WHO WANTS TO LIVE FOREVER? – THE LEGEND OF THE COUNT OF ST GERMAIN
Posted April 13, 2015on:
The idea of immortality is a perennial source of fascination for the human race. Could it be possible to live forever? And if you could, would you really want to? What problems would you face, outliving everyone you cared for, and constantly having to adjust to changing times. In the 18th century rumours began circulating about a mysterious stranger who was intriguing people in Parisian high society. He was always elegantly dressed in black, he seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of precious gems (leading to rumours of him being an alchemist as well), and although he graced many an aristocratic dinner-party, he was never seen to eat or drink in public. Was he nothing better than a very clever charlatan? Or was there something genuinely supernatural about him?
The Count Of St Germain was reputedly the illegitimate son of Francis II Rakoczi, Prince of Transylvania. It was this illustrious lineage – even though he was born on the wrong side of the blanket – which led to him being so readily accepted in European high society. Before arriving in Paris, he had caused some attention in London, when in 1745 he had been arrested as a spy of Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Young Pretender. Horace Walpole wrote: “the other day they seized an odd man who goes by the name of Count Saint-Germain. He has been here these two years and will not tell who he is, or whence … The Prince of Wales has had unsatisfied curiosity about him, but in vain”.
He arrived in France around 1756, and began to captivate the Parisian elite. He looked about 40-50 years old, was fluent in many languages, extremely cultured, with a great knowledge of art, and was also said to be proficient in medicine and chemistry. He also had a neat line in peddling hair dye and wrinkle remover, which must have enhanced his cache even more. All that, combined with his understated elegance, made him an ideal party-guest for the bored sophisticates.
The rumours of his immortality began to circulate in 1760, when an elderly lady, the Countess von Georgy, bumped into him at a little soiree given by Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of King Louis XV. The Countess was intrigued because she had met a man by the name of the Count of Saint-Germain in Venice, back in 1710. The mysterious stranger admitted that he was that man. The Countess protested that he couldn’t possibly be, he didn’t look older than 45. “Madame, I am very old”, he replied.
News of this gripped the aristocracy, who immediately began to ply the Count with questions about famous figures from history. It would seem on the surface as though the Count was enjoying the joke, and was quite happy to go along with it, although his knowledge of the people he mentioned seemed thoroughly sound. He claimed to have been with Jesus when he turned water into wine, to have met the Emperor Nero, and King Henry VIII, and remarked on the great beauty of Mary Queen of Scots (that one must have been for the ladies). His comment about Jesus though – “I always knew Christ would come to a bad end” – suggests he was doing it all very tongue-in-cheek, but no matter, his audience lapped it up.
Not everyone was taken in though. Legendary lover Casanova was utterly convinced he was a fake. In his memoirs he referred to him as “the king of imposters and quacks”. He accused him of “bare-faced lies, and manifold eccentricities”. Nevertheless even he said he found it hard to take offence at him, saying he never ceased to be astonished by him.
Whether it was because the Count got bored of his mystery party persona, or perhaps he faced exposure, but he decided to go travelling again. He went to Russia in 1762, and met Empress Catherine the Great. He returned to France briefly in 1774, and warned King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette of the impending storm they faced. The Count was quoted as saying: “There will be a bloodthirsty republic, whose scepter will be the executioner’s knife”. The Queen was reputed to have bemoaned just before her execution, “if only we had listened to him”, although it must be said I’ve never seen this recorded in any serious biographies of her.
In 1779 he went to Hamburg, and settled at the castle of the Prince of Eckenforde. By now he was cutting a bit of a sad figure. Those who met him said he seemed weary of life. He refused to see a doctor, and would only be attended by women. He died on 27 February 1784. Although his death was recorded by a local church, no tombstone was to mark his grave.
And there his story would have probably ended, leaving him largely forgotten to posterity, at the most as just a quirky footnote of history … if it wasn’t for posthumous sightings of him. He was said to have attended a Masonic convention shortly after his “death” in 1885, and for many years after was sighted throughout Europe. In 1789 an acquaintance met him in the Far East, where a saddened Count reflected on the dire situation back in Paris, and said mournfully: “I can do nothing. My hands are tied by someone who is stronger than I. There are times when it is possible to turn back, others at which the decree must be carried out as soon as he has pronounced it”.
In 1821 Albert Vandum met an eccentric character called Major Fraser, who was said to bear a strong likeness to the Count. The Major lived alone, never mentioned his family, and had extensive knowledge of history. He claimed to had met Nero and Dante. In his book ‘Haunted Cheshire’, Tom Slemen has the Count moving to the north of England, and being one of the brains behind the development of steam engines. Soon after meeting Albert Vandum, the Major unexpectedly took off on his travels once, and disappeared without trace.
Decades later, Madame Helena Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophy movement, claimed to have met him too, and said he was working towards the spiritual development of the West. During the early years of the 20th century, a young Frenchman called Jacques Saint-Germain arrived in New Orleans. He was alleged to have been responsible for a vampiric attack on a woman, who had tried to escape by jumping from an upstairs window, only to die in the process. An outraged public kicked his door in, only to find the culprit gone, and the place littered with bottles filled with blood.
The Count doesn’t seem to have been much in evidence throughout most of the 20th century, except the legend was resurrected once more in 1972, when a good-looking young Frenchman, Richard Chanfray, appeared on French television claiming he was the Count. He even demonstrated an alchemical trick live on air (you can find footage of this on YouTube, if you do a search for Chanfray, though the only copy I found was in French, with no translation). The truth seems to be that Chanfray was a professional con-man. He was born in poverty in Lyon in 1940, a child of the streets, who learnt early on how to steal and perform tricks. He served time in prison where he studied the life of Saint-Germain.
Like his 18th century alter-ego, for a while Chanfray enjoyed a taste of the high life. He had an affair with popular singer, Dalida, who remarked that he was so consumed with paranoia that he slept with a shotgun under his bed. He was a favourite on the French Riviera socialite scene during the 1970s, though attempts by him to cut it as an artist and sculptor came to nothing. The good times were to end tragically though. He was last sighted at a party in St Tropez in June 1983, where he was described as looking very thin and exhausted, with white hair.
It all ended with he carried out a joint suicide pact with his lover Paula de Loos, by taking barbiturates and inhaling the exhaust of his car. His suicide note read “I leave and I bring her with me, because she’s so like me”.
So does the enduring story of the Count end there? Or at some point in the future will another man step forward claiming to be him? At the moment he seems only to exist in novelised form. American author Chelsea Quinn Yarbro used the legend of the Count for her acclaimed series of vampire novels, featuring an enigmatic character called the Count Saint-Germain, who appears at different times in history, and who takes the blood of his victims by seducing them. Only time will tell if he “reappears” again.
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