Opening the book on illicit royal romps

Author Eleanor Herman details unregal behavior through the centuries

September 17, 2004|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

It was in Union Station, as she was having her shoes shined, that Eleanor Herman was first addressed as royalty. Milling about her throne-like chair, some homeless passers-by ogled her enormous red velvet gown and glittering crown.

Queen, Herman recalls them saying, could you give us some money?

"I do not give money," she told them, "but I would be happy to buy you a meal." They followed her to McDonald's, where she bought a dozen Happy Meals and was hailed with cries of God bless your majesty and God save the queen.

The Baltimore-born author is more accustomed to dispensing history than favors when she's in full regalia. These days, that's a lot. She's traveling to festivals, book fairs and country clubs to talk about European royal mistresses and her new book, Sex With Kings: 500 Years of Adultery, Power, Rivalry and Revenge (William Morrow, $25.95).

Published in June and brimming with what The New York Times calls "deliciously appealing illicit scenes," Sex With Kings is already in its fifth printing. It's a social history mining the surprising and tumultuous lives of a historical group of paramours that includes Madame de Pompadour, ( Louis XV, c. 1745) Nell Gwynn, (Charles II, c. 1660), Wallis Warfield Simpson, (Edward VIII, c. 1935) and Camilla Parker-Bowles (Prince Charles, c. now).

Tonight the 44-year-old author - appearing in Renaissance gown, jewels and tiara - will share some of these tales at the Baltimore BookFestival, and entertain the usual questions commoners have about royal mistresses:

How much money did they make? Did any of them have children with the kings? What were their relationships with the queen? What happened when they got old? Were they all beautiful?

After reading roughly 200 books and taking 900 pages of notes, Herman answers with authority.

"I thought if the king could pick anyone out of the millions of women in his land, he'd pick the most beautiful or the sexiest," she says. "But when I did this research, I realized that the truth actually does make more sense."

Madame de Pompadour, for instance, was frigid. Her lover King Louis relied on her devotion, charm and intelligence but sought sexual relief elsewhere.

Emilie de Choin, companion of Louis, the Dauphin and heir of Louis XIV, was a "shockingly plain mistress described as having the deportment of a barrel" with "black rotten teeth that stank so much one could smell them at the other end of the room." But she also made a "pleasant home life for the king, who had been unhappily married to two foreign princesses."

"What most kings really wanted at the end of the day, when they had the stresses of the whole nation on their shoulders, was a woman who maybe wasn't the greatest in bed but who made them relax and was a good companion," Herman says.

Today, too

Which might bring to mind Parker-Bowles, the good-humored, rather "plain Jane" mistress whom Prince Charles preferred to his ravishing young wife.

"For all her beauty, Diana was a shrieking maniac on many occasions - always complaining, always criticizing," Herman says. "No one wants to hear that! Charles wanted a nice cup of tea and some cheerful conversation and didn't get it."

The position of royal mistress was once considered almost as official as that of prime minister, Herman writes. Expected to perform certain duties - sexual and otherwise - in return for titles, pensions, honors and influence, the king's mistress "calmed him when he was angry, buoyed him up when he was despondent and encouraged him to greatness when he was weak."

From the 16th through 18th centuries, royal marriages were usually political alliances rather than romances. "A prince's marriage ... was usually nothing more than a personal catastrophe for the two victims kneeling at the altar ... " Herman writes. "The production of princes was the sole purpose. ... Most royal brides were considered to be nothing more than a walking uterus with a crown on top and skirts on the bottom."

Many of these queens were "rather dull and pious." On the other hand, Madame de Montespan, poured love potions with frog excrement into Louis XIV's wine, and Lola Montez's dancer's feet tantalized King Ludwig I of Bavaria, 34 years her senior.

Herman was unable to warm up to just one opportunist: her fellow Baltimorean, Wallis Warfield Simpson. "I just couldn't find any redeeming qualities in her," she says. "She was a friend of Adolf Hitler, she and her husband. And I feel she could have done something with her fame. Diana, as messed up as she was, got involved with mine victims and AIDS research. Wallis could have done something like that. The only thing she did during World War II was to donate 100 dolls to poor children in Wales with the proviso that each girl name the doll `Wallis.' "

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