I want, I shall have

Graham Robb

  • La Grand Thérèse or The Greatest Swindle of the Century by Hilary Spurling
    Profile, 128 pp, £7.99, September 1999, ISBN 1 86197 132 X

The role of Thérèse Humbert and her family in the life of Henri Matisse was one of the revelations of the first volume of Hilary Spurling’s pioneering biography: The Unknown Matisse. For more than twenty years, the Humberts were a major force in the social and political life of the Third Republic, until, in 1902, their legendary wealth was exposed as a hoax. The famous Humbert strongbox, which was supposed to contain a hundred million francs in bearer bonds, was found to be almost empty. Thousands of creditors and investors lost everything. The Humberts’ innocent steward, Armand Parayre, was arrested, along with the disgraced family. His son-in-law, ‘a dashing but penniless young artist’, was widely considered guilty by association, and ‘from 1905 onwards, Matisse’s work was regularly dismissed by the critics as an attempt to pull a fast one on the public’

Biographers are often buttonholed by interesting minor characters demanding more attention than the subject allows. Thérèse Humbert, the most skilful of the swindlers, was unusually tenacious. ‘When I came to write the first volume of my biography,’ Hilary Spurling says, ‘I had to fight so hard to relegate Thérèse to a minor role that, once it was finished, I felt I owed her a book of her own.’

The result is a thoroughly enjoyable and unedifying tale of greed and deception. The blurb accurately suggests that this might have been the plot of a novella by Balzac or Zola. In La Comédie humaine and Les Rougon-Macquart, sheer selfish determination can endow even the stupidest characters with a kind of genius. At the same time, their criminal success is an implicit criticism of the system that enables them to thrive. Balzac and Zola are still sometimes accused of cynical exaggeration: the story of ‘la Grande Thérèse’, whose motto was ‘Je veux, j’aurai!’, is a memorable vindication of them.

Thérèse Daurignac was born in 1856 in the village of Aussonne near Toulouse. Her mother ran a lingerie shop in the city and lived with her children and her elderly husband in a farmhouse in Aussonne. She died in 1871, leaving Thérèse to take care of her five younger brothers and sisters. Old M. Daurignac was practically useless. He studied alchemy and fantasised about noble ancestors and a lost inheritance. He was sometimes seen running across the fields during a thunderstorm, waving a magic wand to convince local farmers that he controlled the weather and could blight their crops. This energetic hocus-pocus produced nothing but the occasional placatory chicken or basket of eggs. He did, however, set his children a valuable example. It was M. Daurignac who first thought of fending off creditors by showing them a locked chest in which unspecified legal documents supposedly proved his imminent wealth.

The idea that his daughter Thérèse single-handedly perpetrated ‘the greatest swindle of the century’ was a later journalistic simplification. Most of the family seem to have been born deceivers. Zola might have identified a primitive survival mechanism that had evolved in prehistoric jungles and occasionally reappeared in modern human beings as a talent for deception. Spurling, who remains as resolutely generous as a defending counsel, traces this propensity in Thérèse to her lively imagination. She entertained her brothers and sisters with fairy tales in which her father was the Comte d’Aurignac and the family home a château. But if the fairy tales eventually came true, it was largely because the imaginative Daurignacs were also blessed with total indifference to the misery they caused.

Thérèse first tried to escape from poverty by turning herself into a marriageable young woman. She borrowed her friends’ jewellery and acquired a reputation as an accomplished though rather shy pianist. When guests came to hear her perform, she withdrew to another room, where a musical friend played the piece for her. She also enjoyed some natural advantages: ‘slender ankles’, a ‘neat waist’ (in her close-fitting riding habit, she ‘mesmerised the young farmers for miles around’), a seductive lisp (later presumed fake) and the husky voice of ‘the true Toulousaine’. By announcing tearfully that her father had ordered her to marry the son of a Bordeaux shipping magnate, she ensured a steady supply of boots, dresses, hats and hair-dos. Unfortunately, the shopkeepers of Toulouse grew tired of waiting for the marriage. In 1874, the family home was repossessed and the Daurignacs were forced to work for a living. They never forgot the humiliation.

Salvation came from Aunt Marie-Emilie, who had married a professor of law at the University of Toulouse. Gustave Humbert had helped to frame the Constitution of the Third Republic and was about to be made a senator. In 1878, to general amazement, the penniless Thérèse married the senator’s feeble son, Frédéric, a ‘clinging vine’ to her ‘fixed post’. The explanation was that Thérèse had inherited the fabulous Château de Marcotte. With its marble terraces and orange groves, it would have been worth a fortune if it had existed.

