Warning!! The upcoming true historical story has everything you could ever want: forged letters! A woman disguised as the Queen! A woman disguised as a boy! Ocean’s Eleven level scheming! And the ugliest necklace ever to be created. Also, one of the images below shows a woman’s nipple, but it’s still safe for work, I think. So just like… prepare yourselves.
Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy was a poor-ish French peasant, descended from the Valois family via a great-grandfather who was the illegitimate son of King Henry II. Her father, Jacques, was a drunkard and basically useless person, leaving her and her siblings to beg for food as they grew up. Despite their quasi-royal roots, the Saint-Remy family was not well respected at all in their poor provincial town.
When you’re growing up like that, and if you’re as ambitious as Jeanne clearly was, your main goal in life is just to get out of there with whatever means necessary. Like so many women, this meant marriage. Her choice of husband was Nicholas de la Motte, a man who called himself the Comte de la Motte (making her the Comtesse) despite the fact that name was entirely made up. She gave birth to twins one month after their wedding, both of whom died right away because: olden days.
Anyway, so Nicolas turned out to be about as useless as her father, leaving Jeanne to fend mostly for herself — which she was more than capable of doing. It wasn’t a matter of not having food on the table; Jeanne craved a life of luxury, befitting of her quasi-royal background. Because of her family name, she had been receiving a small pension from the King and Queen all her life. Ergo, she figured she would appeal to Marie Antoinette for a larger allowance, hoping that as a woman, she would be more sympathetic. How would she do this? Actually, not hard at all: at the time, anyone dressed suitably fancy was allowed to enter Versailles. Too bad Marie had heard of Jeanne’s bad reputation and refused to meet with her.
MEANWHILE IN ANOTHER PART OF VERSAILLES:
A man named Cardinal de Rohan was on the outs with Marie Antoinette for, basically, being a huge creeper and grossing her out constantly. He also had tried to stop her marriage to Louis XVI and lived a famously scandalous lifestyle. But? He would do anything to win her affection back.
BACK TO JEANNE:
So, her marriage to useless Nicolas wasn’t helping her in any way. What’s a woman to do but take a lover, or two? Which is just what Jeanne did, hooking up with the famous gigolo Rétaux de Villette as well as the aforementioned Marie Antoinette obsessed Cardinal de Rohan. Now, no one could spend more than ten minutes with Rohan before learning how desperate he was to win Marie Antoinette’s approval. Jeanne was like, “What a crazy coincidence! I happen to be BFFs with Marie Antoinette and I can put in a kind word for you… if you pay me in money and jewels.” Rohan, of course, agreed, but still it wasn’t enough money or power for Jeanne.
And then she heard about the necklace. What necklace? Well…
MEANWHILE IN ANOTHER PART OF FRANCE:
Two jewellery makers had made the most expensive and ugly necklace in the history of jewellery. They had first made it in hopes that the previous King’s mistress (Madame du Barry, a subject for another day) would want to buy it; when she died, they were left with this very valuable item that was pretty much bankrupting them. They tried over and over to convince Marie Antoinette to buy it but she refused because it was a) ridiculously expensive and b) ugly as shit. To the jewellers, it was a monkey on their back, bankrupting them and also being extraordinarily heavy to wear due to how many diamonds were on it. And to Jeanne? It seemed to be just the answer to her prayers.
Jeanne assembled her Ocean’s Eleven team: herself, her useless husband Nicolas, and her gigolo lover de Villette. de Villette’s skills were more than just in the bedroom, as he used his ability to forge letters to make fake letters from Marie Antoinette to Jeanne, evidence of their fake friendship. She showed these letters to Rohan, where he read all how much Marie wanted the notorious necklace, but it was too expensive for her husband to grant permission for her to buy it (bear in mind, this all happened in a France on the precipice of a Revolution). If only, the fake Marie wrote, someone like Rohan would spot her the money to buy it!
Rohan, embodying the real life version of Malvolio from Twelfth Night, agreed to buy the necklace. Jeanne, of course, would be the intermediary: she would pick up the necklace from one place, and Rohan’s money from another place, and then… like… pay for it in a third place? The plan was an obvious lie, and even Rohan was like, “I’d really like to talk to Marie about all this to make sure this is all actually true before I hand over literally all of my money.”
