EVERYE RA FEATURES certain people who achieve celebrity for doing nothing at all. At the present time anyone who reads the papers – or glances, however surreptitiously, at Hello! – could name at least a dozen such figures. We have only to think of ~ It Girls, clothes-horse actresses at gala ~ premieres, or a certain Brit whose recent fame in America was based entirely on his mysteriously acquired ~ status as a must-have at smart Manhattan soirees, to realise how rich our own age is in these high-profile non-achievers. Being famous for being famous, as the late Zsa-Zsa Gabor understood, is more profitable and fun than having to cultivate a specific talent in order to-attract attention.
Alfred Count d’Orsay, brilliantly realised for us in Nick Foulkes’s Last of the Dandies, was the archetype of the do-nothing celebrity. Simply through his good looks and fine feathers, he became one of the most talked-about and sought-after D’Orsay: a characters in the Europe of his day, an icon and signifier for an entire epoch. Like Jane Austen’s Ernma (‘clever, handsome, rich’), he ‘seemed to unite all the blessings of existence’, and nobody who met him came away unimpressed. Dickens gave d’orsay’s surname to one of his sons. Disraeli sincerely believed that ‘if placed in a public position he would have displayed a courage, a judgement and a commanding intelligence which ranked him with the leaders of mankind’ and the great actor Macready, recalling his wit and generosity, claimed that ‘the name of d’Orsay alone had a charm; even in the most distant cities of the United States all inquired with an interest about him’.
To a certain extent d’Orsay was his own invention. When he was born, in Paris in 1801, hs fady possessed noble rank without altogether top-drawer status, and the money on which their social trajectory depended during the ancien rdpime’s last decades had more or less run out. Young ~lfridw as sharp enough to realise the truth universally acknowledged, that a single man with a handsome figure and a decent pair of breeches wdl never be in want of admirers. Catchmg the eye of makers and shakers was his speciality. Wellington, hunting outside Paris, spotted the fourteen-year-old ephebe mounted on a splendid English hunter given him by the Duc de Gramont and asked him to dinner. Gramont’s son meanwhile married d’orsay’s sister and the duke swept them all off to London to attend the coronation of George IV.
In London, the paradise of dandyism, still cherishing memories of Beau Brurnrnell, Alfred could hardly fail. His boyish charm and front of sexual ambiguity, combined with his flawless dress sense, made him irresistible to everyone, particularly to Lord Blessington, a rich Irish homosexual married to the siren Marguerite Power (whose earlier career had included being put up for auction by her protector, Captain Jenluns of the 47th Foot, who made her stand naked on the mess table; ‘After this creditable fashion’. revorted the wife of the , A novelist Bulwer Lytton, ‘she ran the gauntlet of the whole regiment’).
The Blessington-d’Orsay household became the nineteenth centurv’s most famous menage h trois. Having effectively purchased their darling Alfred, the ultimate fashion accessory, hm his family for a E10,000 down payment, the doting earl and countess carried him away in their dormeuse carriage to Italy. There, after spendng several months with the portly, balding Byron, who fell heavily for the dandy Adonis, they settled in rent pair of breeches Naples. Relishing the dolce far niente under Vesuvius, d’Orsay dazzled everyone with hls sporting prowess before malung an ass of hlrnself in an un&” ded auarrel with another of Lord Blessington’s protCgCs. Retreating to Florence, the trio clinched their singular relationship by arranging a marriage between Alfred and the earl’s teenage daughter Harriet.
The union convulsed expatriate society, which censured ‘ d’Orsay’s weakness and folly in being humbugged and blinded by the machinations of that b.. .. ‘ Ladv Blessin”a on. Poor Harriet had a dull time of it when they got back to London. Her caro sposo was into loolung the business rather than doing it. Bored to death with being a celebrity handbag and irritated by Alfred’s spurts of jealousy, she decamped to Paris to embark on a series of high-profile liaisons. By then Lord Blessington had died, leaving Marguerite and her toy boy to romp exuberantly through a considerable fortune. D’Orsay became a media star, quizzed, copied, courted, envied and still – though starting to lose his looks – desired. ‘This Phoebus Apollo of dandyism, built like a tower, with an adornment unsurpassable on this planet’ made a metaphoric centrepiece for Carlyle in his Sartor Resartus and Disraeli dedicated Henrietta Temple to the man whose chutzpah and showmanship were to inspire his political career. Bulwer Lytton turned thoroughly modern Alfred into the Roman epicure Glaucus in The Last Days of Pompeii, that remarkably prescient allegory of Regency high life’s destruction by the new moral earnestness of a dawning Victorian era.
The Blessington coffers were not inexhaustible. D’Orsay saw money simply as a facilitator for his perfectionism. After trying to fend off the bailiffs with a little dabbling in sculpture and portrait sketches, he was forced to flee to Paris when, in 1849, the fashionable Regent Street luxury goods warehouse Howell & James foreclosed on Lady Blessington for debts with several noughts on the end. She died of a massive heart attack, leaving d’Orsay, who had appropriately taken rooms in Rue Lord Byron, waiting to be noticed by his new best friend, Louis Napoleon, President of France and soon to be Emperor. The poor Count was std hanging about when a lethal combination of renal failure and spinal cancer carried him off at the age of fifty-two, to the sound of a waltz played on the piano by one of Marguerite’s nieces.
Nick Foulkes acknowledges the difficulties of getting at the inner Alfred. and the absence of anv confessional element enhances the curious sense of wasted talent in this singular figure. However, nobody with the slightest empathy for his period and its values and aspirations should fail to read this book. Foulkes’s complete understanding of d’orsay’s various contexts, social and historical, his own stylistic dash and polish and the flawless pace of his high-stepping narrative make this as perfect a memorial to the incomparable Count as d’Orsay could possibly have desired.