Fifty Shades of Sade – Lacoste, France

With all of the hoopla surrounding Christian Grey and his shenanigans betwixt the pages of the “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy, it is a fact easy to forget.

The “S” in S&M has a very clear origin.

To the long and illustrious line of mythological heroes like Aegeus and Aeschylus, kings and emperors like Alexander and Arthur, and religious figures like Christ and Buddha, all of whom have the singular achievement of seeing their names converted into adjectives, we can add that of the Marquis de Sade, for his dubious contribution to the English language – the words “sadism” and “sadistic”.

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The languor that enveloped me as I wandered through the ruins of the Chateau de Lacoste, perched high above the pretty Provencal town on a two acre plot, wasn’t a result of limbs flush with desire. Mine was an altogether different heat, that of a blazing July sun beating down, unrelenting in the late afternoon, on a solitary traveller listening for echoes of the depravities rumoured to have taken place here a couple of centuries ago.

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The Marquis de Sade was born Donatien Alphonse Francois in Paris in 1740. His early years were divided between Paris and Provence, mainly at the family home, the Chateau de Mazan, now a celebrated hotel, with no indications as to one of its famous resident’s proclivities. His mother locked herself in a convent soon after his birth, while his father was a bisexual playboy. His uncle, Abbé de Sade, a priest, ran a bordello at his estate in Saumane-de-Vaucluse, where the young Marquis also spent a few years.

Sade returned to Paris to study at a school that also boasted Cyrano de Bergerac, Victor Hugo, Voltaire and Jean-Paul Sartre as students. He served as a soldier in the Seven Years War, and after peace was declared, returned to Paris.

An arranged marriage of convenience to Pélagie de Montreuil, a simple and pious girl from a noble family, did not stop him from renting an apartment for the use of prostitutes for his entertainment. This is also when he was arrested for the first time, in 1763, when some of the prostitutes complained about his “rough treatment” and “sacrilegious talk”. He was imprisoned briefly at the Chateau de Vincennes, on the outskirts of the capital, a place he would return to later in life.

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He returned to Paris in 1764 and resumed his activities, but preferred to conduct more and more of his risqué activities at the Chateau in Lacoste, away from the watchful eyes of the Parisian gendarmerie. Almost miraculously, he was able to sustain his wife’s devotion, even as he whipped women with knotted cords and committed apostasy with icons of the church. She remained an enabler in every sense, shielding him from arrest and witnessing, if not participating in his orgies.

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The Chateau that was to be his most important sanctuary was first built in the 11th century as a refuge against the Saracens, and then became the property of the Simiane family. Some people believe that in the 17th century, Diane Simiane married Jean-Baptiste de Sade, an ancestor of the Marquis, thereby allowing the estate to pass into the hands of the Sades. Others believe that in the early 18th century, Isabelle Simiane bequeathed the Chateau to her cousin Gaspard Francois de Sade. Either way, from the middle of the 18th century, the property was part of the estate of the Sades, and this is where the Marquis chose to conduct some of his more elaborate orgies.

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In 1768, a year after the birth of his son, the first of 3 children, the Marquis was arrested again after a prostitute filed complaints of being whipped at his house in Arcueil. Once more, upon his release, he returned to Lacoste with his wife and her younger sister, who became his lover.

On his return, he set upon a program of remodelling of the Chateau, paid for by his in-laws. He built a theatre capable of seating 80 spectators. Fond of landscape gardening, he used the black and white motif of the floor of the Cathedral in Chartres as inspiration for a labyrinth of evergreens at the north end of the estate. At the west end, he planted a grove of fruit trees, whose fate he agonised over from prison in later years. His private apartments were sumptuously decorated and overlooked the neighbouring village of Bonnieux.

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A committed gourmet, he loved local delicacies such as quail stuffed with grape leaves, cream of chard soup and treats such as baked apples and vanilla custard for dessert. He once wrote to his wife from prison of a craving for chocolate cake so dense “that it is black, like the Devil’s ass is blackened by smoke”. He also wrote of his wish for “a little prune coloured coat, with suede vest and trousers”, to satisfy his fastidious taste in clothing.

Unlike most of his contemporaries, the Marquis liked to bathe every day. There were 15 portable toilets and 6 bidets in the Chateau, and his wife’s bathroom had a bathtub and copper water heater, very rare for rural dwellings of the day.

He loved dogs, and well behaved children with whom he played games like blind man’s buff and musical chairs. He held an almost childlike devotion towards his wife, and his first thought on any occasion of arrest or charges levied at him were “Don’t let my wife know”. His letters to her were filled with terms of endearment such as “celestial kitten”, “star of Venus”, and “Shimmering enamel of my eyes”, while she routinely addressed him as “my good little boy”.

