La Clairon was one of the most famous actresses on the French stage during the reign of Louis
XV. She acted in all the great roles of classical tragedy, created many parts in the plays of
Voltaire, Marmonel and Saurin, and her talents were praised by Goldsmith and Garrick. She was
for many years the toast of Paris theater-lovers. Rich and elegant gallants from the Court of
Versailles patronized her salons. She lived until the ripe age of eighty, and in 1798, a few years
before her death, she wrote her memoirs in which she told a remarkable ghost story.
She was born Claire Leris in 1723 in the little town of Cond, near the Belgian frontier of
France, the illegitimate daughter of a sergeant of King Louis's army. She made her first stage
appearance at the Comdie Italienne when she was thirteen. For some years she lived a life of a
demi-mondaine, as a consequence of which she had some difficulty in getting the title role in
Racine's tragedy Phdre at the Comdie Francaise in 1743.
La Clairon was singularly beautiful, and had, said Goldsmith, the most perfect female
figure he had ever seen on any stage. She was, as can be imagined, much sought after by the
voluptuaries of that luxurious and licentious age. But her ambition was set firmly upon a stage
career. She was well aware of her talents in that direction.
It was in the year of her dbut at the Comdie Francaise at the age of twenty, when she
was in the full bloom of her youthful beauty, that she was very ardently pursued by a young man
whom she calls discreetly M. de S- in her Memoires d'Hippolyte Clairon. Now La Clairon had
hosts of admirers. She could have become the mistress of many a rich aristocrat, and no doubt
she had been. But her ambition lay in another profession, respectable as well as ancient; and,
besides, she confesses, there was something about M. de S- which quite turned her against him.
He was ashamed of his humble beginnings. His father was a prosperous merchant in
Brittany, and M. de S- had come to Paris to pose as a person of birth and quality, as apparently
he was able to, for he had both the education and the manners to enable him to be accepted in the
Parisian society of the day. He had realized all his assets and had come to Paris to climb the
social ladder. He made a show of lavish living in order to be taken for someone who came from a
All this he confessed to the forthright Mademoiselle Clairon, without realizing that it was
quite the wrong thing to say to her, for she had never troubled to conceal her own even more
humble beginnings and wasn't ashamed of them. People took her for what she was, and the fact
that she was a lovely and brilliantly talented girl who was taking Paris by storm meant that all
society was at her feet. She did not have to indulge in the pretenses of M. de S-.
It is likely that M. de S-'s method was the only means by which a man of humble birth
could have been accepted in the snobbish society of eighteenth-century Paris. At all events, La
Clairon could hardly be blamed for considering his ambition rather ignoble, even though her own
mode of life was open to much criticism.
M. de S- had other disadvantages which repelled the volatile, sought-after young actress.
He wanted to have her completely to himself, and take her into the country away from her
admirers, so that he could enjoy her by himself. It was not that he was a fascinating and
entertaining person, or that his passion for her was romantically exciting. He was not an amusing
or sophisticated companion. He was in fact often morose, and his obsession for her had made him
La Clairon, who had no intention of entering into such a relationship with anyone at that
particular time in her life, then began to discourage him. The affair had dragged on for a long
time. She had known him for more than two years, and it was not that she had been ungenerous
with her favors, but his passion for her grew and grew until it was the all-consuming thing in his
life, and he was causing her both distress ad embarrassment with his terrible jealousy and
Gradually, and with what tact as she could, she took steps to end the association. She
refused his invitations, saw less of him, and devoted herself more ardently to her stage career, at
which she was having her first great success at this time.
The rejected lover took it very bad indeed. His passion for her completely dominated his
life. Without her, he was nothing. He became desperately ill. On top of this, he got into financial
troubles. He had entrusted part of his money to his brother-in-law who failed to respond to his
urgent request for funds. M. de S- would have starved on his sick-bed but for his former
mistress, who with a warmness and generosity one would expect from such a girl immediately
came to his aid and gave him money to help him out of his difficulties, though she was adamant
in her refusal to resume the affair and would not even accept the letters he wrote to her.
She did not realize that her former lover was dying, and on the evening he sent a last
pathetic message to her begging her to come round to see him for the last time, just for a few
minutes so that he could look upon her once more, she was entertaining friends to a supper party
at her house. She would have gone to him, but her friends stopped her, and, not liking to desert
her guests, she did not insist.
M. de S-'s only companion as he lay dying was an elderly lady who had befriended him.
He died at eleven o'clock, and just at that time La Clairon had been entertaining her guests with
some of her delightful singing.