Navigate to Arts & Letters section

The Accidental Queen

How the late memoirist and reporter Lucette Lagnado found echoes of her own Egyptian exile at a royalist commemoration of the beheading of Louis XVI, 228 years ago today

Douglas Feiden
January 21, 2021
Courtesy the author
Lucette Lagnado in Parc Monceau in the 8th arrondissement in Paris. The park was the creation of Louis Philippe Joseph d’Orléans, the Duke of Orleans, who went to the guillotine in 1793. He was a cousin of Louis XVI, but supported the French Revolution and voted in favor of beheading the king. It didn't do him any good. He was part of the hated nobility, and after his execution, the Parc Monceau was nationalized. The park was Lucette’s favorite.Courtesy the author
Courtesy the author
Lucette Lagnado in Parc Monceau in the 8th arrondissement in Paris. The park was the creation of Louis Philippe Joseph d’Orléans, the Duke of Orleans, who went to the guillotine in 1793. He was a cousin of Louis XVI, but supported the French Revolution and voted in favor of beheading the king. It didn't do him any good. He was part of the hated nobility, and after his execution, the Parc Monceau was nationalized. The park was Lucette’s favorite.Courtesy the author

I had never thought of Lucette Lagnado as a royalist. But there she was in a church in Paris solemnly commemorating the most consequential regicide in European history. It wasn’t that she felt a special kinship with King Louis XVI. But she possessed a defining need to revisit and enshrine the past, and it often led her to embrace lost causes, vanished worlds, and societal castaways.

Now, a few years after Sept. 11, it drew her into the Chapelle Expiatoire on the Rue d’Anjou in the 8th arrondissement for the service held annually on the Sunday closest to Jan. 21, to mark the anniversary of the beheading of the king in 1793 on the site of his original grave.

A requiem mass was said, and there were prayers, lots of them, for the repose of the immortal soul of his queen, Marie Antoinette, who followed him to the guillotine on Oct. 16, and for all the others, thousands, who fell to the Reign of Terror—martyrs, the priests declared, for the redemption of France.

In all likelihood, Lucette was the only Jewish, Egyptian-born U.S. citizen guided by her Orthodox upbringing in the congregation that day, and certainly the sole exile whose family was still mourning the toppling of King Farouk in 1952 and dreaming, with scant illusions, of a restoration.

She had always looked at revolutions with a jaundiced eye, and no wonder: A decade after the overthrow—as Nasserism effected the flight of the Jews, the hollowing out of the Europeans, and the marginalization of the Coptic Christians—the Lagnados fled their native Cairo with regrets enough to last a lifetime, joining a second Exodus to become stateless refugees in Paris, and then, a bit woebegone, immigrants in America.

Farouk may have been corrupt, gluttonous, rotund, and a cheat at cards, Lucette always said. But he was also the protector of the Jews. The tragedy of Egypt, she believed, unforeseen both by subjects and court, was that there had been no one there to protect the king.

In any event, Lucette was embraced—by women in widow’s weeds still mourning the victims of the French Revolution, by men in dark suits outfitted with white armbands—almost from the moment she entered the chapel.

A kindly woman in her 80s handed Lucette a small bouquet of white lilies. A gentleman who couldn’t have been younger than 95 appeared to bow slightly down in her direction. There were students, too, from Sciences Po and the Sorbonne, and one of them guided her unbidden to the white marble Bosio statue, “Louis XVI Montant au Ciel, Soutenu par un Ange,” portraying the lifeless sovereign called to immortality, ascending to heaven, borne by an angel. A cluster of people crowded in front of the sculpture. Improbably, they seemed to part as she approached. Priests smiled at her. And then, there were at least two or three men in armbands who were quite taken with her jaunty, reddish-brown Ralph Lauren beret. Each kissed the fingers of their right hand, outstretched an arm and lightly touched the beret’s flattish top, then retracted the arm and again kissed their fingers.

What was going on?

We had entered the realm of the Ancien Régime—we were bearing witness to a France that didn’t exist anymore, and yet there it was, hosting its annual gathering of monarchists, pretenders, restorationists, aristocrats, Légitimistes, and titled nobles—and we thought we had discovered in this chapel the last place in Europe where the Chivalric Code of honor still obtained.

Perhaps. But there was another dynamic at play that would forever change Lucette’s outlook and the way she viewed the world and wrote her books.

