Posts Tagged ‘history-humor’

On This Day in 1796

Posted in On This Day on May 14th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

How should we celebrate the anniversary of Edward Jenner’s introduction of cow pox vaccine against small pox?  A cake covered with buttercream pustules?  (You know me: any excuse for frosting.)   

It is a tribute to English tolerance that Edward Jenner was merely vilified for his dangerous notion about vaccination…and not hanged or exiled to Australia.  The English were not just intimidated by medical innovation; they had developed a sentimental attachment to small pox.  The disease had proved extremely helpful in clearing North America of its natives.  (The Spanish were just as grateful for the same reason.)

However, the French–ever contrary–did not seem to like small pox.  Of course, they would prefer the great pox–and even earned the honor of having syphilis renamed the French Disease.  And small pox did not behave itself in France. 

It is the reason that Louis XIV was succeeded by his great-grandson.  So, what happened to Louis XIV’s dauphin and grand-dauphin? In 1711-1712, there was an outbreak of smallpox at Versailles. The mortality among the Bourbons would have made a Jacobin jealous. The future Louis XV was the third son of the Duc of Burgundy. By the time the epidemic had ended, he had lost both his parents, his two older brothers and his grandfather. The two-year-old had been fifth in line to the throne; he now was the heir.

Indeed his survival was due to the diligence of his nurse; she quarantined herself and the child–isolating themselves from any other contact. But for her zeal, the succession might have passed to the Orleanist branch of the royal family; and who would want intelligent, progressive kings of France?

On This Day in 1915

Posted in General, On This Day on May 7th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – 2 Comments

May 7th

LusitaniaOn May 7, 1915, U-boat Kommandant Walther Schwieger had to make a difficult choice.  Would he want 4,200,000 rifle bullets  to reach his English enemies or would he prefer 100,000,000  Americans to join the war against Germany.  Deciding that the bullets were a more immediate danger, Schwieger sank the ocean liner transporting the bullets–along with 1900 passengers and crew.  The ship was the Lusitania.

One torpedo was sufficient to sink the British ship.  Even Schwieger admitted that it was a lucky shot.   The Lusitania sank in only 18 minutes.  It took even less time for 1198 people to drown.  The victims included 128 Americans.  Schwieger also succeeded in sinking any neutrality in American public opinion.

Up until that time the Americans dismissed the Great War as just as another elaborate, convoluted European opera except that the main characters really were trying to kill each other.  The public consensus had no preferences.  Yes, Kaiser Wilhelm did seem repellent but so did the British Empire.  Just ask the large number of Irish-Americans.  Among the growing Jewish population in America, Tsar Nicholas II was not fondly remembered; pogroms rarely are.   Furthermore, many Americans were of German descent and felt a certain nostalgia for the Vaterland; they had no wish to see their new country fight their old one.

The sinking of the Lusitania ended America’s indifference.  Popular sympathy was now with the Allies, and many were ready to act on that sentiment: fight the Hun!  Responding to America’s outrage, the Germans attempted to justify the sinking of Lusitania by offering desiccated legalese.  The German government had publicly announced its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare against any enemy shipping; it had placed ads in American newspapers!  Obviously, the passengers of the Lusitania should have known better.  The Teutonic jurisprudence did not satisfy the public outrage.  Indeed, within a few months the German government decided to refrain from sinking passenger ships.  (In the meantime, Lieutenant Schwieger sank the R.M.S. Hesperian–a hospital ship; the Second Reich did have some standards and apologized for that.)

America was ready for war, but President Wilson was not.  He had two reservations.  The first was political:  he wanted to be reelected in 1916 and he couldn’t be sure how all those Irish-American Democrats would feel about a military alliance with Britain.  (The American Jews would be placated and gratified by the appointment of Louis Brandeis to the Supreme Court, and the German-Americans tended to vote Republican anyway.)  His second reservation was philosophical, and our only Ph.D. President took his philosophy very seriously.  If America was to go to war, there had to be a nobler reason than revenge for the Lusitania or a visceral dislike of the Kaiser and German brutality.  America needed an aspiration to justify war.  If this were a war between democracy and autocracy, then Wilson would have committed our nation to the fight.  But the Allies included Tsarist Russia–a tyranny far more repressive than Germany.  While the Tsar reigned, President Wilson would maintain America’s neutrality.

