Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

Last Words (1763)

Dec 01, 2022 by Marlene Wagman-Geller


        The British poet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, wrote, “In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to love.” A conqueror whose empress conquered his heart proved that in the winter old men’s hearts also turn to love.

      History acknowledges that France’s most acclaimed general possessed the ambition of the Scottish general Macbeth. What is less well known is Napoleon Bonaparte also possessed the romantic nature of Romeo, the jealousy of Othello.

     Napoleon’s destiny, Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie, proves that one can never foretell where the spotlight of fame will cast its beam. Marie-who history remembers as Joséphine- the name Napoleon preferred- was born to blue-blooded French colonists on the Caribbean Island of Martinique. She recalled growing up “in a paradise of pleasure,” where she “splashed in the sea like a dolphin and sucked on sugarcane plucked from the fields.” Hurricanes destroyed their crops and her cash-strapped, gambling addicted father arranged sixteen-year-old Joséphine’s marriage to Alexandre François Marie, Viscount of Beauharnais, the son of her aunt’s lover. Upon meeting her fiancé, Joséphine was ecstatic: Alexandre was wealthy, well connected at court, and reputed to be one of the best dancers in Paris. Alexandre, less enthused, was not enamored of the plump, unsophisticated girl with the blackened teeth, the result of years of sugar cane consumption. He preferred his mistress, a married woman eleven years his senior. Nevertheless, Joséphine became his wife and together they had Eugène and Hortense. Marital relations deteriorated, and Joséphine, along with her children, moved into the Panthémant Convent in Paris that housed other inconvenient wives. In a bid at reinvention, Joséphine shed her island provincialism and weight; she also learned to cover her mouth with a handkerchief when she laughed to hide her decayed teeth. 

     After a two-year visit to Martinique, Joséphine returned to a far different France. Her husband had made a swift rise in the National Assembly, one that the Reign of Terror just as swiftly brought down. The monarchy fell in 1792, and the revolutionaries imprisoned the royalists as enemies of the state, including the Viscount and Viscountess de Beauharnais. They ended up in the rat-infested Carmes Prison; Joséphine’s cellmate was Marie Grosholtz who later achieved acclaim as wax-wunderkind, Madame Tussaud. Their guards shaved their hair in preparation for their executions. While incarcerated, Alexandre and Joséphine indulged in amorous pursuits-though not with each other. Before the Terror ended, the guillotine claimed Alexandre as it did approximately 40,000 others. Joséphine kept her head as three months later the architects of the Terror met their end at the edge of a blade, and the Viscountess walked free.

    Ever the opportunist, the widow slept her way to the top of the Parisian social hierarchy. Women wondered what men saw in Josephine; the answer was she made them imagine horizontal positions. The femme fatale, well versed in the art of seduction, had a fondness for mirrors that multiplied the images of love making, thereby creating an illusion of an orgy. One of her conquests, Paul de Barras, had orchestrated the fall of the revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre. A politician remarked of de Barras that he “had all the vices of a king without having a single one of the virtues.” Tiring of Joséphine’s out of control spending, Paul introduced his mistress to a Corsican general, six years her junior. The man with the diminutive stature held grandiose ambitions and declared that he should be crowned king- well before anyone else shared that opinion. Although she had not been the first woman to capture Napoleon’s eye, Joséphine was the one who captivated his libido. He was greener in the bedroom than his new lover and declared he was “baffled and excited by her repertoire of techniques,” especially moves he referred to as her “zigzags,” perhaps the Seinfeldian “swirl.” In a letter to his mistress, the smitten general praised her “little black forest. I kiss it a thousand times and wait impatiently for the moment I will be in it. To live within Joséphine is to live in the Elysian Fields.”  The scent of his woman held Napoleon in thrall; he wrote to Joséphine, “I am coming home. Don’t wash.”

         Less than a year after their first meeting, Joséphine was waiting in the town hall of Paris’s second municipal district for her groom. He arrived four hours late because he had been caught up in planning the invasion of Italy. He made it up to her by shaving four years off her age on the marriage certificate, one of the perks of being the Consul. A few months later, Madame Bonaparte confided to a friend, “My husband does not love me; he worships me. I think he will go mad.”

