Can any individual be one thing and its opposite? Can we harbor irreconcilable selves? The intriguing life of Count Robert de Montesquiou –Fézensac may illustrate the dilemma. He cut a wide swath in the precipitous period of fin-de-siècle Paris, where he frequented and dazzled the élites while distancing himself from them with his extravagance and marginal behavior. He wrote poetry but would never fancy himself a writer. His vitriolic tongue was a barrier that his charm could not keep under control. But control was not his strong suit, rather the opposite, excess with taste. An aristocrat by birth, he spurned the lifestyle of his set, centered in hunting on gaming estates and lunches at the Jockey Club, and embraced a unique sense of aesthetics, decorating the upper floor apartment of his father’s hotel at Quai d’Orsay with improbable materials and designs. Sarah Bernhardt counted him among her elitist friends, a bond that defined their mutual androgynous attraction but stopped short of carnal exchange.
His leanings to occultism and morbid spirituality contrasted with his worldliness. His vanity could not hold him back from organizing huge receptions and he amused himself by drawing lists of the “invited” and those “excluded”. Everybody considered him “absurd” at the very least, but his presence glamorized the gatherings of any hostess, who immediately rose in rank if Robert was in attendance. And as a savvy self-promoter he immortalized his image in the hands of the most respected and fashionable painters: Whistler, Boldini, Jacques-Émile Blanche and La Gándara for whom he posed in a Chinese robe with Mandarin nails and jewelry.
Posterity knows Robert de Montesquiou for having served as the model for the Proustian portrait of Baron de Charlus. Poor Marcel had to suffer the brutal mockery and indifference of his subject as he scampered in his wake, flattering him to the point of ridicule (“Your mind is a garden filled with rare blooms”, he wrote in one of his letters to the Count).
Who was the man behind the mask? Was there an enduring emotion of the heart behind his relentless façade? He certainly was the perfect pick for chroniclers of times past but his obsessive posing tired others who, unlike Marcel Proust, were not his devoted admirers. When the latter wrote his eulogy so risibly entitled “ The simplicity of the Count of Montesquiou” everyone in the French press refused to publish it.