Leon Gambetta And Leonie Leon
The present French Republic has endured for over forty years. Within
that time it has produced just one man of extraordinary power and parts.
This was Leon Gambetta. Other men as remarkable as he were conspicuous
in French political life during the first few years of the republic;
but they belonged to an earlier generation, while Gambetta leaped
into prominence only when the empire fell, crashing down in ruin and
It is still too early to form an accurate estimate of him as a
statesman. His friends praise him extravagantly. His enemies still
revile him bitterly. The period of his political career lasted for
little more than a decade, yet in that time it may be said that he
lived almost a life of fifty years. Only a short time ago did the French
government cause his body to be placed within the great Pantheon, which
contains memorials of the heroes and heroines of France. But, though
we may not fairly judge of his political motives, we can readily
reconstruct a picture of him as a man, and in doing so recall his
one romance, which many will remember after they have forgotten his
oratorical triumphs and his statecraft.
Leon Gambetta was the true type of the southern Frenchman--what his
countrymen call a meridional. The Frenchman of the south is different
from the Frenchman of the north, for the latter has in his veins a
touch of the viking blood, so that he is very apt to be fair-haired and
blue-eyed, temperate in speech, and self-controlled. He is different,
again, from the Frenchman of central France, who is almost purely
Celtic. The meridional has a marked vein of the Italian in him, derived
from the conquerors of ancient Gaul. He is impulsive, ardent, fiery in
speech, hot-tempered, and vivacious to an extraordinary degree.
Gambetta, who was born at Cahors, was French only on his mother's side,
since his father was of Italian birth. It is said also that somewhere in
his ancestry there was a touch of the Oriental. At any rate, he was one
of the most southern of the sons of southern France, and he showed
the precocious maturity which belongs to a certain type of Italian.
At twenty-one he had already been admitted to the French bar, and
had drifted to Paris, where his audacity, his pushing nature, and his
red-hot un-restraint of speech gave him a certain notoriety from the
It was toward the end of the reign of Napoleon III. that Gambetta saw
his opportunity. The emperor, weakened by disease and yielding to a sort
of feeble idealism, gave to France a greater freedom of speech than it
had enjoyed while he was more virile. This relaxation of control
merely gave to his opponents more courage to attack him and his empire.
Demagogues harangued the crowds in words which would once have led to
their imprisonment. In the National Assembly the opposition did all
within its power to hamper and defeat the policy of the government.
In short, republicanism began to rise in an ominous and threatening way;
and at the head of republicanism in Paris stood forth Gambetta, with his
impassioned eloquence, his stinging phrases, and his youthful boldness.
He became the idol of that part of Paris known as Belleville, where
artisans and laborers united with the rabble of the streets in hating
the empire and in crying out for a republic.
Gambetta was precisely the man to voice the feelings of these people.
Whatever polish he acquired in after years was then quite lacking; and
the crudity of his manners actually helped him with the men whom he
harangued. A recent book by M. Francis Laur, an ardent admirer of
Gambetta, gives a picture of the man which may be nearly true of him in
his later life, but which is certainly too flattering when applied to
Gambetta in 1868, at the age of thirty.
How do we see Gambetta as he was at thirty? A man of powerful frame and
of intense vitality, with thick, clustering hair, which he shook as
a lion shakes its mane; olive-skinned, with eyes that darted fire, a
resonant, sonorous voice, and a personal magnetism which was instantly
felt by all who met him or who heard him speak. His manners were not
refined. He was fond of oil and garlic. His gestures were often more
frantic than impressive, so that his enemies called him "the furious
fool." He had a trick of spitting while he spoke. He was by no means
the sort of man whose habits had been formed in drawing-rooms or among
people of good breeding. Yet his oratory was, of its kind, superb.
