The Curse of the Marquis de Sade

A Notorious Scoundrel, a Mythical Manuscript, and the Biggest Scandal in Literary History

About the Book

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORS’ CHOICE • The captivating, deeply reported true story of how one of the most notorious novels ever written—Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom—landed at the heart of one of the biggest scams in modern literary history.

“Reading The Curse of the Marquis de Sade, with the Marquis, the sabotage of rare manuscript sales, and a massive Ponzi scheme at its center, felt like a twisty waterslide shooting through a sleazy and bizarre landscape. This book is wild.”—Adam McKay, Academy Award–winning filmmaker

Described as both “one of the most important novels ever written” and “the gospel of evil,” 120 Days of Sodom was written by the Marquis de Sade, a notorious eighteenth-century aristocrat who waged a campaign of mayhem and debauchery across France, evaded execution, and inspired the word “sadism,” which came to mean receiving pleasure from pain. Despite all his crimes, Sade considered this work to be his greatest transgression.

The original manuscript of 120 Days of Sodom, a tiny scroll penned in the bowels of the Bastille in Paris, would embark on a centuries-spanning odyssey across Europe, passing from nineteenth-century banned book collectors to pioneering sex researchers to avant-garde artists before being hidden away from Nazi book burnings. In 2014, the world heralded its return to France when the scroll was purchased for millions by Gérard Lhéritier, the self-made son of a plumber who had used his savvy business skills to upend France’s renowned rare-book market. But the sale opened the door to vendettas by the government, feuds among antiquarian booksellers, manuscript sales derailed by sabotage, a record-breaking lottery jackpot, and allegations of a decade-long billion-euro con, the specifics of which, if true, would make the scroll part of France’s largest-ever Ponzi scheme.

Told with gripping reporting and flush with deceit and scandal, The Curse of the Marquis de Sade weaves together the sweeping odyssey of 120 Days of Sodom and the spectacular rise and fall of Lhéritier, once the “king of manuscripts” and now known to many as the Bernie Madoff of France. At its center is an urgent question for all those who cherish the written word: As the age of handwriting comes to an end, what do we owe the original texts left behind?
Read more

Praise for The Curse of the Marquis de Sade

“Fans of John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood or Billion Dollar Loser by Reeves Wiedeman will probably enjoy the final thread of The Curse of the Marquis de Sade. . . . Warner excels at explaining Lhéritier’s complex— and possibly criminal—business operations in easy-to-understand language. And his depiction of France’s lively rare-manuscript community is a fascinating look at a largely hidden subculture.”The Washington Post

“Readers who dare to open The Curse of the Marquis de Sade: A Notorious Scandal, a Mythical Manuscript, and the Biggest Scandal in Literary History will find something for everyone. Inventively assembled by Joel Warner, the book’s time-jumping chapters offer a gentleman’s guide to ungentlemanly behavior.”Air Mail

“Lively . . . Aristophil’s downfall reads like the best kind of business thriller. . . . Warner writes like a man having fun with his subject.” The Times

“Warner’s research and extensive interviews help him shuttle across centuries to depict remarkable characters. . . . Warner doesn’t let infamy flatten Sade’s dimensions.”New York Times Book Review

“A fascinating literary scandal. . . . a strange and fantastical journey involving a level of criminality that rivaled the life of Sade himself.”Slate

“Fascinating.”The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg)

“Dazzling . . . Warner’s story is a tightly woven braid of three connected themes: a history of the racier aspects of European bibliophilia, a morality tale about rapacity in the art world of recent history, and, finally, the life, work and changing reputation of Sade himself.”The Telegraph

“Compelling . . . so rich in detail . . . obviously meticulously researched.”The Colorado Sun

“Illuminating . . . The wealth of detail never slows Warner’s well-paced narrative. Literary history buffs will want to check this out.”Publishers Weekly

“An engrossing history of the travels of a notorious manuscript across nations and centuries.” Kirkus Reviews

“Joel Warner has written the best kind of history, making the past seem present with wonderful and outrageous characters, a story that jumps propulsively between eras, and a lively exploration of hidden worlds.”—Benjamin Wallace, New York Times bestselling author of The Billionaire’s Vinegar

“Joel Warner has written a juicy literary thriller with outstanding characters . . .”—A.J. Jacobs, New York Times bestselling author of The Puzzler

“On the surface, this is a remarkable true story about a most controversial and bizarre work of literature, an epic, picaresque true tale that spans centuries. But it’s also a nonfiction allegory about we humans and what and why and how we choose to value . . . stuff.”—Maximillian Potter, author of Shadows in the Vineyard
Read more

The Curse of the Marquis de Sade

The Scroll

Chapter One

Relic of Freedom

July 14, 1789

The summer sky above Paris hung heavy with clouds as a plume of smoke rose east of the city center. The scent of gunpowder wafted through the muggy afternoon air, while the crackle of musket fire and battle yells echoed through the cobblestoned streets.

