Biographies & Memoirs


A Million Kisses

“I have had the most difficult journey possible,” Josephine complained. “I had a fever on mounting the carriage and was sad besides.”1 As her six coaches of attendants, luggage, jewels, and dresses rumbled through France, Hippolyte was apparently her only consolation—he was returning as aide-de-camp to General Leclerc. By day, he and Josephine had to content themselves with smoldering looks and surreptitious touches of the hand, for they were escorted by Napoleon’s brother Joseph. By night, they took adjoining rooms at inns and slipped into each other’s chambers.

Joseph did not notice the nighttime creakings. He was preoccupied with scribbling away on the draft of a novel and nursing a painful venereal infection. Josephine’s maid, Louise Compoint—one of the four servants accompanying her—did observe her mistress’s behavior, but she was distracted by a romance with the womanizing Junot, who was leading the escort. Certainly, it was clear to many that Hippolyte was in love with Josephine and that he sulked every time she talked to anyone but him. Antoine Hamelin, a friend of Napoleon, felt unhappy seeing Bonaparte, already “covered in a glory that he reflected on his wife,” becoming the “rival of a two-bit little man” who “had nothing to offer but a good figure and the elegance of a wig maker’s boy.”2

Finally, two weeks after their departure, Josephine arrived at the gates of Milan. She was met by huge crowds, and she responded as well as she could to the wild applause, trying to hide her misery that Hippolyte was set to leave for the army headquarters of Brescia. Napoleon was still away fighting, but he had decorated the Serbelloni Palace with flowers and filled the garden with new plants for her. The walls were decked with stolen Italian art.

A few days later, he arrived, and the pair spent the third night of their married life together. Josephine was elegant in her clinging dress, quite obviously not pregnant. The hero was so delighted to be in her arms again that he did not complain about her deception. She marshaled her charms to full advantage, flattering him, listening to his descriptions of military plans, and pretending to be jealous of the beautiful Italian women who came to Napoleon’s court. Napoleon was more obsessed than ever. He would often leap away from his papers and, as poor Hamelin blushed to report, play with her as if she were a child and “overwhelm her with such rough caresses that I would go to the window.”3 But only four days after she arrived, Napoleon was off to battle again, and Josephine was left alone once more. “I am dying of boredom here in the middle of the superb parties given to me,” Josephine bemoaned, missing the Talliens, Barras, and her children.4 Uncomfortable with the large household the Italians had given her, she discharged the staff and set up a much smaller establishment. Napoleon continued to send billowing letters of romance from the front line, ranting about men who might admire her and waxing lyrical over her bodily delights. “I thought that I loved you but now that I have seen you again, I love you a thousand times more,” he vaunted. “Your charms burn my heart and my senses.” He suggested she become more flawed, “less beautiful, less gracious,” and “never be jealous, never cry, your tears carry away all reason and burn up my blood.”5

Napoleon’s hysterical passion was no comfort for Josephine. She wrote to her aunt: “My husband doesn’t love me, he worships me. I think he will go mad. I have seen him only briefly, he is terribly busy.”6 On July 24, he finally gave Josephine her freedom from her gilded prison and instructed her to come to Cassano. On the way, of course, she would have to stop at Brescia, her chance to see Hippolyte Charles. Napoleon declared his jealousy: “I have been told that you have known for a long time and very well that gentleman you recommended to me for a business venture. If that was the case then you would be a monster.” But he did not really believe she had been unfaithful; he just enjoyed creating a drama. He finished the letter, “a thousand kisses everywhere, everywhere.”7

Josephine was on the way to Cassano when she and Hamelin spotted Austrian soldiers nearby. The commander overseeing her journey, General Guillaume, told her that he could not keep her safe and ordered her to leave immediately. She refused to do so until she had word from Napoleon. When he heard that the Austrians were moving toward the town, he sent Junot to tell her to travel to Castelnuovo, accompanied by dragoons. As they traveled, Junot saw an Austrian gunboat on a lake, turning to face its fire at them. He leaped from the carriage and pushed Josephine and her maid into a ditch. The two women had to crawl along under cover until the boat had passed. Hamelin was shocked that “this woman so futile, so occupied with pleasures,” could actually be courageous. “Madame Bonaparte did not display one moment of weakness. Her only thoughts and worries were for the life, the glory, of her husband.”8 At Castelnuovo, she threw herself, weeping, into Napoleon’s arms. He then packed her and Hamelin off to Tuscany, again escorted by dragoons. On a stop in Florence, her house was invaded by eager locals, who had heard outlandish rumors that she was traveling with the dead body of her husband and wanted to see the corpse with their own eyes.

