By JAN KELLEY
On Dec. 7, 1793, Parisians stood in the Place de la Révolution (now Concorde), transfixed by the sight of the first person they had seen show fear of the guillotine. They had little sympathy, though; it was the despised former mistress of Louis XV, Madame Jeanne du Barry, who was now, in the opinion of many spectators, getting exactly what she deserved. The shrieking, flailing, piteous creature before them was a far cry from the legendary beauty who had reigned supreme for five years at Versailles.
Visiting the palace today is a walk in her footsteps. Despite animosity from many, including Marie-Antoinette, Madame du Barry repeatedly occupied a place of honor at royal events.
Standing in the château's beautiful opera house, you can begin to envision the wedding festivities of the future Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, which Madame du Barry attended at the king's insistence. But her presence was mortifying for the 14-year-old bride and from then on, it was open warfare between the two women. The dauphine, who disapproved of the royal mistress's lowly origins and scandalous past as a courtesan, refused to acknowledge her whenever their paths crossed. Marie Antoinette's attitude ruffled many royal feathers, and she finally gave in to pressure. At a New Year's ball in the Hall of Mirrors, she greeted the king's paramour with the carefully chosen words, "There are many people at Versailles today."
Whatever others thought of her, Madame du Barry could do no wrong in the eyes of the king, who even forgave her when she tossed a bundle of state correspondence into the fire. He regaled her with anything she wanted, including her own mansion, the Hôtel du Barry. Madame du Barry turned it into a mecca of extravagant entertainment; on one occasion, a select audience of 30 watched a play with a cast of more than 100 actors. Now occupied by the Versailles Chamber of Commerce, the house is near the château, at 21 avenue de Paris, the same street where an angry army of Parisian women would later march toward the palace and bring Versailles's golden era to an end.
The king's gifts were often sumptuous. In 1772, Louis XV ordered a garishly extravagant diamond necklace for his mistress, but died before he could give it to her. In a twist of fate, it later became the center of a scandal, known as the Diamond Necklace Affair, that would contribute to the downfall of Madame du Barry's rival, Marie Antoinette.
Echoes of this famous courtesan's life also still resonate in Paris, especially around the Palais Royal, where Madame du Barry worked as a teenager at the fashion boutique A la Toilette, which stood at 1 and 19 rue des Petits Champs. While working here, she befriended the owner's daughter, Adelaïde Labille, destined to become a successful artist whose work is now in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. But Madame du Barry was more occupied with the art of seduction. She soon became known for offering her charms to local admirers, including the silk merchant Buffault, who owned Aux Traits Galants, another fashion boutique at 278 rue Saint-Honoré. This quaint shop is still there today, nestling in the shadow of a large Art Deco building.
Madame du Barry was often seen on nearby rue Sainte-Anne, visiting her lover, Count Jean du Barry, who lived at No. 34 and would later seal her fate when he presented her to Louis XV. It was here that she married Jean's brother, Count Guillaume du Barry, described as a "short, fat imbecile" but able to make her a married woman—an essential qualification for becoming a royal mistress.
Louis XV was besotted with his new paramour, telling the Duke of Richelieu she was the only woman in France who made him forget he was 60. Contrary to how she is sometimes portrayed, Madame du Barry was neither vulgar nor unkind, but was known and loved in her heyday for her sweetness, generosity and kindness.
She also loved fashion, and went regularly to Dulac's at 130 rue Saint-Honoré to buy her mouches, false beauty spots that were a must for any Versailles partygoer. The nearby Le Grand Mogol was another favorite. Owned by the celebrated modiste Rose Bertin, the boutique carried the most outlandish fashions of the day, which were sought out avidly—and at great expense—by both Madame du Barry and Marie Antoinette.
Bertin and the royal hairdresser would often visit Versailles, putting on fashion shows for Marie Antoinette of extravagant dresses and outrageous wigs that almost doubled the queen's height. The dauphine and Madame du Barry were Bertin's two best customers, and during the 1780s, spent about 180,000 livres (about €1.5 million today) between them.
A decade later, Madame du Barry's final view of her favorite shop was from a tumbrel. Her fall from grace was so total that even her former colleagues from A la Toilette crowded onto the balconies of rue Saint-Honoré, hurling insults at her.
These insults were the last in a succession of betrayals that Madame du Barry suffered, the worst of which was during her judgment by the Revolutionary Tribunal, which sentenced her to death on charges of treason. At the Palais de Justice on Ile de la Cité, you can visit the chamber where both she and Marie Antoinette were tried, and where a shocked Marie Antoinette was accused of incest.
A few weeks later, Madame du Barry stood petrified as her former page boy, a Bengali Indian called Zamor, denounced the former mistress who had showered him with luxurious clothes, gifts and education—an education which ultimately, and ironically, led Zamor into revolutionary politics. But it was Zamor who suffered the final betrayal. If you cross the Seine from the Tribunal and go to rue Maître-Albert in the Latin Quarter, at No. 13 is the house where Zamor spent his last days, alienated, poverty-stricken and despised by a Parisian populace who by then had forgiven Madame du Barry for her royal connections and remembered only her kindness.
Madame du Barry was buried in the Madeleine Cemetery, sharing her final resting place with her old enemy Marie Antoinette. The site of the cemetery, at 29 rue Pasquier, is now occupied by the Chapelle Expiatoire, built by Louis XVIII to commemorate Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, who were both buried there after their executions. (They were later moved to the Basilica of St. Denis.)
But Jeanne du Barry was still languishing in prison when Marie Antoinette's bloody remains were brought to the cemetery and deposited in front of a young Marie Tussaud, who was sitting on the grass in a state of silent shock. No grave had been prepared for the executed queen, so the gravedigger hurriedly began digging a hole, while Tussaud, conscripted by the government to fashion wax heads of victims of the guillotine, made a model of the queen's severed head. (It can still be seen at her famous London museum.)
Madame du Barry also had her likeness immortalized by Tussaud. But hers was done many years earlier, and under much happier circumstances, when she visited the wax museum run by Philippe Curtius, who later taught Tussaud everything about making wax figures. The model Curtius made that day of Louis XV's "little beloved" still exists; it was used for the face on the model of the Sleeping Beauty. It is probably the nearest we will ever get to seeing the beautiful face of the last royal mistress of prerevolutionary France.—Jan Kelley is author of "Path of the Patriots: a Tourist Guide to Paris during the French Revolution" (Kemper Conseil Publishing, April 2012; www.pathofthepatriots.com)