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But the orgies and flagellations continued unabated. A “secret apartment” contained many pornographic curiosities , including a large collection of enema syringes decorated with risqué drawings of peoples’ behinds. Behind the cozy, domestic life lurked the autocratic leanings of a power hungry tyrant. His disdain towards his fellow nobles left him with few friends to vouch for him when his troubles caught up with him.

In 1772, he arranged a particularly raucous orgy in Marseilles, with 4 prostitutes and his man servant, which involved him whipping them and in turn being whipped, receiving “748 blows”. The homemade aphrodisiacs he gave the girls caused them to fall ill, and they brought charges against him and his valet. They were sentenced in absentia for sodomy. After evading the law for a few years, he was finally captured, due in no small amount to his mother-in-law’s interceding with the Crown. He was incarcerated at the Fortress of Miolans in Savoy. The following year, in 1778, he was transported to a jail in Aix-en-Provence, from where he promptly escaped through a dining room window, returning to Lacoste with 5 servant girls, a young male secretary, and his wife. He did leave an apology for the guards at the prison.

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This was to be his shortest stay at Lacoste. Barely five weeks later, he was arrested again, reaching Vincennes after 10 days. He spent most of the next decade in jail, at the Chateau de Vincennes and the Bastille, routinely fighting with other prisoners and writing smutty letters. Marquis de Sade, the writer, was born. The first drafts of “The 120 Days of Sodom” and “Justine” were written at the Bastille.

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In 1787 he was transferred to a mental asylum for 3 years, at which time his wife decided, quite abruptly and to his despair, to never see him again. Within 3 years of his release, he was imprisoned yet again for writing political pamphlets under the name Louis Sade.

As the French Revolution gathered steam, the Chateau was looted and stones carried off by villagers, and was abandoned to its ruinous fate. He was heartbroken when he heard the news. He was forced to sell the property to a native of Bonnieux, who himself died in French Guyana without having lived in it for a single day. The property changed hands among local landowners and continued falling into disrepair, chiefly used to house goats and cattle.

After Napoleon Bonaparte took power in 1799, the Marquis was charged yet again on publication of his two erotic novels – Justine and Juliette, and put back in the asylum where he died in 1814, at the age of 74. He denied, to his dying breath, that he had ever written a single word of smut.

In 1952, a local school teacher took on the project of restoring the Chateau, making the central part of it inhabitable. And in 2001, Pierre Cardin, the French fashion designer, bought the estate, along with 22 other properties in Lacoste village, to no small outcry from the locals, who swiftly put paid to his plans for a golf course. Mr. Cardin is best known for inventing prêt-à-porter (ready-to-wear), and for being among the first designers to license his brand. He maintains the Chateau as his second home and every summer, he organises a music festival in the quarries to the west of the property. The Chateau, he says, allows him to indulge in his greatest passions – art and property.

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Modern sculptures besides the ruins are unmissable. One is a pair of long, outstretched arms.

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The other is a caged head, and is meant to represent the Marquis de Sade.

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A third is that of a figure, bent backwards. In keeping with the theme, one is perhaps swayed to believe the arching back is in the throes of arousal.

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As I walked around the ruins, all I heard were the summer sounds of the wind rustling through the air, heady with the chirruping of the cicadas, as the Chateau looks out over fields of lavender in bloom and verdant vineyards. In its current state, the Chateau is but a few walls, a dry moat and a few rooms. But somehow, for all its decay and forlornness, it is easy to imagine the half undressed nuns, the depraved monks, the nubile virgins and the debauched nobles that populate Sade’s work.

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Even in the stillness of a summer afternoon, one can see how the site itself was muse to the Marquis, the precursor to his mania and delusions. At the Chateau, he could indulge in his fantasies of a feudal autonomy that had to be indulged and that could not be challenged. Standing amongst the ruins, looking out onto the same vistas that confronted the Marquis – the rolling slopes of the Luberon, the old cobblestone streets of the village whose population of around 350 people is about the same as would have been during the Marquis’ day, not much has changed.

Except perhaps, the reputation of one of their most infamous residents. You can now stay at a charming B&B and quaff a local wine named “Cuvée du Divin Marquis,” along with your dessert of “Mousse glacée et son coulis d’orange a la Sade.”

As I leave, I glance back at the forlorn ramparts.

If stones could talk, these would perhaps scream in ecstasy.

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