Who Was the Marquis de Sade?

Even in the age of Fifty Shades of Grey, the 18th-century libertine is as shocking as ever

A gala celebrated the opening of “Sade: Marquis of the Shadows, Prince of the Enlightment” at the Museum of Letters and Manuscripts. (Tomas van Houtryve)
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On the Right Bank of the Seine in Paris is Le Marais, a neighborhood that the Marquis de Sade would recognize from his youth, a maze of winding alleyways once frequented by Racine and Molière. Here, it’s easy to imagine Sade as a vain young nobleman, in powdered wig and exquisitely tailored silk costume, weaving in his horse-drawn carriage through streets teeming with fish vendors and hawkers, en route to the theater he loved. The only known portrait of the marquis is a profile he sat for at age 19. His delicate, feminine features belie his feral charisma. But he was already displaying a lack of self-control that made his behavior extreme even by the standards of debauched French aristocrats. And his sordid antics with prostitutes and lovers of both sexes only seemed to escalate after his marriage at age 23 to Pélagie, the wealthy, plain daughter of the upper-middle-class Montreuil family.

Today, the pre-revolutionary world is in fashion in France, in part because of its libertine spirit, as I witnessed at a soiree at the Palace of Versailles. The venerable Antiquarians’ Society was hosting a lavish dinner for its biennale, which attracts leading antiques dealers and scholars. After passing through the village of Versailles (where the young Sade kept a pied-à-terre for trysts), I strolled through the Hall of Mirrors while the setting sun lit the chandeliers. As we sipped Champagne in the gardens, conversation turned to the rescue of Sade’s “secret manuscript,” The 120 Days of Sodom, now regarded as part of the national patrimony. “We are all thrilled that 120 Days is back in France,” one elderly dealer said. The manuscript, itself a bizarre objet d’art, written on a tightly coiled 39-foot-long scroll, had been the subject of legal wrangles for decades that were closely watched by European dealers. When I confessed my desire to examine it, he shrugged. “It’s in vaults more secure than the Bastille. But I am friends with the owner. I will put you in touch.”

The next day, I found myself in a setting scarcely less grand than the Palace of Versailles itself. The offices of the rare books company Aristophil include a museum of letters and manuscripts at the Hôtel de la Salle, a 17th-century Parisian mansion whose ornate halls have been restored this year to their original brilliance. I was led through endless silent chambers to the last gilded room, where the director, Gérard Lhéritier, presided at his vast desk. 

As Lhéritier spoke, an attendant in white cotton gloves entered with a leather-bound box, inside of which the scroll was sitting on velvet. It is surely one of history’s most peculiar manuscripts, written by Sade on small pieces of paper smuggled into the Bastille in 1785 and glued together into a single long scroll, which, tightly wound, could be hidden in the wall of his prison cell. The marquis must have had excellent eyesight. As the attendant unraveled the opus, she handed me a magnifying glass, since the scrawled text is so minuscule it can be read only with assistance. “I am not an admirer of Sade’s writing in general,” Lhéritier said. “I prefer calmer literature. But the history of the scroll fascinated me. It’s a mythic artifact.”

120 Days was first lost in 1789, when the revolutionary mob stormed the Bastille. A few nights earlier, Sade had been suddenly removed from his cell, “naked as a worm,” and transferred to another prison. (He had been using an improvised megaphone to harangue the crowds, declaring that the inmates were being slaughtered, and begging for rescue, a provocation that did not endear him to the warden.) “I have shed tears of blood,” Sade wrote, and he died believing that the manuscript was destroyed when the Bastille was sacked. Miraculously, he was wrong. Two days before the mob attacked, an eagle-eyed citizen found the roll hidden in the wall—historians know nothing more about him than his name, Arnoux de Saint-Maximin—and for unknown reasons, decided to save it. The manuscript fell into the possession of a wealthy French family, and finally re-emerged in 1904 in Berlin, where a German collector published the first edition of 180 copies, making it an instant legend among the world’s connoisseurs of erotica.