But the Tsar fell in March, 1917 and Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany the next month.  The American victims on the Lusitania at last would be avenged.

As for Lieutenant Schwieger, in 1917 he finally had the misfortune to confront an armed ship.  Attempting to flee, he piloted his U-boat into a minefield.  In his last moments, he knew what it was like to be on the Lusitania.

A Patron of the Arts

Posted in On This Day on April 26th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

April 26

Today is the birthday of the great French painter Eugene Delacroix.  His “Liberty Leading the People” was a long-time favorite of teenage boys in sophomore history; they had an aesthetic appreciation of France as a topless woman.  If only our Statue of Liberty lacked such inhibitions….

And in honor of Delacroix’s birthday, let’s discuss Talleyrand.

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord (1754-1838) was a brilliant statesman and a shameless rogue: no wonder Alexander Hamilton admired him. Talleyrand was born with every advantage, but he continually reinvented himself: a liberal bishop, a revolutionary politician, a suave diplomat, a royalist conspirator. His politics were just as flexible: revolutionary, Bonapartist, and royalist (for competing dynasties.)

His remarkable life was shaped–actually misshaped–by a childhood accident that left him lame. Rather than have their line represented by a cripple, his parents dispossessed him of his rights as the eldest son. He was relegated to a career in the clergy. Of course, it was a luxurious version of the clerical life–lush sinecures, no clothes drives or bingo nights for him. He had been an excellent student at the seminary/college except that he was reading distinctly unclerical works: Montaigne, Montesquieu, Voltaire. Young Bishop Talleyrand was a radical.

Although an aristocrat and a cleric, Talleyrand supported the French Revolution. In the Estate Generals of 1789, he persuaded the more sensible aristocrats and clerics to join with the Bourgeoisie in their demands for reforms. In 1791, he was one of the leaders of the National Assembly’s drive to extend full civil liberties to Protestants and Jews in France.

The same year he began his career in the foreign service. The suave aristocrat first represented revolutionary France in Britain and then in the United States. (It was at that time that Hamilton would have met the Frenchman.) During the Reign of Terror, when aristocrats and bishops–no matter how liberal–were executed for their pedigrees, Talleyrand was safely abroad. Eventually, France sickened of the Terror and turned on the Radicals; they had their turn with the guillotine. Then France was governed by a moderate oligarchy called the Directory; Talleyrand became the Foreign Minister. However, he sensed that the dull, corrupt Directory would not last long, and in 1797 Talleyrand started cultivating the friendship of an ambitious, stellar young general named Bonaparte.

In two years, Bonaparte was the Dictator of France. In six years, he crowned himself Emperor. And guess who remained Foreign Minister. In that position, Talleyrand was implicated in the XYZ Affair: he was the one whom the American diplomats were expected to bribe. Surprisingly, Talleyrand was not instrumental in the Louisiana Purchase; in fact, he opposed it but Napoleon disregarded his advice. Napoleon frequently disregarded the the more moderate and less martial recommendations of Talleyrand.  So the French Minister began conducting his own Foreign Policy: first with the Austrians, then with the Russians and finally with the exiled Royal Family, the Bourbons.

With the defeat of Napoleon in 1814, Talleyrand manipulated the Restoration of the Bourbons. Louis XVIII made Talleyrand his Foreign Minister. In that role, Talleyrand represented France at the Congress of Vienna and managed to get the victorious allies to agree to lenient peace terms and support the Bourbons. Once Talleyrand accomplished that miracle, he found himself pensioned off. It was a nice pension (100,000 Francs a year and honorary positions of the royal council) but it was the equivalent of professional exile. Noting that the Bourbons were governing as if 1789 had never occurred, Talleyrand quipped, “They have forgotten nothing and learned nothing.”

