How Pierre Cardin has been turning the Marquis de Sade’s former home into a tourist attraction
FRANCE has always been a kind of Coney Island for lovers of literature: the land is lousy with shrines. There’s Victor Hugo’s apartment in Paris, George Sand’s mansion in Nohant and Balzac’s cottage in Passy, where even the author’s old coffee pot is revered like a piece of the holy cross.
But a more select breed of bibliophile has long made the pilgrimage to Lacoste, a little village in Provence where the chateau of one Donatien Alphonse Francois, better known as the Marquis de Sade, looms in decaying grandeur.
Born in 1740, Sade remains one of France’s more outrageous cultural heroes — an aristocratic libertine who has gone down in history for his maniacal lifestyle and bizarre pornographic novels, including Justine, Juliette and 120 Days of Sodom, each one overflowing with sexual fantasies of such nightmarish cruelty that they gave birth to the term sadism.
For generations, interest in Sade’s crumbling refuge was limited to the cognoscenti. Then, one day in 2001, word leaked out that the Chateau de Sade had an illustrious new owner, the celebrity fashion designer Pierre Cardin. Ever since, the king of pret- aporter has stirred things up in sleepy Lacoste, introducing upmarket boutiques, cafes, galleries, hotels, even an annual arts festival.
I really don’t care about this famous new lord of the manor; I decide I am not leaving France without getting inside that notorious castle and its dungeon.
Few writers’ homes are so intimately connected to their distinctive creative process. From the mid-1760s, when he received it as a wedding present from his father, the medieval chateau was Sade’s most beloved residence, and he lived there for much of his feral prime. Crouching above Lacoste like a wolf in ambush, the castle fed Sade’s fantasies of feudal inviolability, where he could act out his rabid desires with no fear of reprisal. And even later in his life, when Sade was in prison, it remained a fount of inspiration for his grisly literary output — a Walden Pond for the polymorphously perverse.
Speculation has long been rife as to what remains inside the chateau, particularly the dungeon. Although it was looted during the French Revolution in 1792, by the early 20th century it had become a louche must-see for avant-garde travellers. Surrealists such as Andre Breton explored it; Man Ray sketched it; Henri CartierBresson photographed it; Lawrence Durrell wrote the racy parts of The Alexandria Quartet in one of Lacoste’s cafes.
But it is the 21st-century owner of the ruined pile, Pierre Cardin, who has brought most attention to the village since the marquis himself. The couturier has erected a shiny bronze statue of Sade by the castle gate and started a summer theatre festival on the notorious estate that lures crowds from Paris and the Riviera.
Since 2006, Cardin has also been buying up Lacoste’s historic structures and converting them into galleries in an attempt to create a St Tropez of culture. The reaction to this real-estate grab among most of the socialistleaning villagers has been violent — much more so than if he had been intent on hosting mad orgies in the chateau.
In recent years, Lacoste has been torn apart by a mini civil war with a viciousness that only French provincials can manage.
I know that getting an invitation into the private lair of any celebrity is a delicate business, and the tricky village politics of Lacoste only make things worse. Luckily, I am not heading into the French hornet’s nest unprepared. I have discovered a story that would melt the heart of a Sade fan such as Cardin.
While researching Sade’s sor- did life in Provence, I come across a booklet on the history of Lacoste. At first, I pay it little attention. It seems to be the typically myopic local study that wallows in eyeglazing statistics, with rosters of grape harvests and treatises on pate production. But as I flick through the pages, I freeze in shock. There in the village tax census for the year 1608 is my own name, Antoyne Perrottet.
Although I know my family came from Provence, the details have been, until now, deeply obscure. From the Middle Ages to the mid-19th century, it turns out, a veritable army of Perrottets infested this Provencal village — well, about 10 extended families, roughly a quarter of the total population. Then, around 1860, Provence fell into economic decay and the Perrottets all cleared out — to Australia, North America, Argentina.
Aquick call to the family genealogist confirms that Lacoste was indeed our fount. Even stranger, I discover, a certain Andre Perrottet had risen to prominence in Lacoste in the late 1700s as an employee of the Marquis de Sade.
