Paris, June 26, 1936
Madame Therese de Coulaincourt had what amounted to separate quarters from her husband, and she generally made good use of them. Her present guest, Erich Stuhlenkamp, was a borderline case, possibly not worth entertaining. But strange impulses overcame Therese now and then.
Having finished her tea, Therese signalled to the maid, who then helped her out of her elaborate dress without disturbing her hair. When the maid left with the dress folded primly over her arm, Erich, barely able to control himself, approached. Therese luxuriated in the thoughtless spontaneity that was possible with a young man who, unlike her other lovers, counted for nothing.
Erich was exhausted more quickly than Therese would have preferred, but, putting on a gown, she called for more tea. As it arrived, she decided that she could spend an hour indulging herself in another luxury, the light-hearted conversation which came so easily to Erich. It, too, meant nothing. She was even willing to talk politics, not real politics, but the sort of political chatter for which Erich had discovered a liking. And then, of course, there was also the opportunity to find out yet more about his cousin Charlotte, a woman who couldn't be dismissed so easily.
Erich was full of a party he had recently attended, and which he had disliked intensely. Therese knew and liked the people, but, as he talked, she came to understand more fully what a spoiled young man he was. It was hardly surprising that he fitted in so well with Marie-Claude Serrault and her friends, perhaps without even realizing that their kind of conservatism wasn't very far from French fascism.
It was extremely unfortunate from Therese's point of view that Marie-Claude was so attractive and so magnetic. She got around almost as much as did Therese herself, and was a more destructive force than any number of right-wing politicians. Just then, Erich voiced an opinion which almost certainly came direct from Marie-Claude,
"After all, the age of nationalism is over. It doesn't matter so much whether we're French or German. There's going to be a new Europe, and, as long as it's not communist, who cares whether the government offices are in Paris or Berlin, or somewhere else."
Therese laughed and replied,
"As long as you're at it, you might as well combine the American government with the European one and put it all in Berlin. It might take your president and senators a little while to master German, but the Hitler salute can be learned in a matter of minutes."
Erich, for all his lightness of manner, pouted. He didn't like to be ridiculed, and, evidently fancying that he had mastered Therese in the bedroom, he began to pontificate about French politics in a way that revealed the depths of his ignorance.
Therese hardly bothered to contradict him, merely changing the subject when possible. During the course of this discussion, she arrived at two conclusions. The first was quite simple. As soon as Erich could be got out the door, she would instruct her maid to say that she wasn't at home whenever he called in the future.
The second conclusion was less definite, but more important. It seemed to Therese that matters couldn't be allowed to drift any longer. If French defeatism and willingness to give in to Hitler was so prevalent and so widely tolerated that it could be picked up by drifting tourists, it constituted a greater danger to France than the German invasion of 1914.
It took Therese another five minutes or so to get Erich to the door. He kissed her there and exclaimed,
"I'm sorry I can't stay longer. I'm supposed to meet Jeanne in fifteen minutes."
"She's such a sweet child. Give her my love."
Although Therese was now in a position of such strength that she could take time off from her busy schedule for diversions such as Erich, she had, some seven years previously, been in a much more delicate position than hardly anyone realized.
Both Therese and her husband came from families with some claim to distinction, her own military and his of the landed aristocracy. Unfortunately, the money had rather run out, particularly on his side. There was just enough to live in the approved style if M. de Coulaincourt supplemented their modest private income with the salary of a mid-upper level bureaucrat.
Unfortunately, Henri had, in 1929, found it necessary to resign his position in the Foreign Ministry. It was, of course, over an issue of principle. While Henri felt rather good about it, he soon found that there were no other suitable positions open to him. He instead declared to his wife his intention of living on a much reduced scale, sustained only by their little inheritances.
Even before this time of trial, Therese had been a political woman. Starting with her own far-flung and influential family, she had broadened this circle by joining all sorts of political committees and organizations. A young woman of her charm and intelligence who seemed always willing to volunteer great chunks of her time was bound to make an impact. Her friends had come to include deputies, civil servants of all sorts, diplomats, and a good many army officers. Many of these last were colleagues of her father, and were older and more senior than would ordinarily be found in the salon of such a young women.
Therese found that she could often bring together officers with government money to spend and private businessmen with something to sell. And, of course, she didn't just introduce them and leave them alone. It was always necessary to conduct negotiations and arrive at formulae satisfactory to all parties. Therese was better at that than any of the principals, and, despite her smooth and silken appearance, she quickly became a specialist in artillery and fortification.
In point of fact, Therese fitted quite naturally into this niche. Growing up, she had been closer to her father than her mother, and he was an artillery officer. She had spent her entire childhood almost within the sound of big guns. And then the war, which had broken out on her fourteenth birthday, had dominated almost everything else for the next four years.
