La Grande ThéréseHilary Spurling
HarperCollins ($20)

by Nathan Leslie

Hilary Spurling's new biography, La Grande Thérèse, is partially a footnote to her fecund The Unknown Matisse, a work that cast new and revealing light onto the early modernist painter. Where the undercurrent of The Unknown Matisse was heroism and dignity, Spurling's latest biography is a bon-bon of deceit, a tale of a woman who created a glittering illusion of wealth, and who completely swindled hoity-toity turn-of-the-century Parisian society.

Stout and comely Thérèse Humbert was born to a peasant family in rural southern France, and even as a child imagined herself living in a vast chateau with hoards of both wealth and eminence. In one telling episode from her childhood, Thérèse convinced her girlhood acquaintances to pool their jewelry so that she could rotate her necklaces and fool others into believing she was wealthy. In another, Thérèse convinces fancy clothiers to make dresses for her on her ever-present false credit. In fact, throughout her life Thérèse viewed wealth as an illusion, something one could alter with a mere sleight of hand. She was a master conjurer who put Thorstein Veblen's famous notion of "conspicuous consumption" to use; Thérèse knew that, at least in the eyes of moneyed Parisians, style was substance.

By posing as the lover and heir of an imaginary American billionaire named Robert Henry Crawford, Thérèse was able to con her way into Parisian society. Thérèse and her partners-in-crime—the Humbert family at large, including her thuggish brother—were able to live for years by borrowing money against the legacy Crawford would leave her. However, the elaborate hoax collapsed in 1901 when a court asked the Humbert's legendary strongbox of papers to be opened to prove the whereabouts of the so-called Crawford wealth. Thérèse's creditors were horrified to learn its contents: an old newspaper, an Italian coin, and a button. After their failed attempt to flee France, Thérèse and family spent the greater portion of the 1900's in the hoosegow.

The pleasure of reading a book like La Grande Thérèse is the same as that of watching a good film-noir: you can root for the treachery to be discovered, but all along you admire the inventiveness and charisma of the cad. After all, much of the same Parisian society that Thérèse duped also denounced the innocent Alfred Dreyfus in the famous Dreyfus Affair. In many ways, Thérèse is both a crook who stole millions from well-healed Parisians, and a peasant hero who breaks stuffy continental class barriers.

However, in La Grande Thérèse the journey itself is ultimately as rewarding as the destination. La Grande Thérèse is told in clear, condensed prose, which lends itself both to an appreciation of detail, and to a crisp and efficient read (Spurling also effectively uses a number of supplementary turn-of-the century political cartoons and sketches). You know how the story ends, but you still want to know exactly how it unfolds—what will Thérèse pull out from under her sleeve next?

With La Grande Thérèse, Hilary Spurling has confirmed her place as one of the most inventive—not to mention accessible—biographers currently writing. In this work in particular Spurling plays the role of a deft trapeze artist: she has written a book that is minimalistic in scope, without shortchanging her subject, a book that is cinematic in potential, that never panders to its audience, a book that illustrates a morality tale without being moralistic.

In the end of course, Thérèse Humbert dies alone, penniless, and in disgrace. Yet Spurling's tale captures the resonance of Humbert's real legacy—the lengthy and imaginative wool that she pulled over the eyes the French elite for decades. By retelling a forgotten nugget of French history, Spurling has told a complex tale of a complex woman who will continue to live in the popular imagination in infamy and ignominy.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2000/2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000