Biographies & Memoirs


“The Single Object in My Heart”

Josephine’s second marriage was a quiet affair in a dingy town hall.

Once stylish, the Hôtel du Mondragon was situated in a small road off the Avenue de l’Opéra and was serving as the town hall of the second municipal district of Paris. The grand paneling on the walls was faded, and the great chandelier had fallen into disrepair.

Josephine arrived at the arranged time of eight P.M. on March 9, 1796. She wore one of her cherished muslin dresses with a tricolor sash. Napoleon had not yet arrived. Josephine waited in a room on the second floor reserved for civil marriages, watching the faces of the witnesses, Tallien and Barras, fall into shadow as the candles sputtered and died.

Napoleon still did not appear. There was nowhere to sit, no refreshments, and the registrar, Charles Leclercq, grew increasingly annoyed. Finally, he declared the wait insupportable and retired to bed, instructing his subordinate to take the ceremony. Josephine continued to wait, growing somewhat impatient. At ten o’clock, they heard the front door creak and then the unmistakable noise of Napoleon clambering up the stairs. He burst into the room, accompanied by an aide. He had been drawing up military plans for the Army of Italy, so inspired by his own genius and so caught up in his imagination that he had entirely forgotten the time, he said. Josephine was hardly pleased, but she forgave him, outwardly, and the ceremony was conducted by Leclercq’s minion, Antoine Lacombe, his eyes nearly closing in the light of the one remaining candle.

This was Napoleon’s attempt at making Josephine’s position in the relationship clear to her: She must wait for him. However, he found a way to make it up to her—the marriage certificate added eighteen months to his age and knocked four years off hers, making him twenty-eight and her a few months short of twenty-nine. He gave her a gold and enamel medallion engraved “To destiny.”

Legally, the wedding was unsound. Because of the difficulty of obtaining documents from abroad, the officials waived the need for certificates of baptism and instead took sworn statements. Josephine’s birth date was given as 1767 and Napoleon’s as February 5, 1768 (not August 15, 1769); this would have made her a child at the time of her first marriage and Napoleon only a month younger than his brother Joseph. Still worse, Napoleon’s aide had not reached the age of majority and should not have been a witness. To add to it all, Lacombe probably was not qualified to conduct the marriage.

Napoleon declared it all excellent and whisked Josephine back to 6 rue Chantereine. He hoped for a night of passion, but Fortuné had other plans. In the bedroom, Josephine’s mulish pug perched on the bed and would not be moved. As Napoleon recalled, “I was told frankly that I must sleep elsewhere or share the bed with him.” Josephine was not in the mood to be merciful. “Take it or leave it,” she said.1 Napoleon tried to thrust the dog aside, and the pug promptly bit him on the shin.

The day after the wedding, the Bonapartes drove to Saint-Germain to break the news to Eugène and then Hortense. Eugène was cool and Hortense wept. Napoleon treated them gently, wandering with them over the grounds and asking them about their studies. “Assure them that I love them as if they were my own children,” he wrote to Josephine.2 It was not hard to love the two Beauharnais teenagers. Eugène was a good-looking young man, dutiful, gentle, and obedient, with a strong sense of responsibility. No intellectual, he was hardworking and naturally contented, and his rather small stature was pleasing to Napoleon—the last thing he wanted was a strapping stepson towering over him. Hortense was the pet of Madame Campan’s school, already tall, pretty, with beautiful, thick fair hair and fine skin. She was lively and gay and excellent at her studies, with a particular skill for drawing and singing. Napoleon put her weeping down to youthful mood swings and was confident he would win them both over.

Josephine had been single for eight years, and on her second day as a married woman, she found herself bidding Napoleon farewell. On March 11, he engaged with military plans and visitors all day; that evening, he briefly seized his bride in his arms, then gathered his belongings and climbed into a carriage bound for Italy. His baggage contained eight thousand livres in gold coins—and a miniature of his beloved. He longed for her to come to Italy. Unfortunately, the Directory had withheld Josephine’s passport, and she could not travel. They wished Napoleon to concentrate on the task at hand: conquering Italy.

Napoleon set off, obsessively planning military strategy and passionately scribbling to Josephine in his spare moments. “You are the constant object of my thoughts,” he wrote to her a few days after his departure. “My mind is exhausted imagining what you are doing. If I see you sad, my heart is torn and my grief mounts. If you are gay and lively with your friends, I am full of reproaches.” As he put it, “I am not easy to make content.” He forswore his ego for her. “The illnesses, the passions of men influence me only when I imagine them touching you, my love.” He signed off with “a thousand kisses.”3

After a week’s travel, Napoleon halted to visit his mother in Marseilles. Josephine had written her a sweet letter of introduction, but Madame Letizia was not impressed. The family all preferred Désirée Clary, who was docile and easily influenced. The notorious and famously extravagant Madame de Beauharnais, a fashion plate who already had two children, was far too audacious and too old. Indeed, she was only thirteen years Letizia’s junior. Napoleon was the family’s main breadwinner, and they saw Josephine as a threat to their own chances of becoming rich through him. Still, Letizia accepted that she had no choice in the matter and wrote a reply to Josephine, with Napoleon standing at her shoulder to dictate the words. Josephine, with her soft voice, her tears, and her “zig-zags,” had won. Napoleon had chosen the woman most likely to annoy his family and staked a claim for independence.