It was only a few days earlier, in a tiny dressmaker’s shop on the Rue du Dragon, that Lucette met her first French royalist. If you went searching for the classic bourgeois symbol of the Parisian mercantile class, this little boutique off the Boulevard Saint-Germain would have made the perfect candidate. Yet suddenly, there was its proprietress eyeing the white dress Lucette had picked out, coming out from behind her counter and discreetly inquiring, “Are you going to the mass on Sunday?”

At the time, Lucette had taken to wearing white. She was then in the earliest conceptual stages of the memoir that would eventually become The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit. And she was beginning to envision a chronicle of her father’s fall from grace in the passage from Old Cairo, where he played poker with the king, to the Rue Richer, where his family lived in a passportless limbo, to the New World, specifically, Brooklyn, where he found a livelihood peddling ties on the streets and in the subways of New York.

White was Leon Lagnado’s signature color. White encapsulated the life and times of perhaps the last great boulevardier of Egypt. White were the suits he wore to Groppi’s and Covent Garden and La Parisiana. White were the sands of the Nile. White was the purity of the throne, at least in theory, as viewed through the eyes of its loyal subjects. And as she struggled to understand Leon’s vanished world, what he had and what he lost, white became Lucette’s color, too.

So now, as she scooped up a royal white dress dappled with golden fleurs-de-lis, the question, vaguely conspiratorial, hung in the air: Are you going to the mass? Well, no, Lucette was not a mass-goer. In fact, her superstitious mother had taught her back in Cairo to walk across the street whenever a priest approached because crossing paths with him could mean a run of bad luck, ill omens, the evil eye, and most terrifying of all, the existential threat of conversion.

But the shopkeeper uttered a few well-chosen words—“loss of both king and protector, willful destruction of both faith and a way of life, that’s what the ceremony is all about”—and Lucette, whose family had experienced all of that in Egypt, was sold on the commonality.

A couple of days later, as she waited for the mass to begin, the student guide who had attached himself to her offered a fast primer in revolutionary geography and the redemptive, nearly two-centuries-old history of the chapel.

The killing fields were all over central Paris in the 1790s, and the most fearsome of all was the Place de la Révolution, formerly Place Louis XV, now Place de la Concorde, where the guillotine was deployed in front of the stone building that today houses the Hotel de Crillon. Corpses, produced on an industrial scale, were its principal byproducts, and the tumbrels shuttled back and forth from the bloodied square to the old Madeleine Cemetery seven or eight blocks to the north.

It was here that the mortal remains of the king and queen were laid to uneasy rest. Embedded in quicklime, to speed decomposition and preclude the church from ever taking relics, their bodies reposed at the site for 21 years, joining the hundreds of Swiss Guards massacred in the defense of the Tuileries Palace in 1792, and being joined in turn by Charlotte Corday, the assassin of Jean-Paul Marat in 1793, and Madame du Barry, the courtesan and official mistress of Louis XV who also went to the guillotine in 1793, and all those others, the countless priests and believers and lay leaders and misfits and gentry and renegades and counterrevolutionaries who never made it into the history books—perhaps 3,000 of them, though the real number can never be known, who were flung into trenches and mass graves and never afforded the respect of the coffin.

The first post-Napoleonic Bourbon Restoration brought Louis XVIII to the throne in 1814, and one of his first official acts, on Jan. 21, 1815, was to exhume his older brother and sister-in-law and transfer their remains to the sculpted tombs of the Cathedral Basilica of Saint-Denis, the royal necropolis of France that was the final resting place for 43 kings, 32 queens, and 10 high monarchical ministers dating back to the Middle Ages.

Atop the original burial site, Louis XVIII commissioned, consecrated, and constructed a commemorative monument, the Chapelle Expiatoire, a neoclassical marvel, a decade in the making, that was finally completed in 1826. Today, it hides in plain sight, just off the Boulevard Haussmann, and most all who live or work in the affluent quarter would likely think of it, if they thought of it at all, as just another weather-beaten old church. How wrong they are.

The revolutionaries understood better.

Throughout the generations, whenever the furies again possessed the citizenry to tear up their cobblestones and tear down their faith—in 1830, 1848, 1871, even 1968—they would call for the demolition of the chapel. It wasn’t just the annual mass celebrated in memory of the executed king they found so galling, it was that, after all these years, almost alone in Paris, it was known as the reactionary house of worship that had banned the tricolor. Everywhere else, the banner was the universal symbol of the French republic. But in this sanctuary, the tricolor meant only one thing: catastrophe. It was, after all, the symbol of the regicide.

