Charles d’Éon’s life was full of deception. Was he a spy or a diplomat? Was he a man or a woman? The answer to both questions is oui.
To all appearances, d’Éon’s childhood was normal. He was bookish with lots of friends. He loved languages, excelled at memorization and received a law degree at age 21. In his first jobs he had the time and opportunity to do what he loved. His uncle got him work in a finance office where he wrote his first book on French government finances. Then he became a royal censor where he got paid well to read books.
KEEPING SECRETS King Louis XV created the Secret du Roi (King’s Secret), a network of spies acting outside the purview of the government and accountable directly to the King. When d’Éon entered politics in his 20s, he joined the Secret, and his first assignment was in Russia as the assistant to the chargé d’affaires for the Foreign Minister. Empress Elizabeth was looking for a private tutor and secretary, but she would only take a woman into her inner circle. It was believed that d’Éon had been born a girl and forced into the identity of a boy by his parents. That and his many other skills made him the perfect person to befriend the Empress. D’Éon reluctantly accepted the assignment, living a dual identity.
During the Seven Years War, d’Éon joined the army to enhance his reputation and advance his career. He was commissioned as captain in the elite brigade, the Dragoons. D’Éon fought in one campaign and sustained wounds in his head and thigh. His service and sacrifice were rewarded with the Cross of Saint-Louis. This recognition raised d’Éon to a noble rank giving him the title of Chevalier.
D’Éon proved himself to be a brave and respected soldier, but his skills as a diplomat were needed again. He was sent to London as a member of a team to negotiate peace with England. After the treaty was signed, there was an opening for ambassador. When he was 35 years old, D’Éon was appointed as interim ambassador.
The treaty was a political and financial disaster for France. King Louis XV, unbeknownst to his ministers, wanted to rectify the situation by invading England, and members of the Secret were tasked with finding ways to facilitate that. Again d’Éon had a dual role to fulfill, as temporary ambassador officially representing the government and as a clandestine member of the Secret.
ABUSE OF POWER Three months after his appointment, d’Éon’s rising star started falling fast, putting his career and life in jeopardy. It seems that he took his position and influence a little too seriously. Since he came from the Burgundy region of France, wine was a passion and a means of influence. He lavishly entertained with bottles he’d imported to England at the French government’s expense. One invoice indicates that d’Éon received 2,800 bottles in one shipment. Then he had the audacity to ask his superiors to advance him money as his personal finances were also a mess. D’Éon was quickly becoming more of a liability than an asset.
When the new ambassador arrived in England, d’Éon was to be demoted to Secretary to the Ambassador, a decision that he aggressively fought. He wrote scathing letters to his superiors and directly confronted the French foreign minister. His impudence was alarming, and it was feared that the Secret’s mission would be compromised.
Upon arrival of the new ambassador, the foreign minister ordered d’Éon back to France, twice. Both times d’Éon refused to comply because the order had not come directly from the King. In retaliation, d’Éon published all his private letters and papers except those concerning the plans of the Secret. This breach of diplomatic etiquette put the French government in a very difficult situation, especially since the British foreign minister refused to respect an order of extradition because d’Éon had not broken any British laws.
D’Éon came around to the possibility of returning to France provided several specific conditions were met. The ultimate compromise was that he could remain in London as a private citizen. He had generated such valuable contacts, however, that he remained an active member of the Secret.
WHAT ARE THE ODDS For reasons not fully understood, in 1770 rumors about d’Éon’s gender started spreading throughout the business and political societies of London. One newspaper claimed as fact that d’Éon was a woman. It became such a hot topic that businessmen were placing bets with the odds at 3:2 that d’Éon was a man.
D’Éon was very upset by this widespread speculation of such a personal matter, and because he refused to reveal his sex, he became increasingly concerned about his security. He went into hiding for six weeks and then spent much of the next six years at a friend’s country estate. By now people on both sides of the channel fully believed that d’Éon was a woman who had been dressing as a man, but he figured out how to use that to his advantage.
CLOTHES MAKE THE MAN D’Éon knew his political career was at a dead end, and he wanted to return to France. Louis XV had died, and Louis XVI disbanded the Secret, recognizing it and its mission for the bad political strategy that it was. D’Éon saw the handwriting on the wall and started negotiating with the King for safe return to France, one of his points being that now he wanted to be recognized as a woman. In order to save the French government embarrassment, d’Éon had to justify his female to male transvestism. His back story explained that his mother was a noble and his father had squandered her dowry, sending the family into debt. Her family would give them a large inheritance if she had a son. D’Éon was born a girl but was immediately dressed and treated as a boy to fulfill this requirement. In the creation of this mythical background, d’Éon intimated that the cross-dressing position in Empress Elizabeth’s court was fabricated.
An agreement was reached between d’Éon and King Louis XVI allowing d’Éon to retain the military honors he’d achieved as a man. The King insisted, however, that d’Éon dress and act like a woman. He acquiesced and in 1779 she became the Chevalière d’Éon and returned to her homeland, spending the next six years living with her mom. During this time she converted from Catholicism to being a devout Christian, putting her faith in Christ and becoming a devotee of Jansenism.
APPEARANCES ARE DECEIVING In 1785, d’Éon returned to England and moved in with a widow, Mrs. Cole, depending largely on her for financial support. Although her declining health confined her to the apartment, and often her bed, d’Éon wrote her autobiography which was never published.
D’Éon died in 1810. As Mrs. Cole was preparing the body for visitation, she was stunned to discover that d’Éon was a man. She had a professor of anatomy, two surgeons, a lawyer and a journalist all examine the body to determine and report on d’Éon’s true gender. It was concluded that d’Éon was not female or a hermaphrodite, but the he was a male who had lived half of his life as a woman.
Question: Do you use clothes to express who you are? How do your clothes reveal your identity?
©2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved
Kates, Gary. Monsieur d’Eon Is a Woman. New York: Basic Books, 1995.