Under my byline

The romance of riches

Posted in Books, Profiles by Rrishi on 18 February 2009

Alexandre Dumas, by Etienne CarjatOVERLEAF 17

Thinking to write, in these times of furtive spending by surviving millionaires, about early millionaire authors, I entered a search for Alexandre Dumas in the New York Times’s online archive. Among the results was an excellent short tribute to Dumas by a journalist named Barnet Phillips (how names have changed) dated July 12, 1902. Phillips met Dumas during the 1860s while on holiday in France.

At that time, Dumas père — the romantic novelist; his son, Dumas fils, was a playwright — was putting the finishing touches to his enormous home on the outskirts of Paris not far from Versailles. It was called the Château de Monte-Cristo, after the “Count” of his famous novel, and on it Dumas spared no expense. Phillips writes:

It seemed to me that it never was to be finished. There always were stone cutters chipping away at it. There was a minute Oriental pattern on the facade, and I wondered at the slow progress it was making. Dumas explained it in this way: “I imported Moorish workmen for that job. Their execution is splendid, fraught with the proper feeling, only they are as rapid as would be snails, but for all that, they are very conscientious.”

The Château cost so much that Dumas had to sell it in 1849 to an American dentist, two years after it was finished, for a tiny fraction of what he had spent. Since it no longer belonged to Dumas, I wonder why in the 1860s Phillips still associates him with the house. (I can’t figure it out, but the anecdote sounds authentic. Perhaps Dumas later bought the house back.) At any rate, in the mid-1980s, the Moroccan king paid for renovations and sent craftsmen to restore its Moorish Salon.

Dumas was open-handed, disastrously so, with friends and visitors (not to mention stray dogs). Phillips tells of returning money to Dumas after Dumas had paid for an expensive meal for a group of friends:

“Is it posible?.” [sic] he said. “Was it not my treat? I never expected any reimbursement. This is indeed a windfall. You eat your dinner, and if it is a good one, you forget everything else. Now, did I really pay the entire bill? Did Alexandre Dumas ever have at any one time 150 francs?”

Alexandre Dumas, The Three MusketeersIt was his books and other writings that made Dumas his several fortunes. He was unimaginably prolific, with 650 books to his name. French schools only began teaching history in 1818, and soon after, there followed a burst of interest in historical fiction, which Dumas was well-placed to exploit. The best-loved of Dumas’s books are his great historical romances — The Count of Monte Cristo, the Three Musketeers trilogy and La Reine Margot, all written in one fantastic burst between 1844 and 1847.

When he ran out of money, he wrote more. It’s fairly certain he had something like an assembly-line operation going, with a handful of hack writers preparing material which he polished and published in his own name — much like modern celebrity ghostwriters. (Still, in 1845 Dumas sued, successfully, a journalist who said as much.)

Dumas was politically rebellious, and often took himself off into exile to escape trouble at home. When Garibaldi laid siege to Palermo in 1860, Dumas sailed his own schooner to Marseilles to buy arms for Garibaldi’s fighters. Dumas’s son, the playwright, was born to one of his lovers, but Dumas legitimised the boy, and then gave him the best education money could buy. In such ways Dumas spent his energy and income. He never became wealthy, yet it could be said that with his money as well as his talent he helped change the world.

Today, millionaire writers are commonplace. Scarcely a handful of Dumas’s contemporaries of the 19th century sold as well as he did — Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle come to mind — and yet some of them also put their wealth to eccentric but well-meant ends, and flirted with bankruptcy. Twain, for instance, invested in inventions (remember A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court), none of which were hits. Conan Doyle loved fast cars and golf, but was also highly inventive, urging the government to deploy inflatable lifeboats and body armour in war, before they had been thought of. Late in life he wasted a quarter-million pounds on a variety of spiritual pursuits.

This is an altogether more messy, yet wholesome and satisfying picture than that offered by modern millionaires, however they get rich. Times have changed so much that money is now made and disposed of in similar ways. We are so much more a cautious race, and it shows in what we write as much as how we live.

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