Madame Romain or La Belle Limonadière of France

La Belle Limonadière, Courtesy of the National Gallery of Arts, Washington D.C.

Lemonade was a popular drink in the 1700 and 1800s, and of all the lemonade sellers in France, Madame Romain, or La Belle Limonadière, as she was called, was said to be the most popular. La Belle Limonadière was also a Parisian personality known for her striking beauty during the First Empire and the early years of the Restoration. One visitor who saw her in Paris in 1815 described her thusly:

“A complexion like Parisian marble, and black eyes and hair in striking contrast with it. The usual aids of colour to the cheek were not forgotten, but quite what the French call au natural — a word merely meaning something less artificial than the last stage of artifice.”[1]

Louis-Marie Prudhomme. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In contrast to La Belle Limonadière’s beauty was her husband, Monsieur Romain. He was described as a small, thin, yellow-complected, and one-armed man He was a restaurateur who owned some eating houses, with the first of these houses called the Café du Bosquet located on Rue Saint Honoré. Although it was said to be a “third-rate” house, it attracted a large clientele because of the beauty of La Belle Limonadière.

In 1814, the French journalist and historian Louis-Marie Prudhomme saw La Belle Limonadière and mentioned her beauty. A Monsieur Jouhaud also described her. He stated that she was “one of the prettiest woman in Paris; great freshness, beautiful skin, slender waist, figure full of grace.”[2] In addition, in 1837, Honoré Balzac, the French writer and novelist who is said to have left one of the most impressive works of fiction in French literature, commented on the beautiful La Belle Limonadière, as did the Bavarian naturalized French journalist, Jules Lovy.

Lovy mentioned La Bell Limonadière’s beauty but also mentioned she and Monsieur Romain were an odd match. Perhaps, the comment about them being an odd match is partly what drove people to get a look for themselves. In addition, those who heard about La Bell Limonadière’s beauty were curious. Their curiosity grew to such great proportions that it soon caused a very big problem:

“A queue was formed early in the morning in front of the door of this café [Café du Bosquet] by the throng anxious to gain admittance, the concourse of the people was so great in the vicinity of the cafe, the authorities were obliged to interfere.”[3]

The authorities’ interference occurred both morning and night as that was when the greatest influx of curiosity seekers appeared. If looks from the curious bothered La Belle Limonadière, she never mentioned it. However, the presence of the curious did bother authorities, and the curious were so disruptive, guards were placed in the area to prevent them from impeding the flow of traffic.

Le Bon Genre / La belle Limonadière. Courtesy of the British Museum.

Monsieur Romain’s Café du Bosquet soon became too cramped, and he decided to move. His new eating establishment was called the Café des Milles Colonnes and opened at the Palais-Royal. Romain’s café was nearby the Café de Foy, a cafe that made a name for itself years earlier. It occurred in July of 1789, when Camille Desmoulins exited Café de Foy with a sword in one hand and his pistol in the other. He climbed onto a table, lectured the crowd, and appealed to the Paris bourgeois to take up arms. He then gave the signal to begin the insurrection, which started from the cafe and ended the next day when the Bastille was stormed.

La Belle limonadière ou le Trône des milles Colonnes. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Although Café de Foy might have been linked to the French Revolution, Café des Milles Colonnes became linked to Napoleon. Napoleon supposedly visited it often and used the cafe as an artful tool to worm important information out of his ambassadors. However, Napoleon was not the only person meeting at the cafe.

Café des Milles Colonnes was also the meeting spot for plotters unhappy with Napoleon. One known plot by royalists was the Plot of the rue Saint-Nicaise, which is also sometimes known as the Machine Infernale Plot. The plan was to assassinate Napoleon on Christmas Eve on 24 December 1800, but instead the bomb blast left Napoleon badly shaken but unscathed. However, apparently, at some point the plotters dined at Café des Milles Colonnes to discuss the details.

Although Napoleon and certain plot makers might have patronized Café des Milles Colonnes, most patrons at cafe were ordinary Parisians or visitors to Paris. In fact, at the Palais Royal, the cafe was by far the most popular and most well patronized. It was also claimed to be one of the most elegant establishments in the area, which was likely another reason for its popularity.