On August 5, Josephine traveled through Tuscany and at last reached Brescia. After a decisive battle at Castiglione, Napoleon sent word for her to meet him at his base in Cremona. Josephine pleaded that she was exhausted, unable to travel the twenty-five miles to her husband. She asked for one night in Brescia. That evening she had an intimate dinner with Hamelin and Hippolyte Charles. When the men were about to depart, she called Hippolyte back to attend to her. Hamelin later returned to retrieve his hat, and a grenadier refused him entry. Josephine was back in Hippolyte’s embrace.

One night was barely enough, but Josephine had to continue her journey. The next day, she and her husband met at Cremona and she was once more subjected to his passionate caresses. When he set off again, he was not reassured. She returned to the palace in Milan, and he accused her of writing to him as coldly “as if we had been married for fifteen years.”9 When no reply came, he spiraled into a predictable rage. “You are mean and ugly, very ugly, above all you are shallow. It is evil to deceive a poor husband, a tender lover!”10

Josephine may have been a poor correspondent and dawdling with another man, but in Milan she played the wife of the great conquering Frenchman to perfection. She presided over balls and receptions and received delegations. They showered her with gifts, hoping she would win over her husband. The king and queen of Naples sent a set of flawless pearls, and the Duke of Modena offered gold worth thirty million francs if he were permitted to keep one Correggio painting. The pope addressed her as his “daughter in God” and gave her cameos.

Josephine still longed for Paris. “All the Princes of Italy give me parties,” she wrote to her aunt. “Well I would rather be a private citizen in France. I care not for honours bestowed in this country.” And yet she knew she was ungrateful in her hankering to be elsewhere. “My husband is all day in adoration before me as if I were a goddess and there could not possibly be a better husband.”11 She wrote often to Barras, ending most of her letters, “Bonaparte sends you many messages; he still adores me.”

Two days after his majestic victory at Arcola, Napoleon wrote to his wife. “I am going to bed with my heart full of your adorable image,” he scribbled. “I would be so happy if I could help undress you, small shoulder, small white breast, supple, very firm, the pretty little face and the hair tied up in a scarf à la créole. You know that I always remember the little visits, you know, the little black forest … I kiss it a thousand times and wait impatiently for the moment I will be in it. To live within Josephine is to live in the Elysian fields.” He finished with “Kisses on your mouth, your eyelids, your shoulder, your breast, everywhere, everywhere!”12

On November 23, he wrote again. “I hope that in a few days you will be in my arms, and I will cover you with a million kisses, flaming like the equator.” Josephine did not receive the letter. Napoleon didn’t know it, but she had gone to Genoa to see Hippolyte Charles. On November 27, Napoleon arrived at the Serbelloni Palace and dashed up the stairs to see his beloved. The bedchamber was empty. He was so shocked he almost fainted. When he came around, the servants told him she was in Genoa.

“I get to Milan, I fling myself into your room; I have left everything to see you, to hold you in my arms … You were not there, you were off somewhere or other in town,” he wrote. He declared his heart was broken. “The unhappiness I feel is incalculable.”13The next day, he wrote once more.