Ousting the Bourbons would be the elderly Talleyrand’s last political effort; in 1830 he personally corresponded with the Duke of Orleans, encouraging the liberal aristocrat to replace the reactionary on the throne.

But what has Talleyrand got to do with Eugene Delacroix?  Well…the Bishop was rather lax regarding celibacy. In 1797, he was on especially good terms with a Madame Delacroix, keeping her company while Monsieur Delacroix was serving on military campaigns. Madame Delacroix had a son the following year. Eugene Delacroix was to be a great painter but he didn’t have the usual struggles of a young artist. Talleyrand showed remarkable interest in him and saw that he had ample and lucrative patronage.

And what is the Latin root of “patronage”?

The Measure of a Man

Posted in On This Day on April 7th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – 2 Comments

On this day in 1795, France adopted the meter as the standard unit of length. Revolutionary France obviously needed a new system of measurement; it had just cut off the tops of its old rulers.

Napoleon, however, was not that crazy about the Metric system. Perhaps under the old system, he seemed taller. While his conquering armies acted like liberals on steroids, and abolished serfdom, the Inquisition and the other medieval relics that still enslaved Europe, they did not attempt to impose the metric system. There were limits to Napoleon’s audacity.

Yet, where liberty, equality and fraternity have yet to take hold, the Metric system has. Of the allegedly advanced countries of the world, only the United States adheres to a medieval system of weights and measures. The length of the yard was said to be determined by Henry I of England; it was the distance from his nose to his outstretched end of his arm. Since Henry sired 21 children (only two with his wife) you can just imagine what other appendage he might have set as a standard of measurement.

Perhaps we should be grateful that 12 inches is called a foot.

How To Lose a Battle in a Spectacular Way

Posted in General, On This Day on April 5th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – 4 Comments

April 5th

NevskyFirst, invade Russia during the winter.  (Keep in mind that Russian winters last from October to May.)

Second, arrange for your army to be surrounded by a Russian horde that outnumbers you at least 2 to 1.  Since you and your comrades are German knights renowned for your policies of extermination and enslavement, expect the Russians to be somewhat vindictive.

Third, allow your beleaguered force to be pushed onto a frozen lake.  The date being April 5, 1242 (Happy Anniversary in medieval German to you.) the lake is just starting to thaw.  The ton of horse, armor and you could prove a strain on the ice.  Oops.  You are about to learn that your armor is not waterproof or particularly buoyant.  Neither are you.

Fourth, the site of your dramatic if humiliating demise is Lake Peipus.  Worse, in your own German, it is Peipussee.  You now will be sniggered at by generations of British public school boys (at least the heterosexual ones). You only avoid similar derision from American teenagers because they have never heard of the 13th century.

Finally, your defeat will be immortalized in the 1938 film named for the Russian victor.  Had your side won,  the film would have been called “Herman von Dorpat” instead of “Alexander Nevsky.”  If it is any consolation, your side definitely is more fashionably dressed and has better coiffures.  Of course, from the Soviet perspective, that only proves how decadent you are.  (Stalin had edited Pravda, not Vogue.)

And, for a belated introduction, the Germans belong to a crusading order known as the Teutonic Knights.  These knights felt that they had a sacred duty to conquer, convert and enslave the Baltic and Russian peoples.  If you are going to work your serfs to death, at least offer them the spiritual solace of Catholicism instead of paganism or that heretical Russian Orthodoxy.  In 1242, most of Russia had been overrun and devastated by the Mongols.  However, northwestern Russia was inconveniently located, so the Horde had spared it–in return for tribute.  The Teutonic Knights had already conquered the lands we’d recognize as Latvia and Estonia. (Lithuania proved too tough and remained pagan for another century!)  The German crusaders thought that the surviving Russian principalities would be a pushover.  They were wrong.

The Fool’s Guide to History

Posted in On This Day on April 1st, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

 Did man evolve from the lemming?  History often seems to be a road map to a cliff. On April Fools’ Day, we should remember the colossal buffoons who have shaped and sabotaged our world. Their profound stupidity remains our legacy. If only for therapeutic revenge, we hereby recount their calamitous lives. The culprits are in chronological order.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Andronicus ducas, 1071 A.D.