During the war, there was little for Therese to do but study. She emerged from those years a rather learned young woman. Her mother was baffled. According to Madame Brossard, there had never been an intellectual in the family, nor a girl who wanted to go to the university. Actually, although her mother didn't fully realize it, Therese's father was an intellectual of the military kind. Like many other such men, he understood history rather better than most civilian historians. In addition, General Brossard went deeper into a number of areas of mathematics than was required to plot the trajectories of shells.
This is not to say that he approved of Therese's plans. On the contrary, he had picked out an officer for her to marry, and there was a considerable rumpus when she refused. However, having lost that battle, he was gradually talked into approving her other plans.
In Paris, Therese participated in the bohemian life of the less inhibited students. She also knew some artists, and was the nude model for some rather interesting work. Her parents would have been shocked, but some of the bohemians came from prominent families, and could be cleaned up and brought around to impress the elder Brossards.
In her third year at the university Therese suddenly became more serious. She then began to wonder whether she shouldn't have more serious friends. It was precisely then that she met Henri de Coulaincourt.
Henri was a man fifteen years older than herself who had already been at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for some time. He was very definitely not a bohemian. Moreover, instead of trying to get her out of her clothing, he spoke with her for hours on the most profound subjects.
It seemed to Therese that Henri operated on a different and higher plane. It was one which not only excluded any possibility of brutishness, but on which one could never entirely forget the vastness of the universe and the quite minor significance of human affairs therein.
It was in this atmosphere that Henri made a formal proposal of marriage, as much to General Brossard as herself, in a style which hadn't been seen in France for a hundred years. Therese had been concerned only that her acceptance be composed in a form which would not do an injustice to the offer.
Henri was reasonably acceptable, as civilians went, to a military family. Indeed, when it came out that he was a descendant of the Coulaincourt who had served with Napoleon in Russia, and who had written the classic book on the campaign, General Brossard had been almost enthusiastic.
The marriage took place very much as Therese had imagined it, as restrained as anything could be on the surface, but absolutely loaded with every imaginable and unthinkable subconscious desire. Reality differed from fantasy only in that Henri didn't come to her bed the night of the wedding, and, in private, had hardly touched her since. In public, on the other hand, he showed for her a kind of elaborate affection and discerning respect that caused everyone to envy her. Henri was certainly different from the other husbands, but she got a good deal of what she had wanted.
In the general mood of happy reconciliation with her father, it was easy for Therese to pick up her old habit of carrying on long conversations with him on military affairs. Not only that, they even found it possible to discuss politics.
Therese's political stance, after many twistings and turnings, had come down to the center-left Radical Party. One of her friends jokingly pointed out that it was exactly half- way between the moderate conservatism of her father and the communism of her student days. Unlike so many others who chose a party because they thought it offered opportunities for advancement, Therese made her choice entirely on the basis of philosophical beliefs. It really was an accident that her party seemed always to play a pivotal role in the politics of France.
The name of the party was a misnomer, since it was far from the left-most party in the Chamber. Indeed, most of the radical ideas of 1789 and 1848 were hardly revolutionary in 1936. The doctrines that would still have been radical, such as the advocacy of the killing of priests, had long since been dropped quietly.
The remaining outlook appealed, ironically, to that most conservative segment of the French population, the peasantry. Not being able to abide the urgent ideologies of the socialists and communists, the peasants' hatred of the rich also precluded support for the parties of the Right. There was, indeed, a certain populist tone to the Radical rhetoric which, in the end, always commanded the grudging allegiance of those who dug and rooted in the earth.
Perhaps because of the party's rural base, it had almost no appeal for the urban working classes. On the other hand, large numbers of petty bureaucrats, really glorified clerks, flocked to join it. In the cities, the Radical Party thus tended to represent those who fancied themselves a bit above the blue-collar workers.
The principal plank of the party platform wasn't the nationalization of industry, but an oft-repeated promise to extend profit sharing to the point where all citizens would receive equal dividends. Class distinctions would thus be eliminated.
This doctrine appealed strongly to the peasants. The people of the towns and cities who lorded it over them would be reduced to their level. For the petty bureaucrats the same doctrine was unattractive. They were more keen on not being merged with their inferiors than on joining their betters. But they were sophisticated enough to attach no importance to party platforms.
The result was a party with a large electoral base, but, still, something short of an absolute majority. On the other hand, the French system was one in which small movements of large parties could create or bring down governments. If the Radical Party moved right, it could dominate, or at least share in, a governing center-right coalition. If it moved left, even slightly, it could put the left in power. In theory, the Party could control events by threatening to suddenly subtract its power from either sort of government.
At this point, the Radicals were the right-most party making up the Popular Front, which also contained the socialists and communists. The Prime Minister, Leon Blum, was the leader of the socialists, but he could hardly make a move without consulting the Radicals first.
