There’s a saying in diagnostic medicine, “sometimes a zebra is just a zebra, and sometimes it’s a white horse with stripes.” Surprisingly, a similar logic was required to answer a seemingly obvious question.
Is an 18th century French diplomat who spent the last three decades of his life dressing as a woman an anarchist of style?
One would think that whatever his story, he would be a zebra, fitting neatly into our definition: those who defy social and fashion conventions of their time, instead using dress to craft a singular identity.
You’d think. We thought. And while the Chevalier was indeed singular—as he lived in a time when cross-dressing was acceptable only at masquerade balls—he seems to be a white horse with stripes; forced into femininity by the complicated politics of his time.
Yet, his story is too delicious to ignore.
Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont was born in the Burgundy region of France in 1728. He received his law degree in 1749, published two books on royal finances, worked in the office of the Intendant of Paris, and then was appointed Royal Censor. He entered diplomatic service, and in 1756 traveled to Russia as secretary to the Chevalier Douglas.
Officially, both men were in service to the French foreign minister, the Comte de Praslin. However, unbeknownst to Praslin, they were also part of a secret web of agents for King Louis XV, the “Secret du Roi,” appointed to aggressively pursue French interests. It is in this secret role for the King that d’Eon was said to have first dressed as a woman; in order to gain personal contact with Empress Elizabeth, he was said to have worked as her maid of honor. Various sources—including Wikipedia—assert this fact, although more reliable ones attest there is no proof of this.
Upon returning to France in 1760, he became a Captain of the Dragoons, the French mounted cavalry, and fought in the Seven Years War. For this time at war, he was honored with the Order of Saint-Louis, and the corresponding title of “Chevalier.”
By 1762 d’Eon was in London, part of the successful peace negotiation. And by April of the following year, he was appointed minister plenipotentiary to the Court of St James. But while d’Eon was enjoying his official diplomatic role, he was also still working secretly for the King, who had covert ideas of invading Britain.
Now it begins to get complex; d’Eon’s title was temporary, but he was offended when a permanent ambassador, the Comte de Guerchy, was appointed. Simply put, d’Eon did not want to give up his honored title. So he threatened the King with divulging the secret of the Secrets. A furor arose that lasted into the 1770s, as Louis XV negotiated with d’Eon (who continued as an exile in London) about returning a cache of Secrets correspondence, in return for safe passage back to France. The problem became Louis XVI’s when he ascended the throne.
Enter the playwright, Beaumarchais, who, after a fascinating back-and-forth with d’Eon, finally negotiated the Chevalier’s safe return to France. There was one condition: that d’Eon “readopt” women’s clothing. The set of agreements d’Eon signed was called “The Transaction,” and it put forward the idea that he was born a woman, and had, in fact, adopted male dress to make his way in the world. Scholars note that, with the exception of King Louis XVI, all who signed the documents likely knew that this assertion was false. For some clarity, Jonathan Conlin of History Today nicely summarizes the benefits of The Transaction.
“It served both sides. As a woman d’Eon would stay out of the Bastille, his erratic behaviour explained as the action of a ‘hysterical’ female. This would also make it easy for the French government to dismiss any embarrassing revelations as lies.”
If interested in how this political “sexual reassignment” became feasible, all the fascinating details are available in the books recommended below. In short, however, this was not the first time the Chevalier’s gender had been questioned—in fact, in 1771 there was a rally of speculation on the London Stock Exchange; quashed, eventually, by the Lord Chief Justice.
Following a four-hour toilette supervised by Rose Bertin, d’Eon was formally presented to Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette at Versailles on November 21st, 1777. His return to France wasn’t as successful as he’d hoped. He was a clumsy woman (a crime in itself at the French court?) and was soon exiled to his family home. In 1785, he returned to London. With the fall of the monarchy his royal pension ceased and he was forced to make a living by selling his beloved library and giving public demonstrations of fencing “in drag.”
When he died, on May 21, 1810, his roommate, Mrs. Cole, was shocked to uncover the truth about the Chevalier d’Eon. The zebra was a white horse with stripes.
Champagne, R., Ekstein, N., Kates, G (eds.). The Maiden of Tonnere: The Vicissitudes of the Chevalier d’Eon. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 2001.
Chrisman Cambell, “Dressing d’Eon” from The Chevalier d’Eon and His Worlds: Gender, Espionage and Politics in the Eighteenth Century. ed. Simon Burrows, Johnathan Conlin, Russel Gouldbourne, Valerie Mainz. Bloomsbury, 2010.
Conlin, Jonathan. The Strange Case of the Chevalier d’Eon. History Today, 60:4, 2010. http://www.historytoday.com/jonathan-conlin/strange-case-chevalier-d%E2%80%99eon.
Kates, G. Monsieur is a Woman: A Tale of Political Intrigue and Sexual Masquerade. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1995.