the Bonaparte sisters, perhaps as a sop from Napoleon, were shown standing to the side, rather than bearing the mantle. Through David’s alchemy, what had been a shocking insult to the pope and a complete usurpation of his role became refigured as an act of love and devotion from emperor to empress. Later, Napoleon railed that Josephine had indulged in “little intrigues” in order to put herself at the center of the painting. But at the time of viewing, he was most gratified. He told David that he was grateful to him “for recording for posterity the proof of the affection I wished to give to the woman who shared with me the burden of office.”6 Not even Napoleon was quite vain enough to wish the official portrait showed him crowning himself.

The emperor’s hunger for absolute power increased daily. He retained the tribunate, the senate, and the legislative body, but they were thin pretenses that existed mainly to persuade the French that they were still living in a Republic. The emperor coined a catechism for schoolchildren. When they were asked, “What should one think of those who fail in their duties to our emperor?” they should reply, “According to the apostle St. Paul, they would be resisting the order established by God Himself and would deserve eternal damnation.” Napoleon liked religion when it suited him. In January, only a month after his coronation, he abolished one of the most celebrated innovations of the Republic: the revolutionary calendar.

The new emperor decreed everything from state policy to women’s fashion. He desired his new court at the Tuileries to outshine every other court across Europe for luxury and magnificence, outdoing even those of his Bourbon predecessors. For him, the court was a tool to demonstrate his belief that he was the most terrifying ruler in history. Essentially, his guiding aesthetic combined the style of ancient Rome with the brilliance and excess of Louis XIV, the Sun King, and Louis XVI. “What I want above all is grandeur,” he said, “what is grand above all is beautiful.” Napoleon’s favorite architectural team of Percier and Fontaine was entrusted with transforming the Tuileries. He found the palace too “bare and simple” (even though it had been redecorated since he arrived) and wished to erase all memories of the dull old Directory. Percier and Fontaine were instructed to make a new banquet room, a gallery, and a great central staircase; to hang the walls with thick silk brocades from Lyon; and to cover the place in decorated panels. Gold bees and the imperial eagle flew across curtains and adorned mahogany furniture—some much the worse for wear, thanks to Napoleon’s nervous habit of hacking into them with a penknife. He made plans for a theater and a chapel. Visitor’s eyes were dazzled by gilt, jewels, and silver everywhere they looked. The stables contained twelve hundred handsome horses, as well as dozens of carriages, all painted green. The annual budget for decorating and redecorating the imperial rooms and maintaining the palaces soared to six million francs. Napoleon had no time for suggestions that his court should reflect the aesthetic culture of Rome, which was perceived to be restrained. The days of the revolutionary symbols on the front of the Tuileries, the austere interiors, and the Committee of Public Safety were long gone. The glitter and the glamour worked to “throw dust in people’s eyes.”7

Napoleon was even more insistent that rules of etiquette and precedence be imposed on his courtiers, most of whom were in their twenties and thirties and too young to remember much of the ancien régime. The regulations of Louis XIV and his successors were pulled down from the library shelves. Madame Campan was questioned in minute detail, and anyone else who had been at Versailles was asked to provide information about life at the old court. A team headed by the Comte de Ségur produced the detailed volumeEtiquette du Palais Impérial, which gave exact rules on everything from where people should stand at a court assembly to how they should seat themselves at dinner. Napoleon established a huge household for himself, bigger than that of Louis XVI, with a grand almoner, a grand marshal, a grand equerry, a grand huntsman, and a grand master of ceremonies. Josephine had an equally unwieldy staff of more than a hundred, including twenty ladies-in-waiting—four more than Marie Antoinette had. She also had seventeen ladies of the palace, including ladies of the wardrobe and ladies of the bedchamber. The competition to serve Josephine was intense, particularly as Napoleon often recruited his mistresses from her household. All were overseen by her dame d’honneur,Duchesse Alexandre de La Rochefoucauld, a relative of Josephine’s first husband. A Saint-Domingue heiress and an avowed ancien régime royalist in her late thirties, she made it clear that she was merely deigning to be at the court; she even cowed the emperor into silence at times. Highly efficient, she kept Josephine’s household running perfectly, overseeing the day-to-day needs, the visits, the work of the servants, and deciding on presentations and invitations.

Josephine also had an almoner, chamberlain, two equerries (one to oversee the stables), lords-in-waiting, ushers, footmen, and pages. There was hardly any point to such a huge household; most of the ladies and gentlemen had very little to do but sit about, complain, and adjust their costume. It was one great self-serving machine: Josephine dressed three times a day to give them an occupation, and whole occasions were held to give them something to anticipate. The only true purpose was to create the aspect of majesty; the court functioned as a vast, pleasing looking glass for Napoleon.