It turned out to be worth a fortune anyway. Senator Humbert reconciled himself almost immediately to his daughter-in-law’s wealth-creation schemes and used the imaginary Marcotte to fund his political career. Businessmen rushed to lend him huge sums of money. Under the Third Republic, Balzac’s dictum remained true: in order to become rich and successful, first appear to be rich and successful. The senator’s secretary, a young socialist called Armand Parayre, was appointed steward of Marcotte and accepted the job as a sinecure. Strangely, he never tried to visit the property and remained entirely innocent. Humbert further enhanced his creditworthiness by becoming Minister of Justice in 1882 and died 12 years later, a rich and respected member of the new Republican establishment.

Having proved its worth, the non-existent château was joined by a non-existent plantation of cork-oaks in Portugal. It was said to have been left to Thérèse by a friend of her mother’s who had collapsed with a heart attack and fallen through the window of the lingerie shop. The Daurignacs and the Humberts seem to have realised that relentless plausibility is the swindler’s downfall. The Portuguese well-wisher was given the unlikely name of Crawford and, since hoaxes are more effective if they seem injurious to the hoaxer, Thérèse was rumoured to be the illegitimate daughter of Senhor Crawford. The total Crawford inheritance was finally set at a staggering 100 million francs. As a friend known only as ‘Madame X’ explained: ‘If she had laid claim to an inheritance of no more than four or six million, she would not have lasted two years ... But a hundred million! People took their hats off to a sum like that as they would have done before the Pyramid of Cheops, and their admiration prevented them from seeing straight’

Spurling depicts Thérèse as an exuberant novelist, carried along by the momentum of her own creations. Once the Humberts had moved to Paris, ‘Crawford’ turned into an American billionaire whose will was contested by two unscrupulous nephews. When the need arose, the nephews were impersonated by the two Daurignac brothers. The proliferation of alternative versions might have been the result of novelistic exuberance but it also meant that if any version were disproved, it could be denied as a false rumour. This was rarely necessary. Like children at a magic-show the Humberts’ lenders were hypnotised by small, distracting details: the closely guarded strongbox and – a very Zolaesque symbol of financial lust – the bosom of ‘la Grande Thérèse’, where the bogus title-deeds were kept.

By 1883, the Humberts had begun to acquire real properties. They bought a newspaper and used it to engineer Frédéric’s election as socialist député for Melun. In the same year, they borrowed two million francs and bought the Château de Celeyran, the ancestral home of the Comtesse de Toulouse-Lautrec, whose son Henri was about to set up a studio in Montmartre. The estate was stripped of its assets, mortgaged, and used to attract fresh investors. None of the Humberts ever lived there.

‘One of the many puzzles for those who tried to analyse the workings of the scheme in retrospect,’ Spurling says, ‘was its initial funding.’ Most of the two million francs were thought to have been borrowed from a M. Bagnères, who then, it was said, spent several years bombarding the Humberts with writs in an attempt to recover his loan. One suspects that M. Bagnères was either an accomplice or a figment. The real source of capital appears to have been the Union Générale bank, which collapsed a year before the purchase of the château. The Union Générale was a creature of the Catholic, anti-semitic Right, its unstated aim being to undermine the Rothschild empire. Shortly after the crash, Justice Minister Humbert, who had delivered the Union Générale into the hands of the Public Prosecutor, deposited very large sums of money in various personal accounts. These were later said to be a present from the grateful Rothschilds.

Without attaching her brisk, invigorating tale to grand historical narratives, Spurling allows the historical lessons to emerge. The irresistible Humberts showed that leftwing politics were not incompatible with rampant capitalism. Anyone – especially a model family like the Humberts – could grow rich on credit. Their addresses retrace the upward itinerary of Zola’s successful characters quite precisely: the Quartier Latin, the Opéra district, the Parc Monceau and finally, in 1885, the avenue de la Grande Armée, not far from the last home of that other millionaire republican, Victor Hugo. The ‘Haussmannisation’ of Paris, and the property speculation that supported it, were clearly not confined to the Second Empire.

Throughout the 1890s, the ‘château’ at 65 avenue de la Grande Armée, where ‘even the lavatory brushes wore pink satin bows’, was the setting of one of the most influential salons in Paris. Upstairs, the legendary strongbox had a room to itself and was ceremoniously polished once a week. Downstairs, Thérèse played host to presidents and prime ministers. Her guest-lists were published in the newspapers; her hats were discussed in fashion columns. Appropriately, her personality remains obscure. She must have been a charmer, but in most of the photographs, she looks like a grim, immovable concierge. One of the famous hats sits on her head like an enormous black leech.