In 1869 Gambetta was elected by the Red Republicans to the Corps
Legislatif. From the very first his vehemence and fire gained him a
ready hearing. The chamber itself was arranged like a great theater, the
members occupying the floor and the public the galleries. Each orator
in addressing the house mounted a sort of rostrum and from it faced the
whole assemblage, not noticing, as with us, the presiding officer
at all. The very nature of this arrangement stimulated parliamentary
speaking into eloquence and flamboyant oratory.
After Gambetta had spoken a few times he noticed in the gallery a tall,
graceful woman, dressed in some neutral color and wearing long black
gloves, which accentuated the beauty of her hands and arms. No one in
the whole assembly paid such close attention to the orator as did this
woman, whom he had never seen before and who appeared to be entirely
When it came to him to speak on another day he saw sitting in the
same place the same stately and yet lithe and sinuous figure. This was
repeated again and again, until at last whenever he came to a peculiarly
fervid burst of oratory he turned to this woman's face and saw it
lighted up by the same enthusiasm which was stirring him.
Finally, in the early part of 1870, there came a day when Gambetta
surpassed himself in eloquence. His theme was the grandeur of republican
government. Never in his life had he spoken so boldly as then, or with
such fervor. The ministers of the emperor shrank back in dismay as this
big-voiced, strong-limbed man hurled forth sentence after sentence like
successive peals of irresistible artillery.
As Gambetta rolled forth his sentences, superb in their rhetoric and all
ablaze with that sort of intense feeling which masters an orator in the
moment of his triumph, the face of the lady in the gallery responded to
him with wonderful appreciation. She was no longer calm, unmoved, and
almost severe. She flushed, and her eyes as they met his seemed to
sparkle with living fire. When he finished and descended from the
rostrum he looked at her, and their eyes cried out as significantly as
if the two had spoken to each other.
Then Gambetta did what a person of finer breeding would not have done.
He hastily scribbled a note, sealed it, and called to his side one of
the official pages. In the presence of the great assemblage, where he
was for the moment the center of attention, he pointed to the lady in
the gallery and ordered the page to take the note to her.
One may excuse this only on the ground that he was completely carried
away by his emotion, so that to him there was no one present save this
enigmatically fascinating woman and himself. But the lady on her side
was wiser; or perhaps a slight delay gave her time to recover her
discretion. When Gambetta's note was brought to her she took it quietly
and tore it into little pieces without reading it; and then, rising, she
glided through the crowd and disappeared.
Gambetta in his excitement had acted as if she were a mere adventuress.
With perfect dignity she had shown him that she was a woman who retained
Immediately upon the heels of this curious incident came the outbreak of
the war with Germany. In the war the empire was shattered at Sedan. The
republic was proclaimed in Paris. The French capital was besieged by
a vast German army. Gambetta was made minister of the interior, and
remained for a while in Paris even after it had been blockaded. But his
fiery spirit chafed under such conditions. He longed to go forth into
the south of France and arouse his countrymen with a cry to arms against
Escaping in a balloon, he safely reached the city of Tours; and there he
established what was practically a dictatorship. He flung himself with
tremendous energy into the task of organizing armies, of equipping them,
and of directing their movements for the relief of Paris. He did, in
fact, accomplish wonders. He kept the spirit of the nation still
alive. Three new armies were launched against the Germans. Gambetta was
everywhere and took part in everything that was done. His inexperience
in military affairs, coupled with his impatience of advice, led him
to make serious mistakes. Nevertheless, one of his armies practically
defeated the Germans at Orleans; and could he have had his own way, even
the fall of Paris would not have ended the war.
"Never," said Gambetta, "shall I consent to peace so long as France
still has two hundred thousand men under arms and more than a thousand
cannon to direct against the enemy!"
But he was overruled by other and less fiery statesmen. Peace was made,
and Gambetta retired for a moment into private life. If he had not
succeeded in expelling the German hosts he had, at any rate, made
Bismarck hate him, and he had saved the honor of France.
