In their day, Napoleon and Josephine must have seemed like an interesting adapation of the story of Antony and Cleopatra. He was the born soldier, the 'petit tondu' whose Imperial armies rank among the greatest in history, she the epitome of elegance, grace, charm and compassion.
At the chateau of Malmaison in 1814, Josephine's last thoughts were of her 'Bonaparte' (she alone was allowed to refer to him as such), who just a few years before had reluctantly sent away the love of his life to seek an heir from the young Austrian archduchess Marie-Louise through whom he could hopefully legitimize in the eyes of the world the foundation of his dynasty by producing a male heir. 'Bonaparte...Elba...the King of Rome', these were Josephine's selfless last words.
As Napoleon pondered the incredible story of his rise and fall on the wind-battered rock of St. Helena in his second and final exile summing it all up by saying 'What a novel my life has been!', he remembered of Josephine how `she moved through a room like a swan on water'. He also thought of their lost love as his final hour drew near, her name being the last word to leave his lips: 'De l'Armee...ala tete de l'Armee...Josephine!'
Though he cringed in terror at her legendary extravagance (she all but literally spent money like it grew on trees), Napoleon absolutely adored everything else about his blithely spirited little Creole beauty. Her compassion for others something in particular which he adored about her, and that will probably surprise those who haven't studied the Emperor's extraordinarily complex and multi-faceted personality, as Josephine had.
One would be hard-pressed indeed to find so much as a single mention anywhere in the many books written about Josephine indicating that she had ever said no to anybody's request for help, often being badly taken advantage of with only Napoleon's eagle eye capable of recovering what was lost to her many greedy vendors. Her charitable nature became such a financial burden for Napoleon (along with her wild and almost endless splurging to augment her decolletage) that he literally ended up forbidding those glorified thieves passing themselves off as 'merchants' admittance into the Imperial residences for fear of additional accounting catastrophes.
Josephine's accounts payable for one year alone had topped 1,200,000 francs, and only the Grand Marshal of the Imperial Palace's threat of making Napoleon aware of what was going on despite his orders against it convinced the unscrupulous merchants to take half that sum as payment, which even then was more than fair compensation for the goods and services rendered. On one day in particular at Malmaison, when Napoleon happened upon a kindly woman seated outside Josephine's chambers on what appeared to be a small mountain of hat boxes...Josephine had once bought no less than 38 hats in just one month!...the woman responded 'I am Despeaux, the milliner, Sire'.
Remembering his proscription, Napoleon blew like Vesuvius and promptly demanded that Josephine explain herself. When she feigned blissful ignorance of the matter, Napoleon called her bluff and ordered little Despeaux's arrest for having violated his ban against the merchants. Only the intervention of the Grand Marshal prevented poor Despeaux from being dragged off to prison, paying the price for Josephine's uncontrollable extravagant disregard of her husband's proscription. And this turbulent incident was not an isolated one.
In the final analysis, however, Napoleon was virtually helpless in the face of Josephine's instinctive abilities to get her way. He fell victim time and time again to her legendary tear jerks. When she turned on the waterworks and smothered her hubby in tears, he was as helpless as his enemies were on the field of honor...game, set and match. And yet he always made sure she caught at least a token earful before surrendering up his sword. Perhaps his warrior's mindset mandated at least a formal show of futile resistance, who knows. Josephine, however, always walked away victorious, for she could charm conquerors and crocodiles alike.
In the end, when the fiscal Imperial flare-ups had run their course, and they always did, Josephine went right back to her favorite avocation: Spending her husband senseless. ;=) He could tirade, smash things, refuse to eat, hold his breath, stomp around his study plinking away at tweety birds with his custom-made Le Page carbine, etc. But in the end Josephine was gonna wriggle off the hook and head right back to business as usual, as though nothing at all had happened. What a woman, c'est la vie!
Josephine did not love this 'Napoleone Buonaparte' (he had not yet gallicanized his name) in 1795, but she came to love him by the time of the Consulate, and not just because he made her the First Lady of France or because she remembered what single life filled with unpaid bills had been like and didn't want to return to it, nor even because Napoleon upon returning at breakneck speed from the Egyptian Campaign had very nearly had her young lover hauled up in front of a firing squad. Josephine came to love her demanding husband because she understood his complex and seemingly omniscient nature and knew that despite the mounting human toll of his almost ceaseless campaigning there was nonetheless still a lot of good in him as his tireless work as civil administrator proved.
There were the many badly needed and long overdue public works projects, the educational reforms (which included new schools for girls), the famous 'Code Napoleon' which codified the confused and often overlapping articles of Revolutionary law, the many tree plantings at palaces, parks and roadsides, the Bank of France which put the nation's fiscal house in order, his patronage of the arts and sciences as evidenced by his establishment of the Louvre as perhaps the world's preeminent repository of fine art, impressive medical innovations such as those instituted by the army's talented chief surgeon Baron Dominic Larrey, and more. Napoleon was obviously a very great soldier, but he was also a true renaissance man at heart whose sharp intellect and inquisitive nature for nearly every subject of interest in his day and age is as legendary as his battles.
Napoleon was only truly happy around Josephine, especially at Malmaison, and only really felt secure from the troubles that inevitably go hand in hand with the joys of being a Head of State while in her presence. Yeah, he sure did love his scalding hot two hour long soaks in the bathtub, his chicken fricasee with any kind of sauce (whether he actually stopped long enough to taste it or not), his cheap two-franc bottles of Chambertin burgundy (heavily watered down), being all but drowned in Eau de Cologne (3 bottles a day of that too!), his walks in the magnificently cultivated gardens of Malmaison, dreaming of a 'United States of Europe', fine chamber music and young ladies chattering the night away as they solved the problems of the world.
