Characters #4: Retaux de Villette (1759-1797?)
Like almost everyone else involved in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, Retaux de Villette left a first-hand account for posterity. Memoirs were something of a vogue, and nearly everyone had one–Madame de La Motte, Monsieur de La Motte, and Comte Beugnot to name a few involved directly in the affair. Villette’s memoirs were published in Venice in 1790 under the name “Mémoires Historiques des Intrigues de la Cour”.
The “intrigue” is, of course, the Affair of the Diamond Necklace which Retaux de Villette had a very intimate involvement in.
Villette, a tall blonde-haired blue-eyed young man, had known Nicolas Marc-Antoine de La Motte since childhood. They were both born in Bar-sur-Aube and both went into the cavalry at the garrison of Lunéville. Villette was relatively well educated and accomplished, with a good voice, the ability to play the mandolin almost professionally, and some real flair for penmanship and writing. He was published in a few European newspapers such as the Gazette of Leyden.
His relationship with his friend Nicolas’s wife (Jeanne de La Motte-Valois) is a little sketchy. But it seems fairly likely that there was a ménage à trois between them. He certainly was named Madame de La Motte’s “personal secretary”. Certainly he was good with a pen, but one suspects that “personal secretary” was as much a euphemism as a job title. Villette himself admits in his memoir that he “loved Madame de La Motte to distraction”.
In any case, Villette was always in financial trouble. According to a friend of Madame de La Motte’s, a young lawyer named Jacques Claude Beugnot, he lived an itinerant lifestyle, leaving a trail of debts and running from them. He therefore had something in common with Jeanne de La Motte-Valois: financial desperation. It wasn’t much of a leap, therefore, for the two to go from (probable) lovers to co-conspirators . . . with Nicolas de La Motte, the husband, in on it, too.
Villette was Jeanne’s accomplice in many of the schemes she used to fool Cardinal Rohan (a Prince of the Blood and Cardinal of the Church). The aim was to get money out of him; he was desperate to regain the Marie-Antoinette’s favor, so Jeanne pretended to be the Queen’s friend. One of her ploys was to walk away from the Petit Tiranon as though she had just left it (the Petit Trianon was, of course, Marie-Antoinette’s exclusive haven, so only a friend of the Queen’s would be seen leaving the little palace–or at least, that would be the assumption). Jeanne met Cardinal Rohan (who was in disguise) at a predestined spot on the grounds of the Chateau de Versailles and told him that Villette was “Desclaux”, the Queen’s confidential messenger. This would be a very important element later on. The Cardinal trusted Jeanne at least in part because of Villette’s playacting.
Villette was more than a prop, however. His facility with a pen made him an expert forger. To convince Cardinal Rohan to give money to Jeanne, letters supposedly from the Queen were forged on gilt-edged stationary. The forger was none other than Villette (he admitted to it later). On the final contract authorizing the sale of a 1.6-million-franc, 2800-carat necklace, he forged the name “Marie-Antoinette de France”–which means nothing, as a queen would never sign “de France” (Marie-Antoinette would have signed herself simply Marie-Antoinette”). In his memoirs, Villette claims that Cardinal Rohan was present and suggested the addition of “de France”. In Villette’s version, it was something of a game and the Cardinal was playing along, knowing that “de France” was meaningless. I tend to believe the Cardinal had no idea the name was forged on that contract.
The Grove of Venus scene occurred in the summer of 1784. In order to further convince the wavering Cardinal of the veracity of her friendship with the Queen, Jeanne arranged a rendezvous between him and the queen. Of course, the woman in the scene was not the queen at all, but a prostitute named Nicole d’Oliva. Villette acted as lookout. Nicole d’Oliva remembers seeing him in the darkness of the gardens, but only learning his identity later on. After the Cardinal had been given a rose by Nicole (“the queen”), Villette raised a false alarm (to keep things brief), and the Cardinal, Nicole, Jeanne, her husband Nicolas, and Villette all fled.
The necklace referenced above was the prize in this game of forgery and deception. Together, Villette and the La Mottes convinced Cardinal Rohan that he had been selected by the queen as a go-between in the purchase of that massively expensive diamond necklace. The Cardinal was gratified to be restored to the Queen’s favor after years of being shunned. Jeanne intended to steal the necklace out from under everyone’s noses. To accomplish this, the Cardinal had to believe he was handing the necklace over to a trusted servant of the Queen. Enter Villette, whom the Cardinal already believed was the Queen’s messenger. After purchasing the necklace (using the contract mentioned above signed “Marie-Antoinette de France”), Rohan received it and handed it over to Villette in Jeanne’s presence. Villette, the Queen’s “messenger”, took the necklace and left. This, at least, is what can be deduced from all the reports.
The necklace disappeared. “As early as the month of February,” according to Counselor-at-law Target, “Sieur Retaux de Villette was picked up for questioning by the Paris police . . . on the subject of a considerable number of diamonds found on upon his person.” He was allowed to go. Indeed, he was able to escape to Switzerland, but when the plot was uncovered later that year, he was arrested in Geneva and “dragged off to the prisons of Paris”. He claims in his memoirs that he kept silent, but the police report shows that he made some rather lurid revelations about his very physical relationship with Jeanne. He admitted to forgery but professed to be nothing more than a unwitting pawn, an eighteenth-century Xerox machine. He, unlike some of the other players in the Affair, was more than willing to name names once arrested.
The trial that now took place was the trial of the century. Jeanne, her husband Nicolas, the Cardinal, Nicole d’Oliva, an occultist named Count Cagliostro, and Retaux de Villette were all put on trial for the theft of the necklace and the crime of lèse majesté (criminal disrespect for the person of the queen–in this case referring to the Grove of Venus scene). Villette’s role as forger and accomplice was made fully public. On May 31, 1785, the trial ended with Villette banished from France for life, his belongings forfeit to the king. He went to Venice where he published his memoirs, where he later died (I could not find an exact date, though a Wikipedia article claims he died at age 39 in 1797).
Mossiker, Frances. The Queen’s Necklace. London: Phoenix, 2004.