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Trans French spy Chevalier d'Éon was also a wannabe American revolutionary

Detail from an image of a friendly fencing demonstration between Chevalier d’Èon and Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges in London, April 1787. (Fototeca Storica Nazionale/Getty Images)
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Chevalier d’Éon

What it’s about: A 19th-century French soldier, spy, and trans woman. Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont rose through the French court. The Chevalier fought in the Seven Years War presenting as a man, infiltrated the Russian court as a female spy, and identified as a woman for 33 years afterward, though no one knew whether the Chevalier had been designated male or female at birth. As mentioned in our previous entry, the Chevalier was such a visible trans person that genderfluidity was originally called “Eonism.”


Biggest controversy: In 1763, d’Éon had already infiltrated the Russian court as Lae De Beaumont, and as a reward, they were acting as the interim ambassador to London. The position was not only glamorous, but made an ideal cover for a spy, as Louis XV was mulling over an invasion of Britain and relied on d’Éon for inside information. But a permanent ambassador was named, and d’Éon’s complaints back to France—including a claim the new ambassador had tried to drug his predecessor at dinner—went unheard. Angry and insulted, the Chevalier published memoirs that included secret diplomatic correspondence, and—in an unforgivable breach of protocol—publicly called the new ambassador unfit for the job. This cost d’Éon a 2,000 livre pension, and Louis XV barred the Chevalier from returning to France, although the king continued to rely on his spy in London.

Strangest fact: When d’Éon presented herself as a woman, it was on government orders. The Chevalier had been non-binary for quite some time—d’Éon claimed to have been assigned female at birth, but raised as a boy to serve as a male heir to the family fortune. At one point the London Stock Exchange had a betting pool running on d’Éon’s “true” gender. So when the exiled spy wanted to return to France, a curious bargain was struck. In order to placate the anger of the outraged ambassador, d’Éon “was therefore made to resume the costume of that sex to which in France everything is pardoned,” as one French courtier put it. (Wikipedia also alludes to house arrest in d’Éon’s home town of Tonnerre, but the terms aren’t entirely clear.) Only as a woman could d’Éon collect the military pension earned as a man. The same courtier observed, “he revenged himself by combining the long train of his gown… with the attitude and conversation of a grenadier.”

Chevalier d’Eon (Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Thing we were happiest to learn: We nearly had a transgender French Founding Father. Like contemporary the Marquis De Lafayette, d’Éon wanted to join the French officers serving under General Washington, but the King’s terms of exile wouldn’t allow it. In 1792, the 64-year-old Chevalier offered to lead a division of female soldiers against the Habsburgs, but was again refused. D’Éon continued to fence in tournaments until wounded in a bout in 1796.


Thing we were unhappiest to learn: The Chevalier’s remarkable life ended in poverty. After the French Revolution, d’Éon’s pension was canceled and the family’s land was seized. After selling personal possessions and jewelry to stay afloat, d’Éon ended up in debtors’ prison for a few months at age 75, and died penniless at 81. A postmortem confirmed that d’Éon had “male organs in every respect perfectly formed,” but also feminine characteristics, including, “breast remarkably full,” and the puzzling “unusual roundness in the formation of the limbs.” In life, d’Éon refused to be examined, saying the results would be “dishonouring, whatever the result.”

Also noteworthy: The Chevalier’s story has been fictionalized many times, starting with dueling stage productions in Paris in 1837. There have been two d’Éon films, Spy Of Madame Pompadour, a 1928 German silent film, and Le Secret Du Chevalier d’Éon, a 1959 French-Italian film that portrays the Chevalier as a woman masquerading as a man. And early next year, everyone’s favorite time-traveling eccentric will meet d’Éon in Sword Of The Chevalier, a Doctor Who audio drama in which David Tennant and Billie Piper reprise their roles. (Wikipedia says November 2017, but the release date is listed elsewhere as February 2018).


Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: While d’Éon wasn’t allowed to join the American Revolution, France on the whole helped quite a bit. Contrary to the spirit of American self-determination, our independence was won with the help of French officers, French gunpowder, French cannons, French ships, and French money (our chief ally went over a billion livres into debt supporting our independence, and the resulting economic problems are often cited as a contributing factor to France’s own revolution.) Having lost the Seven Years’ War to Britain, helping pry away their prized colonies was a way for France to get revenge without engaging their old enemy directly.

Further down the Wormhole: Like many prominent personages of the 18th century, d’Éon was a freemason. The Masons have been subject to numerous conspiracy theories (always a Wiki Wormhole favorite), and one of the less wild ones is the organization’s alleged connections to other semi-secret societies like Skull And Bones, the KKK, and Bohemian Grove. The latter is a secretive annual meeting of some of the world’s richest and most powerful men, part G8 Summit and part summer camp. We’ll hobnob with the cabal that runs the world next week.


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About the author

Mike Vago

Author of five books, including Selfdestructible, his first novel. He tells people he lives in New York, but he really lives in New Jersey.