Andronicus Ducas became the inadvertent father of Turkey and the Crusades. The Byzantine general simply wanted to kill his emperor but was too finicky for an assassination. Ducas waited until the imperial army was fighting Turkish nomads and then ordered a retreat, abandoning the emperor to the enemy. The general overestimated the army’s ability to retreat, however. It disintegrated, leaving Anatolia — half the empire — defenseless. The Turks weren’t nomads after that. Anatolia is now called Turkey. The Moslem triumph ignited the Crusades, and its hordes of pious killers destroyed what was left of Byzantium.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Emperor Yung-lo, circa 1415 A.D.

China declared an end to progress. Emperor Yung-Lo had the best of everything. He ruled the most powerful, most prosperous, most technically advanced, most populous country in the world. At a time when English ships never sailed farther than Portugal, the Chinese fleet was exploring East Africa. Considering China’s extravagant superiority, Yung Lo decided that there was no point to improving on perfection. The rest of the world had nothing to offer China. Yung Lo abolished the fleet, discouraged trade and promoted a tradition-bound regimen of education. Yung Lo’s policy lasted for six centuries and so did China’s stagnation.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Ferdinand of Aragon, 1483 A.D.

He actually was bright and completely free of scruples; Machiavelli considered him a role model.  However, Ferdinand turned out to be a little too clever.   

He had a get-rich-quick scheme. The wily and avaricious king commissioned a Spanish Inquisition in 1483 with the idea of gouging wealthy suspects who showed any reluctance toward pork. Of course, the bulk of the loot would go to the crown. The Inquisition, however, was not content to be Ferdinand’s pickpocket. It was going to save Spain from tolerance, innovation and whatever else reeked of heresy. To his dismay, Ferdinand could not control the Holy Office’s pyromania. He became its most comfortable prisoner, complying with the rabid dictates of the Grand Inquisitor.  While the rest of Europe had the Renaissance, Spain had the Inquisition.

Pope Leo X, 1517 A.D.

Pope Leo X had more taste than sense. The Medici esthete regarded St. Peter’s Basilica as a medieval barn and insisted upon its complete renovation. Yet even a Medici couldn’t afford the expense, so the pope authorized the wholesale peddling of indulgences to raise the money. The brazen hucksterism outraged Martin Luther, who urged a reformation of the church. In Rome, Leo was more interested in Raphael’s blueprints than in Luther’s protest. The pope didn’t care about theology and he didn’t foresee any political repercussions. Leo waited until 1520 to address Luther’s criticism of a venal and oblivious papacy. By that time, Northern Europe wasn’t listening.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

General John Burgoyne, 1777 A.D.

General John Burgoyne won the American Revolution but not for his side. The British general began his invasion of upstate New York with 30 carts of luggage, a wine cellar, someone else’s wife and 9,000 soldiers. He chose an itinerary that took him through forests, swamps and 20,000 American troops. Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga was an unprecedented triumph for the colonists; heretofore, they had claimed successful retreats as victories. The French were elated by the news of a British disaster. Saratoga proved that the colonists could win, and France embraced any cause — even a rustic republic — if it undermined England.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Louis XVI, 1791-1792 A.D.

Louis XVI overthrew the French monarchy. Except for the unlucky guards at the Bastille, the French Revolution had started as a very polite affair. The original goal was a constitutional monarchy, but Louis XVI opposed even moderate reform.

In 1791, the royal family attempted to flee the country; however, the Bourbons stopped for a picnic and were captured. Louis also was writing to his fellow monarchs, urging them to invade France. When this correspondence was discovered, it did little for Louis’ popularity or longevity. Louis almost did as much harm to the other monarchies. They declared war on France … and lost.

The French Republic promoted officers on the basis of ability rather than pedigree. Lieutenant Bonaparte showed particular promise.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Fanny Kaplan, 1918 A.D.