Four years had passed since Sade had written 120 Days of Sodom. Beyond the walls of the Bastille, the world carried on in one of the largest cities in Europe, a crowded metropolis of 810 streets and twenty-three thousand houses that more than a half million people called home. By many measures, by the late 1780s Paris had come a long way toward achieving Louis XIV’s declaration a century before that the French capital should rival the glories of ancient Rome. The old walls that ringed the city had come down, replaced by victory arches and graceful boulevards. The bridges over the Seine had been cleared of the medieval houses that had clogged their thoroughfares and left them on the verge of collapse. Colossal new public squares like the Place Vendôme and the Place de la Concorde provided the capital with new civic spaces, while a long stretch of open fields and kitchen gardens on the city’s western fringe had been transformed into a grand boulevard called the Champs-Élysées. In posh suburban neighborhoods like the Faubourg Saint-Honoré and the Faubourg Saint-Germain, palatial mansions had gone up to house the swelling number of wealthy bourgeois, boasting recently minted fortunes and new noble titles awarded or sold to them by the crown.

But in the cramped center of the city, conditions remained intolerable. The maze of dark, narrow streets festered with filth and crime, barely penetrated by the réverbères, or metal oil lamps, installed throughout the capital. On either side of muddy lanes, in shabby row houses of wood, limestone, and plaster that reached four, five, and six stories high, the families of Paris’s servants, laborers, and artisans crammed into three-room apartments, many of which lacked a dedicated kitchen, much less a toilet or bath.

Recently city dwellers had seen the price of bread, the main staple of their meager diets, consume an ever-larger portion of their shrinking incomes as years of costly wars, poor harvests, and the timid leadership of the current monarch, King Louis XVI, led to financial crises. Desperate measures by the crown, such as a new wall around Paris to enforce tolls on goods entering the city and a trade agreement that allowed British goods to flood the market, plunged the nation further into debt. Many lost their jobs, and nearly two hundred thousand Parisians came to depend on religious assistance or government handouts. As the drought-ravaged fields around the city deteriorated, troops patrolled the markets to deter riots over bread. And as radical new philosophical movements championed egalitarianism and an upstart middle class jockeyed for political power, the people watched the nobility continue to revel in opulence.

The final provocation had arrived that summer. An attempt by the king to raise revenues and quell dissent by summoning a convention of the Estates General, an assembly of representatives from the country’s various social classes, had collapsed amid political infighting over who should have the most say in the nation’s affairs. Struggling to afford food and fearful of an aristocratic conspiracy to undermine the middle and lower classes, commoners had taken to the streets. Factories and wealthy monasteries were ransacked, and most of the new customhouses at the city’s toll gates were burned to the ground. Around the city, army regiments moved into battle positions.

With rumors spreading of a crackdown, Parisians girded for battle. Theaters and cafés shuttered their doors, and the call went out to erect barricades, gather provisions, and, most important, marshal arms. Early that rainy morning, a mob of citizens raided the army barracks at the Invalides military hospital, coming away with thousands of rifles and several cannons, but very little ammunition. Hundreds of barrels of gunpowder, they learned, were being stored elsewhere: in the Bastille.

The gray stone hulk’s eight medieval towers dominated the city skyline and loomed large in the public’s imagination. This was where numerous state convicts had rotted away, including the legendary Man in the Iron Mask, a mysterious criminal forced to hide his face and who would eventually die in his cell before anyone could uncover his identity. Tales of prisoners emerging from the citadel fueled a cottage publishing industry, generating page-turners detailing filthy cells, dangerously inadequate rations, and corpse-filled subterranean dungeons. And now, according to reports, somewhere deep in its bowels lurked the infamous criminal the Marquis de Sade.

