The Affair of the Necklace is a scandalous swindle that helped spark the French Revolution and because of its unbelievable plot twists it has been repeatedly retold in film and books.
The Con Artist
It all started with Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy. She came from a family distantly, very distantly related to Henry II. She married up, but only slightly, becoming the comtesse de La Motte and received a small pension granted by the king.
The lack of money and boredom with the marriage led to a friendship with Réteaux de Villette, a well heeled pimp, procurer, blackmailer and a forger. This gave her an idea involving her friend the ambitious Cardinal de Rohan, bishop of Strasbourg.
The Cardinal was on the wrong side of both Marie Antoinette and her mother. The women stood between the Cardinal and rising within the French court.
Jeanne knew about jewelers Boehmer and Bassenge who had created a diamond necklace as a gift for Louis XV’s mistress Madame du Barry. With Madame du Barry out of the picture the jewelers couldn’t offload the necklace. It was worth 1,600,000 livres – over 16 million dollars today. Cutting back a tiny bit on their spendthrift ways neither and the association with a previous mistress, neither Louis XV or Marie Antoinette wanted the necklace.
So Jeanne strung all these characters together to pull off a magnificent con.
First she got Réteaux de Villette to forge letters to the Cardinal from Marie Antoinette requesting that he negotiate the purchase of the necklace for her from the jewelers.
Next Jeanne induced prostitute Nicole Leguay—a Marie Antoinette look alike—to show an interest in the Cardinal and give him the forged letters. It worked. He made arrangements with the jewelers. And through Jeanne go-between Jeanne got the necklace.
It worked perfectly until the second payment for the necklace was requested and the Cardinal didn’t have it.
The Cardinal went to Marie Antoinette for the money. He was arrested on August 15, 1785. He got off, but his reputation ruined. Nicole Leguay was cleared. But Jeanne wasn’t. She was whipped, branded and sentenced to prostitutes’ prison. Her husband was condemned to galley ships for life. And Villette was banished from France.
The necklace disappeared. Eventually Jeanne made her escape from prison taking refuge in London and published her Mémoires.
Though Marie Antoinette was innocent, her extravagant life style convinced the public of her guilt. The incident fueled the flame that sparked the 1789 French Revolution four years later.
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