The emperor was strict about formality. All the men of Josephine’s household were to remain in her outer apartments, and if one needed to receive orders, he should scratch at the door of the bedroom, where one of her ladies “must always be in attendance, and seek permission to be introduced into her presence.” With the etiquette of “scratching,” the influence of Versailles was complete—courtiers there had been firmly instructed to scratch rather than knock at doors. There was no more republican equality; those at Napoleon’s court behaved with the subservience of a courtier to a king. “The Emperor is too grand for anybody to tell him the truth,” Josephine wrote to Eugène, “everybody who surrounds him flatters him all day long.”8 As Madame de Rémusat recalled, “The fever of vanity seemed every day to lay stronger claim on of us.”9

Napoleon’s obsessive interest in constructing a new world to surround him soon extended to female fashion. Despite his own passion for seeing Josephine in diaphanous dresses and gauzy wraps, he demanded that her ladies wear embossed gowns of lamé, brocade, and satin, with mandatory velvet trains, all heavily embroidered in gold. As the men gleamed with medals, so the women must sparkle with jewels, and never wear the same gown twice. Laure Junot was firmly reminded of her duty at one court event: “Madame, you have worn that dress several times. It is becoming, but we have seen it before.”10

Napoleon claimed he installed strictures on fashion to assist the French manufacturers. The result was very like the stiff grandeur of the court of Marie Antoinette, down to the restrictive and cumbersome nature of the apparel—exactly what women had been so eager to throw off after the Revolution. The empress sometimes rebelled against Napoleon by wearing trains of tulle or gauzy ensembles, but she was entirely obedient to his strictures about jewels and was always wearing new ensembles. She was clever at making a dress look different with shawls and accessories, but essentially, all her gowns were made to be worn once. An inventory in 1809 found 49 grand court dresses, 676 gowns, 60 cashmere shawls (and nearly 500 other shawls in other materials), 413 pairs of gloves, and more than 200 pairs of silk stockings.

Josephine’s coronation dress was the pattern for all her court gowns. She wore empire-line waists with high embroidered collars and trains attached to the back. Her dressmaker, Leroy, was the mastermind behind her “look,” and he quickly became the most in-demand designer in Paris. Le Journal des Dames et des Modes, the fashion bible of the day, was filled with pictures of Josephine, the most stylish woman in the country. Even passionately patriotic British women nursed secret desires for a French gown à laempress.

Back in Britain, Lord Nelson and his mistress, Emma Hamilton, had set up home in Merton Place, near Wimbledon. They turned a rather ramshackle house into a tribute to his victories, with large “N”s on the walls, pieces of his ships over the staircase, and fittings from crockery to crocus planters decorated with his name and image. What Nelson was doing on the domestic level, Napoleon wished to write large over his nation. There were “N”s and “J”s, eagles and swans, everywhere. He placed the lion stolen from the column in the Piazza San Marco, Venice, in the middle of Paris and arranged the bronze horses from San Marco in the Tuileries Gardens.

Napoleon set Percier and Fontaine about feverishly making monuments to his great successes in order to remind everyone of his brilliance. He demanded that a sixty-foot-high elephant inscribed with his victories be placed over the Champs-Élysées, facing toward the Tuileries (the plans for the elephant would be replaced eventually with those for the Arc de Triomphe). He was equally delighted with the idea of a column made from melted-down Austrian cannon in the Place Vendôme to commemorate the Grand Army. Percier and Fontaine scribbled out plans for towers, giant statues, and more columns, each one unashamedly masculine in style, all situated to prove that the emperor could never be dislodged.

Now that Napoleon was emperor, he was ever more determined to have a son. He asked Josephine to feign a pregnancy and then pretend she had given birth, while he offered to find a child, probably from a mistress who was pregnant at the time. She agreed, but the chief physician refused to be party to such a deception. Certainly, it would have been nigh impossible, considering the close quarters at which everybody observed Josephine and the number of spies on her staff. When this plan failed, her position was weakened. Whenever Napoleon and Josephine argued, usually after she had asked him questions he didn’t like, he would counter by claiming he was not truly married to her. She would cry that she had the certificate of marriage to prove it; when Fesch was consulted, he agreed with her and said that the marriage was legal and validly solemnized. He advised Josephine to keep the certificate close.

AS EMPEROR, NAPOLEON had become more brutal and aggressive than ever. He was curt with his generals and courtiers and often attacked his servants. He once seized Berthier and banged his head against a stone wall; he kicked a minister in the genitals for presenting unappealing statistics. In the morning, during the ritual of dressing, he would sometimes throw nail scissors, brushes, or boxes at the servants if he felt they prodded him too hard or dressed him in something he did not like. He slapped staff, pinched court ladies and pulled their hair while he insulted them, and loved to offend anyone he could in public. Despite his incredible power, he derived a thrill from making his inferiors tremble with fear. As tyrannical as a medieval king, he screamed and shouted, complained and demanded, and everyone had to obey. Only Josephine had the ability to calm him with her soft hands and gentle words.