Fanny Kaplan nearly killed Lenin. A member of a political party more radical than the Bolsheviks, Kaplan gunned down the Soviet leader. He survived but never recovered. (Kaplan’s execution was an immediate success.)

The once robust Lenin died in 1924, at the age of 53; and the conniving, paranoid Stalin began his ascent. This is one of the great “what ifs” of history. If Kaplan had killed Lenin, the Bolshevik Revolution would have collapsed; Russia likely would have been ruled by a surviving cousin of the imperial family or a Slavic version of Francisco Franco. Stalin would have returned to his previous outlet for sadism as a newspaper editor.

If Kaplan had not tried to kill Lenin, he might have lived another 20 years, Stalin would have stayed in middle management and some 20 million people would have died only of Soviet health care.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

So, there are the Seven Blunderers of the World. In all sadistic likelihood, they have been reincarnated and you know every one of them.

On This Day in 1492….

Posted in General, On This Day on March 31st, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – 9 Comments

Part I

Why Disraeli Was Not Prime Minister of Spain

Isabella of Castille was an idiot; it is not an usual condition in royalty.  Her husband Ferdinand of Aragon actually was bright and completely free of scruples; Machiavelli considered him a role model.  However, Ferdinand turned out to be a little too clever.   

He had a get-rich-quick scheme. The wily and avaricious king commissioned a Spanish Inquisition in 1483 with the idea of gouging wealthy suspects who showed any reluctance toward pork. Of course, the bulk of the loot would go to the crown. The Inquisition, however, was not content to be Ferdinand’s pickpocket. It was going to save Spain from tolerance, innovation and whatever else reeked of heresy. To his dismay, Ferdinand could not control the Holy Office’s pyromania. He became its most comfortable prisoner, complying with the rabid dictates of the Grand Inquisitor.  While the rest of Europe had the Renaissance, Spain had the Inquisition.

On this day in 1492, a pious Isabella and an intimidated Ferdinand ordered the expulsion of Jews from Spain. 

If Mel Torme and I had ghostwritten the proclamation, it would have been the following:

“Heretics roasting on an open fire.
Embers singeing Marranos.
Dies Irae being sung by the fire
While Luth’rans scream in their death throes.

Everybody knows where the Inquisition hangs its hood
They’re record sales on kindling wood.
So always do what those monks ask of you
Or else you will be barbecued.

If the friars find you lack
The proper faith they will put you on the rack
So on their good side be sure to stay
And go to Mass 12 times a day.

Just keep on offering your yearly tithe.
Its’ fire insurance on your life.
And on Ash Wednesday you can gloat in your pew.
The ash won’t be from you.” 

Part II

Ole Vey!

Out of mischief or masochism, I wondered what the Catholic Encyclopedia had to say about Tomas de Torquemada. Would modern Catholic scholarship admit that Spain’s Grand Pyromaniac was a monster, claim to never have heard of him, or equivocate over the meaning and context of mass-murder? Take a wild guess!

The Catholica Encyclopedia concedes that Torquemada was somewhat controversial and, perhaps from a modern perspective, a tad cruel. However, the Encyclopedia quibbles over the number of his victims: it couldn’t be 20,000, probably not even 6,000, say 2,000 tops. Who would think that Catholic scholars would act like Jewish wholesalers? In fact, that was exactly what Torqumada feared. According to the Encyclopedia. he was trying to protect Spain from being “Judaized”.

Apparently, he burned the most infectious 2,000, 6,000 or 20,000 people and saved Spain from that dreadful fate. But what if he had failed? Just imagine a Judaized Spain.

In 1492, Columbus was commissioned by their Most Sephardic Majesties Fred and Bella to sail west to China, where he was to pick up two orders each of chicken cashew, mongolian beef, and hot & sour soup. Naturally, he was to bring back the receipt.

During the 16th century, the countries we now know as Ladino America are overrun by armies of peddlers. The Aztecs are persuaded to buy Popeil cutlery for their human sacrifices. In Cubala and the Rabbinican Republic, the most promising athletes are enslaved by sports agents.

