Benjamin Franklin’s popularity with French women happened long before he was appointed Ambassador of France. When he landed on French soil in December of 1776, having set sail on 26 October as agent of a diplomatic commission, women (and probably men too) wanted to catch a glimpse of the experimenter with lightning and the defender of the American cause. When they did, they were not disappointed.
Women in particular thought the 71-year-old Franklin was electrifying as they had never met anyone quite like him. He had a rustic appeal when he appeared wearing his marten fur cap, the same one that he had worn to protect himself as he crossed the freezing waters of the Atlantic. In the fashion capital of the world, Franklin stood out. He stood out even more so, when he appeared in his cap at the court of Versailles that was known for its strict court protocol.
“The simplicity of his manners and costume, the mild dignity of his deportments, the frankness of his air, the wisdom of his observations, and the correctness of his conduct, made a most forcible impression upon the reflecting portion of the Parisians and even many of the gayest of the courtiers conceived the highest respect for him, and approached with veneration the calm and virtuous philosopher. Statesmen, authors, men of learning and science, metaphysicians, political enthusiasts, and even the populace, crowded to obtain a sight of the republican delegate; and the richest embroidered suit was an object of insipidity, and passed unnoticed, while the simple garb of Franklin was the theme of admiration.”
Part of Franklin’s appeal had to do with the fact that he was a ladies’ man with a big libido. In fact, he once offered a young man some wise words of advice. It came in the form of a letter titled, “Advice to a Young Man on the Choice of a Mistress.” Franklin advised him, “I know of no Medicine fit to diminish the violent natural Inclinations you mention; and if I did, I think I should not communicate it to you. Marriage is the proper Remedy.”
Apparently, Franklin suffered from the same libido problems as the young man and confessed in his autobiography that the “hard-to-be-governed passion of my youth had hurried me frequently into intrigues with low women that fell in my way.” Age supposedly did not lessen his problem, as it has been claimed that his sex drive grew greater after he turned fifty. Fortunately, however, with age, he learned better how to control it. Because of his high libido he got into trouble on more than one occasion, which once resulted in one of his enemies penning the following humorous verse:
- “Franklin, tho` plagued with fumbling age
- Needs nothing to excite him.
- But is too ready to engage
- When younger arms invite him.”
Despite having a high sex drive and being known as a lover of women, when Franklin arrived in Paris, there were plenty of women who sought him out. One woman whom he became friendly with was the Countess d’Houdetot. She was twenty-five years younger than Franklin, supported the American cause, and enjoyed discussing politics with him. She was also the daughter of the wealthy tax-collector and had married an army brigadier named Claude Constant César, Count d’Houdetot. The Countess is probably best remembered for the brief but intense love she inspired in the famous Enlightenment writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who described her in his Confessions, stating:
“Madame la Comtesse d’Houdetot was approaching her thirtieth year, and was by no means handsome. Her face was pitted with small-pox, her complexion was coarse, she was shortsighted, and her eyes were rather too round, but, notwithstanding, she looked young, and her features, at once lively and gentle, were attractive. She had an abundance of luxuriant black hair, which curled naturally, and reached down to her knees. Her figure was neat, and all her movements were marked by awkwardness and grace combined. Her wit was both natural and agreeable; gaiety, lightheartedness, and simplicity were happily united in it. She overflowed with delightful sallies of wit, which were perfectly spontaneous, and which often fell from her lips involuntarily. She possessed several agreeable accomplishments, played the piano, danced well, and composed very pretty verses. As for her character, it was angelic; gentleness of soul was the foundation of it; and, with the exception of prudence and strength, all the virtues were combined in it. Above all, she was so completely to be trusted in her intercourse, and was so loyal to those with whom she associated, that even her enemies had no need to conceal themselves from her.”
Besides the Countess, Franklin also developed a friendship with the Princess de Lamballe. She was introduced to him at Versailles while she was serving as Superintendent of the Household for the Queen, Marie Antoinette. The Princess and Franklin also became neighbors after he moved to Passy, and it was there that he resided in a home donated by a wealthy man named Jacques Donatien Le Ray de Chaumont. Franklin was friendly enough with the Princess that he once accompanied her and her sister-in-law, the Duchess of Chartres, when they traveled to Amsterdam in 1788.
Another beautiful French woman who intrigued Franklin was Madame Helvétius. When they met, the exuberant widow was in her sixties and nicknamed “Minette” by her closest friends. She owned eighteen prized Angora cats, several dogs, and some canaries. She was also known to throw great parties and kept a salon that was highly popular. Among her salon visitors were Suzanne Curchod Necker (Jacques Necker’s wife), Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier (Scientist), and François Gérard (painter). The Count of Mirabeau, Monsieur and Madame Roland, and Thomas Jefferson also visited.