The idea that my forebears hobnobbed with Sade puts a whole new spin on things. It seems this ancestor of mine was a personal assistant of some sort, arranging Sade’s wide range of needs.
If this doesn’t give me licence to talk to Cardin and demand entry into the chateau’s depths, I don’t know what would.
To beef up mycase, I hunt down Sade’s correspondence in the National Library in Paris. I learn that young Andre Perrottet was first singled out by the marquis in 1767 and was hired as an all-round fixer. He oversaw renovations to the chateau and became a trusted courier, carrying sensitive letters about Sade’s sex scandals to lawyers in Marseilles, three days away by coach. And he kept an eye on unruly castle staff.
In 1776, Andre reported that a maid, Gothon (whom Sade had hired because she had the sweetest arse in all Switzerland), had become drunk and lost in the countryside one rainy night, but Andre found her the next morning in the forest, cold but unharmed.
So my ancestor was Sade’s toady. Excellent.
I take photographs of the correspondence and have them printed up into a dossier.
These are my credentials: ‘‘One of the Perrottets, Monsieur Cardin, he was the marquis’s righthand man, you see.’’ I am ready to take on the village. A SERIOUS heatwave has settled over Provence and many of the forests are tinder-dry. But Lacoste still manages to look verdant and dramatic, the Chateau de Sade looming on its lush crag like a mad scientist’s home in a horror movie. The village turns out to be minuscule, with only four cobbled alleys, two cafes and a boulangerie of erratic hours.
The medieval room I have rented in its heart looks rather grim
until I push open two shuttered windows. The garret also comes with a small balcony with views to make an impressionist drool.
Lacoste, I discover, floats above the Luberon region like a hot-air balloon, with sweeping vistas across vineyards and cherry orchards. It is the nearmythic Provence of Peter Mayle’s memoirs and novels.
It is 9am next day when I glimpse Cardin walking into an old mansion he’s converting into a hotel. I take a deep breath, pretend I am j ust passing by, then enter the work site. Two labourers stare at me with suspicion. I introduce myself, trying not to babble.
‘‘I am a historian. I am curious about the village renovations. Do you mind if I have a look?’’
To my surprise, Cardin walks up and shakes my hand. He’s wearing tailored slacks and a floral shirt with the cuffs casually rolled; up close, he seems far taller and stronger than his advanced years (he was born in 1922) would suggest.
‘ ‘ The upstairs is finished, if you would like to see it?’’ Cardin invites. The exterior staircase is blocked by construction poles. But Cardin simply grabs the fence and begins to hoist himself up.
It is too ambitious at first; he swings back and forth like a limbo dancer under the metal bar. I hover beneath him with my arms outstretched, terrified he is about to crack his skull, but with a renewed effort he gets himself up.
On the second floor, he proudly shows me the suites, each decorated in a different style and colour and filled with his own furniture designs.
I make appropriately admiring noises while I wonder how to steer the conversation.
I can’t just ask to see his home; that would be vulgar. An invitation has to arise organically.
Then, in the entrance hall,
I glimpse a Dali-esque painting of a figure in a powdered wig hovering in a starlit sky. Here’s my opening.
‘‘You know, my ancestors used to live in Lacoste,’’ I venture. ‘‘A certain Andre Perrottet . . . he actually worked for Sade in the 1770s.’’
But my words are suddenly drowned out by shouts and grunts. Two workmen are lugging a monstrous scarlet lounge the shape of a potato crisp up the stairs. Cardin has his hand out to shake mine. And before I know it, he has disap- peared up the stairs, directing the workers around a tight corner.
I want to wail, ‘‘Please show me the damned dungeon!’’ But I think better of it. Contact has been made. Tony Perrottet’s encounters with Cardin are detailed in The Sinner’s Grand Tour: A Journey Through the Historical Underbelly of Europe; sinnersgrandtour.com.
The village of Lacoste in Provence; the new owner of the infamous chateau, Pierre Cardin, below; and the bronze statue of Sade by the gate, below right
Geoffrey Rush as the Marquis de Sade in the 2000 movie Quills