Allow us to tell you about a gorgeous woman who had great panache, lived life to the fullest, and threw a heckuva party. Madame Helvétius was her name, but let’s call her “Minette” (which means pussycat en français) as all of her close friends did. Not only did Minette have a very successful 18th-century salon—even Napoléon was a guest!—but she set prominent tongues wagging across the pond by capturing the heart of one of our own Founding Fathers. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Anne-Catherine de Ligniville d’Autricourt was born in France on July 23, 1722, one of 21 children of Jean-Jacques de Ligniville and his wife Charlotte de Saureau. At the relatively late age of 29, Minette married the French philosopher and poet Claude Adrien Helvétius, who had amassed quite a fortune as a tax collector. The couple settled in the tony Paris suburb of Auteuil, where Minette’s salon included some of the greatest figures of the Enlightenment.
Claude Adrien Helvétius
Among the habitués of Madame Helvétius’ salon were our salonnière friends, Julie de Lespinasse and Suzanne Necker (both of whom you’ve met), great writers like Diderot and Volney, thinkers like Condorcet, d’Holbach, Turgot, and Buffon, and scientists like d’Alembert, Lavoisier, Cuvier, and Cabanis. It was a veritable who’s who of Paris society. Others who dropped by included politicians like Malesherbes, Talleyrand, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, who was quite the ladies’ man, but we’ll get to that.
Madame’s salons imparted such éclat and whimsy that it was not surprising to see in attendance all 18 of Minette’s prized Angora cats, dressed to the nines in their silk ribbons. It was also not unusual, évidemment, for Madame’s dogs and canaries to attend—because everyone should get into the salon spirit, according to Minette.
Monsieur Helvétius died in 1771 after 20 years of marriage, and Minette carried on with her salons, choosing never to remarry. But she had no shortage of suitors. Madame was said to have been so beautiful that a 100-year-old man paid one of the most famous compliments of the era: “Ah, Madame, if I were only 80 again.”
An old postcard of Auteuil, which was also home to Victor Hugo and Molière
In her 60s, Minette made the acquaintance of Benjamin Franklin, who was serving as the U.S. ambassador to France, and it was not long before he became smitten. Rumor has it he even proposed marriage. They were avid letter writers and Franklin, who affectionately called our gal “Notre Dame,” once wrote this to her: “If Notre Dame is pleased to spend her days with Franklin, he would be just as pleased to spend his nights with her; and since he has already given her so many of his days, although he has so few left to give, she seems ungrateful in never giving him one of her nights.”
Quite saucy, n’est ce pas? But not everyone succumbed to Minette’s charms. Abigail Adams, the rather prim wife of John Adams, was shocked by Minette’s behavior when she met her at a dinner in France following the successful negotiation of the Treaty of Paris. In correspondence, Abigail noted scathingly that our gal kissed Franklin on the cheeks and forehead when she greeted him, held his hand during dinner, and occasionally threw her arm around his neck: “I should have set her down for a very bad one altho 60 years of age and a widow. I own I was highly disgusted and never wish for an acquaintance with any ladies of this cast.”
Madame Helvétius died at Auteuil in August of 1800. But what a life she lived, so full of exuberance. Bravo, Madame!
To read more about the great salonnières in history, click here. For a list of America’s 100 best modern-day salonnières click here, and for tips and ideas from today’s most skilled party hosts, click here.