On March 27, he arrived in Nice and greeted his senior officers. He stood in front of the raggle-taggle group of soldiers and promised them land, riches, and victory. But thoughts of his wife were never far from his mind.

Not a day has passed without my loving you, without holding you in my arms. Every time I drink a cup of tea, I curse the glory and ambition that keeps me from the soul of my existence. In the middle of business, at the head of my troops, reviewing the camps, my wonderful Josephine is the single object in my heart, occupation of my soul, absorbs my thoughts.4

The letters flooded into the rue Chantereine. Josephine’s responses were rather slower, but when they arrived, they filled Napoleon with glee:

How can you think, my darling, of writing me like this? Don’t you think I’m in a bad enough state as it is without further increasing my sadness and confounding my reason? What eloquence, what feeling you portray; they are fiery, they inflame my poor heart! My incomparable Josephine, away from you there is no joy—away from you the world is a wilderness in which I am alone and without experiencing the bliss of unburdening my soul. You have robbed me of more than my soul, you are the only thought of my life.5

All of Napoleon’s untapped literary ability came pouring out in the letters. “By what art have you learned to entrance all my faculties, to concentrate in yourself my spiritual existence—it is witchcraft, dear love, which will only end with me. To live for Josephine, that is the story of my life.”6

Josephine had never read anything so romantic, so heavy with longing. Napoleon was experiencing the exhilarating pleasure of pure physical passion. It was first love in every sense of the word. He sent her letters spilling love, and mused on the meaning of life.7

Napoleon had a policy of bundling his letters into a basket to read a few weeks later, on the principle that merely a fifth would need answering by then.8 But he seized Josephine’s letters the minute they arrived, devoured them for details about her. He could hardly believe she was his wife; he was initially too shy to call her by her new name. Even though the old addresses of Monsieur and Madame had returned, his early letters in the campaign were directed to “Citoyenne Beauharnais,” then “Citoyenne Bonaparte care of Citoyenne Beauharnais.”

He threw a tantrum when he thought her cool. “I am not happy with your last letter, it is as chilly as one from a friend. I have not found that fire which kindles your looks, and which I have sometimes believed I found there.”9 He was always begging for more. “If you loved me, you would write twice a day. But you have to chat with your gentlemen callers at ten in the morning and then listen to the empty gossip and silly nonsense of a hundred dandies until an hour past midnight.” He complained that in “countries with any morals,” women were home at ten and “write to their husbands, think of them, live for them.”10 He could have easily found such a biddable woman. He chose Josephine—independent, difficult, and cool—because he adored a challenge. And he was her sexual slave. “A kiss to the heart, then lower, much, much lower.11

NAPOLEON’S INITIAL MILITARY campaigns in Italy were not successful, but he played down his failures in his letters to Barras and the Directory. He soon had better luck, and the Italians began to flee their cities as he approached. On April 21, Barras wrote to Josephine with the news that nearly four thousand enemy soldiers had been imprisoned or killed. Two days later, Napoleon wrote to Josephine describing his victories and asking her to join him. “Come quickly. I warn you: if you are late, you will find me ill.”12 He informed her that Jean-Andoche Junot, his aide and a very able commander, was returning to Paris to deliver the flags of victory to the Directory, and she should return with him. If she did not, “I will suffer misery without remedy.”13

Josephine was content in Paris with her friends and had no desire for the hardships of travel. Her father-in-law, the Marquis de Beauharnais, and Aunt Edmée were due to be married in June (thanks to the recent death of the marquis’s wife), and she wished to enjoy the summer holidays with her children, not as a camp follower. She was spending thousands of francs on renovating the house at rue Chantereine, employing the fashionable architect Vautier to overhaul the interiors and create new furniture. She embraced a sickly-sweet decor worthy of Madame de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV. Her bedroom walls were painted with swans and pink roses, and the room was adorned with bronze chairs and a new harp. Next door was a dressing room entirely covered with mirrors. She bought a fine mahogany table for the dining room and matching chairs, along with two marble-topped side tables. She had a free hand: Napoleon had approved her plan to redecorate and suggested only that she “put portraits of yourself everywhere.”14

Moreover, Josephine had a newfound celebrity status to exploit. As the wife of a military hero, she was cheered and feted; poets wrote long verses to her, and she was besieged with presents and invitations. Merchants extended her credit. She, not Madame Tallien, was now the most sought-after woman in Paris, the guest everyone desired at dinners and parties. In May, the Directory threw a ball to celebrate Napoleon’s victories. “Vive la citoyenne Bonaparte!” cried the people as they saw her. One woman told her that she was “Notre Dame des Victoires.” The name “Our Lady of Victories” stuck and was Josephine’s until her death.