While I give to you all my desires, all my thoughts, every second of my life, I submit to the power that your charms, your character, and your whole person have over my poor heart. I am wrong if nature, unkind to me, has not given me the attraction needed to captivate you, but what I deserve from Josephine is respect, esteem and compassion.14

NAPOLEON GAVE FULL rein to his dramatic spirit, but there is no mistaking the sincerity of his feeling. Although he was too proud to believe that she would betray him, his painful cry that nature “has not given me the attraction needed to captivate you” was a difficult admission for a man of his vanity. His despair was writ large on his body. A young general arrived in Milan and was shocked to find him “haggard, thin, the skin sticking to his bones, the eyes shining with a constant fever.”15

On December 7, Josephine finally returned. Once she was in front of him weeping on her knees, insisting she was true, he forgave her in an instant. He could not seriously believe she would be unfaithful. She threw a grand ball for him, and mollified, he turned his mind back to military planning. “The army is without shoes,” Napoleon wrote heatedly, “without pay, without clothes, the hospitals lack everything, our wounded are lying on the floors.”16 It was the consequence of using companies like Bodin’s: There was no flour, and men were scouting in the hedges for food.

Despite the poor supplies, Napoleon’s winter campaign was successful, and the Corsican turned his attention to Austria. The Directory wished him to invade the country from the south, in order to meet the French Army of the Rhine. While Josephine remained in Milan, he advanced quickly toward Vienna and was within a hundred miles of his target by the end of March. On March 26, he offered an armistice to the Austrians. He signed a treaty the following month without writing to the Directory.

In May, keen to celebrate his victories, Bonaparte moved his war court from Milan to the castle of Mombello, ten miles away. In Mombello, a castle handsomely decorated with frescoes and luxuriously furnished, he instituted his own court, a carnival of Napoleon. His military success had cast a spell over his supporters, who had become convinced he was all-powerful. As one put it, they thought he gave them “a future without limits.” His reception rooms were always crowded with generals, nobility, and merchants from Italy, begging for the favor of a glance or a brief interview. He dined in public like a king, allowing people to gaze on him from afar. Josephine was always at his side, and he delighted in her knack for performing the role of queen. She took the tributes with grace, led the ladies in the dancing, and won over the enemy and the Frenchmen alike. Every week saw balls, receptions, dinners, and hunting outings, as well as theatrical performances, operas with stars such as Madame Grassini, prima donna of La Scala, and boat outings on Lake Maggiore.

Napoleon spent some of the millions he had stolen on indulging Josephine at Mombello, and he encouraged her to employ gardeners to lay out the grounds. To outsiders, they seemed the perfect couple. Napoleon took “conjugal liberties” with his wife on journeys and jokingly threw “pellets of bread at her during dinner.”17 Josephine, noted a visiting poet, “frequently caresses her husband and he seems devoted to her.”18

All the while, Madame Bonaparte was yearning for Hippolyte. The pint-sized dandy was often at Napoleon’s side, as he had been promoted to captain, and even Josephine did not dare conduct an affair while her husband was present. There were occasional surreptitious kisses and gifts, but these only made the pain of separation worse.

She was more than happy to spend money keeping up the appearances Napoleon desired. Her debts ran into the hundreds of thousands as she patronized the best dressmakers and bought nearly everything offered to her, too lazy and softhearted to haggle.

Josephine was loved, but her pug, Fortuné, had been barking at and threatening the other dogs at Mombello. “I never knew a more horrible animal,” said Josephine’s friend Laure Permond.19 The little dog eventually picked a fight with the cook’s mongrel, and the bigger animal savaged Fortuné to death. Josephine was distraught. It was a sad fate for the heroic pet who had run into Les Carmes prison to find his mistress. Napoleon was exultant at the death of his enemy, but sympathetic Hippolyte secretly bought her a replacement dog, a soft bundle she could embrace while she thought of her lover.

