Doug Skinner cuts through the misunderstanding, mystification, lies, and wishful thinking about the Count – and those who impersonated him over the centuries – to present a portrait of this enigmatic and long-lived romantic hero.
The 18th century abounded in romantic riddles – the Man in the Iron Mask, Cagliostro, the Lost Dauphin… but there’s something uniquely engaging about the Count of St-Germain, who stepped from nowhere with no past and no name to dazzle the French court. He pops up from time to time across Europe, only to vanish, leaving extravagant rumours in his wake: he was immortal; owned the elixir of life; was a Rosicrucian; a spy; an incognito king. I have no urge to burst this bubble. I couldn’t if I tried; the many mysteries about the Count will never be solved. It is possible, though, to winnow some fictions from the facts, and trace their development. The legend has had a life of its own, and it’s quite a story.
We should begin, though, with what we know about the “real” St-Germain. 1 Our first glimpse of him is in London, in 1745, in a letter from Horace Walpole to Horace Mann. Although it’s frequently cited, I’ve never seen it quoted in full:
“The Provost of Edinborough is in custody of a messenger, and t’other day they seized an odd man, who goes by the name of Comte St-Germain. He has been here these two years, will not tell who he is or whence, but professes two very wonderful things, the first that he does not go by his right name; and the second that he never had any dealings, or desire to have any dealings with any woman – nay, nor with any succedaneum. He sings, plays on the violin wonderfully, composes, is mad, and not very sensible. He is called an Italian, a Spaniard, a Pole, a somebody that married a great fortune in Mexico, and ran away with her jewels to Constantinople, a priest, a fiddler, a vast nobleman. The Prince of Wales has had unsatiated curiosity about him, but in vain. However, nothing has been made out against him, he is released; and what convinces me that he is not a gentleman, stays here, and talks of his being taken up for a spy.” 2
Curiously, the Count’s disdain for succedanea was censored by Walpole’s editors until 1954. Maybe they didn’t want to offend succedanea. There’s much to say about this first swatch of gossip; I’ll confine myself to pointing out that the Count is a burlesque figure here, but obviously much talked about. He must have made quite an impression.
The next year, some of his music is performed and published in London.3
After that, he disappears for 12 years until he turns up at Versailles, where he’s introduced to the court by the Maréchal de Belle-Isle, and given quarters in the Chateau de Chambord. He claims to have wonderful fabric dyes to give to France. He stays in France only two years – 1758 to 1760 – but, again, makes himself conspicuous. He tours the salons, his equally mysterious valet, Roger, in tow. His table talk is witty, extravagant, and grounded in a prodigious knowledge of history. He never eats in public, casually dispenses diamonds, and hints that he’s centuries old. He speaks many languages – all with a slight, indefinable accent – and excels on the violin and harpsichord. He advises the court belles on their diet, sometimes giving them a rejuvenating elixir.
The only known portrait of him dates from these years. It (left) shows a pleasant, somewhat chubby gentleman around 40. As is only appropriate, it’s based on a lost painting by an unknown artist.
Louis XV and his mistress, the Marquise de Pompadour, are enchanted by him; he soon joins their inner circle. The Minister of State, Choiseul, however, is alarmed to see a mystery man closeted with the King. Louis is, frankly, not the wisest or most conscientious of monarchs.
Louis sends the Count on a somewhat murky mission to Amsterdam – perhaps to raise money, perhaps to improve ties with England. Choiseul disapproves and orders the Count’s arrest; St-Germain manages to escape to England. One interesting footnote to this fiasco is that Voltaire and Frederick the Great correspond about it. Frederick dismisses the Count as a joke (“un conte pour rire”); Voltaire calls him a man who knows everything and never dies – a squib often quoted by writers unfamiliar with Voltaire’s irony. 4
The sojourn at Versailles, then, ends not with a bang but a muddle, leaving plenty of unanswered questions. For one, we don’t know what happened to the dye works. St-Germain then passes through Holland and into Russia. Coincidentally, he’s in St Petersburg during the coup that put Catherine the Great on the throne.
He turns up next year in Belgium, buys land, and assumes the name of Surmont. He again tries to interest the state in his processes, which now include treatments of wood, leather, oil, and paint. The negotiations fizzle out, but not without some useful fallout for us. One of the Belgian ministers, Karl Cobenzl, leaves notes of his meeting, giving us a first hand look at the Count. He reports that St-Germain revealed his illustrious birth (which Cobenzl refuses to divulge) and turned iron into a pretty yellow substance. So two rumours – royal blood and alchemy – can be traced to the Wundermann himself. Unless, of course, Cobenzl is lying. Fortunately, ministers never do.
After that, St-Germain disappears for 11 years… until 1774, when a gentleman named Freiherr Reinhard Gemmingen-Guttenberg meets the Count in Bavaria. The Freiherr describes him as an elderly, reclusive Italian occupied with dyes and charity. St-Germain has a new moniker – Count Tsarogy – and a Russian general’s uniform. It’s a charming picture, and would be nice to add to our store. Unfortunately, the Freiherr wrote it 37 years later, so we’re at the mercy of his memory cells.
