Thérèse Humbert, the latest subject of biographer Spurling (The Unknown Matisse, 1998, etc.), reads like a character out of Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine—a provincial social climber who became the toast of Parisian salons, only to suffer a grievous fall.
Born in 1856, Thérèse Duarigniac inherited from her con-man father a flair for dodging creditors and for conjuring romantic fictions. Marriage to cousin Frédéric Humbert—son of a senator, minister of justice, and author of the constitution for France’s Third Republic—gave wider scope for her relentlessly pursued credo: “What I want, I will have.” For two decades, she epitomized the energy, conspicuous consumption, and moral ambiguity of Belle Epoque France, living in homes of staggering opulence, where presidents, prime ministers, archbishops, bankers, and diplomats vied for her attention. Most Parisians, unaware of her humble origins, accepted her claim to have inherited 100 million francs (equal to more than 300 million dollars in today’s currency) from an American named Robert Crawford. The Humberts even brought suit against two Crawford nephews who had reneged on an agreement to hand over this fortune. Actually, the Crawfords were imaginary; the real foundation of her success was a genius for self-invention—as was recognized by the acquaintance who exclaimed of Thérèse, “She lied as a bird sings.” The symbol of her grand artifice was a mysterious strongbox occupying its own locked chamber in the family mansion that, Thérèse hinted, contained the Crawford will and millions in bearer bonds. In 1902, when the strongbox was opened and found to contain only meaningless documents, thousands were ruined by the exposure of the hoax, either as creditors or duped helpers. (Even Henri Matisse, a son-in-law of the Humberts’ housekeeper, briefly came under suspicion.) Thérèse and Frédéric were sentenced to solitary confinement at hard labor, and upon release were never heard of again.
Spurling’s treatment of Thérèse Humbert’s “fairy-tale” rise is clichéd. But her discussion of how Madame Humbert’s nonexistent fortune acquired an aura of credibility rings as true in a 21st-century “New Economy” as it did in fin-de-siècle France.