Wednesday 15 April 2009

Desperately Seeking Charcot (2)

As the bells of the nearby Trinité church chime in the year 1907, the Cléry family in their home in the Rue de la Tour des Dames are busily preparing a forthcoming marriage. On the 24th of the month, their daughter Marguerite will be marrying a Charcot; Jean-Baptiste, the famous Antarctic explorer! Although she will not be his first wife, it is still an honour to form an attachment with such an illustrious family. After the wedding, Jean-Baptiste will join the clan, bringing his lovely daughter Marion with him to this house.

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.

Charcot's divorce reported in the New York Times in 1905, showing how well-known he had become. It is interesting to read also that he was believed to be missing, something that surely would have been convenient for his wife Jeanne.

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.

Additional Notes:
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.

Marguerite (Meg) Cléry-Charcot died in 1960 aged 86. She had been made Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur after her husband’s death. A member of the Charcot family still lives in the house in Neuilly, and still uses the house in Aix Les Bains. The house in Aix Les Bains is also apparently available for holiday rentals, although no mention is made of the Charcot connection!


Cergie said...

C'est bien compliqué, tu aurais dû dessiner un arbre généalogique cela aurait été plus simple.
Ainsi Marguerite fut apparentée à Daudet par son fils, elle avait épousé Charcot dont elle eut une fille qui mourut avant lui comme la fille d'Hugo pas celle qui s'appellait Jeanne et était sa petite-fille, donc Charcot fut aussi lié à Hugo...

Le monde était petit à l'époque et la moralité ne valait pas mieux qu'à la notre quoiqu'en dise le pape.
Si on ne mourait pas en duel bêtement on mourait en couche (Heureusement ce ne fut pas le cas de sa première femme -de Charcot- ce fut le cas de la première femme de Claude Monet mais tu ne parles pas de Monet) ou de tuberculose.

Sais tu que l'ex-gendre de George Sand (qui se sépara de sa femme et est enterré avec sa maîtresse et son mari au Père Lachaise secrétement) qui était le sculpteur Clésinger a fait la statue d'Euterpe la muse de la musique éplorée qui surmonte la tombe de Chopin ?...

C'est rigolo tout cela lorsqu'on le lit bien des années après mais cela ne fut sans doute pas une sinécure à vivre en son temps...

(Mon nom de famille est sur une lettre manuscrite écrite pas Camille Claudel car je suis moi-même apparentée à la marraine du frère de Camille, Paul Claudel

Mon 2ème prénom est Marguerite et sous ce pseudo je fais un blog jardin qui ne publie pas très souvent)

Adam said...

Merci Cergie pour ton commentaire très intéressant. Je suis d'accord que tout ça est bien compliqué! Cependant, ce que je cherchais à faire avec ce poste était de lié l'histoire de JB Charcot avec cette maison, plutôt que de raconter l'histoire de l'homme et sa famille. Un projet trop ambitieux peut être!

Cergie said...

Erratum : la première femme de Monet est morte de maladie, une longue maladie, et non en couche. Cela arrivait aussi à l'époque.
Adam ! Tu m'as bien fait rire et j'aime bien les gens passionnés !

CarolineLD said...

Impressive detective work! I'd previously come across Charcot fils in Saint Malo, where the Pourquoi Pas was built, but knew very little about him.

Starman said...

Haven't been feeling well and will try to catch up in a day or two.

PeterParis said...

After all this incredible research, finally you are not sure if the family lived in the house or not ! Frustrating! :-) Will you go for a third episode? In the meantime, you need a relaxing weekend after all these efforts!

I had a look at the web site of the “Archives de Paris”. Already the site looks quite fascinating! The problem is to stop looking ... and I guess it’s even “worse” if you really go to the place!

Ken Mac said...

great history lesson on this old codger

Squirrel said...

He was married to Hugo's granddaughter... a duel with Daudet!
& I enjoy reading about antarctic expeditions... ! This fellow gets more and more interesting to me. Your stories are fascinating.

Starman said...

Daudet seemed to be dueling with someone every other day, I wonder if he had a death wish?

ArtSparker said...

While I like to think I am not a superstitious person, I don't think I would have named a boat Pourquoi Pas myself.

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