Happily, this handbook for swindlers on the grand scale also contains some useful tips for frustrated creditors. Frontal attacks seem to have worked best. A man called Quelquejay once pursued Mme Humbert up the grand staircase, apparently intending to reach the strongbox. He was paid off just in time. The Humberts may have treated written agreements with scorn, but they had a sympathetic respect for physical aggression and criminal damage. An unnamed creditor turned up one morning, demanding a repayment of 250,000 francs (about £750,000 today). He waited with the other creditors in the music-room for five hours. At one o’clock, he demolished the piano. At two o’clock, he started on the harp and the military trophies. Finally, he opened the window and leaned out, shouting, ‘Stop thief!’ and ‘Fire!’ One thousand people and two fire engines appeared in the street outside the house. The man was handed 100,000 francs and allowed to escape by the back door.

The intrepid M. Quelquejay and the anonymous wrecker were exceptions. Most of the Humberts’ creditors were helpless puppets, worked by the sinister hand of Thérèse’s brother, Romain. While Thérèse herself destroyed lives at a distance and kept a record of her successes in a carnet de suicidés, Romain preferred direct intervention. A secret door led to a warren of rooms at the back of the house where he intimidated lenders, fobbed off unpaid tradesmen ‘with the small change of hope’, and planned the murders for which he was never convicted. Three years after a distiller called Schotmann had lent the Humberts two million francs, his body was found on the Douai-Lille express. It is a chilling testament to the Humberts’ persuasiveness that the murdered man’s brother and cousin subsequently made a further loan of seven million francs.

Romain was also the brains behind a bogus savings bank. Instead of capital, it had ‘a glossy advertising brochure’, sporting pictures of the Pope and President Kruger. After three years, the bank was handed over to the unsuspecting Armand Parayre, who ran it so skilfully that it would eventually have made the Humberts authentic millionaires.

This, and not the gullibility of the creditors and investors, is the real mystery: why did it all collapse? Real fortunes were made on borrowed money and fallacious assets, and the Humberts obviously had the deviousness and brutality to succeed. In a Zola novel, their downfall would have been caused by an inherited flaw like alcoholism or by the gradual degeneration of the dynasty. The Humberts’ fatal weakness was their chronic lack of interest in honestly acquired wealth. Spurling’s ‘fairy tale’ analogy is not just a narrative device; the neurotic ‘dreamworld’ was never allowed to solidify into fact. The source of power was always to be an illusion.

In 1902, the Humberts’ creditors finally began to panic. With awkward questions being asked about the untraceable Crawfords, the family fled to Spain. On 9 May 1902, ten thousand people gathered in the avenue de la Grande Armée while the State Prosecutor supervised the opening of the strongbox. To the delight of journalists and the horror of the innocent Parayres and their son-in-law Matisse, it proved to contain an old newspaper, an Italian coin and a single trouser-button. This seemingly random coincidence of objects suggests a parting sneer: the news was out of date, the coin was not legal tender, and what better than a detached trouser-button to cause a sudden lack of confidence?

The trial itself was a huge embarrassment for the Government: so many highly placed officials, including the Chief of Police, had been friends and beneficiaries of the Humberts. Ruined creditors committed suicide, but for everyone else it was a pleasantly shocking melodrama. For the first time, other people were making money from the Humberts. There were Mme Humbert dolls, an Humbert board-game, and rubber balloons depicting Romain Daurignac, ‘who burst when you blew him up, deflating with a low moaning wail’.

The Humberts remained theatrical to the end. At one point, ‘Romain staged a nosebleed so copious that the court-room had to be washed down.’ They were represented by Maître Labori, who had defended Dreyfus. But the evidence was overwhelming. In August 1903, Thérèse and her husband were sentenced to five years’ solitary confinement with hard labour, while her brother Romain got away with three. Thérèse served her sentence in the women’s prison at Rennes and was released in 1908 at the age of 52. Frédéric was released from Melun in the same year, and ‘nothing more was ever heard of either of them.’ This is hardly surprising. Thérèse would surely have changed her name. According to the blurb, ‘she died disgraced and penniless,’ but no such conclusion is offered by the author.

Meanwhile, Matisse, whose paintings were the only non-lucrative product of the Humbert clan, was left to deal with a hostile press. It would be many years before his connection with the Humbert Affair was forgotten and his own brand of artifice began to tempt investors.