Napoleon hated the new animal. One day while out walking, he saw the cook trying to hide in the bushes. When he asked the reason for the man’s bizarre behavior, he was told that the cook was ashamed of his dog’s crime and afraid that Napoleon might castigate him. Napoleon asked after the dog and was told it had been banned from the grounds of the palace. “Bring him back, perhaps he will rid me of the new one too,” said Napoleon.20

Worse for Josephine, the Bonaparte family had arrived, and proximity was not breeding love. “I have for him the most lively affection,” Napoleon wrote to her of his brother just after their marriage. “I trust he will obtain yours, he merits it.”21 Poor Napoleon was ever hopeful; but though they were divided over so much, the Bonaparte family was united in reviling Josephine. Joseph led their resentment, furious that her spendthrift ways drained Napoleon’s purse. Hundreds of thousands of francs’ worth of confiscated gold and funds ended up in the pockets of the Bonapartes, but still they complained. When Napoleon was made commander in chief in 1795, he had sent sixty thousand francs to his mother and made Joseph consul in Italy and Lucien commissary with the Army of the North. His uncle Cardinal Fesch (only six years Napoleon’s senior, the child of the remarriage of his grandmother) left the priesthood to become a commissary, and in Mombello he was seizing artworks galore.

Joseph acted as the family banker and was obsessed by money. His wife, Julie Clary, was a simple, modest woman, but unfortunately, as Désirée’s sister, she could hardly be Josephine’s ally—although she was pleased by Josephine’s concession of always allowing her to enter a room first. The Bonaparte matriarch, Letizia, spoke Italian all the time and rarely managed a few words of French. Brought low by years of hardship, she was also preoccupied by money. When Napoleon complained, she would shrug: “If ever all of you fall on my hands again, you will thank me for saving now.”22

Elisa was the least troublesome of the sisters, a plain woman whose desperation for power was not as naked as that of her siblings. She had been forced to marry a Corsican officer, thanks to an absence of other suitors, but was little ruffled by her unhappy marriage. She tended to side with Lucien, but she was reasonably harmless, running an intellectual salon in Paris and supporting the author Chateaubriand against Napoleon’s attempt to banish him. She hated Josephine but contented herself with sniping and complaining rather than attempting to overthrow her.

For Letizia and the younger Bonapartes—Louis, Pauline, Caroline, and Jérôme—life had been a struggle, especially after the death of Carlo. Those early years of poverty had scarred them all and made them greedy for money. Louis was sickly, lazy, and in the throes of gonorrhea: Paranoia, sores, and delusions made him a man of “harsh melancholy,” as Josephine’s lady-in-waiting put it.23 Jérôme was the worst of all, a spoiled spendthrift who expected his brother to pay the bills. And then there was Napoleon’s beautiful and aggressive sixteen-year-old sister, Pauline, Josephine’s sworn enemy. Sensual and flirtatious, with a thick Italian accent and a frustratingly vague air, Pauline left a trail of chaos behind her. She loathed Josephine, stuck her tongue out at her in public if she felt like it, and tried to outdo her in diamonds and dresses. Pauline called her sister-in-law “la vieille” (the old lady) behind her back, and every word about Josephine’s beauty grated on her sensibilities. She tried to steal her patterns for gowns from the dressmakers and also attempted to find out her boudoir secrets. “I am as good as she is,” she claimed. “She is only more experienced than I am.” She was obsessed with the politician Louis Fréron, who was heavily associated with Thermidor, twenty-four years her senior, and famous for his mistresses. On June 14, Pauline was married off to the somber General Leclerc, twenty-seven and very responsible. Napoleon hoped he might keep her out of trouble and away from Fréron. It made Pauline dislike Josephine even more, as she believed her sister-in-law to be behind the plan.

By September, Josephine was suffering and even spending was no respite. She was told that Lazare Hoche had died of consumption at only twenty-nine. Hippolyte Charles had gone on campaign with General Leclerc, and she heard that he had begun an affair with an Italian woman. She was very worried, for he still had her love letters. He had the power to expose her to Napoleon, the gloating Bonapartes, and a French public keen to hear scandal.

Back in France, the people were avidly following Bonaparte’s victories. He was still their hero, but the Directory was deeply unpopular. The royalists had won a majority in the assembly of 1797, and the aristocrats were flocking back to the city and talking of restoring the king. Conspirators hung around corners and in clubs, wearing black velvet collars or wielding knotted handkerchiefs to show their allegiances.