Two years later, St-Germain is in Germany, calling himself Count Welldone, and again offering recipes to the state. He’s added new ones – cosmetics, wines, liqueurs, treatments for bone, paper, and ivory. I should stress that these processes seem to be legitimate. So it’s puzzling that he also claims to transmute metals, and alienates Frederick’s emissaries by boasting of his travels and comparing himself to God.
There’s another curious nugget from these parlays. Frederick wants to know if the Count is a Freemason; St-Germain confesses he was once and got as far as the fourth degree, but has forgotten the signs. German Masons have good reason to mistrust wonder-workers at this time. Just two years before, a certain Johan Georg Schrepfer appeared in Leipzig, claiming occult powers and royal blood. He swindled several trusting souls with a scheme to merge Freemasonry and the Society of Jesus; then, promising a miracle, shot himself. St-Germain is rumoured to be his pupil.
So, our Count has no takers; but he soon makes another interesting acquaintance – Prince Karl of Hesse-Kassel, Governor of Schleswig-Holstein and ardent Mason and occultist. St-Germain informs his new friend that he will be a permanent houseguest. Karl is reluctant, but finally agrees, and the two settle in Schleswig, where they study chemistry and distribute herbal remedies to the poor. Karl calls him “the greatest philosopher who ever lived,” and nicknames him “Papa”.
After five years, the Count catches pneumonia from his draughty lab. He dies on 27 February 1784. Karl is away at a Masonic conclave, but the death is witnessed by his doctor.
St-Germain’s estate is catalogued minutely – a few clothes, weapons and toilet articles, a little money. He leaves no unpaid bills, no sheet music or instruments, no manuscripts. He promised Karl a note to be opened at his death but that was never found. That, in brief, is what we know about the Count of St-Germain. Arthur Edward Waite said about him: “The inventions are much more interesting than the plain facts, and I should be very glad if there were evidence of their truth.” 5
The plain facts, though, are satisfyingly odd. The Count was wealthy, with no visible means of support. He concealed his real name and origin. He was celibate, ascetic, travelled constantly, and dropped out of sight for years at a time. He was called a charlatan, but his reputation was spotless. On the face of it, he seems to have been a wealthy eccentric with a taste for mystification, music… and fabric dyes.
The puzzle is missing some pieces and countless myths sprang up to fill those gaps. As Waite said, the inventions are indeed interesting. They form an increasingly bizarre side-show to the Count’s career. As we saw,
stories were already afoot, early on, in London. The mischief really began, though, when the Count reached France.
First of all, a mime and English dialect comedian known as Milord Gower started impersonating St-Germain in Paris salons. His stories were wilder than the real Count’s – he had advised Jesus, for example. Inevitably, hearsay of his routine got confused with the original. He was said to be supported by jealous courtiers – possibly even Choiseul. Gower’s real name is given as Guave, Gauve, Gor, and Quoys; I’ve also found it spelled ‘Gaure’ in a poem by Claude Rulhière. 6
Casanova, of all people, also imitated St-Germain, during a trip to Switzerland in 1760. To further muddy matters, Casanova’s memoirs contain a description of the Count that has sown confusion for centuries – a long beard, an Armenian robe, and an ivory wand. These picturesque details, however, were added by Casanova’s editor, Jules Laforgue and weren’t corrected until the original text was published in 1960. 7
The Armenian robe is a curious touch, since that was Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s favourite outfit. The confusion is understandable; Rousseau himself adopted some of St-Germain’s mannerisms on his trip to England. As Rousseau buffs know, he also befriended a certain Claude Anglancier de St-Germain late in life. This St-Germain was treated to long paranoid letters, coincidentally revolving around Choiseul. Rousseau’s biographers have, on occasion, referred to Claude as the Count of St-Germain.
There were, in fact, several more St-Germains to gum up the works. The most prominent was Count Claude-Louis de St-Germain, a French general who also served in Prussia and Denmark. Also notable were Pierre-Renault de St-Germain, French governor of Calcutta in the 1750s, and Robert-François Quesnay de St-Germain, active in several secret societies. Stories of the Count in India and at Masonic meetings can probably be traced to them.
The many speculations on the Count’s origin also fuelled his legend. He was the son of a Russian merchant, or a Portuguese Jew, or the bastard of Queen Anna Maria of Spain. Casanova thought he was a violinist named Catalini. He was identified with a Signor Gualdi who perplexed Vienna in 1687, and with an Odard mixed up in the coup of Catherine the Great.
Another enigmatic count began baffling Europe in the 1770s. Like St-Germain, Cagliostro was rumoured to be immortal, to possess the elixir of life and to be the Wandering Jew. Some even identified him as St-Germain’s valet, the roguish Roger. 8 The most persistent rumour, though, was that St-Germain was his mentor. A ‘memoir’ of Cagliostro – actually a hoax by Jean-Pierre-Louis de Luchet – even described the eerie initiation in a roccoco grotto.
Other dubious memoirs followed. In the fanciful accounts of Franz Graffer, Maximillian von Lamberg, and A V d’Elbe, the Count charms snakes, reads minds, writes with both hands, plays whole string quartets on one violin, and then vanishes. He even becomes a ventriloquist – no doubt a confusion with a performer from St-Germain-en-Laye.
