When Marcel Proust wrote his novel In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu), the Countess Greffulhe inspired his immortal character, Oriane, the Duchess de Guermantes. When young Marcel Proust first saw the agate eyed Mme Greffulhe in the drawing room of Princess Alexandre de Wagram in 1893, he wrote to his friend Robert de Montesquiou, “I have at last (yesterday at the home of Mme de Wagram) seen the Comtesse de Greffulhe and the same feeling that decided me to impart to you my emotion on reading Les Chauves-souris compels me to choose you as the confidant of my emotion of the evening.” The thirty-three year old wife of Henri Greffulhe, a member of a rich Belgian banking family, was considered by everyone in Paris to be the supreme beauty of her day. “Her hair was dressed with Polynesian grace, and mauve orchids hung down the nape of her neck.” Proust reported to Montesquiou, who happened to be the Comtesse’s cousin. “It is hard to judge her, because to judge her is to compare,” he continued “and because in her there is not feature that can be found in any other woman or anywhere else.” It was her remarkable eyes, he concluded, that revealed the secret of the power she held over everyone who saw her: “But the whole mystery of her beauty lies in the brilliance and especially of her eyes. I have never seen a woman more beautiful.”
In her memoires, Proust’s housekeeper Celeste, with naïve but with acute perception, said that the writer wanted his characters to be “perfect” in their individual composition. And the image and manners of Mme Greffulhe projected the perfection, the quintessential type that he was seeking to embody in the character of his ideal Faubourg Saint-Germain Duchesse, the Duchesse de Guermantes. It is this general quality, rather than the many specific details that Proust gives us in his description of the Guermantes world, that evokes the lingering memory of the once celebrated beauty.
A distinguished and ubiquitous mondaine, the comtesse held a weekly salon in her Paris home where she drew together and entertained the cream of Parisian society as well as artists and politicians. Through her favorite cousin, Robert de Montesquiou (who served as the main inspiration for another of Proust’s characters, the Baron de Charlus Montesquiou), she met Whistler, Antonio de la Gandara, Philippe de Lazlo, Jacques Emile Blanche and Marcel Proust. The comtesse was also interested in the Avant-guarde and she frequented Rodin’s studio, was photographed by Nadar and was a close friend of Mischa Natanson. Her friend Winnareta Singer and Blanche were instrumental in persuading the comtesse to finance the first productions of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes seasons of 1909.
Although for her role as a prototype of the Ducheese and the Princesse de Guermantes, Mme Greffulhe will forever be associated with Proust and his circle, the Comtesse actually saw very little of the novelist. She told Miss Curtiss that she included him in her larger guest list only to please her cousin Robert, and thus invited “him a few times to soirees where he could mingle with the sort of people he wanted to meet.” But, she confided, she could not stand him. “His sticky flattery was not to my taste. There was something I found unattractive about him. And then there was the nonsense about my photograph, pestering Robert to get one from me.” At this point, the venerable aristocrat recalled the special feeling people had about photographs, a feeling that Proust’s mother also expressed on at least one occasion to her son. “In those days, Madame: the Comtesse explained to Miss Curtiss, “photographs were considered private and intimate. One didn’t give them to outsiders.” Poor Marcel, to think he once said her laughter sounded “like the chimes of Bruges.” He never seemed to get the message, and even at the wedding of the Greffulhe’s daughter to his friend the Duc de Guiche, the Comtesse could hardly hide her irritation when the importunate author again mentioned the photograph to her as she left the church. “He was tiresome,” she recalled with exasperation that had not faded with the years.
Long form articles:
Mina Curtiss [Curtis]
Published by Helen Marx Books, Books and Co., Turtle Point Press (2005)
Published by Knopf (2018)