Many mornings, Napoleon woke up in pain, suffering from stomach spasms or a headache. As his servants tried to rub him down with eau de cologne and dress him, he tore off his clothes if they annoyed him, and slapped his valet for trying to put his coat on him. All the while, he was looking at police reports and newspapers, bills and letters. When he was dressed, he doused himself with more eau de cologne—he went through sixty bottles a month—was given his handkerchief, snuffbox, and tortoiseshell case of finely cut licorice. At nine, he would conduct private audiences with his officials, stopping at eleven to take breakfast. Then he would go to his study, pacing up and down as he dictated letters and orders to his secretary, Claude de Méneval, who had to create a new, faster form of shorthand to keep up. He would finish by dictating a few articles for the newspapers and then stomp off to find Josephine. After lunch with her, he returned to giving audiences, meeting the Council of State or dictating further orders to his officials and ministers about the business of governing his empire. After dinner, he might spend a short while in the Yellow Salon with Josephine and his generals and their wives, playing chess or billiards before retiring to his desk once more and working into the night.

When he undressed, he might throw his clothes on the floor and hit the valet to purge his frustrations from the day. Unsurprisingly, he was a poor sleeper and sometimes rose from his bed, plunged into a hot bath, and called Méneval to take down yet more orders and commands, continuing for hours until he felt tired. When he himself wrote, he scribbled so fast and shook his pen so impatiently that the paper was covered in big blots of ink.

Napoleon had always bolted his food, but as emperor, he could scarcely bear to waste a moment eating. If he demanded a meal, he expected it—and Josephine—to be in front of him immediately. Fond of roast chicken and potatoes fried with onion, he would eat as fast as he could, often not bothering with a knife and fork. He preferred Josephine not to eat in his presence—which was fortunate, because she barely would have had the chance to do so. He wanted everything around him to be hot with energy, so he had a fire lit at all times; his courtiers and attendants often fainted from the heat. His skin was almost yellow, his digestion was terrible, and he suffered from awful coughing fits that brought up blood. Sometimes he was so ill after eating that his courtiers found him lying with his head in Josephine’s lap, groaning. His mind spun even when he was trying to sleep; he found that the only way to rest was by reciting army lists over and over.

Napoleon was impatient, brimming with nervous energy, and only ceaseless activity could slake his restless mind. Even when he maintained a cool mien in public, he was constantly fidgeting under his robes, taking snuff or pushing mint pastilles into his mouth. His armchair had to be changed every three months because it was the piece of furniture that most suffered from his penknife. Beneath the imperial surface, he was still the little boy who had pulled apart chairs in school.11 Josephine provided the calm and stillness that he could not derive from himself. While sitting for his portrait to commemorate the Battle of Arcola, he had fidgeted so much that Josephine had come to the studio and placed him on her lap in order to keep him still. Only she was allowed to pour his coffee after dinner and add sugar to it with a special gilt spoon. She was his refuge, and he relied on her to be there when he needed her. Josephine understood this. As she later wrote to Caroline, “The pride of women consists in submission and we should have no other power than such as a mild and gentle character imparts to us.”12

Napoleon was a genius at creating a cult of empire, and for this, the visual arts were vital. He preferred artists and craftsmen who had been beloved by the Bourbons, such as Isabey and the Jacob brothers. Jacques-Louis David, the man who had signed Alexandre’s death warrant and would have signed Josephine’s, too—and who had refused to draw Louis XVI, as he would not allow his pencil to reproduce the features of a tyrant—became Bonaparte’s great ally, eulogizing him again and again in paint. He portrayed him crossing the St. Bernard Pass, turning his hero into Hannibal on a rearing horse, rather than a dreary mule, as had been the case. His Napoleon in His Study showed the first consul hard at work in the early hours of the morning. And, of course, he painted the celebrated coronation portrait. But Napoleon never quite completely trusted David and favored the work of his pupils, chiefly François Gérard, Antoine Gros, and Jean-Auguste Ingres. Their paintings were unashamedly excessive and flattering, with Gros’s Napoleon at the Battle of Eylau showing him tending to the dying. Ingres’s almost ridiculous Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne (1806) portrayed the plump little emperor as a god—part Jupiter, part Augustus, and part Charlemagne.

Napoleon was particularly fond of Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, who created romantic, sensual portraits of his wife. The empire was a time for painters to become famous, but only if they agreed to lavish praise on the imperial couple. Gold and money poured into their workshops as they did the bidding of the emperor.