A wing of the Sade family returned 120 Days to France in 1929. But then, in 1982, a descendant lent the scroll to a bookseller, who absconded with it and sold it to a Swiss collector. Two legal cases were started to return the stolen text: A court in France put it on the Interpol list of stolen artifacts, but a Swiss court ruled in favor of the Geneva collector, saying he had bought it “in good faith.” Requests by the French National Library to purchase it were rebuffed.

All seemed lost until 2011, when word went out that the son of the Swiss owner (who had died in 1992) was finally willing to sell. “I was in ecstasy when I heard the news,” recalled Lhéritier. “I jumped up in the air like a goat!” For three years, Lhéritier struggled to strike a deal that included the French former owners, whose approval was needed to remove the item from Interpol’s list. He finally cut a deal for €7 million ($9.6 million) split between the families, and flew back in triumph last March from Geneva with the scroll in a private jet. The price tag put the novel among the most valuable manuscripts on earth, in the company of Leonardo da Vinci’s Leicester Codex, the Magna Carta and John James Audubon’s complete The Birds of America, to name a few. (In November, French authorities began investigating Lhéritier and his lavishly funded company for possibly running a Ponzi scheme, a charge he denies.)

The hushed respect for the scroll offers a contrast to the ferocious nature of its contents, which lives up to Sade’s boast that he had produced “the most impure tale that has ever been written.” Glancing over the text, I saw snippets of Sade’s most maniacal imagery—feverish orgies, monstrous depredations repeated ad nauseam, rants against religion and authority of all kinds. The novel relates the saga of four depraved aristocrats who imprison 28 teenage victims of both sexes, torturing and finally murdering their prey. It is the very ur-text of sadism, which most critics agree is unreadable. The Sade biographer Francine du Plessix Gray called it “borderline psychotic.” Even Lhéritier admits he has trouble. “Sade was crazed,” he said. “The book is an apology for every atrocity. If you read six pages, you have to put it down, you can’t take it.” 

In pre-revolutionary France, aristocratic males routinely evaded criminal charges because of their social status and wealth. Today, Sade’s real-life depravity is simply horrifying. The first scandal occurred in 1763, when the 23-year-old marquis locked a young prostitute in a room and began stomping on a crucifix and screaming blasphemies, then demanding that she whip him with a cat-o’-nine-tails. Five years later, in the village of Arcueil, he whipped a woman and (legal documents suggest) dripped hot wax on her back; she fled and contacted the police, but was paid off to drop charges. 

Sade decamped to Provence in the South of France, where he owned a lavishly renovated château in the village of Lacoste. Today, the region, called the Luberon, is beloved by acolytes of the writer Peter Mayle for its renovated farmhouses, plump olives and rolling green hills, but in the 18th century, it was a raw and remote backwater requiring more than a week of hard travel from Paris, the perfect refuge from royal officers of the law. Sade acted the benevolent feudal overlord with his wife Pélagie (with whom he seemed to have a mutually loving relationship, calling her “celestial kitten” and “fresh pork of my thoughts”), and playing games with his two young sons and daughter. His staff included a lecherous valet (and sometime lover), Latour, and a maid named Gothon, who, Sade said, had “the sweetest ass ever to leave Switzerland.” It was here that Sade committed one of his most disturbing crimes, in 1774: Five young females and one male were trapped in the château for six weeks of depredations, orchestrated in theatrical fashion by Sade under the indulgent eyes of his wife.

The Château Sade was sacked in 1789 during the revolution, but in the 20th century, its ruins became a destination for literary pilgrims such as Henri Cartier-Bresson (who photographed it) and Lawrence Durrell (who reportedly penned the steamier sections of his Alexandria Quartet in a local café). As interest in Sade grew, Lacoste drew more attention. In 2001, the derelict castle was purchased by the French fashion icon Pierre Cardin, who renovated the interior and erected a shiny bronze statue of the marquis, with a cage around his head to signify his years of imprisonment. Cardin even hosts a theater festival there every summer in honor of Sade, who had a passion for the stage. 

