- Historic Sites
The Dentist And The Empress
The mob was at the palace gates; her husband was already a prisoner; the servants were stealing imperial treasures before her eyes; Empress Eugénie turned to the one man in France she could trust—Dr. Thomas W. Evans of Lancaster, Pa.
June/july 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 4
After the Empress was deemed to be politically harmless, she was allowed to visit republican France without hindrance or harassment. Once she stayed at the Hôtel du Rhin in the Place Vendôme, only a few yards from the mansion where she had received the Emperor’s formal request for her hand. Another time she visited the ruins of Saint-Cloud, the château having been burned down by the Prussians. In the debris she recognized a slab of marble from the mantelpiece of a drawing room where she had presided in the radiance of youth, power, and beauty. Again, she picked a flower in the Tuileries gardens. An attendant rebuked her sharply, but her escort whispered, “It is the Empress,” and the guard, an old soldier with the Italy medal, came to attention and saluted. She visited Compiègne, she by then an anonymous old lady in black, and saw again the pencil marks behind a shutter where she had recorded the Prince Imperial’s height; and on this visit she was warned not to touch the furniture, much of which was hers.
Friends and old adversaries were dropping off, and sometimes she had to suffer the merely curious. “People,” she complained, “come to see me like a fifth act.” The one reproach that roused her ire to the end of her life was any suggestion that cast doubt upon her feeling for France. “I have only one country,” she insisted, “France.” When the great Allied offensive was launched in October, 1918, Eugénie whispered, “If Foch could only catch them at Sedan!” And she thought once more of July, 1870, and buried her face in her hands.
Handsome Dr. Evans, “Le Beau Evans” as he was known in the modish world for his regular features and fluent side whiskers, had a fling at high gallantry in the 1870’s. Perhaps it was the male menopause, or just an experience almost obligatory in his social milieu. The recipient of his attentions was Méry Laurent, a fresh Alsatian from Nancy, tall, statuesque, a laughing beauty with arched eyebrows, a wide-eyed gaze, and a formidable bosom that excited artists, including Edouard Manet. Méry Laurent’s talent for handling men was equal to that of any of the lionnes of the epoch—Cora Pearl, Anna Deslions, Rosalie Léon, who ended up a princess, Margaret Beilanger (“Laughing Margot”), who almost wrecked the marriage of Napoleon and Eugénie, Adèle Courtois, who when full of years received only ecclesiastics at dinner, or the Marquise de Païva, who, when it became prudent for her to leave France quickly, carried as a trophy a necklace which the Empress Eugénie had worn at the great balls in the Tuileries.
Méry Laurent was famous as an artist’s model, less than famous as an actress. She had had a walk-on part in Offenbach’s Le Roi Carotte , and once in a spectacular scene at le Châtelet she sprang in splendid nudity from an enormous silver-mounted shell. Dr. Evans installed his elegant conquest in a luxurious apartment at No. 52, Rue de Rome, near his office, with a monthly allowance of five thousand francs, and a second home, “Villa des Talus,” an agreeable cottage at No. 9, Boulevard Lannes, opposite the turfed slopes of the fortifications. The villa was furnished in comfortable country style with a charming little garden and lilacs blooming in the dooryard.
Méry was well educated, performed acceptably on the piano, appreciated wit and talent, and her Eliza provided a table which was a glory of French cuisine. The salon of la Laurent drew to it poets, novelists, men of letters, and painters to whom, wrote Henri Perruchot, biographer of Manet, “she was prepared to give the quasi-marital favours she sold Evans at so high a price.” Something of a wit herself, Mlle. Méry once remarked that to leave Dr. Evans “would be a wicked thing to do. I content myself with deceiving him.” She paid the doctor in good coin, however, in introducing him to the literary circle of Stéphane Mallarmé, and helping him to understand the genius of Manet and Whistler.
In his later years Dr. Evans enjoyed the cabarets, the life of the boulevards, and reminiscences with old Bonapartists. He was an industrious writer, though not a gifted one, and produced a considerable body of professional articles and his memoirs, as well as a defense of the Emperor and Empress, with Dr. Crane’s collaboration, entitled the Fall of the Second Empire (1884), including specially commissioned gravure illustrations depicting the flight of the Empress. She, however, did not wish him to issue the apologia, and the doctor complied, destroying all copies except one which exists in the University of Pennsylvania Dental School Library.