As with the other European populist parties, there was a gap between the people represented and the parliamentarians. In the case of the Radical party, the gap was particularly pronounced. The peasants were culturally so far removed from Paris that they could hardly communicate their attitudes to their deputies. They could hoot and jeer at them on the occasion of the annual party meeting, but there was no other party to which they could realistically turn.
The Radical deputies were a rather high-minded lot. Many were lawyers and professors, and the great majority came from educated families. There were even among them a significant number of strayed aristocrats. In between their infrequent confrontations with their rural constituents, the deputies tended to sit in cafes and dream of a just society.
Therese, from the beginning, had been proud to be aligned with this group, even in the years when she was involved in graft, corruption, and bribery on an almost daily basis. She had once remarked to a friend that fewer than half of the Radical deputies would take cash bribes. That pride was seemingly undiminished by the fact that she knew exactly which ones could, and could not, be so approached. Another of her claims, one that she made more publicly, was that the Radical deputies were far more literary than the others, and that the articles they published were of higher quality. Many had written books which went far beyond election year broadsides.
The leader of the party, Edouard Herriot, found Therese amusing. In his massively ponderous and paternal way, he treated her as an extremely clever and precocious little pet whom he delighted in having at his elbow. He had even been seen to pat Therese on top of her head in an absent-minded way.
Because of these connections, Therese was in a particularly good position to help certain military officers fulfill their dreams with respect to the last fortifications of the Maginot Line. A fortunate circumstance was that the great fortress line, bristling with guns from Switzerland almost to Luxembourg, entailed immense construction contracts. These contracts could be gently nudged in one direction or another. In particular, it was often possible to draw up detailed specifications in such a way as to give a particular company the advantage in the bidding.
The drawing up of specifications was a prerogative of the Army. But, often, a feature which would give a company represented by Therese a decisive advantage was not of the first military importance. For example, it might not matter much whether a particular rampart was made of steel or reinforced concrete as long as it would resist 155 millimeter artillery shells. Particularly in those cases where Therese's intervention made possible the fortification in the first place, the officer in charge, perhaps even an old friend of her father's, would be more than willing to listen to her suggestions.
Through it all, Therese was undeniably a French patriot. While certain companies showed their gratitude to her, she made sure that they were good companies who fulfilled their contracts to the letter.
With each year, Therese's orientation had changed a little in ways that she hardly noticed herself. In nineteen twenty-nine and thirty the problem had been to keep from being flung out of what she conceived to be the civilized world. There had been no question of not using all her resources, including her femininity, to that end. Her husband, so sticky about so many things, had never seemed to take the slightest notice of anything which might have been considered a romantic impropriety.
By 1932 there had been room for luxuries. Therese's most important luxury had been to allow herself, in a peculiar and oddly calculated way, to combine the spiritual and physical aspects of love. That was before she had an ounce of fat on her tight muscular little body. The man who had her affections had to be prepared for some extremely intense experiences, both in bed and, afterwards, in her boudoir sitting room.
It was in the latter location, while being served coffee by her maid, that she would explain exactly how much she expected of him, and, in addition, how little she expected him to dally with other women. Some men were overtaxed in the bedroom, and others by the little talks that followed. Either way, the love affairs didn't last long. Still, after Therese had simmered down a little, she would continue to defend her ex-lover in politics with all her considerable vigor and skill. She would also invite him to her parties, along with his wife or present mistress. The latter was well advised to be on her guard.
While putting a good face on many disappointments in love, Therese entered on a period of mild depression. Then, having decided that the only men who could really be trusted were like her husband, she began looking for larger issues. This search for meaning in life led her, in the middle thirties, ever more deeply into politics. By 1934 she was taking stands on particular issues and attempting to influence legislation.
Now, with more money than her childless family could ever spend, Therese stopped taking percentages. She even, now and then, used her own money to good purpose. She would have disassociated herself completely from shady transactions if she could have. However, the public life of the Third Republic was so involved with the illegal transfer of money that this was impossible.
Then, too, there were the army officers and the officials in the ministries who were her old friends. They might get into trouble if forced to pursue their habitual practices under the aegis of someone less accomplished than Therese. All during this period, there were scandals from that of Stavisky on down. Not one touched Therese or her close friends.
It was in late 1935, at Christmas-time, that Therese's disillusionment began to spread noticeably from men to politics. Pierre Laval was still the premier. He had engineered it so that Mussolini could invade Ethiopia without fear of sanction, and had also managed to make meaningless a Franco-Russian pact that might have restrained Hitler.
While Laval represented the worst tendencies in French politics, she, in her mood of depression, had been unable to detect any signs of anything much better on the horizon. Therese did not, of course, give up politics any more than she had given up men. But her methods, while still subtle on occasion, at other times reflected her increasing impatience.
Oddly enough, it was Erich, meaning nothing in himself and having nothing to do with the defence of France, who finally exhausted Therese's patience. Erich had hardly left when she put through a call to a member of the Chambre des Deputes, M. Paul Giroud, and arranged to meet him the next day.