The Pervert's Grand Tour

The Curse of the Château Sade
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Dec. 18 2008 3:15 PM

The Pervert's Grand Tour

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Every afternoon, I climbed up the castle steps and banged on the wooden door, hoping that Pierre Cardin might show me around the Marquis de Sade's dungeon, but the only answer was a dismal silence. The chatelain was still in Paris—he liked to visit only in summer, it seemed—so I tried to hang out with the rebellious villagers.

This was something of a challenge. After four days, I had become a familiar face in Lacoste, where the off-season population is only around 60 souls. Even the crustiest of the locals, les Costains, huddled outside the Café de France like illiterate goatherds, didn't shoot me quite as many scowls. And yet their world seemed remote and impenetrable. I was desperate to know what these former Communists thought of their two celebrity château owners, the Marquis de Sade and Cardin. But how would I get past their Gallic suspicion of outsiders—me, an interloper from that citadel of capitalism, Manhattan?

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Then, in the Cardin-owned store, I noticed a flimsy little book on the history of Lacoste, filled with murky photographs and obscure old censuses. As I flicked through the pages, I froze in shock: There in the tax list of 1608 was my own name, Antoyne Perrottet. My family moniker had been, until now, fairly obscure, so this seemed quite a coincidence. From the Middle Ages, it turned out, a whole bunch of Perrottets were clustered together in this tiny village—about 10 extended families. Wackiest of all, in 1806, one André Perrottet was the mayor of Lacoste at the height of Napoleon's glory.       

Now, I've never been one for roots tours, but the idea that my forebears made up a good percentage of the local citizenry at the time of the Marquis de Sade put a whole new spin on things. All of a sudden, the village's history was personal. I had a blood connection. Zut alors, I was a Costain myself, give or take two centuries.

Now that I had my Gallic credentials—one of the Perrottets, mon ami, used to be mayor under Napoleon!—I considered I had an instant entree to stop people in the street and ask their opinions. (Luckily, Finn Mac Eoin had already pointed out  many of the more vocal anti-Cardin figures around town: "See that feller? He's an antichrist. Him? Fucking antichrist.") Suddenly, everyone was happy to talk. I ran into two weather-beaten farmers unloading firewood from a truck and quickly introduced myself. "Ugh, Cardin!" spat one, Jacques Trophemus. "He's a megalomaniac! What does he want with all these houses? One home, yes. But 26? There's more to life than money!" He said the village life was being gutted by Cardin, who offers people far above market rate for their homes. Old people can't turn down the offer. Young people can't afford to live here. "These streets used to be filled with children playing! Where are they now?" He waved a hand theatrically. "The village is dead!" True Costains, he said, were even boycotting Cardin's new boulangerie, buying their bread from faraway villages.

This was obviously a feud in deadly earnest—but I soon found that interviewing the anti-Cardin forces was not entirely unpleasant. Usually, it involved sitting on a sunny terrace and quaffing wine while railing against the modern world. When I sought out Yves Ronchí, founder of an anti-Cardin group called the Association for the Harmonious Development of Lacoste, he turned out to be a vigneron in an old farmhouse. He came up from the cellar in wet rubber boots and purple hands, as if he'd just been stomping grapes. "This country is supposed to stand for liberty, equality, fraternity," he complained. "That is why we fought the revolution! But the rich today have taken on a new sense of privilege. They ignore laws and trample our democratic rights."

Ronchí took my business card and rubbed his straggly beard. He soon dug out a topographical map from his desk. "Did you know there is a village called Perrottet near here?" Instantly, we were old friends. He took me downstairs to see his great chrome vats of the latest harvest, and I tried the fresh red—an excellent drop, I thought. "Look, I don't mind Pierre Cardin personally," Ronchí confided. "It's what he represents, the sort of society. It's all about money, empty words, appearances. He is pouring a fortune into renovating these buildings, but the result is bricolage—a rushed job, makeshift, not serious. When you look inside, there is no character. Just empty space."

