The legend has it that when his character Porthos died in The Three Musketeer’s final installment – The Vicomte of Bragelonne, the whole Paris knew of it and mourned him as Alexandre Dumas walked the streets of French capital crying “I killed Porthos!”
Parisians watched in shock, sorrow and sympathy how the “good spirit” of their city, the two meters high gentile giant with frizzled hair, broad nose, and an olive complexion mourned the death of a character that may have been loosely portrayed on the historical musketeer Isaac de Porthau, but was actually Dumas himself – honest, sometimes naive and gullible, lover of wine, food, women and song. A big, strong, loud man with a heart of gold who died, appropriately, like a titan – holding the walls of a tunnel for his life-long friends to escape to safety.
The English playwright Watts Phillips described Dumas as “the most generous, large-hearted being in the world. He also was the most delightfully amusing and egotistical creature on the face of the earth. His tongue was like a windmill – once set in motion, you never knew when he would stop, especially if the theme was himself.” Porthos if there ever was one.
Dumas did not die under a pile of rocks and stones like Porthos but he was and still is a titan, a literature giant, one of the most popular and widely read French authors, the creator of novels that had a huge, immense impact on (pop) culture today such as The Count of Monte Cristo and Three Musketeers.
Images taken from Wikimedia Commons
Dumas was born Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie in 1802 in Picardy, France.
His father was a French nobleman born in Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti). A mixed-race son of a nobleman and a slave, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie was a general in Revolutionary France and one of the highest-ranking man of African descent ever in a European army. He was the first person of color to become general-in-chief of a French army. After a break with his father, he used his mother’s name – Dumas as his surname.
Thomas-Alexandre Dumas died when Dumas was four. Dumas’ mother Marie-Louise, the daughter of an innkeeper could not provide him with much education but Dumas read everything he could and taught himself Spanish. Although poor, the family used their father’s reputation and aristocratic rank to advance. When he was 20 years old, Alexandre Dumas moved to Paris where he had acquired a position at the Palais Royal in the office of Duke of Orleans thanks to his “neat hand.”
While working as a secretary for the duke, Dumas saw a Hamlet play in Paris and began writing articles and plays. The success of his plays – Henry III and His Court and Christine gave him financial independence and allowed him to write full-time.
He participated in the 1830 Revolution when his former employer, the Duke of Orleans replaced Charles X and ruled as Louis-Philippe, the Citizen King. As life slowly began to return to normal and press censorship ended, good times arrived for Dumas.
Dumas switched to novels and since he always spent more than he earned, he became a prolific writer – he published a total of 100,000 pages in his lifetime and his lost works are still being found by scholars. He used the newspapers which were at the time publishing many serial novels and in 1838 he rewrote one of his plays as his first serial novel La Capitaine Paul.
In order to provide for himself, he founded a production studio with writers who turned out hundreds of stories under his direction. One of the most famous of his assistants and collaborators was Auguste Maquet who sued him asking for a “by-line” and a higher payment for his work. He got the money but not the authorial recognition.
Dumas novels were so popular they were translated into English and other languages, earning him a lot of money and fame. Despite that, he was always broke, spending all his fortunes on women – he was married to an actress Ida Ferrier and had children with her, but that did not stop him from allegedly having a total of 40 mistresses, including an affair with a well-known American actress Adah Isaacs Menken and several children with them – one of them is Alexandre Dumas fils (son), a successful novelist and play writer in his own right.
He built a country house outside Paris – Chateau de Monte-Cristo which he used as an additional writing studio, but as it was always full with strangers and acquaintances who took advantage of his generosity, he was forced to sell the property.
Dumas wrote in a wide variety of genres -romance, mystery and apart from novels, he wrote travel books from his travels to Spain Italy, Germany, England, and French Algeria. Dumas also compiled, with a little help from his friends, a collection of essays on famous criminals and crimes in European history – Celebrated Crimes.
When King Louis-Philippe was ousted, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte was elected president and he did not approve of the author who fled to Brussels both for his life but also to escape his creditors. In 1859 he moved to Russia where French was a second language and Dumas was very popular, despite Czar Nicholas I’s disapproval of his novel The Fencing Master which was written as Dumas’ fencing master Augustin Grisier’s account of the Decembrist revolt in Russia.
When the kingdom of Italy was proclaimed, Dumas traveled there where he participated in the movement for Italian unification, he founded and led a newspaper Indipendente and befriended Giuseppe Garibaldi whose memoirs he wrote.
Despite or maybe because of his success, Dumas had to deal with discrimination all his life. His short novel Georges deals with some of the issues of race but his response to a man who insulted him over his African ancestry is a gem: My father was a mulatto, my grandfather was a Negro, and my great-grandfather a monkey. You see, Sir, my family starts where yours ends.
He died in 1870 and was buried at his birthplace. The changing literary fashions decreased somewhat his popularity but a new appreciation for his art emerged in the 20th century along with his lost works. His ashes were re-interred at the mausoleum of the Pantheon of Paris, next to many French luminaries. His coffin was draped in blue velvet and carried through Paris on a caisson flanked by four mounted Republican Guards dressed as the Musketeers. In his speech French President Jacques Chirac said:
With you, we were D’Artagnan, Monte Cristo, or Balsamo, riding along the roads of France, touring battlefields, visiting palaces, and castles—with you, we dream.