Barras knew he was in a vulnerable position. Along with Talleyrand, he suggested that Napoleon might consider a coup d’état to show the Parisians who was in charge. The general shied from suppressing the popular will again, and gave the task to one of his generals, Pierre Augereau. The Directory spread rumors that a monarchist coup was imminent, and on September 3, Parisians awoke to find they were under military rule. Augereau’s troops had laid siege to the assembly, which was being held at the Tuileries. The next day, the deputies were arrested, the newspapers were shut down, and the elections were annulled. It was the end of the idealism of representation that had founded the Revolution of 1789. Over 160 captives described as “enemies” were shot or deported. Ordinary Parisians cowered in their houses, shopkeepers refused to unfasten their shutters. The bloodletting was back.

In October, Napoleon confirmed the peace with Austria. Terrified of the combined might of the French and the Austrians, the Republic of Venice invited Bonaparte to visit in the hope of winning his protection. Unbeknown to them, France had secretly offered to cede Venice to Austria in return for Belgium and Lombardy. Aware that his visit would seem to Venice like tacit protection and that a refusal to go would pitch them into panic, Napoleon sent Josephine as his diplomatic representative.

The woman who once was an uncouth Martinique girl set off in style, after demanding a splendid collection of gowns paid for by army funds. The cost of her wardrobe could have financed two or three months of the campaign. Her huge entourage rumbled off to Venice and was met with an ecstatic welcome. A hundred and fifty thousand people hung out of windows, throwing flowers to her and waving banners. To them, she was as grand as Cleopatra. The following day, in a procession of hundreds of boats decorated with flowers, she went to dine in the open air at the Lido. The city authorities had spent weeks on the preparations. The highlight was a majestic evening of fireworks and another procession along the canal, followed by a grand ball at the Doge’s Palace, where she was the guest of honor. On her return to Passirano, a delegation came to offer her a hundred thousand ducats if she could persuade Napoleon to favor Venice. Josephine even received a handsome diamond ring for a speech she gave in their support. She smiled and nodded, accepted their offerings, entirely aware that Napoleon had already sold the city to Vienna.

In November, Napoleon departed Italy to debate the fate of Germany at Radstadt, and Josephine returned to Paris. Throughout France, she received tributes to Napoleon as towns cheered her arrival and threw magnificent receptions in her honor. She smiled graciously, but her mind was ever elsewhere. Hippolyte Charles galloped after her and joined her at Nevers, his pockets stuffed with smuggled diamonds. He vowed to her that there had been no Italian woman—and now that he was no longer expected to fight in Italy, he could attend Josephine’s whims as they idled across the countryside.

Napoleon arrived in Paris on December 5, exhausted by his victories. He was shocked by his newly renovated home, and not in a pleasant way. Josephine had sent further orders from Italy asking the painter Jacques-Louis David to create a frieze in the salon, and she had been buying more mahogany furniture. The bill reached a huge 300,000 francs, scandalous when the house itself was worth only 40,000. It was fortunate that Napoleon had stolen millions of francs’ worth of gold from Italy. His general’s income was a mere 15,000 francs a year, barely enough to fund Josephine’s makeup.24

All Paris wished to celebrate him. Their street was renamed rue de la Victoire in his honor, and when Hortense arrived to see him, she found “people thronged in such vast numbers to cheer ‘The Conqueror of Italy’ that the sentries stationed in the gateway of the house on the rue de la Victoire could hardly hold them back.”25 Like many women, Madame de Staël had convinced herself that she was the hero’s ideal companion. She wrote him gushing letters comparing him to Scipio and Tancred, described him as “the most extraordinary genius ever seen,” and complained he was married to an “insignificant little Creole, quite incapable of understanding or appreciating his heroic qualities.”26 The last thing Napoleon wanted was a strident, conspicuously clever woman such as Madame de Staël appreciating his heroic qualities, for he found the idea of women meddling in politics simply unbearable. Unfortunately, the more he ignored her, the more she swamped him with letters and, later, waylaid him at balls. When she first heard that Napoleon had returned, she dashed to his house. On being told that she could not enter because he was in the bath, she tried to push her way past, crying, “No matter, genius has no sex!”

