It is often said that truth is stranger than fiction, and perhaps never was that truth so strange as in the case of the astonishing life of the Baroness de Pontalba. As a young woman, she married in the first year of the Regency, only to find herself at the mercy of her weak-willed husband, who was himself under the thumb of his deranged and greedy father. For decades, this young woman was tormented and terrorized by her in-laws as they attempted to force her to turn over her vast fortune to their sole control. Even the most creative Regency author would be hard-pressed to write such trials and tribulations for a fictitious romance heroine.
The shocking, but ultimately triumphant life of the Baroness de Pontalba . . .
The full title of this book is Intimate Enemies: The Two Worlds of the Baroness de Pontalba and it was the first book written by Dr. Christina Vella, Professor of History at Tulane University. It was published in 1997 and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. In my opinion, it should have won. I only recently came across this amazing biography while browsing the shelves at my local library. At first, while reading the blurb on the dust jacket, I thought the book must have been mis-shelved in the history section, for it surely must be fiction. But when I turned to the back of the book and saw the vast number of notes and the substantial bibliography, it was clear this was indeed the biography of a real person. And what a biography!
Micaela Leonarda Antonia Almonester y Rojas was born in November of 1795, in New Orleans. At the time of her birth, this sprawling city at the mouth of the Mississippi River was the capital of a Spanish colony in the New World. It would be nearly a decade before Napoleon would gain control of the area, and sell it, along with a vast tract of land north of the city, to the Americans as the Louisiana Purchase. Micaela’s father was Don Andrés Almonester y Rojas, was a wealthy Spanish aristocrat, a member of the city council, and a noted philanthropist. Almonester was sixty-eight years old when his eldest daughter was born. A younger sister, Andrea Antonia, was born in 1798, not long before Almonester died at the age of seventy.
Sadly, little Andrea died in 1802, leaving her elder sister, Micael, as she was known in the family, the sole heir of the bulk of her father’s vast fortune. As one of the wealthiest young women in the Louisiana territory, there were many suitors for young Micael’s hand. As a teen, Micael had fallen in love with a young man of no fortune. However, she was bound by the Creole traditions of her family and was obligated to marry the man her mother had chosen for her. With the intent of protecting her daughter’s interests, Micael’s mother contracted a marriage for her only surviving daughter with the son of Baron Joseph Delfau de Pontalba. French by birth, Pontalba had spent many years in New Orleans, was a cousin of Micael’s mother and was known to the family. However, by the time the marriage was contracted, Pontalba and his family had returned to France. What Micael’s mother did not know was that Pontalba Senior had always envied her husband’s great wealth and believed he could take control of it by wedding Almonester’s daughter to his son.
In 1811, Pontalba had ingratiated himself with Napoleon Bonaparte and his government and had acquired his title. Baron Pontalba did not think it politic to leave France at that time to arrange his son’s marriage. Therefore, Pontalba’s wife and his son, Célestin, traveled back to New Orleans, once the marriage proposal had been accepted by mail. Between them, the mothers negotiated the marriage contract while the young couple got to know one another. Micael was just fifteen years old, while Célestin was twenty. Just three weeks after they first met, Micael and Célestin were married in New Orleans in October of 1811. Early in the next year, Micael, Célestin, and their mothers, all sailed away to France. By July of 1812, the group arrived at Mont-l’Évêque, the Pontalba’s rural estate. It was not until then that Baron Pontalba finally got a chance to read the marriage contract, and he was stunned at the terms which had been agreed upon.
Pontalba, Sr. had expected that all of Micael’s wealth would be transferred to his son upon their marriage. He also expected that she would become her mother’s sole heir, so that on the elder woman’s passing, he would have complete control of all of Almonester’s vast holdings. Instead, he discovered that though Micael’s mother had negotiated a generous dowry for her daughter, she, not Célestin, through Micael, would retain control of the bulk of the Almonester holdings for her lifetime. In the Baron’s opinion, he and his son had been monstrously cheated out of an enormous fortune. And, perhaps adding insult to injury, this had been done by a mere woman. Baron Pontalba was furious, and he would visit his fury on his daughter-in-law for the rest of his life.
Initially, there was some affection between Micael and Célestin, and they seemed to have been mostly happy during the early months of their marriage. However, the young man was weak, ineffectual and completely under his father’s thumb. It was not long before the older man’s venomous greed began to drive a wedge between the couple. Micael was a lively young woman who found life in the French country-side rather dull. She mounted several professional and amateur theatricals at Mont-l’Évêque, throwing herself into the productions, choosing the plays, hiring both professional actors and locals as players, ordering costumes and even performing in some of the productions. The Baron eventually put a stop to anything which gave Micael pleasure, while pressuring her to sign over all her property to her husband. She was able to convince her husband to take a home for them in Paris so that they could live their own life, out of the shadow of her in-laws. Her father-in-law furnished his home as minimally as possible, unwilling to spend any more than was absolutely necessary. Once she had her own house, Micael took great pleasure in furnishing her Paris home comfortably and fashionably.