JOSEPHINE TOOK CARE of the matters of power that Napoleon could not bear. She heard petitions, patronized artists and musicians, planned dinners, fetes, and celebrations, and presided over receptions and tributes. Napoleon dreaded the evening dinners and balls. “I am not made for pleasure,” he rued.13

Her days rarely varied. In the morning, she and Napoleon awoke together. His valet, Constant, would go to her apartments between seven and eight A.M. and sometimes find the pair still asleep. “When the Emperor asked me for tea or for an infusion of orange flowers and started to get up, the Empress would say to him smilingly, ‘Must you get up already? Stay a little longer.’ His Majesty would answer, ‘You mean you are not asleep?’ and he would roll her up in her blanket, giving her little taps on her cheek and on her shoulders, laughing and kissing her.”14 Then her four maids would come in and busy themselves with the task of making her look like an empress.

While Napoleon dictated his plans for conquest, Josephine was bathed, and then her face was plastered with the heavy makeup that Napoleon liked. He preferred an image that was more embellished than that of Versailles and, to the British, looked like the maquillage of courtesans. Her assistants smeared rouge in great tear shapes over her fine cheeks. She then put on her lace dressing gown as her hair was arranged by the hairdresser. As he created curls and tamed recalcitrant strands, Josephine’s ladies brought in piles of gowns, shawls, and hats for her to pick her attire for the morning—muslin and cambric in the summer, despite Napoleon’s complaints against that fabric—and velvet and wool for the winter. Marie Antoinette had chosen her clothing similarly, except she had used a book of swatches and samples to keep track of her unwieldy wardrobe. Josephine changed every item of her dress three times a day and never wore the same pair of stockings twice. The whole operation of choosing outfits, picking them up from the baskets, and trying them against her was a lengthy one. Eight dressers attended Josephine, while the mistress of the robes and the lady of honor regarded from afar.

THE EMPRESS WAS given an annual allowance of 600,000 francs to maintain her household and person, with a further 120,000 for charity. It was not enough. In modern terms, her personal expenditure would come close to two million dollars a year. Indeed, it seems surprising that she did not spend more. Her wardrobe was spectacularly costly, her jewels ludicrous, and her apartments were filled with expensive knickknacks: boxes, statues, ornamental books, vases, and glass. In addition, she saw creating an art collection for the nation as one of her most important tasks and spent huge sums on paintings. Even though she barely had the chance to visit Malmaison, she was always packing it with more seeds and plants and attempting to buy animals for her menagerie.

After she had dressed, merchants and shopkeepers would crowd into her apartments, along with artists, musicians, and entertainers. She snapped up diamonds, shawls, silks, and trinkets, never asking the price. She commissioned portraits and purchased thousands of francs’ worth of gifts. In every fashionable shop in Paris, someone was making something for the empress. The smallest gathering was an opportunity to order a new gown; one such gown was adorned with lace said to be worth 100,000 francs (one sixth of her yearly allowance). She would sometimes pay 12,000 francs for a shawl and then use it as a cushion or a blanket for her dog. She would wear a superbly expensive dress for a day and then give it to her ladies or maids, who would promptly sell it. Mademoiselle Avrillion recalled that at Mainz, she and the other ladies had offered Josephine’s old gowns as payment for the exquisite goods of the local tradesmen, who swiftly sold them to the local dignitaries. “I remember a ball there at which the Empress might have seen all the ladies of a quadrille party dressed in her cast-off clothes—I even saw German Princesses wearing them.”15 Everyone around Josephine was making a profit from her.

Napoleon fumed about her “mad extravagance,” but she would not listen. “Every day I discover new instances of it, and it distresses me. When I speak to her—on the subject I am vexed; I get angry—she weeps. I forgive her, I pay her bills—she makes fair promises; but the same thing occurs over and over again.”16 Under his passion for grandeur, he was an old penny-pincher at heart and made frequent decrees to reduce spending, such as instructing that all the sheets in the courtiers’ apartments should be changed only monthly. Josephine never economized and was too kindhearted—or too indolent—to haggle with merchants pressing goods on her.

As well as her gifts, her household, and her charities, she also supported her family. She sent money to her mother on Martinique and pressed her to come to court, where she would have high status as the mother of the empress. But Rose-Claire remained alone with her servants at La Pagerie. Josephine’s other relatives were not so principled. Her uncle Tascher came over, and she paid his debts and supported him and five of his children in the house on the rue de la Victoire, finding them positions at various embassies. Her maternal cousins also accepted her invitation to come to France, at her cost, and she gave generous gifts to her goddaughter, Josephine Tallien. Josephine had long since sent away Euphémie Lefèvre, her maid and probable half sister, but supported her with a pension, and Euphémie eventually was able to buy a rather large property near Malmaison. Josephine also gave money to the family of her former husband, including his aunt and her daughter, his wet nurse, his illegitimate daughter, and most generously of all, his former mistress Laure de Longpré, who once cruelly conspired with Alexandre against her. No doubt there was a superior pleasure in helping Laure. As Josephine wrote in the margin of one letter, “this lady is very infirm.”

