Selling letters of history’s great women
Paris – — An unprecedented collection of 1,500 documents from some of history’s greatest women is being auctioned in Paris, including everything from Catherine the Great’s imperious letter shunning her lover, to Brigitte Bardot’s plea to cancel the release of a song that ended up being banned in several countries owing to its sexual content.
The documents, which range from the profound to the banal, also include ones from Napoleon’s long-suffering wife Josephine, and a note to a teacher from Grace Kelly. Here are highlights of the extraordinary two-day sale, which started Tuesday.
Catherine of Aragon: ‘Innocent’
Catherine — the queen of England from 1509 until 1533, and the first of King Henry VIII’s six wives — fell out of favor with the fearsome monarch after she failed to produce a son and heir. In the 1529 letter intended to reach the pope, she argues: “I am completely innocent” and being cast aside “without cause.” She asks for Henry’s planned annulment to be blocked. She also warns — correctly, as it turns out — that Henry will try to split from Rome. It’s simply signed “Katherina.” After their divorce, which was not recognized by the pope, Henry sets up a separate Church of England, with himself as its head.
It sold Tuesday for $86,000.
Princess Grace makes excuses
When a royal’s daughter fails to do her homework, she doesn’t tell the teacher a dog ate it. Grace Patricia Kelly — the American actress who married Prince Rainier III to become the Princess of Monaco — wrote to her daughter Stephanie’s French teacher after the girl came up short in class. “Please excuse Stephanie for not having done her French lesson. She left her book at school, Wednesday. Grace de Monaco.”
Edith Piaf’s ‘La Vie en Rehab’
Dated Jan. 5, 1956, the bittersweet letter from singer Edith Piaf is a loving ode to her then-husband Jacques Pills from the clinic where she was undergoing detox after alcohol and morphine addictions. In it, the French cabaret singer of the famous signature song “La vie en Rose” reminds Pills that there will be good days ahead, when she gets released. “Lovely man, have confidence in me as you have always had and you will see it’s the good side in me that will win, by the end of the detoxification … you will see that things can start again!” Piaf died seven years later of liver cancer, aged 47.
Catherine the Great: Don’t come
The famously amorous Catherine II of Russia, who was linked to the coup that killed her husband Peter III, is seen in this 1762 letter shunning her lover Stanislas Auguste Poniatowski. He wanted to come to Russia and become her new husband, but he is warned to stay away. Why? The fearsome Catherine had another lover and no intention of letting her old flame return to her life or take over her empire. “You read my letters with very little attention. I’ve told you and repeated that I risk being assaulted from all sides if you put one foot back in Russia,” she says in the blunt letter.
It sold Tuesday for $22,000.
Bardot’s Sachs appeal
Blond bombshell Brigitte Bardot’s letter is a request to a record company to scrap the suggestive, sexually-provocative song “Je t’aime, Moi non Plus.” (“I Love You … Me Neither”) that she had recorded with Serge Gainsbourg. It was straining her marriage to Gunter Sachs. Written a day after the song was first broadcast in 1967 to Phillips record company, the letter speaks of the “serious and grave personal reasons to not release under any circumstances” the recording. The song was withdrawn and later recorded with Gainsbourg’s wife Jane Birkin to become one of the iconic hits of the 60s. Despite this, Bardot and Sachs still divorced in 1969.
Josephine’s letter heavily edited
Hardly anything remains of Empress Josephine’s letter to a friend, crossed out with aggressive ink scribbles by her domineering husband. The friend, Queen Charlotte of Wurtemberg, was apparently too politically crucial to receive heartfelt thoughts in writing. Napoleon left about 20 of the original words untouched, with Josephine’s hand nearly completely erased. According to manuscript specialist Thierry Bodin, “In this instance, Napoleon wanted to make a political union with the Charlotte’s daughter, so he dictated what she could say. More broadly, it shows how women’s roles became more submissive in the 18th and 19th centuries.” It sold for $33,000.