Of course, Spanish art is equally transformed. El Greco’s Transfigurations now depict a 13 year-old becoming a man. The princesses painted by Velasquez will seem much more annoying. And no one will ever call himself Goya.

Literature will also reflect this Judaizing. Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon will convey the pageantry, drama and danger of an all-you-can-eat brunch. Of course, the masterpiece of Spanish literature is Cervantes’ Sancho Panza, the comic epic of a rotund schlep who hangs around a demented gentile for excitement.

Oh, and the Spanish Civil War was a lawsuit.

 

 

Die Polar Disorder

Posted in On This Day on March 29th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – 2 Comments

March 29th

Penguins 4On this day in 1912, Robert Falcon Scott ended a rather disappointing trip to Antarctica. Nature evidently did not show the proper respect to a representative of the British Empire. The penguins did not greet his expedition with a few choruses from Gilbert & Sullivan, and the South Pole proved rudely aloof. Indeed, if the Pole had any sense of deference, it would have come to him.

Expecting to be the first gentleman to reach the South Pole, Captain Scott planned a grand tour, with modern conveniences as well as traditional fashions. His expedition included motorized sleds and horses, so he had a choice in how he would ride to the South Pole. Had he personally selected the dog teams, they probably would have been comprised of pugs.

The expedition promised to be an extravaganza. In addition to the complete catalog from Harrod’s, Scott’s team included a staff of scientists who would provide suitably British names for any discovered species, landmarks and eclectic oddities. Of course, the undertaking would be costly, and His Majesty’s government would only subsidize some of the expenses. Scott actually had some ability as a fundraiser, and found a number of private contributors. Fortunately, in the Edwardian era sponsors were more discreet, so Scott was not obliged to wear a parka covered with corporate decals. (However, you can imagine what Lipton would have paid to be the first tea brewed at the South Pole.)

The expedition arrived in Antarctica in early 1911 and spent the better part of the year preparing for the trip to the South Pole. For lack of Lyons restaurants along the route, food depots were established at some distances from the base camp to accommodate the polar tourists. The motorized vehicles and horses were thoroughly tested and found to be thoroughly inadequate. Neither could withstand the cold. The dog teams proved more resilient, but Scott had more faith in his own bipedal resolve. He and four members of his expedition would walk to the South Pole, dragging supply sleds with them.

After a two month hike, they arrived at the South Pole on January 17, 1912 only to discover that it already was the Norwegian consulate in Antarctica. Roald Amundsen had arrived there a month earlier, using dog sleds. It may have been summer in Antarctica, but Scott and his team were suffering from frostbite, dehydration and hunger. (Amundsen had relied on dogs for both transportation and–when necessary–an entree.) Depressed and malnourished, Scott’s crew became unlucky and careless. On the trek back, one Briton suffered a fatal injury, and no one could quite remember the exact location of the food depots. They actually were quite close to one of the food caches when, on March 29th, Scott and his team starved and froze to death.

Search teams from the base camp found the bodies, along with Scott’s diary. The diary, after careful editing to remove any hint of incompetence, was published as an epic of British heroism.

Of course, his heroism would have been unalloyed if Scott had the least idea what he was doing.

Craigslist: A.D. 193

Posted in On This Day on March 28th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

There were some advantages to being a Roman emperor. For instance, until the fifth century, the pay was excellent. You would rarely be turned down at an orgy. Furthermore, the job would never be outsourced to India, if only because the Romans had but a vague notion about India’s location.

Longevity, however, was another matter. From an actuarial perspective, an emperor would have regarded murder as a natural cause of death. In a period of five centuries, Rome had more than 80 emperors. The total is imprecise because the imperial reigns often were.

The Emperor Pertinax might have expected a longer reign. He certainly was an improvement over his predecessor, the debauched and incompetent Commodus. (You remember him from “Gladiator.”) Indeed, on his own merits, Pertinax had the makings of an excellent ruler. He was conscientious, honest and capable. You could add frugality to his virtues, but that actually was a flaw in Rome. The people wanted their bread and circuses, and the Praetorian Guard expected “donations”.