The word got around that those in need only had to ask Josephine for help. She gave money to poverty-stricken royalists and émigré aristocrats, as well as anyone who ever served her. Her official charities were the expected ones: those that supported mothers, orphans, the sick, and the old. In 1805 her annual donations had reached 72,000 francs; by 1809, they had soared to 180,000. These sums did not include the casual amounts given to supplicants who conveyed messages to her or charities she encountered while traveling.

In 1805, in an effort to curb her spending, Napoleon declared that all merchants should be sent first to Josephine’s comptroller, but she found ways of seeing them in secret. When the emperor found an elderly milliner waiting in the blue salon, he shouted for the guards, who dragged the woman away to be imprisoned. He quickly realized his error and sent a message to release her, but the poor woman’s awful experience did not dissuade others. The merchants continued to flock to the biggest purse in town.

One of Josephine’s greatest expenses was jewelry. Though Marie Antoinette had been brought low by a diamond necklace, it seemed that Josephine could appear covered in diamonds and no one would complain. One of her ladies-in-waiting claimed that her jewelry collection could have “figured in a tale of Arabian nights.”17 Marie Antoinette’s old jewel box was actually too small for the empress’s sparklers. A favorite necklace of twenty-seven huge diamonds was particularly coveted by Tsar Alexander, who bought it after Josephine’s death. When celebrating the marriage of her niece to the Crown Prince of Baden, Josephine wore pearls in her hair valued at a million francs. She had the crown jewels of France, as well as Napoleon’s excessive gifts of diadems, necklaces, bracelets, and every possible precious stone he could order back from his expeditions, including Oriental rubies, stones from Brazil, and ten necklaces of real pearls. The Jacob brothers made her an incredible jewel cabinet. Designed by Charles Percier, it stood at an incredible height, nearly ten feet high. Now in the Louvre, the whole thing is a monument to excess: The body was made of yew, the thirty interior drawers of solid mahogany, and it was decorated with mother-of-pearl designs—and bronzes that hid secret locks (useful to ward off Napoleon’s investigations). The central design was of the birth of the Goddess of the Earth, to whom the other goddesses and cupids hurried to give presents. Delivered in 1809, the cabinet was the most expensive item the brothers ever made, and still it was not big enough for her collection. In 1811 an inventory was made of Josephine’s jewels, which assessed them at over five million francs. The “good easy-going woman,” the Martinique plantation daughter, had become the imperial empress, bowed under the weight of precious stones.18

After the shopkeepers had departed, Josephine gave audiences and applied herself to her correspondence. She also went through petitions and received charitable requests. She wrote incessant letters requesting help for all types of supplicants. “People get them from me by pestering me,” she explained to the minister of war when he protested at the sheer number of notes of recommendation. At a quarter to ten, she entered her Yellow Salon in order to take the morning meal with her ladies. Hers would be a more leisurely affair than her husband’s, with soup, entrées, and roasts arranged across the table, followed by sweets. There was no formal dining room in the palace (it was generally seen as a British custom), so a white cloth would be laid out on whatever table was indicated.

In the afternoon she received visitors, many of them émigrés demanding favors, and then perhaps would take a short walk. Later, as she did not read and had little interest in needlework, she often strummed her harp, apparently always the same tune. The waiting to see whether Napoleon might appear was interminably dull, and Josephine sometimes found it difficult to bear. She once railed that she was little more than a “bejewelled slave.”

By the late afternoon, she was back in her apartments, dressing for the evening ahead, usually in one of her gold-embroidered gowns. Then she would wait to be called to dinner, which was supposed to be at six but might be delayed for hours while Napoleon worked. Most evenings they dined together for the quick twenty minutes it took him to wolf down his food. Official banquets and social celebrations were so replete with complicated dishes that they might take up most of the day. The custom of serving all the dishes together still prevailed, rather than the à la russe fashion of eating courses in sequence. The tables of the Tuileries groaned under silver candelabra, foot-high tureens of soup, and dishes of meat, fish, and fowl served on Sèvres porcelain decorated with pictures of Napoleon’s victories.

After dinner, the empress would retire to her salon and spend the evening with her courtiers, talking or playing cards or billiards. She was not particularly fond of chess, but she sportingly played whist and lotto with her visitors, ministers, ambassadors, and ladies. Napoleon forbade playing for stakes, but when he was away, she and her circle bet money, sometimes large amounts. Josephine also loved billiards, so much that it was the only game in which the emperor humored her and allowed her to beat him.

At ten, Napoleon might call her to read to him or join him in conversation; he was particularly partial to telling ghost stories. Her salon was connected to his room via a hidden staircase, and he would come to the door and tap on it as a signal that he needed her. Her ladies then had to wait for her in the salon until she returned. Invariably, by the time she arrived, they had fallen asleep, leaning against the tables for support since they were not supposed to sit down. If she was to be alone for the night, she went to bed at around midnight—allowed, for a few hours, to be free of rouge, with her hair undressed and her shoulders not weighed down by a heavy golden gown.