It was while the National Assembly at Versailles was debating the terms
of peace with Germany that Gambetta once more delivered a noble and
patriotic speech. As he concluded he felt a strange magnetic attraction;
and, sweeping the audience with a glance, he saw before him, not very
far away, the same woman with the long black gloves, having about
her still an air of mystery, but again meeting his eyes with her own,
suffused with feeling.
Gambetta hurried to an anteroom and hastily scribbled the following
At last I see you once more. Is it really you?
The scrawl was taken to her by a discreet official, and this time she
received the letter, pressed it to her heart, and then slipped it into
the bodice of her gown. But this time, as before, she left without
making a reply.
It was an encouragement, yet it gave no opening to Gambetta--for she
returned to the National Assembly no more. But now his heart was full of
hope, for he was convinced with a very deep conviction that somewhere,
soon, and in some way he would meet this woman, who had become to him
one of the intense realities of his life. He did not know her name. They
had never exchanged a word. Yet he was sure that time would bring them
His intuition was unerring. What we call chance often seems to know
what it is doing. Within a year after the occurrence that has just been
narrated an old friend of Gambetta's met with an accident which confined
him to his house. The statesman strolled to his friend's residence. The
accident was a trifling one, and the mistress of the house was holding
a sort of informal reception, answering questions that were asked her by
the numerous acquaintances who called.
As Gambetta was speaking, of a sudden he saw before him, at the
extremity of the room, the lady of his dreams, the sphinx of his waking
hours, the woman who four years earlier had torn up the note which he
addressed to her, but who more recently had kept his written words. Both
of them were deeply agitated, yet both of them carried off the situation
without betraying themselves to others, Gambetta approached, and they
exchanged a few casual commonplaces. But now, close together, eye and
voice spoke of what was in their hearts.
Presently the lady took her leave. Gambetta followed closely. In the
street he turned to her and said in pleading tones:
"Why did you destroy my letter? You knew I loved you, and yet all these
years you have kept away from me in silence."
Then the girl--for she was little more than a girl--hesitated for a
moment. As he looked upon her face he saw that her eyes were full of
tears. At last she spoke with emotion:
"You cannot love me, for I am unworthy of you. Do not urge me. Do not
make promises. Let us say good-by. At least I must first tell you of my
story, for I am one of those women whom no one ever marries."
Gambetta brushed aside her pleadings. He begged that he might see her
soon. Little by little she consented; but she would not see him at her
house. She knew that his enemies were many and that everything he did
would be used against him. In the end she agreed to meet him in the park
at Versailles, near the Petit Trianon, at eight o'clock in the morning.
When she had made this promise he left her. Already a new inspiration
had come to him, and he felt that with this woman by his side he could
At the appointed hour, in the silence of the park and amid the sunshine
of the beautiful morning, the two met once again. Gambetta seized her
hands with eagerness and cried out in an exultant tone:
"At last! At last! At last!"
But the woman's eyes were heavy with sorrow, and upon her face there was
a settled melancholy. She trembled at his touch and almost shrank from
him. Here was seen the impetuosity of the meridional. He had first
spoken to this woman only two days before. He knew nothing of her
station, of her surroundings, of her character. He did not even know her
name. Yet one thing he knew absolutely--that she was made for him and
that he must have her for his own. He spoke at once of marriage; but at
this she drew away from him still farther.
"No," she said. "I told you that you must not speak to me until you have
heard my story."
He led her to a great stone bench near by; and, passing his arm about
her waist, he drew her head down to his shoulder as he said:
"Well, tell me. I will listen."
Then this girl of twenty-four, with perfect frankness, because she was
absolutely loyal, told him why she felt that they must never see each
other any more-much less marry and be happy. She was the daughter of a
colonel in the French army. The sudden death of her father had left her
penniless and alone. Coming to Paris at the age of eighteen, she had
given lessons in the household of a high officer of the empire. This man
had been attracted by her beauty, and had seduced her.