With such accolades and stardom, she had no desire to trek out to Italy, though Napoleon’s letters begging her to come were wildly passionate. “My life is a perpetual nightmare,” he wrote. “I have lost more than life, more than happiness.”15 He blamed “perfidious friends” for keeping her away from him.16 He would not hold back. “To die without being loved by you, to die without that certainty, is the torment of hell.”17 When he saw that the glass covering his miniature of Josephine was broken, he cried, “my wife is either very ill or unfaithful.”18

Napoleon’s appeals failed, and General Murat was sent to persuade Josephine to leave for Italy. She told Murat she had been unwell—with symptoms similar to pregnancy. A man fixated by his virility, Napoleon was thrilled. “I wish I could see your little stomach,” he blustered, “it will make you look fascinating.”19 Unfortunately, Josephine’s fevers, headaches, and irregular menstruation were not caused by pregnancy. She was only thirty-three, but her health had been wrecked by her period of imprisonment and weakened further by her years as a kept mistress, during which time she was using contraceptive measures such as noxious douches. She was in all likelihood infertile by the time of her marriage. In the years to come, Napoleon would hanker after the return of her “little red sea,” and she would lie to him about its frequency.

Josephine’s letters soon dwindled to a trickle. In June, she sent only two, of three lines each. Poor Napoleon begged for more. “As if a pretty woman would give up her habits, her friends, Madame Tallien, a dinner with Barras and Fortuné,” he complained bitterly to her.20 He gained further victories but dolefully sought after his Josephine. “It’s impossible that you inspired a limitless love and don’t share it.”21 As his friend Marmont said of him, “He spoke frequently of her and his love, with the effusion, ardor, and the delusions of extreme youth.”22 “Without you, I am useless here. I will leave the chase after glory and serving the country to others.” It was all a picture of romantic despair. “A thousand daggers are ripping my heart to bits.”23 He even dreamed of being her shoes and her gown. When she still did not reply, his letters grew wilder, and Josephine threw them aside, weary with his “delirium.” Once she read out to her friends a letter in which he fretted about a rival and threatened to take an Othello-style revenge. She simply laughed and said, “He is funny, Bonaparte.”24 Napoleon cried out about lovers, desperate for her to reassure him she was faithful. “Stay in Paris, have lovers—let everybody know it.”25

Napoleon was no fool, although people often took him for one. Usually correct in his judgments, he was hardly ever wrong about Josephine. “Our Lady of Victories” was indeed having an affair. In April, she had met a handsome soldier, Hippolyte Charles, when he had accompanied General Leclerc to call on her. Twenty-three and eager to please, a lieutenant in the Hussars, a gambler, a man-about-town, and a dandy, Hippolyte was rather small but extraordinarily good-looking, with a chiseled face, fine blue eyes, and dark hair. He was persnickety about his dress—men sneered that he was a coxcomb, a hairdresser dancing attendance on the ladies—but he was immediately part of the circle of victory heroines. “We are all smitten, Mmes Récamier, Tallien, Hamelin have all lost their heads, the man is so handsome,” Josephine wrote to Talleyrand. “I think that there is no one in the world who ties his cravat with more aplomb.”26 Few men could have provided a greater contrast to scruffy, ugly Napoleon. Hippolyte asked questions about fashion and hairstyles and always knew the latest gossip. He reveled in jokes, never a forte of Napoleon’s, and played schoolboy pranks, pouring glue into the scabbard of Junot, Napoleon’s aide, and pretending to be a Creole in Josephine’s salon. As a young soldier at the Battle of Valmy, he had been nicknamed l’Eveille because of his talent to amuse: He woke everybody up.

Hippolyte pursued Josephine avidly, but with languid charm rather than the wild passion of Napoleon. Unlike her husband, who cheerfully rode roughshod over her opinions, Hippolyte was more deferential and liked to listen to Josephine converse. By the summer, they were lovers. The man all her friends wanted was too enticing a conquest to resist. Instead of writing to her husband, she was spending her mornings and afternoons with the best-dressed man in Paris.