“The world has changed since the 18th century, and not for the better,” the guide told Lucette. “But the chapel survived. ... And it always will.”

It was overflowing now with some 800, 900, maybe 1,000 congregants. Among them was a representative of the country that had named Louisville, Kentucky, in the king’s honor. Tradition has it that the U.S. Embassy typically dispatches a foreign service officer, often junior in rank, typically discreet, to memorialize Louis’ gift of supplies, soldiers, and financial support to the colonists to fight the British in the American War of Independence. Though it brought both crown and country to the cusp of bankruptcy, and inspired the mobs that rose up against him, it was probably the only revolution looked on with favor in this room because, unlike the French, Egyptian, and Russian models, it didn’t try to suppress or crush a faith, and among their hallowed principles, the American insurrectionists enshrined freedom of religion and the right to worship unmolested by any government.

More people poured into the chapel. The doors were finally closed, late arrivals barred. You could barely see the altar. Then an usher penetrated the standing-room-only crush. Amid the throng, she had sought out Lucette and had come to escort her up to the front rows.

I followed, hesitantly, because the usher had no interest in me. Sure enough, she whirled around moments later and said, “Pas de maris americains au-delà de ce point.” It was a small masterpiece of dismissive French—“No American husbands past this point.” And she added for good measure, “Les premiers rangs sont reserves aux dames de la famille royale”—the front rows are only for the women of the crown.

Lucette was exultant upon hearing this. As a reporter and memoirist, she was always fact-based. But in prayer and observance, she was always faith-based. So she saw no imperative now to upend the assumptions of the other believers in this sacred space, no reason to set the historical record straight, no mandate to declare that she was not in any way a descendant of the House of Bourbon.

Besides, for the next hour or so, she would happily play a woman of the crown. The role suited her. And indeed, as she gently fingered the white lilies, her appearance seemed positively regal.

The usher took her up to the second or third row, then bent down to whisper in the ear of the occupant of the aisle seat. He graciously rose from his chair. It was the 95-year-old man, and this time his bow was unmistakable. He, too, made the mysterious gesture of kissing his fingers after touching her beret, and as he walked away, Lucette for the first time looked closely at the armband he sported. Suddenly, everything was revealed.

It was royal white, the color of the monarchy, and embroidered with gilded fleurs-de-lis, which rounded out the traditional representation of the Bourbon coat of arms. It was, of course, the mirror image of Lucette’s heraldic dress.

She took her seat, and waiting for her there was her new friend, the dressmaker of the Rue du Dragon, who first marveled at her own handiwork and then embraced the unexpected new customer from abroad who had, so innocently it seemed, donned it.

But why didn’t you tell me? Lucette wanted to know.

I thought you knew, came the reply.

How would I know?

You picked out the dress, I didn’t.

I liked the dress.

Do you still like the dress?

It was an intuitive pick.

Do you still like the dress?

I had absolutely no idea what it meant.

Do you still like the dress?

... Yes, more than ever.

It was no coincidence that they were seated together. The shopkeeper, spotting Lucette as the guide wheeled her around the chapel, had asked the usher to take her up front so they could sit side by side for the services.

She merited VIP seating, it turned out, because an ancestor was a minor Bourbon princeling who helped administer the state’s grain harvest. It famously failed in 1788 and 1789, fueling a steep rise in the price of bread, contributing to the anger of the populace, and eventually condemning the poor soul to the guillotine, a fate he cheated when he was murdered in prison, hacked to bits, just days before the sentence could be carried out.

Almost everyone in the front rows, it appeared, had a similar tale of savagery, bloodlust, and persecution in their families—a litany of horrors inflicted upon the nobility, clergy, and landed aristocracy that the heirs were forever remembering, reliving, retelling. Their stories were shattering, and Lucette, who seldom masked her visceral reactions, was aghast as she took them all in.

As the mass got underway, it quickly became obvious that this would be no old-fashioned, Old Testament-style reveling in the destruction of our enemies, no trampling them like mud in the streets, or crushing them into the dust of the earth, no smashing, subduing, slaying or subjugating, none of the chronicles of vengeance Lucette so savored.

Instead, this would be a New Testament affair featuring forgiveness and love for one’s enemies, and it took its text from Louis XVI’s presumed last words on the scaffold, “I die innocent of all the crimes imputed to me, I pardon the authors of my death, and I pray to God that the blood you are about to shed will never fall upon France.”