Later she had secured the means of living modestly, realizing more
deeply each month how dreadful had been her fate and how she had been
cut off from the lot of other girls. She felt that her life must be a
perpetual penance for what had befallen her through her ignorance and
inexperience. She told Gambetta that her name was Leonie Leon. As is the
custom of Frenchwomen who live alone, she styled herself madame. It is
doubtful whether the name by which she passed was that which had been
given to her at baptism; but, if so, her true name has never been
When she had told the whole of her sad story to Gambetta he made nothing
of it. She said to him again:
"You cannot love me. I should only dim your fame. You can have nothing
in common with a dishonored, ruined girl. That is what I came here to
explain to you. Let us part, and let us for all time forget each other."
But Gambetta took no heed of what she said. Now that he had found
her, he would not consent to lose her. He seized her slender hands and
covered them with kisses. Again he urged that she should marry him.
Her answer was a curious one. She was a devoted Catholic and would not
regard any marriage as valid save a religious marriage. On the other
hand, Gambetta, though not absolutely irreligious, was leading the
opposition to the Catholic party in France. The Church to him was not so
much a religious body as a political one, and to it he was unalterably
opposed. Personally, he would have no objections to being married by a
priest; but as a leader of the anti-clerical party he felt that he must
not recognize the Church's claim in any way. A religious marriage would
destroy his influence with his followers and might even imperil the
future of the republic.
They pleaded long and earnestly both then and afterward. He urged a
civil marriage, but she declared that only a marriage according to the
rites of the Church could ever purify her past and give her back her
self-respect. In this she was absolutely stubborn, yet she did not urge
upon Gambetta that he should destroy his influence by marrying her in
Through all this interplay of argument and pleading and emotion the
two grew every moment more hopelessly in love. Then the woman, with a
woman's curious subtlety and indirectness, reached a somewhat singular
conclusion. She would hear nothing of a civil marriage, because a civil
marriage was no marriage in the eyes of Pope and prelate. On the other
hand, she did not wish Gambetta to mar his political career by going
through a religious ceremony. She had heard from a priest that the
Church recognized two forms of betrothal. The usual one looked to a
marriage in the future and gave no marriage privileges until after the
formal ceremony. But there was another kind of betrothal known to the
theologians as sponsalia de praesente. According to this, if there were
an actual betrothal, the pair might have the privileges and rights of
marriage immediately, if only they sincerely meant to be married in the
The eager mind of Leonie Leon caught at this bit of ecclesiastical law
and used it with great ingenuity.
"Let us," she said, "be formally betrothed by the interchange of a
ring, and let us promise each other to marry in the future. After such
a betrothal as this we shall be the same as married; for we shall be
acting according to the laws of the Church."
Gambetta gladly gave his promise. A betrothal ring was purchased; and
then, her conscience being appeased, she gave herself completely to her
lover. Gambetta was sincere. He said to her:
"If the time should ever come when I shall lose my political station,
when I am beaten in the struggle, when I am deserted and alone, will you
not then marry me when I ask you?"
And Leonie, with her arms about his neck, promised that she would. Yet
neither of them specified what sort of marriage this should be, nor did
it seem at the moment as if the question could arise.
For Gambetta was very powerful. He led his party to success in the
election of 1877. Again and again his triumphant oratory mastered the
National Assembly of France. In 1879 he was chosen to be president
of the Chamber of Deputies. He towered far above the president of the
republic--Jules Grevy, that hard-headed, close-fisted old peasant--and
his star had reached its zenith.
All this time he and Leonie Leon maintained their intimacy, though it
was carefully concealed save from a very few. She lived in a plain but
pretty house on the Avenue Perrichont in the quiet quarter of Auteuil;
but Gambetta never came there. Where and when they met was a secret
guarded very carefully by the few who were his close associates. But
meet they did continually, and their affection grew stronger every year.