On days when Napoleon did not require her, Josephine saw her merchants and talked to her ladies. As one of her friends remarked, she could “idle away her days doing nothing and yet never be bored with it.”19 They didn’t guess how frustrated she grew.

Her “mania for having her portrait painted” meant that she was often sitting for artists or planning new compositions. She would give pictures of herself to anybody and everybody—friends, relations, courtiers, tradesmen. In her hundreds of commissioned portraits, she was ever young, beautiful, elegant, and graceful, her mouth closed to shield her bad teeth. Those who wished to please her adorned their houses with her delicate face. Such was the passion for her among the public that her portraits were transferred onto china, fans, and cards, so even the poorest laborer could display the empress over his fire.

Her apartments consisted of an antechamber, a first salon, a second salon, and her own salon. In her private rooms, she had a bedroom, a dressing room, a boudoir, and a bathroom. In every one of the emperor’s palaces, the layout was the same, and the rooms were decorated in a similarly imperial manner, with stolid Jacob furniture, tapestries, gilding, and drapes. As an empress, Josephine lived her whole day in public. Ladies and servants bustled around her rooms, and everyone stared when she ventured out.

Josephine was naturally informal and enjoyed conversation and befriending people when she traveled. This, Napoleon told her sharply, would have to stop. She should always be surrounded by “splendor,” escorted by infantry and cavalry, and met by the tolling of bells rung by the town mayor or prefect. When she returned to Paris, she would be greeted by cannons, and the courtiers would line up to pay homage. To him, it was time she started behaving like an empress. She missed Malmaison terribly, where the plants grew unseen by her and her orangutan wandered the grounds alone. Even when Napoleon was away, he wished her to keep up the imperial appearance, and that meant remaining in one of his grand palaces full of mahogany eagles and obeisant courtiers rather than walking the gardens of her beloved Malmaison.

When Napoleon did agree to her visiting Malmaison, he was envious of how much she loved it. Sometimes, seized by rage, he shot her swans, uprooted her plants, and killed her pets. When she begged him not to shoot the animals during the breeding season, he was scathing. “It seems that everything is prolific at Malmaison, except Madame.”

Most of the time, Josephine could not go anywhere at all. Her life was minutely constrained, every detail reported back to Napoleon. She sat, ornate and alluring, until he had finished his work in the evening and might come to dally away ten minutes with her. Yet he relied on her emotionally and saw her as his essential helpmate. They divided the labor of imperial success. He stood for aggression, strategy, military triumph, and tyranny, while she assumed all the roles he reviled: patron of art and beauty, manners and sympathy. Her kind heart and gentle words smoothed over his anger and fooled people into thinking that Napoleon had a more humane side. “Nature,” he told his wife, “has given me a strong and resolute character; she has made you of lace and gauze.”20Around Napoleon, the air fizzed and crackled; he was electric, intense, and terrifying. Josephine created a bewitching spell of ease and pleasure.

Josephine showed few signs of the independent will she once had. Her energy was invested in making herself Napoleon’s elegant, perfect wife, ideally submissive, ready to respond to his every need. “Josephine was invariably, unfailingly sweet with the Emperor,” recalled Mademoiselle Avrillion, “adapting herself to his every mood, every whim with a complaisance such as I have never seen in anyone else in the world. By studying the slightest change in his expression or tone she offered him the only things he now required of her.”21 She might be the married and consecrated empress, but Napoleon, as she knew, did as he liked, and he would divorce her if he felt it necessary—especially for the chance of having a son. Few believed that she was still capable of having a child. She was forty-one and, as the doctors had told Napoleon, her menses had ceased.

And yet he was fonder of her than he had been since Egypt. She was still the only person allowed to address him as tu. He was eminently satisfied with his act of crowning her, thus stealing authority from both the Republic and the pope, and she was his evidence that he had practically usurped the role of God in anointing a sovereign consort. Laure Junot recalled how she saw the empress enter a room at Saint-Cloud, wearing clinging white muslin secured by medallions at the shoulder. Even though Napoleon professed to detest muslin, he went to her, kissed her on the shoulder and the forehead, and took her to a mirror so he could inspect her from all sides. “Now, Josephine, I think I must be jealous, you must have some conquest in mind. Why are you so beautiful today?” She replied, “I know that you love to see me in white and so I put on a white gown, that’s all.” “Very well, then, if it was to please me, then you have indeed succeeded.”22 He promptly kissed her again.

Napoleon remained obsessed by her jewels and dress. He regularly interfered in what she wore, pulling her low-cut gowns from her wardrobe and tearing her shawl, even throwing clothing into the fire if he thought it ugly. He would erupt into her room and demand that she change her gown or jewelry for no particular reason, forcing her to try on outfit after outfit until he was content. “I care only for the people who are useful to me—and only so long as they are useful,” he said on St. Helena.23 He loved Josephine—but she was also beneficial to him.