While Versailles, with its sparkling fountains and mirror-lined halls, epitomized the opulence of the monarchy, the Bastille had come to represent the iron rule that underpinned it all. So early that afternoon, when hundreds of cabinet makers, locksmiths, joiners, cobblers, hairdressers, tailors, wine merchants, and wig makers took up pikes, knives, and muskets and cried out, “To the Bastille!” they weren’t simply looking to requisition gunpowder. They were mounting a direct attack on the tyranny of their king.

In the Bastille, the prison warden waited nervously, as he had for several days. He was well suited for his position, having been born in the fortress during his father’s tenure as warden. But as a government functionary through and through, he knew little of the ways of battle. It didn’t help that many of the hundred or so guards and soldiers under his command were elderly or infirm veterans. Over the past few nights, he had taken to peering from the ramparts, mistaking the trees below for agents plotting the citadel’s demise.

Now the warden’s worst fears were coming true. As the morning rain let up, soldiers standing guard atop the Bastille’s towers watched a mob stream past the neighborhood’s workshops and factories, their caps decorated with chestnut leaves as a symbol of their cause. Upon reaching the bounds of the citadel, an agile carriage maker clambered over a wall and cut the chains to the fortress’s outermost drawbridge. As the gate crashed down, the revolutionaries charged into the courtyard, where they faced their remaining obstacles: a twenty-five-foot-deep dry moat and, beyond that, another raised drawbridge blocking entry into the Bastille.

The battle began in earnest. The revolutionaries traded musket fire with soldiers on the battlements above, ducking for cover behind nearby walls and the prison’s kitchen buildings. For further protection, the assailants wheeled up several straw-filled carts from a nearby brewery and set them alight, the billowing smoke obscuring their movements. Soon the revolutionaries were reinforced by a contingent of royal soldiers who had defected to their side, along with several cannons. The artillery opened fire on the castle, but the eight-pound balls glanced off the fifteen-foot-thick stone walls. Shifting strategies, the revolutionaries turned their cannons on the wooden drawbridge. Inside, troops moved their own siege guns into position just beyond the entrance. Now both forces had heavy artillery trained on their foes, with just the wooden slats of the drawbridge between them.

Before either side could open fire, a drummer on the tower beat out the call for a cease-fire. Through a hole in the drawbridge came a note from the prison warden. He asked the revolutionaries to allow him and his men to evacuate with their lives. If the attackers refused, he would use the twenty thousand pounds of gunpowder in his possession to blow up the fortress and everything in the vicinity.

The revolutionaries refused to yield. Cries of “No capitulation” and “Lower the bridge” continued. Just as the crowd prepared to resume fire, the soldiers inside relented. With a clanking of chains, the drawbridge came down. The revolutionaries surged into the stronghold, disarming the troops. They found that only one of the castle’s defenders had been killed in the fighting, while ninety-eight attackers lay dead outside.

The warden and his men were marched out of the fortress and toward city hall, where the provisional government would decide their fate. The fury of the revolutionaries and the jeering populace lining the streets could not be held in check, and along the way, several of the captives were killed. Then, at the foot of city hall, the crowd lost control. They attacked the warden and one of his officers, stabbing them with swords and bayonets, then unloading their pistols into the bodies. The mob erupted as two bloody pikes rose into the evening sky, crowned with the severed heads of the victims.

Later that night at Versailles, a long carriage journey away from the city, an adviser told Louis XVI that the Bastille had fallen. “Is it a revolt?” asked the king. “No, sire,” he was told. “It is a revolution.”

Back at the prison, the revolutionaries seized gunpowder stores and ransacked the archives. They threw open the cells but found only seven prisoners, none of whom appeared to be particularly maltreated. Their number included four convicted forgers, a man suspected of a royal assassination plot decades earlier, an unremarkable aristocrat locked away for incest, and an insane Irishman who sometimes believed he was Julius Caesar and at other times God. Sade was not among them.

About the Author

Joel Warner
Joel Warner is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Esquire, Wired, Newsweek, Men’s Journal, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, and Slate, among others. He currently serves as managing editor of the investigative news outlet The Lever and previously worked as a staff writer at International Business Times and Westword. He is also co-author of The Humor Code. He lives with his family in Denver, Colorado. More by Joel Warner
Decorative Carat