I had to admire the town's stubborn resistance to change, even though some feel they've become fanatiques. It reminded me of the Groucho Marx song "Whatever It Is, I'm Against It!" Perhaps the phrase should be on Lacoste's coat of arms. Still, sometimes it did seem a little extreme. Cécile Lendfors, a 30-ish artist who grew up in the village, told me that she was just waiting for the day the couturier keels over and croaks.

"I've bought a nice bottle of champagne to open when I get the news," she declared. "Cardin's 86. He'll die before I do. I'm waiting for the day!"

When French TV journalists asked Pierre Cardin earlier in 2008 why he was buying up Lacoste, he adopted a provocative tone: "For my pleasure," he said coolly. Still, he has often seemed a little baffled by the villagers' reaction.

Things have clearly gone downhill for a feudal overlord.

Back in the 18th century, the Marquis de Sade could do no wrong in Lacoste. When he'd arrived in 1765, at the age of 23, the pink-cheeked Costain yokels danced and sang for the lovely woman on his arm: "Oh, the happy news. … Our marquis has married a young beauty. There she is! There she is!" The beauty turned out to be one of the most noted prostitutes in Paris, but the Costains took no offense. In fact, none of his regular scandals seemed to faze the villagers; it was really no less than was expected of a red-blooded French aristocrat. Sade took care to procure his victims from faraway cities, a considerate gesture to the locals. So, the villagers continued to warn him about police raids and assist his many white-knuckle escapes. On one occasion, he hid in the château roof; several times, he disappeared into the wild countryside of Provence.        

Of course, the arrangement came to an end on the night of Aug. 26, 1777, when 10 policemen managed a 4 a.m. raid on the château and carried Sade away in shackles. He would never return: During the Revolution, a mob sacked the castle. It was not led by loyal Costains, of course, but radicals from the nearby town of Apt. Sade was devastated when he learned. "No more Lacoste for me!" he wrote. "What a loss! It is beyond words. … I'm in despair!" Broke, he was soon forced to sell the castle.

He was less upset at never seeing his faithful villagers again. "I've come to the conclusion that all Costains are beggars fit for the wheel," he wrote in a 1776 letter, "and one day I'll surely prove my contempt for them. … I assure you that if they were to be roasted one after another, I'd furnish the kindling without batting an eyelash." The outburst came after the father of one of his victims had burst into his château and tried to murder him by firing a pistol inches from his chest. The shot misfired, but the culprit had wandered the village for days, drunk on local wine, until the marquis had to bribe him to leave. Rather than form a lynch mob, the villagers had reacted with a Gallic shrug.

In fact, it's tempting to think that the ghost of the marquis has come back to plague the peasantry. After all, he has effectively skewed the village's fate through his notoriety alone. Without Sade, there'd be no Cardin dragging them into the modern world.

Now how would the Divine Marquis punish me, a direct descendent after all?

On my last night, I managed to get myself invited to a bacchanal in a remote farmhouse, where hundreds of Provençal hipsters converged to listen to live music around open fires, guzzle vin rouge, and gorge on fresh cheese. No hardship there. But the next morning, after only three hours' sleep, I had to drive back to Avignon. Under my windshield was an envelope: Finn Mac Eoin had left me a farewell poem.

It was called, appropriately, "Wine":

Then what of morn, should all of night be chaste?
The wine has gone and but the hourglass filled.

Sade was poised to take his revenge. I somehow managed to navigate my overpriced rental car back to a gas station and had just filled up the tank when I noticed a little sticker: "DIESEL SEULEMENT." Oh, merde, I realized. Wrong fuel. The station attendant patiently advised me that if I now tried to drive the car on regular gasoline, the engine would implode. Three excruciating hours later, my car was on a trailer, and I was sitting beside a crusty mechanic who told me all about how he was going to come to New York and run the marathon, and maybe he could visit me and even stay?

When I checked my credit card statement back home, I'd been charged an extra $400 for that little Provençal screw-up. I guess Sade got me where it really hurts.

A contributing writer at Smithsonian Magazine, Tony Perrottet is the author of The Naked Olympics:The True Story of the Ancient Games.