Of course, tons of it did fall upon France. For the king was no longer the king. There was no king. In the eyes of his killers, he was merely one Citizen Louis Capet, nothing more, nothing less, and thus, as the priest said in his homily, did a mostly benign and God-fearing reign give way to wickedness and apostasy.

“He was at once a man with all his faults—and a Christian with all his certainties,” he continued. “Louis was faithful to his faith and forswore vengeance. Since his loyalists and followers were massacred, too, it fell to God and God alone to exact revenge.”

But it remained unclear how and when and if that time would ever come.

In any event, the priest went on, the message was encapsulated in the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans, and he recited, “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.”

History’s searing memory, a kind of historical vengeance if you will, is one form of repayment, and soon, another speaker was conjuring it up by quoting the words of an old, bearded, religious, anti-revolutionary prophet, novelist and Russian political prisoner—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn—from a speech he gave in 1983 in London upon accepting the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion:

Over half a century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of old people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”
Since then, I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our revolution. In the process, I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval.
But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”

No one ran up a greater body count than the Bolsheviks. But when it came to a break with the divine, such was the universality of the Solzhenitsyn message that the dressmaker was convinced he was also referencing the Jacobins, while Lucette believed he might just as well have been talking about the Free Officers Movement.

A decade later, the author in 1993 journeyed to Lucs-sur-Boulogne, in west-central France, south of the Loire River, to mark the 200th anniversary of both the regicide and the outbreak of the War in the Vendée, an uprising of peasants, clergy, and nobles who fought to reverse the nullification of church and the transformation of state. Marching under the banner of the newly mustered Catholic and Royal Army, the insurgents in 1793 rolled across the coastal plains and river valleys, capturing scores of towns and villages—until a much larger, better equipped Republican force was dispatched to suppress, to crush, to annihilate, and ultimately, to dispose of thousands of bodies, the living and the dead, by dumping them into the Loire.

It was ghastly. In the Lucs-sur-Boulogne massacre alone, 564 victims, more than 100 of them children under the age of 7, were slaughtered as they sheltered in their church, many still kneeling in prayer.

This was Solzhenitsyn’s lifetime theme—eradication of faith, merciless despotism, and fraudulent ideology, cloaked in what he termed the “romantic luster of revolution”—and so, on the bicentennial of the uprising, he came to the Vendée to dedicate a memorial and address more than 30,000 citizens of France who had gathered in a region where royalist sympathies still ran uncommonly high.

“That revolution brings out instincts of primordial barbarism, the sinister forces of envy, greed, and hatred—this even its contemporaries could see all too well. They paid a terrible enough price for the mass psychosis of the day, when merely moderate behavior, or even the perception of such, already appeared to be a crime,” he said.

As half-centuries and centuries passed, people have learned from their own misfortunes that revolutions demolish the organic structures of society, disrupt the natural flow of life, destroy the best elements of the population and give free rein to the worst; that a revolution never brings prosperity to a nation, but benefits only a few shameless opportunists, while to the country as a whole it heralds countless deaths, widespread impoverishment, and, in the gravest cases, a long-lasting degeneration of the people.

As the service ended, a dozen well-wishers—a reporter from Le Monde, a banker from Paribas, the junior American diplomat, a hotel manager from a Left Bank boutique—streamed down the aisle to embrace the dressmaker and meet Lucette. They joined the student guide and the 95-year-old man and the dismissive usher and the kindly woman who first gave her the bouquet of white lilies. Already, they were in high dudgeon. Solzhenitsyn’s words had stirred them all the more. So now, in rapid fire, they recounted acts of “primordial barbarism,” while Lucette, who had her own ideas about what constituted a shanda, an abomination in the eyes of God, gamely pitched in:

They hated religion, the old man said. Their goal was nothing less than the de-Christianization of France, and for the longest time, they succeeded.

They hated some religions, Lucette stressed. Their vision was the de-Judaification of Egypt, and there they succeeded completely and for all time.

The revolution seized, stole and nationalized the property, holdings, treasury and bullion of the church, someone said. It forced some priests to marry. It even abolished the French word ‘dimanche,’ meaning Sunday.

They confiscated Jewish-owned businesses, Jewish communal institutions, the possessions of Jewish families, Lucette said. The colonels even banished the tarboosh, the cone-shaped, red fez with tassels that many Jews wore in lieu of yarmulkes.

There was an orgy of mass killings in the public squares of Paris and Lyon, and there was a genocide in the Vendée, the student guide said.

