Jean-Baptiste Charcot was a happy man that year, but it was difficult for him to keep his feet on dry land in a big city. In June he learned that one of his fellow sailors on his most recent expedition was planning a new voyage of his own to Australia in a boat he’d named the Jean-Baptiste Charcot. Sitting at a writing desk in his new home Charcot quickly wrote a letter of thanks and encouragement to his friend. “Non seulement je vous autorise à donner mon nom à votre bateau mais je vous remercie très vivement d’y avoir songé" (Not only do I give you persmission to use my name for your boat but I also thank you heartily for having thought about doing so). The letter was full of nuggets of advice to the younger man, and it was clear that Jean-Baptiste himself was itching to set sail again.
Jean-Baptiste Charcot was a man who constantly needed projects in his life and who lived as much for the sea as for his new family. His wandering soul had already cost him one wife, Jeanne Hugo the Granddaughter of Victor who filed for divorce on the grounds of desertion during his first polar expedition. Jeanne had previously been the wife of his friend, Leon Daudet, with Charcot marrying her a year after she had divorced from him. Daudet didn’t take this news well at first, and they fought a duel outside a theatre after a rather heated discussion.
Comfortably installed with his lovely new wife, pregnant now with their first child, Charcot could afford a smile as he looked back on these difficult times. Jeanne was also the name of his elder sister, and after returning from his heroic and successful voyage of discovery to the Antarctic, he was obliged to move in with her. She had also recently experienced disappointment in love, suffering a divorce of her own. Her husband had been the powerful press baron Alfred Edwards, but she would be just a chapter in the life of this man who was to marry five times.
The house at number 11 Rue de la Tour des Dames.With Marguerite, Jean-Baptiste knew it would be different. She accepted him as he was and was keen to accompany him as much as she could. After their first child, Monique, was born on the 8th of December of the same year, Charcot began preparing for his second voyage to the Antarctic. The first aboard the ‘Français’ between 1903 and 1905 had been a huge success and had brought Charcot fame, perhaps now enabling him to finally escape from the shadow of his father, the world-renowned neurologist Jean-Martin. The second trip would be on his own boat, a ship he’d named the 'Pourquoi Pas'. Nobody really remembered where this name had come from. Had it been used dismissively by his father when he had announced that he wanted to be an explorer and not a doctor? In any case, he had become a doctor like his father wanted, but he had not forgotten his dreams, and the name of this boat was the proof of that. The death of his father had been a tragic event, but it had also cut the chains holding him back and had provided him with 400,000 gold Francs to set sail in his new direction.What he knew was that he would make the Charcot name his own. As a child at school he had always been concerned that “qu’etant le fils de papa, on ne me prenne pour un fils à papa” (as the boy of my daddy that they would also see me as a daddy’s boy). To escape from this shadow he excelled in all he did, going as far as playing in a French national rugby final. As long as his father lived he followed loyally in his path, but now he would really create his own destiny.
On the 19th November 1908, both Jean-Baptiste and Marguerite had left their home in Paris and were about to leave Le Havre on the Pourquoi Pas. The two daughters of Jean-Baptiste would stay in the family home with the Clérys and Marguerite, known now to everybody as Meg, would accompany her husband as far as Puntas Arenas in Chile, in an official role as painter and observer.
Meg would be back in Paris in early 1909, but Jean-Baptiste did not return until the following year. It had been another successful mission, but Jean-Baptiste came back much weakened after having suffered from scurvy. In 1911 though there was another happy event, the birth of their second and Jean-Baptiste’s third child; another girl, Martine, named surely after her Grandfather.
The Commandant Jean-Baptiste Charcot aboard the Pourquoi Pas.
After this period it would seem that the Cléry-Charcots lived in a variety of places but not often in Paris. There was still the Charcot family home in Neuilly on the outskirts of Paris, and his role in the French navy meant that he was often in St Malo and Cherbourg. In the First World War he was based in the UK and was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross by the British Government after commanding a Q-Boat for them. The family also later bought another house, a wooden holiday retreat in Aix Les Bains.
In 1931, Meg finally inherited the house in the Rue de la Tour des Dames, but it is not clear whether they lived there or not. By 1936, Charcot was planning his last trip, this time north to Iceland. He was 69 now, and as he explained, “Le Pourquoi Pas, il est vieux, moi aussi et surtout, tout le monde s’en fout" (The Pourquoi Pas is old and so am I, and above all, nobody cares anymore). It was an ordinary, unexceptional project, but it seemed fated to go wrong. Charcot had previously said to a young sailor that “si c’etait pas pour ma famille, j’aimerais mieux crever en mer” (if it wasn’t for my family I’d rather die at sea). On the 16th of September, the Pourquoi Pas was caught in a violent tempest and quickly sunk. There was just one survivor amongst the crew, and the last thing he remembered of Charcot was seeing him set free the caged seagull which had been the ship’s mascot. Charcot’s body was recovered and he was given a state funeral back in Paris then buried in the Montmartre Cemetery. He now lays alongside his father Jean-Martin and mother Augustine, his loving, loyal second wife Meg, his daughter Marion and their youngest daughter Martine.
Marguerite (Meg) Cléry-Charcot sold the house to the Caisse Régionale de Secours Mutuels Agricoles de l’Ile de France in 1939 for 760,000 Francs. It was at this point, one hundred years after it had been built, that it was transformed into offices.
Jean-Baptiste Charcot outlived his first daughter Marion who died in 1927 aged only 32.