The purported Souvenirs of the Countess of Adhémar, though, did the most damage. Our ever-youthful hero materialises from time to time to prophesy and to warn Marie Antoinette about the Revolution. We can thank Etienne de Lamothe-Langon for this confection; he also gave us a novel about a love affair between St-Germain and Madame Pompadour.
Reports of St-Germain’s death were blithely disregarded. The occultist Alliette – also known as Etteilla – announced that there were two Counts, and the real one was still alive. St-Germain was sighted in Paris in 1835, and in Egypt during Napoleon’s campaign. Napoleon III kept a dossier on him, which, I’m sorry to say, was lost in a fire. It was probably very
As you might expect, occultists seized on the story. Several books on palmistry and astrology bore his name. Arch-Theosophist Helena Blavatsky identified the Count as one of the ‘Masters of Wisdom’ who guided her, and hinted she had secret documents pertaining to him. In fact, what she had was a copy of the Adhémar Souvenirs, which she loaned to Isabel Cooper-Oakley, one of the Count’s first biographers. The then Countess of Adhémar, also a Theosophist, vouched for her ancestor, so Lamothe-Langon’s fantasies reached a wider audience than they deserved. 9
Another Theosophist, C W Leadbeater, met a bearded and uniformed St-Germain in Rome in 1926. In 1923, Aleister Crowley had jotted an idea in his diary: “Shall I ‘become’ Comte de St Germain with a wig & beard – and start a New Legend?” 10 I’m afraid this is just coincidence. By then, some Theosophists were saying St-Germain was the incarnation of the goddess Venus. From there, it was a short jump to Guy Ballard, who claimed the Count actually introduced him to visitors from Venus. In his book, Ballard revealed a 1930 encounter with St-Germain on Mt Shasta in California. The Count, always an entertaining host, pulled gold from the air, tamed a panther, and took Guy and his wife to a convention of Venusians in the Grand Tetons. 11
The Ballards formed a group called the I AM Foundation, which disseminated many channelled messages from the obliging Count. They also published a portrait quite unlike the historical one – featuring a dark, bearded, Christ-like figure. It was soon replaced with a blonder, more Californian version. There’s one more link to this Venusian chain. UFO contactee George Adamski was familiar with Ballardiana, and his own 1952 meeting with a tourist from Venus may have been inspired by Guy’s quality time with St-Germain. 12
Meanwhile, I AM begat the Church Universal and Triumphant led by Mark and Elizabeth Clare Prophet. The Church’s biography of St-Germain now includes incarnations as an Atlantean priest, Merlin, both Bacons (Roger and Francis) and Columbus. He designed the American flag, helped write the Constitution and founded the Boy Scouts. He lives in a pink crystal cave in Wyoming, where he leads the fight against tobacco, alcohol, sugar, and dissonant music. 13 The Church distributes two portraits – Ascended Master St-Germain and Knight Commander St-Germain. Perhaps we’re back to the two St-Germains of Alliette!
And why not make that three? Back in the Count’s beloved France, the late Richard Chanfray bravely donned the mantle. After a troubled youth, including a suicide attempt and a bout of amnesia, Chanfray landed in prison for robbery. There, he had a series of dreams that convinced him he was the illustrious Count. On 28 January 1972, he made a memorable appearance on French television, changing lead into gold, discussing his experiments with giant insects, and revealing that Louis XV was still alive and living in the Midi. He went on to cut an LP and open an antique shop in Paris. One can hardly blame him for ‘becoming’ the Count; he certainly had more fun than he did as Richard Chanfray. 14
By now, we’re far removed from the charismatic enigma who astonished Versailles in 1758. The Count’s identity has blurred and multiplied, taking in imitators, other wanderers, other St-Germains. His many pseudonyms and rumoured origins have also clouded the picture. Anyone could be seen as St-Germain. And anyone could read what they wanted into him. Mostly what they wanted was romance and we’ve seen how tastes shifted from Rosicrucian to prophet to Hidden Master to Space Brother.
In fact, St-Germain was eventually porous enough to absorb almost any myth. A series of novels by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro even turns him into a vampire. After all, he was immortal, didn’t eat, and drank the elixir of life. And, as we’re about to see, he may have come from Transylvania.
Although we can’t conclusively determine St-Germain’s age and origin, we do have an answer from the Count himself. He told Prince Karl he was the son of Francis Rakoczy II, Prince of Transylvania, and gave his age as 88. If this were true, he would have been 67 at Versailles, when he was said to look 45, and Francis would have sired him at the tender age of 15. Neither is impossible. However, it’s also possible the Count was deluded – like all those Anastasia candidates – or that Karl jumbled his facts. We just don’t know but it’s the closest we have to an answer.
We can, however, identify the elixir of life with some certainty. St-Germain made no secret of it: it was a tea of elder flowers, fennel, and senna pods, soaked in spirits of wine. I’m afraid it was a laxative – a potent one, in fact. Similar mixtures are still on the market. To approximate the Count’s recipe, top it off with brandy. To your health!