She began in the Champagne village of Vaucouleurs about 1743 as Marie-Jeanne Bécu, daughter of Mlle. Anne Bécu, who, it appears, never revealed the father’s identity. Such mysteries were quite frequent in the lower classes. In 1748 Anne moved to Paris and became a cook to M. Dumonceux, who arranged to have Jeanne, aged seven, boarded in the Convent of St.-Anne. There the pretty girl remained for nine years and, it seems, not unhappily; she kept pleasant memories of this well-ordered nunnery, received instruction in reading, writing, and embroidery, and retained throughout her life a simple and unquestioning piety, and a reverence for nuns and priests; the shelter that she gave to hunted priests in the Revolution shared in leading her to the guillotine.75

When she emerged from the convent she took as her surname that of her mother’s new mate, M. Rançon. She was sent to a hairdresser to learn his art, but this included seduction, and Jeanne, irresistibly beautiful, knew not how to resist. Her mother transferred her to Mme. de La Garde as a companion, but Madame’s visitors paid too much attention to Jeanne, and she was soon dismissed. The millinery shop in which she became a salesgirl attracted an unusual number of male patrons. She became the kept woman of a succession of rakes. In 1763 she was taken up by Jean du Barry, a gambler who procured women for aristocratic roués. Under the elegant name of Jeanne de Vaubernier she served this pimp for five years as hostess at his parties, and added some refinement to her charms. Du Barry thought that he too, like Mme. Poisson, had discovered a “morsel for the King.”

In 1766 good King Stanislas died in Lorraine, which thereby became a province of France. His daughter, Marie Leszczinska, the modest, pious Queen of France, fell into a rapid decline after his death, for their mutual love had upheld her in her long servitude to a faithless husband in an alien environment; and on June 24, 1768, she passed away, mourned even by the King. He gave his daughters hope that he would take no more mistresses. But in July he saw Jeanne, who happened to be straying through the Palace of Versailles as innocently as La Pompadour had driven in the Sénart hunting park twenty-four years before.

He was struck by her voluptuous beauty, her gaiety and playfulness; here was someone who could amuse him again, and warm his cold and melancholy heart. He sent his valet Lebel for her; “Comte” du Barry readily agreed to part with her for a royal consideration. To appease appearances Louis insisted that the girl should have a husband. The “Comte” married her in short time to his brother Guillaume, the real but impoverished Comte du Barry, who was brought from Lévignac in Gascony for the purpose. Jeanne bade him farewell immediately after the ceremony (September 1, 1768), and never saw him again. Guillaume was awarded a pension of five thousand livres. He took a mistress of his own, carried her off to Lévignac, lived with her there for twenty-five years, and married her on learning that his wife had been guillotined.

Jeanne, new-named Comtesse du Barry, joined the King secretly at Compiègne, then publicly at Fontainebleau. The Duc de Richelieu asked Louis what he saw in this new toy. “Only this,” his Majesty answered, “that she makes me forget that soon I shall be sixty.”76 The courtiers were horrified. They could readily understand a man’s need of a mistress; but to take a woman whom several of them had known as a prostitute, and elevate her to a place above marquises and duchesses! Choiseul had hoped to offer his sister to the King as maîtresse en titre; this rejected lady goaded her usually cautious brother into open hostility to the pretty upstart, and La Barry never forgave him.

The new mistress was soon swimming in livres and gems. The King dowered her with a pension of 1,300,000 francs, plus an annuity of 150,000 more, levied on the city of Paris and the state of Burgundy. Jewelers hurried to supply her with rings, necklaces, bracelets, tiaras, and other sparkling adornments, for which they billed the King 2,000,000 francs in four years. Altogether, in those four years, she cost the treasury 6,000,375 livres.77 The people of Paris heard of her brilliance, and mourned that a new Pompadour had come to swallow their taxes.

On April 22, 1769, entering in a blaze of jewelry and on the arm of Richelieu, she was formally presented at court. The men admired her charms, the women received her as coldly as they dared. She bore these slights quietly, and appeased some courtiers by the modesty of her behavior and the melodious laughter with which she regaled the King. Even to her enemies (except Choiseul) she showed no malice; she gained favor by bending his Majesty to issue pardons more frequently than before. Bit by bit she gathered around her titled men and women who used her intercession with the King. Like Pompadour, she took good care of her relatives; she bought property and title for her mother, and secured pensions for her aunt and her cousins. She paid the debts of Jean du Barry, gave him a fortune, and bought for him a sumptuous villa at L’Isle-Jourdain. She herself won from the King the Château of Louveciennes, which the Prince and Princesse de Lamballe had occupied, on the edge of the royal park at Marly. She engaged the greatest architect of that generation, Jacques-Ange Gabriel, to remodel the château to her convenience, and the meticulous cabinetmaker Pierre Gouthière to decorate it with furniture and objects of art to the value of 756,000 livres.

She lacked the background of education and association that had made Pompadour a willing and discriminating patron of literature, philosophy, and art. But she collected a library of well-bound books, from Homer to pornography, from Pascal’s pious Pensées to Fragonard’s spicy illustrations; and in 1773 she sent her homage and portrait to Voltaire with “a kiss for each cheek.” He replied with a poem, as clever as ever:

Quoi! deux baisers sur la fin de ma vie!
Quelle passeport vous daignez m’envoyer!
Deux! c’est trop d’un, adorable Égérie.
Je serai mort de plaisir au premier*78

She asked Louis XV to let Voltaire return to Paris; he refused; she had to content herself with buying an assortment of watches from Ferney. In 1778, when the old Master came to Paris to die, she was among the many who climbed the stairs in the Rue de Beaune to pay her respects to him. He was charmed, and ended by rising from his bed to escort her to the door. On the way down she met Jacques-Pierre Brissot, the future revolutionist; he was hoping to submit to Voltaire a manuscript on criminal law; he had sought entry the day before and had been refused; he was trying again. She led him back to Voltaire’s door, and arranged for his admittance. In his Mémoires he recalled her “smile so full of warmth and kindness.”79

She was unquestionably good-natured and generous. She bore without recrimination the enmity of the royal family, and the refusal of Marie Antoinette to speak to her. Choiseul alone she could not forgive, and that was because he never ceased his efforts to drive her from the court. Soon he or she would have to go.

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