Driving to Lacoste, I spotted the château perched on a stone crag in the distance, like the ideal summer home for Bela Lugosi. Slippery cobbled streets led to the castle portals, where—as in any good horror movie—a visitor bangs the iron door knocker to enter. Cardin’s valet took me to meet the fashion designer, now 92 and in robust health, sporting a navy blue blazer and crisp shirt, his tousled white hair over signature frames. “I’ve always felt great sympathy for Sade,” he said. “He was persecuted for his writings, and suffered enormously. He did exactly what he wanted to do, just like me.”

I crept down a stone stairwell in the dark to the basement, and used a flashlight to illuminate the outline of the cell where Sade kept his victims trapped for part of their six-week ordeal in 1774. 

After the incident, villagers began to weary of Sade’s depraved behavior. (“I’m being taken for a werewolf in these parts,” he complained.) And Sade had already made a misstep that would cost him dearly: He had offended his mother-in-law. Madame de Montreuil once doted on the charming Sade, but in 1772 he ran off to Italy with his wife’s younger sister. Sade’s wife apparently forgave him, but the wrath of his mother-in-law was undying. It was she who helped the authorities hunt Sade down. Police finally broke into the château one night in the summer of 1777, and took Sade, then 37, “tied and muffled” to Paris. He would spend 29 of his remaining years in prison or an insane asylum, under three radically different French regimes, those of King Louis XVI, the revolution and Napoleon Bonaparte.

The dreaded Bastille was demolished in 1789 (the site is a busy traffic circle today). But Vincennes, the prison where Sade spent seven years, is an imposing tourist attraction, where guides show off his cell. The aristocratic Sade was permitted his library of 600 books, armchairs and a desk, while his wife was free to bring him the latest fashions and his favorite foods. (With characteristic phrasing, he once demanded a chocolate cake that was as black “as the devil’s ass is blackened by smoke.” No wonder the Surrealists loved him.) Sade had always fancied himself a writer, but until his imprisonment he had not produced anything but a few staid drafts of plays and a tedious travelogue about Italy. Now in confinement, surging with rage and frustration, he began to produce vast amounts of material, filling thousands of manuscript pages and completing drafts with lightning speed—in part to make money, in part to embarrass his nemesis, his mother-in-law.


To prepare for his recent biography Sade: Angel of the Shadows, the Parisian author Gonzague Saint Bris took the writer’s entire oeuvre to a remote Caribbean island, where he read every grisly word. “I was not happy,” he told me. “The iguanas were all looking at me, thinking ‘Poor Gonzague!’” Saint Bris almost decided that Sade was simply too appalling a character to spend time with. “But as I read more, my reaction went from revulsion to compassion. Sade languished for a third of his life in prison without standing trial. It’s a terrible fate.”

Like many Sade experts I met, Saint Bris was decidedly eccentric. When he opened the door to his Left Bank mansion for our mid-afternoon meeting, I found him in pink pajamas emblazoned with the family crest, his hair flailing like Beethoven’s. The 67-year-old author’s palatial abode is a literary cabinet of curiosities, jammed with thrilling arcana such as original letters by Victor Hugo and the tricycle of Jean Cocteau. The stairways were covered with photos of the younger Saint Bris, a dashing figure hanging out with Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson and Carla Bruni.

Saint Bris had his own take on Sade. He said he first realized the marquis’ influence as a 20-year-old during the May 1968 student riots in Paris. “I looked at all the placards, reading ‘It is Forbidden to Forbid,’ and ‘Do Whatever You Desire.’ I suddenly understood that our revolutionary phrases were actually from Sade. I began to see a phantom wearing his powdered wig standing on the barricades beside me!”

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