But what Napoleon really loved most of all was just Josephine herself. He loved watching her do her hair, himself rearranging the flowers she wore in it (to her chagrin) as she worked her way through the no less than three full hours it took her each morning just to get ready for lunch! He loved the way she spoke, her French seductively augmented with a very noticeable Creole accent. He loved her stroking his forehead, comforting him as he writhed in agony on the floor after bolting his food (which was typical of him to do) to the point of inducing a painful stomach ache. He loved just lying peacefully in bed with Josephine, she reading a nice book to him, her mesmerizing voice coaxing him off into a short but restful sleep, a few hours respite before he got right back up again in the middle of the night to dictate letter after letter to barely-awake secretaries.
Josephine loved few things, but that which she did love she doted upon almost obsessively. She loved her evening get-togethers with friends, which became virtual affairs of state costing thousands of francs a night. The parties in Josephines salons were already as legendary as her flower gardens long before she became Madame Bonaparte, drawing the preeminent women of France and making us aware today of the names of Juliette Recamier, Claire Remusat and Therese Tallien.
Something else Josephine was especially fond of was her flower garden at Malmaison (the name means 'Evil House', strangely enough), an old leper asylum she had spent millions renovating into the couple's preferred home just 10 miles from Paris. Her gardens became a world-famous repository for some of the rarest species of plants known at the time. Once, after an English frigate had captured a French ship carrying among other things seeds meant for Josephine's garden, the gentlemen at Whitehall thoughtfully made sure that she got them. Incredible? Maybe, but then again everybody from her famous husband's enemies to the violently disenfranchised Bourbons respected and admired Josephine!
Josephine's evolved eagerness to please her fickle husband and her almost natural ability to grasp the social intricacies of court life, which Napoleon himself had absolutely no grasp of whatsoever, made the two a perfectly complementary couple. Josephine frequently managed to smooth over the ruffled feathers brought about by her husband's often callous, sometimes vengeful and downright sarcastic comments, typically made to haughty self-styled 'philosophers' like the annoying Germaine de Stael, or to someone who might have once injured his gigantic Corsican pride, such as the notary who had married the couple in 1796 and was overheard through an open door daring to question the less than affluent General Bonaparte as a future provider.
Napoleon's mood swings, you see, were almost as legendary as his conquests. One minute his famously piercing bluish-grey eyes would seem nothing short of lighthouses of joy and good humor, brightening up a room. And the next minute they would look like the Mothers of Zeus's Thunderbolts! Nonetheless, whatever his shortcomings were where the social graces were concerned, his 'soignée' little Empress more than made up for them.
Though she found him merely 'amusing' early in their marriage, she eventually grew to sincerely love and depend upon in a very special way this 'Little Bonaparte', or as his young friend Laura Permon had once called him, 'Puss in Boots', who had brought the Crown Heads of Europe to their knees at the point of his bayonets. And whenever he was away on Campaign making a sick joke of the armies of France's old enemies, she thought of him. Was he alright? Is he being careful out there? Did he leave his checkbook? ;=) She who had come so close to death on the guillotine carried with her the rest of her life a keen sense of the uncertainties of life and was determined to live it to the fullest. Having no time for sad thoughts, or for dirty little details for much of anything but high fashion, flower gardening and helping out anybody in need...Josephine was the perfect complement to her butt-kicking little God of War.
As a consummate Latin lover, at least by reputation, anyway, Napoleon wrote to his wife some of the most incredibly passionate love letters one can imagine. He could have made the Marquis de Sade blush. Napoleon writes, 'Sweet and incomparable Josephine, what is this hold that you have over me? A thousand kisses, mio dolce amore, but give me none in return, for they set my blood on fire!'. Hot stuff, isn't it? He gave her everything she had ever wanted but would have never acquired on her own after the death of her first husband, Alexander de Beauharnais on the guillotine: A stable home, a bottomless pit of an expense account, almost as many palaces (44 of them!) as Louis XIV once had and a bon vivant way of getting through her days that could have earned her a special guest appearance on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.
He was the son of petty Corsican nobility, she the daughter of poor Martinique sugar growers. From humble origins, he became the peoples' champion, a man of unbridled courage, the creator of the social and military 'Meritocracy' that was the signature of the Napoleonic Age and gave birth to his indomitable Legions. Napoleon was a man of imagination, steadfast determination, foresight and awe-inspiring military genius who took advantage of every opportunity his 'Star of Destiny' presented to him.
Barely a decade downrange from his first notable victory at Toulon he went from being little more than a lonely, nearly suicidal and disillusioned young artillery officer reduced to expressing his unfulfilled romantic dreams in forlorn love novels ('Clisson et Eugenie') to becoming Emperor of the French and Master of an Empire of nearly all of Continental Europe and its 80 million souls. She became the very symbol of the elegance, affluence and style of the First Empire, a living bridge connecting the Ancien Regime with the Revolution and a lucky charm for the glory-starved people of France who quickly became accustomed to endless victories won by their sons under the banners of the 'Great Thief of Europe'.
To her friends, Josephine was the ultimate 'Comeback Kid' who had foiled the executioner's blade...'Our Lady of Victories'. To his enemies, he was 'The Corsican Ogre' and 'The Usurper'. A study in contrasts in almost every way, they nonetheless found their very own 'peace at the center' and made it work for them beautifully. He adored her and came to her time and again as his ultimate refuge from the cold, harsh realities of an Imperial burden offering little rest. Josephine figured out and grew to love and understand this complex little husband of hers, and became comfortable depending upon him for all her wants and needs. Theirs is one of the most fascinating and absorbing love stories ever. Napoleon and Josephine back together again, they make history!
Vive Le Tondu! Vive Notre Dame des Victoires!