Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

If Talleyrand Didn't Say It, Well, He Should Have

Something, and I don't know what, set me to thinking the other day about Talleyrand, and I realized I hadn't given him a thought in years.

At one point, everybody was quoting Talleyrand all the time, and he was known as the eloquent authority on the riposte, or wisecrack, and one hadn't truly achieved high-society standing until one had been insulted by Talleyrand. That is, a boor at a dinner party had been seated between two of the most gracious ladies in Paris, and as he took his seat he looked left and right and said, "Aha! Seated between wit and beauty!" Thus insulting both ladies, he was rebuked from across the table by Talleyrand, who said, "And possessing neither!"

About these ads

Talleyrand was also supposed to

have said, "If it isn't clear, it's not in French," and probably that's Talleyrand in a nutshell. Because he was a dabster with the wisecrack, a lot of pithy

remarks he never made were bandied about as his, and he achieved a solid reputation for things he never said. As I remember him, he was a fine-looking man, although perhaps seedy in his attire, and he was forever looking as if he wished he was someplace else.

My mother quoted him with infinite adages and aphorisms. If we ungainly young ones spilled a jug of milk at breakfast, Mother would wipe it up and say, "Well, as Talleyrand put it, no sense crying over spilt milk!"

When George Sand, a friend of Talleyrand in the third Directorate, wrote her brother's book about the mill on the Floss, she combed the English countryside to hike in a lot of ancient soothsayings to give the volume substance and authenticity. And as one reads the book one is immediately impressed with the binding and typography. All the wisdom of centuries of nugget-nuggling are there in capsule form, treasured up ready for Talleyrand to give them utterance.

My mother would say, "As Talleyrand put it, it never rains but it pours!" Madame Dudevant owes so very much to Aunt George of Merrie England. I do indeed realize that my history, particularly of literature, is hazy, but my conclusions are, even so, not all that clear. Talleyrand was, of course, a Frenchman.

He was not, however, a writer as we understand the term, and was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church for other reasons. I was never excommunicated for any reason, and have always believed this has deprived me of certain fame as a moralist and repeater of balderdash. I pine and regret that people say, "As Talleyrand put it, 'There's no rest for the weary,' " and not one voice is raised to credit me with a similar astute remark. Well, it's true; think what a dunderhead Dr. Johnson would be without his Boswell! Or, more alarming, what Boswell would be without Dr. Johnson.

About these ads

Having been a bishop, and a successful one, too, Talleyrand found it difficult to administrate his holy duties as a bishop from an excommunicated posture, so he resigned and went into politics. He was just in time to embrace the French Revolution, and he was a strong voice not only in the struggle, but in the arrangements that followed.

I'm not sure just what he was trying to do, but he fixed it so Marie Antoinette was going to come to Maine and win the beauty prize as Miss Lobsterette at the seafood festival. She never came, but a suite was reserved for her at the Breakwater Inn at Cape Split, and posters were prepared for a harp concert at Portland City Hall, where Cyrus H.K. Curtis of the Saturday Evening Post would accompany her on the pipe organ.

Mr. Curtis owned a steam yacht, too. As Talleyrand put it, "You gotta be premier avec le toot ensemble!" Four hundred and seventy-three old Maine homes have been identified as the place Marie Antoinette would have lived had not a prior engagement kept her at Versailles. Talleyrand, however, did come over to prepare a place for her, and while here aided Benjamin Franklin with old saws in his almanacs.

While he was in Maine, Talleyrand organized the lobster fishermen and was the first registered Maine guide. Many of his pithy river-drying remarks are common in Maine speech, such as "Fermez la porte!" and "You can't get there from here."

BUT this is all in the past, as I see it. I haven't heard a single attribution of Talleyrand's in maybe 20 years. I suppose time has wrought its inevitable, and we just don't have anybody around anymore who remembers anything Talleyrand said when he was at his prime. One time my mother said something Talleyrand said, and my father said, "When did he say that?"

My mother said, "Who said what?"


"He was always saying that!"

"What was it he was always saying?"

My mother said, "something about eggs in a basket."

And that was what it was. Don't put all your eggs in one basket. My mother said, "he meant to use two baskets and don't take a lazy man's load." When my sister and I cleared table after Sunday dinner, my sister would sometimes carry a great stack of plates to the sink instead of making two trips. My mother would say, "Gracious! That's what Talleyrand always called 'a lazy man's load.' "

The day my sister tripped on the cat and broke 16 plates, the truth of the attributed remark was clear as a bell, and nobody needed any French language, as Talleyrand often remarked, but no longer, "take your mittens; it's cold out."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.