Leonie thrilled at the victories of the man she loved; and he found joy
in the hours that he spent with her.
Gambetta's need of rest was very great, for he worked at the highest
tension, like an engine which is using every pound of steam. Bismarck,
whose spies kept him well informed of everything that was happening in
Paris, and who had no liking for Gambetta, since the latter always spoke
of him as "the Ogre," once said to a Frenchman named Cheberry:
"He is the only one among you who thinks of revenge, and who is any sort
of a menace to Germany. But, fortunately, he won't last much longer. I
am not speaking thoughtlessly. I know from secret reports what sort of
a life your great man leads, and I know his habits. Why, his life is
a life of continual overwork. He rests neither night nor day. All
politicians who have led the same life have died young. To be able
to serve one's country for a long time a statesman must marry an ugly
woman, have children like the rest of the world, and a country place
or a house to one's self like any common peasant, where he can go and
The Iron Chancellor chuckled as he said this, and he was right. And yet
Gambetta's end came not so much through overwork as by an accident.
It may be that the ambition of Mme. Leon stimulated him beyond his
powers. However this may be, early in 1882, when he was defeated in
Parliament on a question which he considered vital, he immediately
resigned and turned his back on public life. His fickle friends soon
deserted him. His enemies jeered and hooted the mention of his name.
He had reached the time which with a sort of prophetic instinct he had
foreseen nearly ten years before. So he turned to the woman who had
been faithful and loving to him; and he turned to her with a feeling of
"You promised me," he said, "that if ever I was defeated and alone you
would marry me. The time is now."
Then this man, who had exercised the powers of a dictator, who had
levied armies and shaken governments, and through whose hands there had
passed thousands of millions of francs, sought for a country home. He
found for sale a small estate which had once belonged to Balzac, and
which is known as Les Jardies. It was in wretched repair; yet the small
sum which it cost Gambetta--twelve thousand francs--was practically all
that he possessed. Worn and weary as he was, it seemed to him a haven of
delightful peace; for here he might live in the quiet country with the
still beautiful woman who was soon to become his wife.
It is not known what form of marriage they at last agreed upon. She may
have consented to a civil ceremony; or he, being now out of public life,
may have felt that he could be married by the Church. The day for their
wedding had been set, and Gambetta was already at Les Jardies. But there
came a rumor that he had been shot. Still further tidings bore the news
that he was dying. Paris, fond as it was of scandals, immediately spread
the tale that he had been shot by a jealous woman.
The truth is quite the contrary. Gambetta, in arranging his effects in
his new home, took it upon himself to clean a pair of dueling-pistols;
for every French politician of importance must fight duels, and Gambetta
had already done so. Unfortunately, one cartridge remained unnoticed in
the pistol which Gambetta cleaned. As he held the pistol-barrel against
the soft part of his hand the cartridge exploded, and the ball passed
through the base of the thumb with a rending, spluttering noise.
The wound was not in itself serious, but now the prophecy of Bismarck
was fulfilled. Gambetta had exhausted his vitality; a fever set in, and
before long he died of internal ulceration.
This was the end of a great career and of a great romance of love.
Leonie Leon was half distraught at the death of the lover who was so
soon to be her husband. She wandered for hours in the forest until she
reached a convent, where she was received. Afterward she came to Paris
and hid herself away in a garret of the slums. All the light of her life
had gone out. She wished that she had died with him whose glory had been
her life. Friends of Gambetta, however, discovered her and cared for her
until her death, long afterward, in 1906.
She lived upon the memories of the past, of the swift love that had come
at first sight, but which had lasted unbrokenly; which had given her the
pride of conquest, and which had brought her lover both happiness and
inspiration and a refining touch which had smoothed away his roughness
and made him fit to stand in palaces with dignity and distinction.
As for him, he left a few lines which have been carefully preserved, and
which sum up his thought of her. They read:
To the light of my soul; to the star, of my life--Leonie Leon. For ever!