THE GREAT EMPEROR was still jealous of Hippolyte Charles and would never hear his name mentioned. On one occasion, he was walking with General Duroc, and his face paled as he gripped the general’s arm. Duroc thought he was about to faint and was going to hurry for help, but the emperor silenced him furiously. Napoleon had seen Hippolyte Charles in a passing carriage—the first time he had laid eyes on the dandy since Italy.

Though Napoleon guarded and worshipped his wife, he demanded that a steady stream of beautiful young women be available in the chamber next to his. He refused to allow his wife or her spies inside. Constant would answer the door, saying firmly, “I have orders to let no one in, not even Her Majesty the Empress.” Actresses, courtiers, ladies-in-waiting, dancers, and ladies of fashion: Few refused Napoleon’s call, even though his lovemaking was brusque and he lost interest almost as soon as he had conquered a woman. The women were instructed not to wear perfume and often had to wait for him having already undressed, so that matters could be speedily conducted. They hoped for jewels, influence, and money; they were curious about the great man himself; and of course they wished to prove themselves more beautiful than Josephine.

Though Josephine resolved not to be jealous, she struggled, for not only did Napoleon conduct his affairs with flamboyant indiscretion, he also liked to acquaint her with every detail. As he fiddled with her makeup pots or vandalized her shawls, he would talk about his latest infatuation, praising the other woman’s beauty and asking Josephine what she knew about her. Within a few days of sleeping with a new mistress, he would be telling his wife of the conquest with, as Madame de Rémusat said, “the most indecent openness.” Then he would describe “the physical imperfections and anatomical peculiarities,” as well as his thoughts on the “performance” of the ladies—information he shared with his male courtiers as well. Most of the women were half Josephine’s age, and nothing was more painful to her than hearing of lissome bodies that had not yet aged, luxuriant hair when hers was thinning and growing gray, and faces that were always bright, even in the morning. He seemed to have no particular preference for brunettes or blondes. Any pretty girl would do.

Josephine also had to watch the progress of her husband’s love affairs, as he would often attend her salon in the evening and play cards or talk with his latest lady while his wife tried not to stare from the other side of the room. She pretended calm, but she could hardly bear his behavior and spent thousands on hiring others to watch and inform on his activities, much to the anger of her husband, who railed at how “she humiliates both herself and me by surrounding me with spies.”24 The empress demanded that her ladies-in-waiting write anonymous letters to Napoleon, reproaching him for his behavior (wisely, the ladies secretly burned the letters after they had written them), and when she knew he was with one of his mistresses, she would torment herself, weeping that she would be cast into oblivion and disgrace, forced out, and divorced.

As he began to tire of his conquest and turn his eye to another willing actress or lady-in-waiting, he would ask Josephine to help him let the woman down gently and tell her she was no longer needed: the coward’s way out. The price of Josephine’s continued presence as empress and consort was her willingness to forgive, even enable, Napoleon’s affairs. His desire for women had become so well known that people would thrust pretty girls in his way to gain influence, just as they had done with the old despotic kings. Courtiers sent their wives to flirt with him in the hope of finding out his plans. Napoleon had started offering thousands of francs as little presents to those he took for the night; men were throwing their wives, lovers, and even daughters at him for money and favors. Some women even tried to seduce members of his entourage as a way of getting to him. But what he really wanted were the women who did not wish for him, those whom he could slap, compel, or browbeat into being his mistresses.

Napoleon claimed that his affairs meant nothing, though some women did gain power from their new status. When a woman received particular favor, she naturally became a focus for courtiers and ministers who needed assistance. One Madame de X was a royalist spy, eager to undermine the Jacobins, and ready to “abuse the indulgence” of the emperor by taking action to further the exiled king’s cause. As she knew, the way to please the ever suspicious Napoleon was to share gossip about plots against him, so she invented tales about certain courtiers and “many persons were ruined during her spell of favor.”25 Josephine was fearful of Madame de X and thought she had used her influence to try and send Eugène on an impossible mission. Luckily for her, Napoleon grew weary of Madame’s telltale tongue before she could do any lasting damage, and he asked Josephine to put an end to the affair. The empress did so, generously informing Madame de X that she wouldn’t hold any grudges.

Napoleon was too hardened to offer love to a susceptible woman and too ambitious and sexist to give a determined one a chance at power. The actresses who could use the liaison to win publicity came off the best of all. For, as Napoleon said, “Women shall have no influence at my Court; they may dislike me but I shall have peace and quietness.”26 He thought ladies “ornamental at fetes and that was about all.”27 He never forgot his position as an excluded young man in the post-revolutionary years, and he was not about to let any woman gain power over him now. “Women belong to the highest bidder,” he said contemptuously. “Power is what they desire … I take them and then forget them.”28 He often sounded more like an ancien régime roué than a great emperor.

