Cabarrus, Thérèse

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Thérèse Cabarrus (177-1835): Franco-Spanish Socialite.

Jeanne Thérèse Cabarrus was born on 31st July 1773 in Carabanchel Alto, a suburb of Madrid. Her father, François Cabarrus, originally from Bayonne (French Basque Country) had moved to Spain where he became a Spanish financer. He married Maria Antonia Galabert and founded the bank of San Carlos later known as the Royal Bank of Spain. In 1789, he was granted peerage as a count by King Carlos IV of Spain.

At age12, Thérèse is sent to a French convent but does not stay long and soon returns to Spain. She had some education in languages, singing, dancing and painting but her real value resided in her beauty. Very precocious and a center of attraction for her stunning looks, her parents decide to marry her before she even turns 15. In Paris, she meets her first husband, the Marquis de Fontenay, who was 26 years old, wealthy but not quite able to keep pace with his young wife. On the 2nd of May 1789, she delivers a son whose paternity is doubted. She had read Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de, Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Diderot, Denis resulting in interest for the notion of liberty and equality. At the beginning of the revolution, she and her friends even attend meetings of the National Assembly. She leads a life of pleasure and gaiety indifferent to her husband. Being the daughter of a count and the spouse of a marquis, she soon feels frightened by the seriousness and goals of the revolution. Her husband decides to leave for Martinique (she will be granted a divorce in 1791) while she prefers to move to Bordeaux, a city in southwestern France.

In Bordeaux, she lives with her uncle and her brother, single and attractive, she is quickly surrounded by many admirers. After the Girondins’ political defeat, Girondins home region is in turmoil. The National Assembly sends two leading Montagnards, Tallien and Ysabeau, to reestablish calm and order. Quickly the guillotine is built and suspects are jailed every week. Tallien’s men search for Buzot, Pétion and Gaudet, the remaining Girondins leaders who are still at large who unlike their fellow counterparts, Brissot, Jacques Pierre and Vergniaud, Pierre, which were unable to evade the first wave of Girondins’ arrest. Thérèse’s brother had been suspected by Tallien’s men and is subjected to a house visit and some material confiscation. Thérèse on the other hand is directly imprisoned. Knowing that Tallien is master of Bordeaux, she writes him and begs him to come to her rescue. Once Tallien lays eyes on her, he succumbs to her beauty.

Aware of Tallien’s political power, she positions herself to become his new collaborator. She even gives a speech on education, “Discours sur l’éducation par la Citoyenne Thérèse Cabarrus-Fontenay.” She has her salon where she invites men of the Terror. Tallien, infatuated by her looks, agrees to most of her requests. Her popularity is such that many people accused of crimes against the government come to her for justice. She uses her influence on Tallien to save numerous suspects and convicted from jail or even the guillotine. In Bordeaux patriots and aristocrats alike are saved by the mesmerizing woman nicknaming her the “Goddess of Liberty.” Early in 1794, Robespierre, Maximilien François Marie Isidore de, hearing of Tallien’s liaison and noticing a lull in condemnations, sends one of his own men, Jullien, known for his stern republicanism, to investigate matters. Tallien is recalled to Paris and Thérèse, unable to seduce Jullien, soon joins him in Paris. Robespierre, aware that Cabarrus is the daughter of a Spanish count and responsible for having fouled Tallien’s probity, signs her arrest. By the end of May, she is imprisoned at the Petite Force prison. She writes to Tallien and reproached him of being a coward for not doing everything possible to save her once more.

Determined to rescue her, and backed by Fouché and Barras, on 9 Thermidor (27 July 1794), at the Convention, Tallien accuses Robespierre of abusing his power and being a tyrant. He does not give a chance to Robespierre to defend himself against the allegations, which leads to the fall and death of Robespierre, Saint-Just, Louis-Antoine de and many other Robespierrists. Thérèse is liberated and both are at the peak of their social and political fame. He is nicknamed the “Man of the 9” and she becomes known as “Notre Dame de Thermidor” (our Lady of Thermidor). They get married on 26 December 1794. As she did in Bordeaux, she uses again her influence on Tallien to save suspects of counter-revolutionary activities. In spite of his political renown and to his wife’s disappointment, Tallien is unable to take advantage of his reputation and fails to become one of the leaders of the Directoire. She opens her own salon to the fashionable and influential people of Paris. Joséphine de Beauharnais, Bonaparte, Napoleon’s future wife, becomes one of her closest acquaintances and Barras, France’s new leader, her new lover. Along with Joséphine, they reach celebrity for their extravagant and fashionable attires. She wears rubies in her hair, bracelets on her arms and ankles and rings in her toes. She sets a new standard for fashion throughout Paris nicknamed the “Sans Chemises,” a political jibe to the fanatical street revolutionaries known as the “Sans Culottes.” Talleyrand will say of Thérèse that “it is impossible to be more richly undressed.” As Barras’ mistress, she has little to do with her husband who has lost most of his influence (Tallien dies forgotten and in severe poverty in 1820). In 1797, she files for divorce, which is finalized in 1802. In November 1795, the Directoire replaces the Convention and lasts until Bonaparte’s coup in November 1799. She is the woman in vogue of that period and is nicknamed the “Queen of the Directoire.” However, France’s economy is in dire trouble and coupled with the shortage of basic necessities, Thérèse Cabarrus’ ostentatiousness irritates many people and make her the target of antipathy and contempt. As Barras’ star dims down, she turns to a new lover, France’s finance-king, Gabriel-Julien Ouvrard, with whom she bears four children. Her lack of respectability forces Napoleon to forbid his wife, Joséphine, to have any contact with her former friend. Her charm helps her anew when at Madame de Staël’s salon, she meets a very wealthy and respectable aristocrat, the Prince of Caraman-Chimay, whom she married in 1805. After Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, Louis XVIII also forbids her to appear at court. Later on, while living in present day Belgium, the King of Holland, also refuses to have her at his court.

Back in Belgium, Thérèse opens her salon where she is surrounded by her devoted husband, her children and many artists. The Goddess of Liberty of Bordeaux, The Lady of Thermidor, Madame Tallien, the Queen of the Directoire has become more discreet and honorable but her fame follows her and in Paris, her public appearance still attracts a lot of attention. Renown for her beauty, it led her to experience a memorable and eventful life. She spends the rest of her days peacefully telling her friends how she saved many people from jail and the scaffold and brought joy and distraction in Paris back when the revolution frightened most Frenchmen. She dies on 15 January 1835 in Chimay, Belgium at age 61.

Further Reading:

J. Mills Whitman, Men and Women of the French Revolution, 1933.

Guy Toubiana

The Citadel