Franklin was delighted by Madame Helvétius’ Frenchness and once made the mistake of inviting the American statesman John Adams and his wife Abigail to meet her. John was shocked by their visit and Abigail, who thought Paris was dirty, was appalled by their hostess’ lack of gentility. Of the meeting she wrote:
“She enterd the Room with a careless jaunty air. Upon seeing Ladies who were strangers to her, she bawled out ah Mon dieu! where is Frankling, why did you not tell me there were Ladies here? You must suppose her speaking all this in French. How said she I look? takeing hold of a dressing chimise made of tiffanny which She had on over a blew Lutestring, and which looked as much upon the decay as her Beauty, for she was once a handsome woman. Her Hair was fangled, over it she had a small straw hat with a dirty half gauze hankerchief round it, and a bit of dirtyer gauze than ever my maids wore was sewed on behind. She had a black gauze Skarf thrown over her shoulders. She ran out of the room. When she returnd, the Dr. enterd at one door she at the other, upon which she ran forward to him, caught him by the hand, … gave him a double kiss one upon each cheek and an other upon his forehead. When we went into the room to dine she was placed between the Dr. and Mr. Adams. She carried on the chief of the conversation at dinner, frequently locking her hand into the Drs. and sometimes spreading her Arms upon the Backs of both the Gentlemans Chairs, then throwing her Arm carelessly upon the Drs. Neck.
I should have been greatly astonished at this conduct, if the good Doctor had not told me that in this Lady I should see a genuine French Woman, wholy free from affectation or stifness of behaviour and one of the best women in the world. For this I must take the Drs. word, but I should have set her down for a very bad one altho Sixty years of age and a widow. … I was highly disgusted and never wish for an acquaintance with any Ladies of this cast. After dinner she threw herself upon a settee where she shew more than her feet. She had a little Lap Dog who was next to the Dr. her favorite. This She kisst and when he wet the floor she wiped it up with her chimise.”
Despite the lack of approval by Abigail, rumors were rampant that Franklin was so smitten by the lovely Madame Helvétius, he proposed marriage to her. If he did, she apparently turned him down.
Another of Franklin’s favorite French women was one of the greatest female harpsichord players of the time. Her name was Madame Brillon (Anne Louise Brillon de Jouy) and she was about thirty-nine years younger than Franklin. She was married but idealized the Founding Father and renowned polymath, and she flirted outrageously with him. her flirtation caused people to term it in the late 1777 and throughout 1778 as an “intense.” However, by 1781, she and Franklin had settled into being old, reliable friends.
As reliable friends, their relationship was still somewhat unusual. She called him “Mon Cher Papa” and various forms of aimer regularly appeared in their letters. Much of Franklin and Madame Brillon’s relationship and how it developed can also be observed from their mutual correspondence: “one hundred and three letters and notes on her side survive, twenty-nine on his.” In addition, once he played chess with his neighbor Louis-Guillaume le Veillard while she sat in the bathtub,* and, in fact, the two men kept her in the tub for hours apparently oblivious to the fact that she was probably turning into a prune.
Another interesting tidbit that occurred during Franklin’s relationship with Madame Brillon was that he wrote what he termed a “Treaty of Peace” for them. The treaty contained nine articles of friendship. The first article stated, “There shall be eternal Peace, Friendship & Love between Madame B and Mr. F,” and the last article stated, “[H]e will love any other Woman as far as he finds her amiable.” A rather good motto for such a randy man as Franklin, who also once wrote:
“And as in the dark all Cats are grey, the Pleasure of corporal Enjoyment with an old Woman is at least equal, and frequently superior, every Knack being by Practice capable of Improvement.”
*Hollywood recreated this scene for HBO’s movie series John Adams, but they made it a bit more scandalous. As Madame Brillon sat in the tub, she and Franklin were the only ones in the room playing chess.
-  Francis Hervé, Madame Tussaud’s Memoirs and Reminiscences of France, Forming an Abridged History of the French Revolution (London: Saunders and Otley, 1838), p. 56.
-  Benjamin Franklin, The autobiography of Benjamin Franklin: Published verbatim from the original manuscript by his grandson Will. Temple Franklin. Edited by Jared Sparks (London: H. G. Bohn, 1850), p. 68.
-  Ibid.
-  Bill. O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, Killing England: The Brutal Struggle for American Independence (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2017),p. 67.
-  The Confessions of Jean Jacques Rousseau v. 2 (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1904), p. 178–79.
-  Abigail Adams to Lucy Cranch, Auteuil, Sepbr 5 1784; in Adams Family Correspondence, vol. 5, at MHS Digital Editions – Massachusetts Historical Society, accessed November 6, 2017, p. 437-438.
-  Benjamin Franklin, “To Benjamin Franklin from Anne-Louise Brillon de Jouy, 16 [June] 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed November 6, 2017, p. 169–71.
-  Roy E. Peterson, Peterson Perspective: Humor, Wit, and Wisdom High Power Package (Bloomington: AuthorHouse, 2012).
-  Ibid.
-  J.A. Leo Lemay, The Life of Benjamin Franklin, Volume 2, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), p. 525.