The ruby-cheeked cupid overlooking the silver drawing room in the Elysée Palace has witnessed history - some of it recorded, some of it not. In 1809, he saw a beaten and tired Napoleon sit down and sign his abdication. Almost a century later, he heard President Felix Faure die in the arms of his mistress Marguerite Steinheil and only he knows in exactly what circumstances the president breathed his last.
He travelled in grand style, collected mistresses and changed attire several times a day.
“He took great care of his figure, changed his clothes three times a day,” says author and retired museum curator Georges Poisson.“He even wanted a presidential costume to be invented, with lots of embroidery, but as everybody made fun of him, it was never made.”
A handsome man, Faure also had a soft spot for the ladies
In her memoirs, Steinheil recalls her secret rendezvous with the president in the silver drawing room to exercise her functions as his "psychological advisor", as she put it.
"A private detective dispatched by the president would accompany me to the Elysée Palace. I always entered through a little door overlooking the gardens [see map]. I crossed the
On that fateful day on 16 February 1899, Steinheil and Faure were alone in the drawing room, when the president’s aides heard screams. They rushed to the president’s rescue and found Steinheil shrieking as the president lay suffocating on the sofa.
Faure, who was later diagnosed with having suffered a cerebral haemorrhage, died that same evening. It was only a matter of hours before the whole of France was awash with rumours of the president dying in the arms of his mistress.
The left-wing political press at the time had a ball, explains French historian Anne-Claude Ambroise-Rendu, with accounts of Faure’s death full of cheeky innuendos.
“Felix Faure passed away in good health, indeed from the excess of good health,” wrote the French daily Gil Blas in February 1899.
“He was sacrificed on Venus’s altar, oat the limits of that official morality of which he was supposed to be the highest representative,” writes the libertarian Journal du Peuple.
The similarity in the French language between the word for undertakers and a sland word for oral sex was also a source of many jokes about Faure and his mistress. After his death, Steinheil was nicknamed la pompe funèbre(look it up!).
Historians today have yet to reach a definitive version of Faure’s final moments.
Poisson says it is clear that Faure and Steinheil, who was found half naked, were involved in some of sort of embrace.
“We have witness accounts from the general secretary of the Elysée at the time and the valet,” says Poisson. “The president was found with his hand clenched in her hair and the president’s aides hacked her hair with such clumsiness that her skull was cut.”
But historian Pierre Darmon thinks it’s unlikely he died while having sex with his mistress.
“It is almost certain that she was at the Elysée," he says. "But is very unlikely that his first convulsions were spasms of satisfaction.”
Eyewitness accounts indicate that the president was tired and nervous.
According to Darmon, if there was anyone on Faure’s mind at the time it wasn’t Steinheil, it was Dreyfus.
French artillery captain Alfred Dreyfus was wrongfully accused of treason and imprisoned on Devil’s Island, a notorious case of anti-Semitism in the army that had blown up into a political storm that threatened to bring down the government.
The far-right press later suggested Dreyfus's supporters assassinated Faure because he refused to review the Dreyfus case. In January 1899, he signed a bill that would take the case out of the responsibility of a top French court which appeared to favour review.
But Steinheil was accused in some quarters of poisoning Faure. Accusations which gained pace when she came under suspicion of killing her own husband in 1908, acquiring the nickname of "the Red Widow".
Stenheil's mother, Emilie Japy, died of a heart attack and Adolphe Steinheil was strangled. Marguerite Steinheil was found tied to a bed. She told police that three men and one woman dressed in black attacked her during the night.
Far-right newspaper Action Française insisted that Faure had been murdered.
"At that time, newspapers Action Francaise and l’Intransigeant know they have lost the battle. Dreyfus has been pardoned, and will soon reintegrate the army. Clearly at the time they wanted revenge,” says Ambroise-Rendu.
It is at that point that the secrets surrounding Faure’s death grew into a full-blown scandal, known as L’affaire Steinheil in the French press. The outcry died down when Steinheil was finally acquitted of killing her husband after a tumultuous trial in Paris
“Scandals involving politician's private life and public life appear for the first time in the press,” says Ambroise, “they have two dimensions, the press draws attention to something that has been hidden by the authorities and at the same time denounces the commercial exploitation of the scandal it creates.”
The ingredients of a good scandal haven’t changed since the late 19th century, says Ambroise, and neither has the silver drawing room.
A century later, French President Nicolas Sarkozy briefly turned the drawing room into an office, before restoring it to its original state. Maybe it was not the right place for a known workaholic, where excesses of any kind could prove fatal.