LOST IN TIME
The Gaudy Pleasure Palace That Wrecked Alexandre Dumas
It was the over-the-top retreat of one of France’s most over-the-top writers. But the Three Musketeers scribe bit off more than he could chew. Now it’s one of Paris’ hidden gems.
On June 25, 1847, Three Musketeers author Alexandre Dumas unveiled one of the greatest architectural follies of his time—a miniature Renaissance château and a Gothic house surrounding by gurgling waterfalls on a hill above the Seine outside Paris. Just two years later, it became clear the endeavor was another type of folly entirely—of a financial nature. Having cost the larger-than-life writer twice his net worth, he auctioned off its contents and sold the estate.
Yet somehow, miraculously, the property (the Renaissance mini-palace dubbed the Château de Monte-Cristo, and the troubadour-style one just above it called the Château d'If) survived the rise of Napoleon III and then the Belle Époque, both World Wars, and the wrecking ball that decimated so many properties in the middle of the 20th century. Today this idyllic oasis that Balzac once described as “one of the most delicious follies ever created … the most royal sweetbox in existence,” is just a 25-minute drive (or train and bus ride) from the heart of Paris and is open to those obsessed with the prolific writer, or who just want to see something pretty and largely unknown.
The property sits in Le Port-Marly above a bend in the Seine just a town over from Saint-Germain-en-Laye with its grand center and even grander château. In 1844, coming off the massive successes of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, Dumas acquired the land overlooking the river while staying in Saint-Germain-en-Laye.
The writer was looking for some peace and quiet in the countryside to do some writing, as his Paris apartment was a non-stop parade of artists, society figures, and tramps. In 1846 he hired Hippolyte Durand (best known for the Lourdes Basilica of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception) as architect for the property.
“Monsieur Durand, you are to trace out an English garden on this very spot, in the midst of which I want a Renaissance château, facing a Gothic house that is surrounded by water… there are springs, you will use them to make me some waterfalls,” he is reported to have told the architect.
To which Durand replied, “That will cost you several hundred thousand francs.”
“I certainly hope so!” declared Dumas.
And the finished product, now restored, is, well, impossibly cute. A veritable romantic opera set. The folly château is a wheat-colored vision, with delicately carved details along its exteriors and capped by two metal cupolas. It was inspired in part by the Château d’Anet, a Loire Valley palace built for Diane de Poitiers by Henry II. Above the windows wrapping the second floor are reliefs of writers Dumas admired, including Dante and Lope de Vega. On the backs of the front doors hide several of the house’s best hidden gems, sculptures of women that look like the muses on posters by Mucha. Above the entrance, in very Trumpian fashion, is inscribed his motto: “I love those who love me.”
The Gothic house, built because Dumas knew he would need a separate space as a writer’s study, a “Lilliputian construction” as Le Monde dubbed it, is surrounded by a moat and decorated with stones inscribed with the titles of various works by Dumas. Along with the gardens (which Le Monde claimed had better views than the famed ones in Saint-Germain) Dumas declared, “Here I own a tiny earthly paradise.” It would end up costing him an estimated 100,000 francs.
Dumas was one of the more colorful figures in the incredibly colorful 19th century in France. In some ways, despite his literary success, his achievements were less impressive than those of his father, the general Thomas-Alexandre Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie. Born of a French marquis and one of his slave workers in Haiti, he was recognized by his father but forged his own path once in France. At 24, he joined the French military and rose through the ranks rapidly during the Revolution to become one of Napoleon’s top generals and a hero of the Austrian campaign. Eventually, however, he clashed with Bonaparte during the Egypt campaign and left the army only to be captured and imprisoned in Italy.
After his return to France in 1801, he and his wife had Alexandre in 1802, but then the general died in 1806, leaving the family in tough straits. When he was 21, Dumas was hired as a copyist by the Duke of Orleans, a major turning point in the young writer’s life. In his spare time he began to write plays and for newspapers and magazines. In 1829, his play Henry III and His Court was a smash hit, and the duke himself reportedly came up to him and said, “It was more than a success, it was a growing ecstasy.”
From there, the writer (along with help from Auguste Maquet and numerous others) would publish hundreds of books, plays, travelogues, and articles. His success by the 1840s had lent the ability to live out a life of excess. He had multiple mistresses and illegitimate children. He threw outrageous parties and was known for being excessively generous with anybody even remotely associated with him.
Since the contents (which were reported to be luxurious and eclectic beyond belief) of the house were all auctioned off a century and a half ago, the interior of the house today is devoted room by room to different parts of his outsized life. One focuses on his many mistresses (he claimed to have had more than 500) and illegitimate children. Another on his work as a playwright (his Antony gave rise to the famous line “Elle me résistait, je l’ai assassinée”) and his travels or work as a journalist. One room has been restored to resemble what it looked like when he lived there, the Moorish Room, which was built by artisans Dumas brought back with him from his trip to Tunisia. The dining room is decorated as a reminder that his last work was a cooking dictionary. “I want to end my literary work of five hundred volumes with a cookery book,” he said. The ever-expanding (the portraits of Dumas over the decades are gobsmacking in terms of how he just ballooned physically) author was essentially a one-man precursor to today’s overly inventive Michelin star restaurants. For instance, two of the dishes he treated guests to were oyster omelette and quail soup with profiteroles and two of the dishes in his cookbook (finished after he died) were stuffed elephant’s feet and kangaroo fillets.
At his party to open the Château de Monte-Cristo in 1847, he entertained 600 guests, but he was already deep in debt and being hounded by those he had borrowed from. Yet the high life continued, as major-domos, valets, and maids all filled out the property. Writers, actors, and artists would just drop by, suckling at the generous but money-bleeding tit of Dumas. According to the museum, many a dinner would take place where Dumas did not know the guests that he was feeding. Then add in his many mistresses and offspring (he only recognized two, most famously his son Alexandre Dumas fils, who wrote the play adapted into La Traviata), and the collection of animals (three monkeys, a vulture, two parrots, peacocks, and 13-14 cats and dogs).
But the final blow was his Théâtre Historique, an over-the-top theater he built on what is now the Place de la République. In 1848, France rebelled against its monarchy and established the Second Republic (which gave way to the Second Empire under Napoleon III), and the revolution wrecked the finances of the theater which pushed Dumas’ finances into an unbearable territory. He was forced to auction first the house’s contents, and then the estate itself. In 1851, the theater would close, and under Baron Haussmann, it would be torn down as part of his renovations of Paris to make way for the Place de la République.
Over the next century, the property changed hands a number of times and fell further and further into neglect. In 1969, like so many historic buildings with a tale to tell around the world, the château was to be demolished for a condo development.
But Dumas has fans who are indefatigable reminders of the origins of that word. (My guide, who also showed Emmanuel Macron around, was a bigger groupie for Dumas than any roadie in rock’s heyday.)
The Friends of Alexandre Dumas Society was rapidly formed and managed to stop construction even though a permit had been issued. Eventually the towns of Marly le Roi, le Pecq-sur-Seine, and Port-Marly purchased it together and oversaw a multi-year restoration until it was reopened to the public in 1994.
Now, it sits there, a romantic island in the midst of the 20th century development around Paris. It is a reminder of how hubris so often manifests itself in architectural overreach, which we’ve written about time and again. But it’s also a testament to the magic that one of the most fertile and imaginative minds of the last 200 years could fashion out of nothing.