Halloween is a holiday in search of a hero. President’s Day has Lincoln and Washington; Christmas has Santa; Valentine’s has Cupid; even Groundhog Day has Punxsutawney Phil; and Mother’s Day – well, you get the idea.
Halloween, which, let’s face it, is for adults not kids, has languished without an appropriate adult role model. Most Halloween characters, like Dracula, the Wicked Witch, or Tricky Dick have few redeeming qualities. Others, like Casper the Friendly Ghost or Batman are either too juvenile or too commercial. And the rest – princesses, clowns, and cowboys – are all puny anonymities. Where is the real masked hero whose exploits should be celebrated on this auspicious day?
I’d like to nominate the eighteenth-century Chevalier d’Eon as a genuine costumed hero for Halloween. Who, you ask? The Chevalier d’Eon was the French emissary to London in the 1760’s. D’Eon, was a courageous military hero of the Seven Years War between France and England, a champion fencer, and a brilliant spy, who lived a lifetime in disguise – first, for 40 years as a man and later, for 40 years as a woman. Voltaire once famously described the Chevalier as “A nice problem for history.”
According to the Chevalier’s memoirs, her father wanted a son and decided to raise her as a boy. She was not only an exceptionally handsome young man, but also an accomplished student and a talented athlete. She soon discovered that as a male she had more opportunities in life than her sisters who were imprisoned in dresses and denied any chance to exercise their free will. She rose quickly through Louis XV’s secret spy network, allegedly sometimes disguised as female and sometimes as male. The Chevalier became a fierce military commander in the elite royal dragoons, and later, as a diplomat, she negotiated the treaty that ended the Seven Years War. The Chevalier was so beloved in the court of King George II, then it was rumored d’Eon had fathered George III.
After a squabble with Louis XV’s foreign minister d’Eon was fired as Minister Plenipotentiary to Britain. The Chevalier retaliated against the French Government by publishing a portion of secret diplomatic correspondence. Then d’Eon blackmailed the King by threatening to publish secret letters in which Louis asked d’Eon to assist in planning a French invasion of London that could only be described as cuckoo.
Louis XVI sent the famous French playwright, Caron de Beaumarchais, author of The Barber of Seville, on a secret mission to London in 1775 to persuade d’Eon to surrender the secret correspondence. By then rumors that d’Eon was a cross-dresser had spread widely, and tens of thousands of pounds sterling were wagered on this unlikely proposition. When d’Eon met the dashing Beaumarchais, the Chevalier tearfully disclosed to him for the first time that under the decorated uniform of a captain of the dragoons, she was indeed female.
How then was d’Eon a hero? Sometime around Halloween, 1776, d’Eon agreed with Beaumarchais to abandon her blackmail and her military uniform and admit publicly that she was a woman. Through a twisted series of events d’Eon’ decision to “come out” became the catalyst that convinced Louis XVI to arm the Americans against the British in the American Revolution. As a result of d’Eon’s actions Louis XVI provided the Americans with all of the arms, ammunition, uniforms, blankets, tents, boots, hats, even handkerchiefs for an army of 30,000 men. These desperately needed supplies reached Washington’s men just weeks before the critical Battle of Saratoga that proved to be the turning point of the American Revolution.
In other words, America owes its independence in part to a cross-dressing French spy. Who could be a more appropriate patron saint for the festival of Halloween? Come to think of it maybe we should make d’Eon the hero of July Fourth instead.
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