In 1815, shortly after the Battle of Waterloo and Napoleon’s defeat at the hands of the Duke of Wellington, a man named James Simpson, visited the Café des Milles Colonnes. He provided the following description:

“Very few ball rooms present the showy coup-d’oeil of this singular place. It is very splendidly mirrored all round, the plates being divided by fluted Corinthian pillars, which, as well as the company, seem innumerably multiplied. Waiters, in great numbers and activity, are serving coffee, ices, fruit, & c., to the different tables, which are all of marble, having a very cool and clean appearance, and encircled one by English officers, another by plumed Highland bonnets, a third by Prussian hussars, a fourth by Brunswickers in their mourning; many, by parties of French ladies with the beaux, and enthroned in the middle of the hall close to the wall with a marble table before and mirror behind her, dressed in crimson velvet and cover with jewels, sits la belle Limonadière serenely looking down on the hundreds who are looking up to her, and only recalling to mind the fact that she is not an empress.”[4]

Simpson also provided more on La Belle Limonadière and the patrons who visited the café:

“La Belle … has an air and expression of great good-nature; and, what most amused me, a most solemn attitude or correctest propriety. Nobody presumes to address her without previous formal presentation, and it is found impossible to give coffee orders to her majesty except through the medium of a gentlemen-in-waiting. To my great amusement I saw sitting at the right hand of “the throne,” eating ice, and now and then conversing with the lady, [Sir] Walter Scott, and with him several of his travelling companions, friends of my own. On joining myself to their party I was delighted to hear Mr. Scott’s remarks on the truly French scene at which we sat, and his commentaries on the singular personage [La Belle Limonadière] who solemnly, brilliantly, and correctly presided — sparkling with diamonds, multiplied, front, back, and profile, in mirrors, and is trenched in arrondissements of sugar, peaches, and nosegays.”[5]  

La Belle Limonadière was certainly a draw for the café. She was so popular, one writer noted:

“The wonderful costume of the lemonade-seller of the Palais-Royal excited the admiring envy of the ladies of the court, and as for the ‘cafetière’ of the ‘Mille-Colonnes,’ a fashionable hair-dresser expended all his art in her service, just as if he had been devoting his ‘genius’ to the head of an illustrious princess.”[6]

Sir Walter Scott by Sir Henry Raeburn. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Yet, it was not just women or hairdressers admiring La Belle Limonadière. Men also found her fascinating, which was perhaps why Scott (the English and Scottish writer mentioned above whose historical novels were greatly revered by the young Balzac) began visiting the café. Apparently, however, Scott soon did more than just admire her. Rumor claimed that he fell madly in love with the beautiful La Belle Limonadière.

Despite La Belle Limonadière’s appeal, in 1817, when she was scarcely 34 and still possessing the “bloom of her beauty,”[7] patronage at Café des Milles Colonnes dropped off. Monsieur Romain knew something drastic had to be done or his business would die. He closed his doors and brought in an army of workers. For several days they hammered and sawed. When the workers were done, his café was completely transformed.

When Monsieur Romain reopened, the café had been turned into a palace from the “Arabian Nights’ Tales,” complete with a throne. The throne was a real throne that had once belonged to Napoleon’s youngest brother, who reigned as Jerome, King of Westphalia, between 1807 and 1813. His Westphalia throne had been sold at an auction after the bankruptcy of Jerome and his kingdom in 1812. It was from this throne that La Belle Limonadière ruled with an authoritative air at the café, but, unfortunately, her rule was not to last.

Around 1824, the popular Café des Milles Colonnes was “extinguished.” It happened one day when Monsieur Romain was out riding. He fell from his horse and died from the injuries he sustained. La Belle Limonadière could not keep the cafe’s doors open, and, two years later, in 1826, La Belle Limonadière entered a convent as Madame Romain and lived out the remainder of her life as a nun.

References:

  • [1] London Daily News, “Literature,” January 11, 1853, 2
  • [2] T. Smollett, The Critical Review: Or, Annals of Literature (London: W. Simpkin and R. Marshall, 1812), 476
  • [3] Putnam’s Monthly v. 3 (New York: G.P. Putnam & Company, 1854), 390
  • [4] London Daily News, 2
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] A. Challamel, F. C. Hoey and J. Lillie, The History of Fashion in France: Or, The Dress of Women from the Gallo-Roman Period to the Present Time (London: Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, 1882), 203
  • [7] Putnam’s Monthly, 390.

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