When Micael’s mother died a few years after her move to Paris, Baron Pontalba intensified his pressure on his son to take control of her wealth. This resulted in a move back to Mont-l’Évêque, where the Baron instructed his family and servants to treat Micael as if she were invisible. With the exception of her maid, no one but her maid spoke to her, and she was kept nearly a prisoner in one of the smaller outbuildings on the estate. By this time, Micael had decided to try to fight for her rights, though she had few as a married woman under French law. She was accused of frivolity and profligate and reckless spending in the furnishing of her Paris home, among other accusations brought against her by her husband at the instigation of his father. She spent some time in Paris, separated from her husband, before she sailed back to New Orleans to deal with her properties there. Meanwhile, litigation over who controled her wealth dragged on in both the French and the American courts. Eventually, Micael returned to France, and even traveled out to Mont-l’Évêque, since her husband essentially held her children hostage in order to control her. She was forbidden to drive her carriage onto the estate, so she had to leave it at the gate-house and walk to the chateau. Still unable to gain complete control of Micael’s wealth, Baron Pontalba became increasingly frustrated.
One day, the elder Pontalba apparently snapped under the stress of his anger and greed. He loaded two duelling pistols, forced his way into his daughter-in-law’s bedroom, and shot her. Micael was struck by four bullets, but somehow, she managed to find the strength to flee the room and struggle downstairs to the drawing room, where she collapsed. The Baron followed her, but apparently out of bullets, did not fire again. He locked himself in his study and later that evening, he took his own life with one of the same pistols he had used to shoot Micael. Remarkably, though the fingers of one hand were damaged and her left breast was badly disfigured, Micael survived this horrific shooting. Yet, even in the face of this attack by her father-in-law, Micael was not immediately able to get a separation from her husband. By the death of his father, Célestin had become the new Baron Pontalba, thus making Micael the Baroness Pontalba. Eventually, Micael was able to get a legal separation from her husband and gain control of her life and her fortune. In the end, her husband gradually lost his faculties and in an ironic twist of fate, she became his legal guardian.
Though she had enjoyed the theatricals she had mounted at Mont-l’Évêque, Micael’s true passion was building. After she had won her separation, she purchased property on the Faubourg Saint-Honoré, where she built a grand Parisian townhouse. Known as the Hôtel de Pontalba, this elegant mansion was Micael’s primary home for the rest of her life. The former Hôtel de Pontalba is now the official residence of the United States Ambassador to France. And, it is just steps away from the former home of Pauline Bonaparte, which is now the official residence of the British Ambassador to France. After Micael returned to her native New Orleans in the 1840s, she was responsible for the construction of the Pontalba Buildings, two of the most iconic structures in the famed French Quarter. The intricate and ornate iron-work balconies were just one of many special features which Micael directed be included in their construction.
Micaela Almonester Pontalba endured appallingly cruel and heartless treatment from her in-laws, in particular her greedy father-in-law, for the sole purpose of taking control of her wealth. Her weak-willed husband sided with his father and did nothing to protect her from his father’s rapacious avarice. Nor did she get much protection under the laws of either France or the United States for many years. I suspect few Regency romance authors would ever think to subject their fictional heroines to the horrendously brutal treatment which Micael had to endure in her real life. Though she did not live in England, Micael was married in the first year of the English Regency, and though she was not shot until a couple of decades later, Regency authors might well want to read this book to get some idea of how women were treated in the first half of the nineteenth century, in both France and America.
Intimate Enemies is not only well-written, it is also very well-researched. This is more than just the biography of one woman’s mis-treatment in the face of avaricious in-laws. The author, Christina Vella, paints a detailed picture of political, cultural and social life in both Louisiana and France from the end of the eighteenth century though much of the nineteenth. The Pontalbas were acquainted with a number of prominent figures in Napoleon Bonaparte’s regime, as well as the children of some of those people, who were part of Micael’s social circle. Sections of this book are difficult to read due to what Micael had to endure, since few of us in the twenty-first can even conceive that anyone could be treated so cruelly and unjustly. However, Regency authors will find this book a font of information on the harsh treatment of a wife and mother by a family desperate to take control of her wealth. It also sheds a light on how little protection married women had under the law from the males of their families, particularly in France. Yet, despite all she endured, Micael persisted in her legal actions and eventually won the right to order her own life and manage her own funds. It turned out she had much of her father’s business acumen and was able to significantly improve her family’s finances once she had the managing of them.