The Praetorians could overlook any vice in an emperor but stinginess. Pertinax had every virtue but generosity, so he did not survive his bodyguards. Today is that dubious anniversary.

The impulsive Praetorians seized the throne but had no one to occupy it. Then the extravagantly rich Didius Julianus,  the Donald Trump of his day, simply decided to buy the position of emperor. He showed up at the Praetorians’ camp and proceeded to bid for their loyalty. Another patrician competed in the auction for the Empire, but Julianus outbid him. His purchased Praetorians then cowed the Senate into acclaiming him the emperor.

The Praetorians’ loyalty lasted two months. When an ambitious general marched on Rome, the imperial guard switched sides again. Julianus did not live to regret it. He now is remembered as a joke. (The same might be said of Donald Trump.)

And Today’s Special Guest Victim Is….

Posted in On This Day on March 23rd, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

If embezzlers and MBAs had a Hall of Fame, Nicolas Fouquet would be shamelessly prominent. As the Minister of Finance during the early reign of Louis XIV, Fouquet maintained a bookkeeping system modeled after the Gordian Knot. It could be said that he would collect all the revenues but was willing to share some with the government, or at least the officials he liked.

Fouquet had the finest home in France. It seems unlikely that he afforded it just by brownbagging his lunches. The thought certainly occurred to Louis XIV, who evidently resented being the social inferior of his minister. The King ordered Fouquet arrested for embezzlement. There was a public trial, and the verdict could hardly be in doubt, but the judges proved unusually sympathetic to the accused. (Had they been past recipients of Fouquet’s generosity?) They sentenced him to banishment; you might well suspect that Fouquet planned a comfortable exile. The King, however, overruled that lenient sentence and condemned Fouquet to life imprisonment. The disgraced minister spent the last fifteen years of his life in a less than luxurious cell. He died there in 1680.

His second career began in the 1930s. Someone in Hollywood had been reading Alexandre Dumas. The 19th century French novelist apparently had screenplays in mind. “The Three Musketeers” and “The Count of Monte Cristo” had been box office hits, and the studios wanted more. While Dumas himself was no longer available, he had been prolific and his works included a sequel to The Three Musketeers. Based on a legend about a prisoner in the Bastille, the story was known as “The Man in the Iron Mask.”

Dumas had imagined that the title character was Philippe the twin brother of Louis XIV, hidden from birth but now the center of a plot to substitute him on the throne. In the novel, the younger brother was the unknowing pawn of ambitious men. Their attempted coup fails, however, due to the heroism of D’Artagnan and the shrewdness of a government minister named Fouquet. The real king is saved (even if France isn’t) and Philippe is condemned to the Bastille where his royal features are covered by an iron mask.

It seemed like another swashbuckler perfect for Hollywood…except for one problem: the villains. In Dumas’ novel the conspirators were the Jesuits, led by the renegade musketeer Aramis. Hollywood was not prepared to vilify the Catholic Church (although the Church never has been shy about vilifying Hollywood). So, a new villain had to be created.

Poor Fouquet already had a criminal record. Since he was an embezzler, why not make him a traitor, too? So, from helping to foil the plot, Fouquet became the mastermind of it.

But then Hollywood came up with yet another improvement on the plot. Instead of making poor Philippe a malleable cipher, portray him as a noble alternative to his wicked older brother Louis–and have the plot succeed. Good Philippe would secretly replaced Louis, who then would become The Man in the Iron Mask. Of course, Fouquet would still have to be a villain, but he would prove his intrinsic evil by being loyal to the legitimate King.

The logic of the plot was very similar to Fouquet’s Gordian bookkeeping. Dumas would have been dismayed; he actually seemed to like the wily minister. In fact, Dumas even gives Fouquet one of the novel’s few jokes.

Fouquet has heard rumors of the twin prince. He asks a trusted henchman, “Do you recall some mystery surrounding the birth of Louis XIV?”

The aide replies, “Do you mean that Louis XIII was not the father?”

Fouquet corrects him, “I said a mystery.”