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Adrienne de Noailles: Wife of Lafayette

Stew’s Introduction

I’m very excited to have Geri Walton as our guest blogger today. Geri is an accomplished history author specializing in an era that corresponds to the English Georgian Era (more on that later). Her blog title concerns a woman who led an extraordinary life and was witness to some of the world’s leading events. It is also about a woman whose passion for her husband likely resulted in her untimely demise. Her subject, the surrounding events, and Picpus Cemetery occupied several pages of my two-volume series on the French Revolution (Where Did They Put the Guillotine? A Walking Tour of Revolutionary Paris). Lafayette lived a long life and frankly, I’m amazed he never lost his head during the Revolution. Neither side (monarchy or revolutionaries) really liked him. Geri mentions Picpus Cemetery in her opening paragraph. It is my favorite Paris cemetery and only one of two privately owned cemeteries located in the city.

Meet Adrienne de Noailles and Her Family

Presumed portrait of the Marquise de Lafayette. Oil painting by anonymous (c. 1790). National Museum of Women in the Arts. PD-100+ Wikimedia Commons.
Presumed portrait of the Marquise de Lafayette. Oil painting by anonymous (c. 1790). National Museum of Women in the Arts. PD-100+ Wikimedia Commons.

One of the most interesting people buried at France’s Picpus Cemetery is Adrienne de Noailles (1759–1807), wife of the famous American Revolutionary War hero known simply as Lafayette (1757–1834). Adrienne was 14 years old when she married him. She was introduced to Lafayette through her father, a French nobleman named Jean de Noailles, Duke of Ayen.

Adrienne’s mother was Henriette Anne Louise d’Aguesseau. Henriette’s father sent her to a convent to be educated because her mother died shortly after she was born. At the convent, Henriette enjoyed reading and gardening and acquired superb mothering skills that resulted in her devoting her life to the betterment of Adrienne and her other children.

When Adrienne was not under the care of her loving mother, she and her older sister, Anne Jeanne Baptiste Louise (known as Louise), were instructed by a governess named Mademoiselle Marin. They studied geography, grammar, history and learned the “Catéchisme de Montpellier” by rote. Marin was “a little person, dry, thin, blond, pinched, susceptible, devoted to her duties and fulfilling them admirably” and doing so despite Louise and Adrienne’s constant teasing. Read More Adrienne de Noailles: Wife of Lafayette

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An African-American in Pre-WWII Paris

Most of us have never experienced blatant discrimination because of the color of our skin. Every country can point to episodes in its past that are regrettable and if possible, its citizens would certainly jump at the chance to turn the clock back and try to undo the damage. For America, I think most of us would agree that slavery was our low point. Even after the Civil War and emancipation, the Jim Crow laws of the south (and let’s not totally exclude the north) prevented African-Americans from exercising their rights. Before the civil rights movement of the 1960s, entertainers such as Sammy Davis Jr., Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nat King Cole were not allowed to stay in Las Vegas hotels (in other words, you can perform here—to segregated audiences—but you can’t stay here). Our story today is about an African-American entertainer who moved to Paris during the Jazz Age because her talents were recognized and appreciated by the French. The welcome mat was always out for her to stay at the hotel of her choice. By the end of her life, Josephine Baker was hailed not only as one of the world’s top entertainers but also a World War II French Resistance hero and one of the leaders of the American Civil Rights movement.

Meet Freda Josephine McDonald AKA Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker, singer. Photo by anonymous (c. 1930s). Author’s collection.
Josephine Baker, singer. Photo by anonymous (c. 1930s). Author’s collection.

Josephine Baker (1906–1975) was born into extreme poverty in St. Louis. By the age of eight, her mother began to hire out Josephine as a live-in maid. One of her memories was being abused and punished if she made eye contact with her white employer. Five years later, Josephine was living on the streets and dancing on the street corners to make money (similar to the waifs in Paris—think Edith Piaf—who sang on the street corners in the early 1900s).

Josephine married the first of her four husbands when she was thirteen. At fifteen, she divorced him and married Willie Baker. Although divorcing Willie in 1925, she decided to keep his name as her audiences were beginning to recognize Josephine Baker as a top performer and dancer in the entertainment world. Learn more about Josephine here. Read More An African-American in Pre-WWII Paris