Born in 1737, Madame Suzanne Necker, née Curchod, had quite the simple upbringing in Switzerland as the daughter of a pastor in Crassier, a village near Lausanne. While Suzanne’s family was poor, she did have the benefit of a good education, but you know what they say about the daughter of a preacher man and, chère, Suzanne was no exception.
It was not long before her bucolic, sheltered Swiss life would become a little saucy. When she was 20, Suzanne fell under the spell of a dashing Brit, Edward Gibbon. Edward was from a good family and would go on to become a member of parliament and a famous historian. The young couple, however, was prevented from marrying by Edward’s father, who objected to the match. (And, truth be told, Suzanne was a bit hesitant to leave her native Switzerland for the unknown shores of England.)
Exit Edward and enter Jacques Necker, an ambitious Swiss financier. But their courtship was not so simple, and this is where things get a little intriguing with a soupçon of scandal. It was 1764, and Jacques was already living in France and in love with a Madame de Verménou. While on a visit to Geneva, Madame met Suzanne, found her endearing and brought her back to Paris as her companion. You can probably guess what happened next. Jacques became smitten with Suzanne’s country charms and dumped the wealthy Madame to marry the Swiss miss. In April 1766, they had a daughter, Anne Louise Germaine Necker, who went on to become a renowned author under the name of Madame de Staёl.
Delphine, the first novel by Madame de Staёl,
examines the limits of women’s freedom in an aristocratic society
Not content with simply raising their daughter, Madame Necker launched a salon that soon became the talk of the town with Parisian luminaries discussing art and literature and gossiping over petits-fours about the latest intrigues of society. Among the regular visitors were the most eminent men of letters of the time—Buffon, Marmontel, Grimm, Diderot, d’Alembert, and Morellet—as well as a whole host of Swiss expatriates.
In 1776, Jacques became the finance minister under King Louis XVI of France, thanks, some say, to the success of Madame Necker’s salons and in spite of the distinct disadvantage of his Protestant religion and Swiss roots. It is said that Suzanne would have liked to be a woman of letters, but Jacques’ dislike of bluestocking authors dissuaded her from taking up the plume. Her surviving writings are few: Mémoire sur l’Etablissement des hospices (1786) and Réflexions sur le divorce (1794).
Jacques’ efforts towards financial reform soon made him unpopular at court. When he lost power in 1789, the Neckers left the pressure cooker of Paris for the tranquil life of Switzerland, barely escaping the turmoils of the French revolution. In 1794, Suzanne died at Beaulieu Castle. Besides the legacy of her brilliant literary salon, Madame Necker founded a hospital in 1784 in Paris that still bears her name: Hôpital Necker Enfants Malades.
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.