Through Hippolyte, Josephine had also found a terribly risky way of making money. There was very little cash in the government coffers to fight the wars against Austria, so companies sprang up that would supply horses, uniforms, and weapons and accept payment much later, usually with interest added. One of these was owned by Louis Bodin of Lyon. All of the companies fleeced the government, but Bodin was one of the worst offenders; invoices were changed after submission, and men in the field would open boxes and find blunt, rusty weapons. Instead of horses, he sent donkeys seized from French peasants. Despite such shocking practices, Bodin continued in business because he paid bribes to the ministers and generals in charge. He used Hippolyte to pursue relationships with army paymasters—and his employee’s relationship with the wife of the man who made all the decisions was a gift to him (it is not impossible that Hippolyte chased her to further his career). Josephine began taking kickbacks from Bodin in return for smoothing relations with her husband’s colleagues. She earned money to pay off her debts and buy herself elegant outfits that she could wear at balls as the Lady of the Victories.

All the while, Napoleon called for her presence. Josephine was hesitant, and the government was still withholding permission for her to travel. Finally, in May, the Directory wrote to Napoleon: “It is with great reluctance that we yield to the desire of citoyenne Bonaparte to join you. We were afraid that the attention she would give you would distract from the glory and safety of your country.”27 But the permission came too late; Josephine was in love with Hippolyte.

On May 15, Napoleon entered Milan in triumph. At a dinner on the previous night, the hostess had commented on his youth. He shrugged that he was indeed “not very old at present—twenty-seven,” but he would be much older in twenty-four hours, as he would gain Milan (or mille ans).28

He declared that he wished for Italian unification, but he presided over an orgy of looting. Carts of paintings, bronzes, statues, and jewels were packed up by his soldiers and sent back to France. On May 6, he had asked the Directory “for a few reputable artists to take charge of choosing and transporting all the beautiful things we shall see fit to send to Paris.”29 Artists and scholars, including Antoine Gros, arrived and drew up lists of prizes. Every conquered city and state surrendered its treasures. The pope handed over twenty-one million francs’ worth of gold, a hundred paintings and objets d’art, and eighty-three statues, including the breathtaking Apollo Belvedere. Napoleon also took five hundred manuscripts, including one by Virgil that had belonged to Petrarch and contained his notes (Bonaparte initially wanted two thousand, but the artists suggested he moderate his demands). The Duke of Parma gave up Correggio’s Dawn and fifteen other pieces, including the same artist’s Madonna di San Geralamo, much to the distress of the people of Parma. Napoleon personally demanded Raphael’s Madonna di Foligno from Perugia. Venice lost its bronze horses from the Piazza San Marco. Works by Giorgione, Raphael, Leonardo, Lippi, and Titian, among others, all created to glorify the Italian city-state, were seized by Napoleon and packed off to France. Even private citizens found their walls empty of paintings when they returned to the homes they had fled.

Nearly every week saw congratulatory articles in the French press, some written by Bonaparte himself, about the brilliant seizures of art in Italy. He and his soldiers claimed lofty ideals: True art belonged in France, the land of liberty and the home of man’s cultural patrimony, rather than in the corrupt Italian state. He had received a command from the Directory that he should send back art “in order to strengthen and embellish the reign of liberty.”30 He knew that it humiliated Italy to lose cultural treasures to him—and he wanted some of the pieces for himself. Just as millions of the francs he stole went into his own pocket (possibly only a fifth of the money made its way back to the government), he was seizing works of art for the Louvre, the Directory, and most of all for Josephine. It was Italy that made her a true collector.

But still she did not write. Napoleon’s letters hurtled into the silence. “I received a courier who left Paris on 27 May, and I have had no response, no news of my bonne amie. Could she have forgotten me or forgotten that there is no greater torment than not to have a letter from mio dolce amore? They gave me a great party here; five or six hundred elegant and beautiful ladies tried to charm me; none had that sweet and harmonious face which I have engraved on my heart. I saw only you, I thought only of you!”31 He asked after the progress of her pregnancy. “I imagine constantly that I see you, with your little round tummy.”32 Josephine read the letter and set it aside. He also wrote of his feelings to his brother Joseph. “You know that I have never been in love before, that Josephine is the first woman I have adored.” It was all dreadful. “If she doesn’t love me anymore, there is nothing left for me.”33

By June, Napoleon had endured enough. He said he would leave at once for Paris. Josephine ignored the letter, as she did most of his letters, and continued dallying with Hippolyte. Enraged, Napoleon threatened the Directory that he would return home. “I hate all women. I am in despair!” he roared to Barras. Barras needed Napoleon to win victories in Italy, so he swung into action. On June 24, Barras informed Josephine that she would have to travel immediately. She would have to leave her household—and her children—behind. He threw her a grand dinner at the Luxembourg Palace two days later, then pushed her into a carriage. Josephine wept and protested and wore the expression of someone about to be sent to the scaffold.

Still, she had one consolation. In the first carriage, along with her cross little dog, Fortuné, was Hippolyte Charles, resplendent in his powder-blue uniform and scarlet sash.

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