    When Napoleon left on a military campaign that determined the fate of Europe, Joséphine concentrated on amassing art and a priceless collection of jewelry. She also embarked on an affair with Hippolyte Charles, a handsome, decade younger officer. When he learned of his wife’s extramarital affair, Bonaparte became insanely jealous; after a heated row hey ended up reconciling. The couple took up residence in the Tuileries; as décor, Napoleon hung Leonardo da Vinci’s painting Mona Lisa in their bedroom. After it became apparent the general was on the way to becoming the ruler of France, Joséphine’s infidelities ended-and Bonaparte’s began. In 1884, Napoleon and Joséphine stood in Notre Dame Cathedral where the general became an Emperor in a ceremony presided over by Pope Pius VII. She played the part of consort to the hilt and dressed in magnificent gowns: one she had covered entirely in rose petals, another in hundreds of diamond-tipped toucan feathers. The new empress had more ladies-in-waiting than Marie Antoinette. The story of the man from Corsica and the woman from Martinique becoming the crowned heads of France after a revolution that had abolished the monarchy could have come from the pen of Victor Hugo.

       The serpent in the royal couple’s Eden was the lack of an heir, a fact of great consternation to an emperor desperate to secure his dynasty. Initially, they believed that infertility lay with him as Joséphine was already a mother. However, when Napoleon’s mistress gave birth to his son, they realized the problem was Joséphine’s age and her mistreatment in Carmes Prison.  Napoleon decided it was time to bid adieu to the woman he had often described as his lucky talisman. One evening, the palace’s staff were jolted awake as a shrill scream emanated from behind a closed door: the emperor had dropped the bombshell that for reasons of state, he required a divorce. Eventually, Joséphine understood that against another woman, she would be the victor; against Napoleon’s ambition, she did not stand a chance. Devastated, Joséphine sobbed so much at her divorce procedure that she had trouble reading her prepared statement, “With the permission of my dear and august husband I declare that, no longer preserving any hope of having children to satisfy the political need for an heir in France, I proudly offer him the greatest proof of love and devotion ever given to a husband on this earth.”

     In an act of mea culpa, Napoleon allowed his former consort to keep the honorary title of Empress. He also gifted his ex-wife their fifteen-room country refuge, Château de Malmaison. In her magnificent garden, she cultivated 250 varieties of roses and amassed a menagerie of black swans, emus, and kangaroos. Rather than turn into Charles Dickens’ reclusive Miss Havisham, Joséphine entertained on a grand scale, and she doted on her children and grandchildren. In a twist of fate, Napoleon’s son died before he could become king. In contrast, two hundred years later, through Eugène and Hortense, whom Napoleon had adopted, Joséphine became the ancestor of the ruling houses of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, and Luxembourg.

        Napoleon, who had declared, “I must be aligned with sovereigns,” three months later married a trophy wife, the great-niece of Marie Antoinette, the Austrian emperor’s 18-year-old daughter, Archduchess Marie Louise Habsburg. A year later, the long-awaited son, Napoleon François Charles Joseph, arrived, on whom the emperor bestowed the title “King of Rome.” What mitigated the joy of his heir was the wind of war had turned against the emperor; his 1812 invasion of Russia proved a debacle. He lamented that his separation from Joséphine had been the turning point in his fortune. Forced to abdicate, he ate the bitter bread of exile in Elba; Marie Louise, who had taken a lover, stayed in France with their son. Fallen from the height of power, for comfort, Napoleon surrounded himself with pictures of Joséphine, the lost love of his life.

      Joséphine showed her allegiance when she wrote Napoleon telling him that she would join him in exile, but destiny had another plan. While walking in her garden with Tsar Alexander I, she fell ill, and soon after succumbed to pneumonia.

      Upon hearing of Joséphine’s death, Napoleon kept to his bed for three days in a darkened room, alone, and without food. When he passed away seven years later on the remote island of St. Helena, his last words were, “France, armée, tête d’armée, Joséphine.”