The Characters #5: Nicole d’Oliva
I’ve come across some varying versions of Nicole d’Oliva’s name, but from what I can gather, her true name was Marie Nicole Leguay d’Oliva. She was also christened “Baronness [‘Barone’ in French] d’Olisva” by the Comtesse de La Motte. She was also known around the Palais Royal and to the police as Mlle de Designy. Most descriptions give her name as Nicole d’Oliva, however (many people at this time had two or more first names and used the second, in this case Nicole).
Young Nicole was born in Paris in 1761, “of honest if humble family. She says in her memoirs that her “first misfortune was to be orphaned at too tender an age, deprived of parents’ care and vigilance which would have warded off the dangers inevitable to an unprotected girlhood”.
Nicole did not have any guidance or opportunities in her life. Like many women before and since, she was given very options and turned to prostitution. The oldest profession has many different levels, from the cheap hooker on the corner to the well-kept maitresse en titre, a woman who had a semi-official role and title as the mistress of the king. During Nicole’s childhood, Madame de Pompadour and Madame du Barry were the first ladies in the land, the mistresses of Louis XV. Nicole may have looked to their example of what even an uneducated, unprivileged young woman could accomplish. No doubt she aspired to creating a comfortable life for herself. However, she was still pretty far down on the ladder of life.
Nicole “trafficked in her charms” at the Palais Royal, an epicenter of vice in the late eighteenth century. The palace belonged to the Duc d’Orleansand was open to the public. In many ways, it wasn’t so different from a modern shopping mall. It had shops, food, places to promenade and show off, even an opera. It was also well-populated with prostitutes, one of whom was Nicole d’Oliva.
In the spring of 1784, according to her version of the story, Nicole was sitting at a cafe with a child who was a friend of hers. She noticed a man watching her but thought nothing of it at the time. She continued to see the man at the Palais Royal. Finally, as she tells it, when she walked home to the nearby Rue du Jour one day, he followed her, knocked on the door, and protested honorable intentions. She allowed him to speak with her.
This man was Nicolas de La Motte, who called himself a Comte and who was married to Jeanne de La Motte-Valois, who called herself the Comtesse de La Motte. The husband and wife had big plans for Nicole. Nicolas began by impressing Nicole with his military uniform and fictional stories about his wife’s friendship with Marie Antoinette. Nicole, a simple young woman, was easily fooled into believing it was all true.
Finally, she met the Comtesse and was asked to help in a little task that the Queen had asked the Comtesse to complete. They were to put on a small theatrical production in the gardens of Versailles, which would be a joke and a secret. Nicole was told she would be paid fifteen hundred francs to take part. The queen would be watching and would be very pleased with Nicole if she played her role well. Nicole accepted.
In the summer of 1784, Nicole was dressed up in a white gown in the style “en gaulle” or “a la reine.” She was given a rose and a letter and taken to the gardens of Versailles. There, she was led into the dark gardens. The night was moonless. In the labyrinthine gardens, she was taken to the Queen’s Grove–not, in actuality, “The Grove of Venus”–and told to wait. Suddenly, a man approached her. She was told to give him the rose and say, “You know what this means.” She did so, but apparently forgot to give him the letter that she was meant to give him. Then the Comtesse interrupted them, saying someone was coming. Everyone scattered.
The entire thing must have been very confusing to Nicole. It isn’t clear exactly how it was explained to her, but it was probably the same tale that Mme de La Motte gave during the trial later. Nicole was probably told that the Queen wished to play a trick on the man in the dark, who was Cardinal Prince Louis de Rohan. She was probably told or was aware that the Queen and the Cardinal had long ago had a falling out. Nicole was told the Queen watched the little scene, so she probably thought the Queen was watching and laughing at the fact that the Cardinal was being fooled into receiving a flower from a prostitute.
Or, it could be that Nicole really didn’t ask many questions. Fifteen hundred francs was quite a lot of money. She did not have to do very much to get it and must have figured it was best not to ask too many questions.
So what was really going on here? Well, it was all an elaborate ruse crafted by Mme de La Motte to convince the Cardinal that she–Mme de La Motte–was the Queen’s friend. She had told the Cardinal she could help him regain the Queen’s favor and had sent him forged letters that he believed came from the Queen. Some of these letters (from “the queen”) requested loans from the Cardinal. He agreed to them, and the money ended up in Mme de La Motte’s pocket. But to keep him dangling on her string, she had to make sure he really believe he was corresponding with the queen. So Mme de La Motte arranged a “face to face” meeting with a woman who was actually nothing more than a prostitute named Nicole d’Oliva.
Over the months following what is know as the Grove of Venus scene, Nicole was part of the La Motte’s social circle. She was christened the Baroness d’Olisva. She and Mme de La Motte went to see the Marriage of Figaro, the scandalous play by Beaumarchais with assignations, deceptions, and servants dressing up like countesses. By November of December, however, the relations between Nicole and the La Mottes had become distant. She returned to her own home.
The next we really hear about Nicole is as arrests are being made. The La Mottes have stolen a fantastic diamond necklace by fooling Cardinal Rohan. The plot was uncovered piece by piece in the summer of 1785. Madame de La Motte and her accomplices were arrested. On October 16, 1785, Nicole was arrested in Brussels, where she had gone with a man named Toussaint de Beausire. They were shortly extradited back to Paris, where she was brought to the Bastille.
This was the trial of the century. The Queen’s honor and reputation were at stake. After all, Mme de La Motte had had the audacity to have a whore play her part in a play. The Cardinal had had the temerity to believe that she, the Queen, would agree to a midnight assignation with him in the gardens of Versailles. But Marie Antoinette did not have a good reputation, and people were inclined to think the Cardinal wasn’t too far off the mark when he believed the queen capable of indiscreet behavior.
In the end, the Cardinal was let off, Mme de La Motte was convicted along with her accomplices (her husband convicted in absentia because he was in London where he’d sold off the diamonds from the diamond necklace). Nicole was also let off. Her lawyer was very savvy in drumming up sympathy. In fact, she was a sympathetic character. She had been used by the La Mottes as part of their plot but had really had no part in it. She really did not deserve any ill treatment for her naivety.
After the trial, apparently, Nicole began to live a more moral life, even taking up with her lawyer for a time. She died young, however. Toussaint de Beausire, who fathered a child born to her in the Bastille, abandoned her. She died in a convent at Fontenay-sous-Bois in 1789. She was only 28 years old.