They boasted it was bloodless, Lucette offered. But there was a cultural Holocaust in Cairo and Alexandria and Port Said as synagogues, shrines, schools, mikvahs, community centers, even cemeteries, were shuttered forever.

They melted church bells for munitions, desecrated crosses, smashed reliquaries, shattered stained glass windows, someone said. They deconsecrated Notre-Dame and even beheaded its medieval statues.

They pulled Torah scrolls from shuls, unfurled them on the streets, and dumped them onto curbs or into gutters, Lucette repeated a story her parents had told her.

Time itself was reinvented. The Christian calendar was scrapped. And each week in the revolutionary calendar that took its place now had 10 days, the banker said.

Space and place were reinvented, too. The names of kings and queens, pashas, effendis and beys, Jews and Europeans, were all stripped from streets and squares, Lucette said. It happened to her own birthplace, Malaka Nazli Street: Named for Queen Nazli, Farouk’s mother, it was soon renamed Ramses Street, for the old Pharaoh.

Unfortunately, Solzhenitsyn had been exactly right. He had conjured a hellscape that left no room for the devout. For centuries, France was defined by its Catholicism. Then, it became a death sentence. For even longer, Egypt turned to its Jews for commerce and culture. Now, they were cast out of their homeland. If that doesn’t reflect a “long-lasting degeneration of the people,” it’s hard to imagine what does.

Finally, the reporter from Le Monde had a few questions for Lucette. “Who are you?” he wanted to know. “What’s with the dress, and what’s with the beret?”

To the first question, I piped up that she was a grandly reviewed author and prize-winning, Page One investigative reporter for The Wall Street Journal. He didn’t seem very impressed. To the second question, Lucette laid out the story of the dress and her fondness for the color white and the dressmaker and the oddly fateful encounter in the Rue du Dragon. The reporter chuckled. As to the third question, she had no idea why the reddish Ralph Lauren beret she had chosen to round out her dress would elicit such a response. He seemed perplexed, but asked to examine the beret.

What he saw was the faux heraldry of a corporate coat of arms, basically a stylized company crest, which no one would ever mistake for the livery of the Bourbons. But standing out on either side of the crest were the embossed letters “R” and “L.” And that was the voila! moment for the reporter: “Le Roi Louis,” he practically shouted. “King Louis!”

Lucette didn’t put on the beret that morning to signal a personal bond with the martyred king. But it had become a touchstone, literally and figuratively, that the mourners could kiss and touch to express, through her, their solidarity with le Roi Louis. It didn’t matter that they were fashionable and worldly and sophisticated and could possibly have known better. They had come to see her entire ensemble as a statement of royalist loyalties—she had, at that moment, become emblematic of what she wore. That at least was the reporter’s thesis, and he believed that was the sole reason she had been so exuberantly embraced.

It made a certain amount of sense. Lucette, after all, was forever revisiting, reimagining, recreating, and redressing the past. She was, in so many ways, a kind of time capsule, and now, her own clothing had become talismanic, and somehow, the dress and the beret seemed to transport her even further back through distant generations.

She didn’t buy it for a minute. The reporter, she would later say, was too smart by half. Cynical, glib, or both, he was one of those journalists who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing. More importantly, he had missed the greater point:

There was no Rosetta stone—it wasn’t the wardrobe she had innocently selected, nor the letters “R” and “L,” not even the small bouquet of white lilies—what there was, however, was a recognition among a score of like-minded worshipers at the Chapelle Expiatoire that they had happened upon a deeply kindred and haunted spirit. It was a feeling akin to love at first sight. It was instinctive. It was wordless. It was almost sensual. A roomful of strangers, sensing a shared worldview and a commonality of values, had been drawn to Lucette, and by her lights, that was the principal reason they had treated her like the queen of the Bourbons.

They had been forged by different revolutions that raged over different centuries. They hailed from different countries on different sides of the Mediterranean. They observed different faiths, prayed from different testaments, and wore different symbols and amulets. They were as different as the cross and the Star of David.

But the memoirist and the monarchists had at least three foundational principles in common. And if Lucette was certain of anything, it was this: They were all orphans of the revolution. Against the currents of their times, they had all maintained their religiosity. And of all of them, it could be said: They had never forgotten God.

Douglas Feiden is a reporter with The West Side Spirit and Our Town and a former reporter, editor and City Hall Bureau Chief at both the Daily News and the New York Post. He was married to the late Lucette Lagnado, the author of The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit and The Arrogant Years and a senior special writer for The Wall Street Journal.