The Bonapartes were delighted by Napoleon’s constant affairs; they were always seeking ways to lure him away from “la vieille.” At the end of 1805, Caroline Murat introduced her brother to Eléonore Denuelle, a tall, dark-eyed eighteen-year-old who was a pupil of Madame Campan’s (her fomer students were very popular with the emperor). Eléonore’s husband of only a few months was in prison, which was very convenient for the emperor. When he took a fancy to her, the Murats speedily ensured her divorce and set her up as his lover. Caroline installed Eléonore in her house just outside Paris so that Napoleon could visit whenever he pleased. Fashionable gossips felt sorry for Eléonore, the virtual prisoner of the Murats, and decided her the victim of “boudoir conscription.” She herself so dreaded the visits of the pale, dull emperor, who had nothing of interest to say, that she set the clock in her bedroom half an hour forward whenever she heard he was on his way.

Caroline installed Eléonore to distract Napoleon from Josephine, and in the hope that the girl might get pregnant. Josephine had been crowned now, and Napoleon answered—when the family complained—that he would marry a new wife only after Josephine died. Unfortunately for them, she was healthy and lithe and nowhere near death. The only way they could drag Napoleon from her side was by proving that he could sire a child with another woman.

The family’s hatred of Josephine was such that they were blind to their own advantage. If Napoleon divorced his wife and married another woman, any potential child would be his heir, and his brothers and their children would be displaced from the succession. To conserve their interests, they should have bitten their tongues and pretended esteem for Josephine. Simply put, they deluded themselves that Napoleon could not father a child, so they continued in their campaign against his wife, thereby pursuing everybody’s interests but their own.

The emperor had a wandering eye. Bonaparte chased after his wife’s pretty blond niece, seventeen-year-old Stéphanie de Beauharnais, another alumna of Madame Campan. That, for Josephine, was going too far; when she realized his interest, she immediately began hunting for a husband for Stéphanie. Her ideal suitor was one living far from France.

The poor state of Hortense’s marriage did not help her mother’s cause. The couple was hopelessly out of sorts. Louis was growing sicker and more irritable every day. Even when they were not overtly at odds, they spent time apart. At Saint-Leu, their country estate, Hortense lived, as a visitor found, “lonely, ill and always afraid of letting some word at which he might be offended escape her.”29 She loved music and drawing and often entertained her old school friends at her salon, but nothing could truly comfort her. She clung to the fact that she had been hard done by but had never been never cruel herself. As she put it, “I have wept greatly, but I have never caused others to weep.”30

Louis hated Josephine and told his wife that if she ever had any close contact with her mother, he would separate her from their son and shut her up in an out-of-the-way place; he warned that she must not complain to Napoleon. He spied on her and constantly upbraided her. “You are a woman, consequently a being all made up of evil and deceit,” he said. “You are the daughter of an unprincipled mother; you belong to a family that I loathe; are these not reasons enough to suspect you?”31

Worst of all, when Louis was suffering from a painful skin disease, he forced her to share his bed, even though the doctors told him not to. He even talked of lying in bed wearing the horribly dirty tunic of a similarly infected man (as he believed it could cure him) and said Hortense had to join him. Napoleon asked his brother to treat his wife more kindly, and Louis refused, threatening to leave France altogether. Hortense and her husband were ill matched, desperately unhappy, and far beyond the simplistic suggestions of patience and mutual understanding that Josephine and Napoleon advised. Josephine sent Hortense a letter almost deluded in its naïveté: “Why show this repugnance to Louis? Instead of making matters worse with complaining, why not try patience and kindness?” True, she had been able to surmount Napoleon’s rages with gentleness, but that was because he loved her. Louis had never loved Hortense—and he had no desire to treat her fairly. “You wish that he resembled his brother,” Josephine sighed. She blamed the failure of the marriage (which she had arranged) on Louis’s illnesses: “If poor Louis’s digestion were better, he would be much more amiable.”32

“I hear no more of Hortense than if she were on the Congo,” complained Napoleon. Her silence was because she was unhappy and nervous.33 Underneath all the anger was Louis’s resentment that he had been forced by his brother to marry the daughter of the witch Josephine. Paranoid and humiliated by the rumors that his wife had been his brother’s mistress, he took his rage out on her. Napoleon had expected that the marriage would stop that particular gossip, but the British press and the anti-Napoleonic parties, as well as some courtiers, kept it going. After all, he seduced without compunction, and Josephine had been an infamous mistress—why would Hortense be any different? Hortense grew so distressed by the constant accusations that she came to wonder if her mother believed them. “How could you ever imagine that I share certain absurd, or perhaps, interested opinions?” Josephine wrote. “Surely you cannot believe that I look upon you as my rival?”34 If they had ever been rivals, it was Josephine who’d won.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!