Four days after the hero arrived, he was welcomed in a huge ceremony at the Luxembourg Palace. In front of crowds of spectators, Talleyrand presented “the son and hero of the Revolution” to the Directory, declaring him a simple soldier who was uninterested in power. Barras thanked Napoleon for his presence and urged him to go on to conquer Britain.

Talleyrand intended one day to install himself as ruler, and he hoped to use Napoleon as the military ballast to shore up his regime. He decided to cement his association with Napoleon by throwing a scandalously expensive ball to celebrate him, designed and overseen by Bélanger, a fashionable architect, who directed teams of carpenters and painters to remodel and decorate the Hôtel de Galliffet on the rue de Grenelle. Five hundred people were invited, all instructed not to wear any items of clothing from Britain. The ball was due to be held on December 25 and was to be dedicated to Josephine—but by the twenty-fourth, she still had not arrived.

She was spending her time with Hippolyte Charles, traveling slowly so that she could dine intimately with him and sleep longer in the mornings after their nights of passion. More in love with her handsome dandy than ever, she dreaded drawing close to the capital, where she would be separated from him and he would fall prey to other women.

Talleyrand postponed the ball until the twenty-eighth. The food and flowers had to be disposed of and reordered and hundreds of blossoming trees sent away, as they would not last. Servants gleefully pocketed fine breads and desserts from the untouched buffet. By the twenty-seventh, Josephine still had not appeared, and Talleyrand postponed the ball once more.

On January 3, she finally returned. Napoleon was furious, but she wept fetchingly, and as always he forgave her. The ball proceeded. In the first courtyard, the guests saw a great re-creation of a military camp, with soldiers from every regiment in the Army of Italy gathered around a fire. The reception rooms were decorated with stolen Italian art, and Talleyrand himself stood at the center of a staircase draped in myrtle. Napoleon and Josephine entered with Hortense, all plainly dressed, in stark contrast to the magnificent costumes of the other guests. The crowd fell silent at the sight of them. And just before the ball, fireworks shot into the sky and painted “Vive la République” in flaming colors.

When dinner was called at eleven P.M., Talleyrand announced that he would revive, for a single night, the old custom in which the women were seated at the table while the men remained behind them, serving them food and wine. Napoleon gallantly took up his position and impressed the company with his solicitousness. The meal’s toast was to the “Citoyenne who bears the name most dear to glory!” After dinner, Josephine was celebrated in a song as the “dear companion” of the “conquering hero.” Standing, cold and tired, next to her already impatient husband, she had to smile beatifically as she listened to the voices proclaim “By tending to his happiness / You acquit the obligation of France.”

Try as he might, Napoleon could not escape Madame de Staël. She captured him after dinner and demanded, “Which woman in history do you most admire?” He retorted, “The one who has borne the most children,” and marched abruptly away. “Extraordinary man,” she exclaimed, undeterred.

The ball was unforgettable, even for blasé Parisians used to inventive entertainments. The tableaux were beautiful and the food divine, and it was the first night when the company danced the new and risqué waltz. Napoleon, Josephine, and Hortense departed at one A.M., though the party was intended to continue until dawn. Poor Talleyrand was then presented with hundreds of bills, inflated by Josephine’s nonarrival. Bélanger “begged the Minister to observe that the various delays occasioned by the late arrival of Madame Bonaparte caused a very large extra expense for items twice replaced like the 930 trees.” He also had to pay twice for painters, carpenters, masons, candlestick makers, engravers, and gardeners, as well as massive sums for the buffet and musicians.27

Underneath her veneer of graciousness, Josephine was deeply unhappy. She was uncomfortable with her new celebrity, missing Hippolyte Charles and suffering from Napoleon’s fury over the bills for the renovations, as well as her lateness. She was worried about losing his favor—despite her infidelity, she was fond of Napoleon and wished to remain his cherished wife. When she learned that her maid Louise Compoint had been continuing her affair with Napoleon’s aide Junot, she took out her temper on the girl. Josephine was very fond of Louise, and the two had dined together more like companions than mistress and servant. But the news that she was Junot’s lover was too much to bear, and Josephine dismissed her.28 Distraught, Louise began to plot her revenge.

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