The French don’t remember much about 19th century President Félix Faure, according to historian Sarah Horowitz. But they do remember how he died. He breathed his last during a winter tryst in 1899 with a woman named Marguerite-Jeanne Steinheil, who’d later be known as the Red Widow.
Despite her nickname, the woman who went by “Meg” probably didn’t intend to kill her lover. However, Horowitz writes in her new nonfiction book, “The Red Widow: The Scandal That Shook Paris and the Woman Behind it All” (Sourcebooks, $26.99), “This is a book about a woman who lied her entire life.”
So, who really knows what happened?
And who really knows if, a little after the president’s demise, she was the one who killed her husband and mother? Someone did one night while Meg was very loosely tied to her bed.
Oddly, each of her toes was individually tied to the bedpost.
So Horowitz can’t definitively say who committed the murders, but after spending years combing through primary source materials and getting to know Meg, she has her opinions.
“I don’t actually think she murdered her husband and mother. I think she knows who did it,” Horowitz says by phone from Virginia, where she’s a history professor at Washington and Lee University.
Meg was a middle-class woman whose era severely limited her options, yet she managed to outsmart her station in life. Despite her marriage to an untalented, struggling artist she felt no love for, Meg hatched a plan to access Paris’ social stratosphere and triumphed.
She reached those upper limits through a form of sex work that sidestepped being a prostitute or a courtesan. Meg was, after all, a married woman with ambition and handled her affairs with extreme care.
Prostitution was legal at that time, and workers registered with the police and submitted to regular examinations, though they often did jail time anyway. Horowitz writes that because men were “thought to need regular sexual outlets, prostitutes protected society from male desire gone amok.” Subsequently, society’s view of the women was that they were “a revolting but indispensable element of urban life.”
Not the kind of employment that would win Meg admittance into the circles of power she strove toward; that route was out.
Proper courtesans, on the other hand—playthings of the rich and powerful whom she very much wanted to associate with—were shunned by those not directly involved with them. That’t get her where she wouldn’t want to go either.
Meg’s solution was genius; she used her biggest disadvantage to her advantage.
Her household income was that of a hack’s; no one wanted to buy her husband’s paintings.
So Meg spread the word to prominent men that if they’d buy her husband’s work, she’d toss in a sexual interaction. Some were one-night stands, others turned into lasting friendships, or lasting business deals between Meg and the many men who accepted her offer.
“Technically she’s not trading sex for money. She’s making connections. She’s furthering her husband’s career. And, she’s having affairs with her new connections, which is much, much more socially acceptable at the time than direct exchanges of sex for money,” Horowitz explains.
Horowitz, an academic, had originally intended “The Red Widow” to be a scholarly work like her first book, “Friendship and Politics in Post-Revolutionary France.” She thought an academic approach would be best because she’d uncovered meaty information about women’s roles in society as well as material she could use to theorize about crime and class of that time period.
Her friends disagreed. They said the book needed to be for a broader audience, because the tale was just too juicy.
“It’s a story where there are absurd lies, costumes, dramatic reveals and cliffhangers. And the woman at the center, she’s really — to use the slang of our day — messy. She may have poisoned a friend; she blackmails her ex-lover’s widow; she has an affair with one of her cousins to get back at her family members,” Horowitz says.
Horowitz thinks the best-known modern story that’s slightly similar is Anna Delvey’s, as portrayed in the series “Inventing Anna.”
“Basically, (Anna) pretends she’s rich, that her father is some mega-rich guy,” Horowitz says. People loan her money thinking she’s good for it. “She enters New York high society as a result.”
Meg lied, too, and her lies served two main purposes: to appear more famous than she was and to appear more respectable.
“A kind of respectable society lady,” Horowitz adds, “as opposed to someone who trades sex for money.”
But lies permeated Horowitz’s other sources as well, making the narrative tricky to craft. The police archives of the double murder and any newspaper coverage of Meg proved as unreliable as her memoir.
Leading up to the murder trial, Meg was behind bars, and the police first worked to make her seem as innocent as possible, probably because of her involvement with the men at the highest levels of leadership.
However, as more about her exploits leaked to the press and fewer of her lovers had immunity or anonymity, the police flipped the narrative in an attempt to distance themselves and make her look as guilty as possible.
As for the press, Paris had 79 daily newspapers at the time, so reporters and editors competed proudly to publish the most exciting pieces of information they could gather — whether they were entirely true or not.
Horowitz would find three or more accounts of one event with no sure way of knowing for sure which was the true one.
Ultimately, she says, she took two approaches: “I wanted to let readers judge for themselves what they thought was most plausible. In other cases, I thing what I thought was the most plausible version.”
In each case, Horowitz leaves readers with plenty to wonder about, both in Meg’s story as well as how it relates to our own time, much of it related to sexuality and its expression.
Horowitz was in college when the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal unfolded and says that media coverage created dangerous messaging for young women about their bodies — Monica Lewinsky’s body size was criticized — and pegged the blame more on the young intern than the person often referred to as “ the most powerful person in the world,” the president of the United States.
Similarly, coverage of Meg’s scandal sent messages to the women of the time as well, much of which had to do with the idea that a woman’s sexuality was a source of shame and something to hide.
“There’s still so many double standards about men versus women and who’s entitled to have sex,” Horowitz says. “I think the way that we mock people for their sexuality, that’s still something that strikes me as very similar.”
All the same, it may very well be the case that a president who dies during a tryst like Felix Faure, or one who was once embroiled in a sex scandal like Bill Clinton, will go down in history not for his political work, but for his mistress.
Anne Kniggendorf is a writer and editor for the Kansas City Public Library and is the author of “Secret Kansas City” and “Kansas City Scavenger.” Follow her @AnneKniggendorf.
Join the club
The Kansas City Star partners with the Kansas City Public Library to present a book-of-the-moment selection every six to eight weeks. We invite the community to read along. Kaite Mediatore Stover, the library’s director of readers’ services, will lead a discussion of Sarah Horowitz’s “The Red Widow” later this fall. Email Stover at firstname.lastname@example.org for details on joining in.
“In this moment when decades of misbehavior among the rich and powerful suddenly became visible, working-class frustration bubbled up. Workers spoke indignantly about how politicians had been running state-run prostitution schemes. Peddlers roamed the streets singing bitterly to Meg that “there is a lot more vice in your world/Than in that of the worker who is dying of hunger.” The poor had long been told that their social superiors were also their moral betters. But if Meg slept her way to the top of society, if elites could be dishonest and licentious, if they could condone or even commit murder, it was clear that these lessons were just myths meant to prop up an inegalitarian social structure.
“… A union for domestic servants sought to use the scandal to open an inquiry into what it termed the ‘life of corruption and crime among the bourgeoisie in general.’ Servants were members of the working class who often knew when the seamy reality of their employers’ lives didn’t match their claims to propriety. Now, when the secrets of many at the top of the social hierarchy were pouring out, the union hoped that more revelations would bring down not just particular individuals, but that entire hierarchy.”