What’s a Jeanne to do? She hired a sex worker who resembled the Queen and arranged for Rohan to meet this doppelganger in the gardens at Versailles (which, again, anyone could get into if they dressed nicely enough). This woman was named Nicole le Guay d’Oliva, and she allegedly didn’t know what she’d been hired to do — she basically just said the vague things Jeanne had coached her to, culminating in forgiving Rohan. She may or may not have known she was even impersonating the Queen. I can’t believe this part really happened, oh but it so did.
This secret meeting sealed the deal, and Jeanne was dispatched to pick up the necklace. The jewellers were told that Rohan was behind the purchase, and Jeanne was like his agent. But of course, instead of giving the necklace to the Queen (who both didn’t want the ugly ass thing, didn’t know Jeanne was picking it up, and was never going to repay Rohan for this fake “loan”), Jeanne didn’t pay the jewellers and gave the necklace to her useless husband Nicolas.
Nicolas disassembled the horrifying monstrosity of a necklace, and began selling the diamonds a few at a time around Paris and London. The jewellers were like, “Oh shit, we clearly just got conned,” and had Rohan arrested for defrauding them. Rohan then spilled the beans about the whole squad: Jeanne, the gigolo de Villette, Nicole the sex worker, and — randomly — the infamous Count Cagliostro, which is just like… read the book to learn how he got involved in any of this. I’m leaving out a lot but trust me the full story is AMAZING.
So, this whole thing made the King and Queen look really bad to the public. Marie Antoinette, remember, had nothing to do with any of this. The letters were all forged, she didn’t want the necklace, she’d never been friends with Jeanne, she still hated Rohan. But the pre-revolutionary population of France hated her already for other reasons and were like, “Bitch, we know you wanted that horrifying necklace,” and the only way to prove her innocence was to hold a very public trial for Jeanne & co.
Plot twist! The very act of having a public trial totally backfired, because Jeanne put on such a display of martyrdom that she won everybody’s sympathy. A sort of proto-tabloid press published pamphlets all about how she was the true victim, and she was cheered by the proto-paparazzi on her way to and from court. Eventually Cardinal Rohan, sex worker Nicole, and “why is he even here” Count Cagliostro were all acquitted, though the two men were sent into exile. The gigolo de Villette, found guilty of forgery, was also exiled from the country. And Jeanne? Was found guilty and sentenced to be whipped, branded, and imprisoned. So they were found guilty technically, but in the hearts of everyone in France, Marie Antoinette was the real villain.
So you might think this would be the last anyone ever heard of Jeanne but OH NO, she’s not done yet. Because she disguised herself as a boy and escaped from prison, landing in London, which is where she published Memoirs of the Comtesse de Valois de La Motte, which is how we know a lot of what we know about her childhood and the events noted above. Of course, like any good memoirist, she did her best to make herself come across as blameless, casting Marie Antoinette as the main villain.
So you think she may have lived happily ever after in London as a popular author and notorious person but of course there’s another plot twist which is: she died at age 35, having fallen out of her hotel room window. I MEAN. WTF??
Did she jump? Was she pushed? Nobody knows, but personally I find the chances of this being an accident are basically 0%. Her date of death was two years before the execution of Marie Antoinette during the French Revolution — an event that feels sort of inevitable, but a seismic shift in culture that may not have happened when or how it did, were it not for the way that Jeanne and the affair of the necklace permanently ruined Marie Antoinette’s reputation.
If you want to pay your regards, Jeanne is buried in St. Mary’s Churchyard in Lambeth, London.
There are several film treatments of the story, including the 2001 Hilary Swank movie The Affair of the Necklace, the 1946 French film L’affaire du collier de la reine, 1929’s German silent film Cagliostro, and the 1979 Japanese anime Rose of Versailles. In terms of books, my main recommendation to learn more about this amazing woman and her bonkers story, is the true crime/historical nonfiction book How to Ruin a Queen by Jonathan Beckman, which is super-readable and really fun and gets into all the missing bits there aren’t time to talk about here. And if you want to own a replica of The World’s Ugliest Necklace, I mean… I’m sure you can find one out there somewhere. xo
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