Jacques d'Adelswärd-Fersen  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Baron Jacques d'Adelswärd-Fersen (February 20, 1880November 5, 1923) was a French aristocrat and minor novelist and poet, best-known for his novel Lord Lyllian. His modern fame is based on a 1903 scandal involving Parisian schoolboys had made him a persona non grata in the salons and dashed his marriage plans, after which he took up residence in Capri with his longtime lover, Nino Cesarini. He became one of the many "characters' of the island in the interwar years, featuring in novels by Compton MacKenzie and, more famously, Roger Peyrefitte. His home, the Villa Fersen, remains one of Capri's major tourist drawcards.

Contents

Early life

Born in Paris, France as Jacques d'Adelswärd, he is related on his paternal side to Axel von Fersen, a Swedish Count who had a relationship with Marie Antoinette. D'Adelswärd took on the name Fersen later in his life out of admiration for the distant relative.

D'Adelswärd-Fersen's grandfather had founded the steel industry in Longwy-Briey, which was profitable enough that it made d'Adelswärd-Fersen exceedingly wealthy when he inherited at age 22. Consequently, he was much sought-after in the higher circles, as families hoped to marry him to one of their daughters.

Apart from joining the military, d'Adelswärd-Fersen already traveled extensively and settled down as a writer. He published several volumes of poems, for instance Chansons Légères, and novels.

As a young man in the beginning of his twenties, his homosexual leanings became apparent to him, which are also relatively clearly addressed in his poetry. Unfortunately, he was not sexually interested in adult men (which at the time in France would not have brought him into legal trouble) but in teenage boys between about 15 and 17 years old, i.e. he preferred pederastic relationships. This inclination eventually caused his undoing in French society.

The trial

In 1903 he was arrested on charges of holding Black Masses in his house at 18 Avenue de Friedland, entertainments featuring tableaux vivants starring pupils from the best Parisian schools and attended by the cream of Parisian society. He was charged with indecent behavior with minors and served a six-month prison sentence, was fined 50 francs and lost his civil rights for five years.

The scandal bears some similarities with the trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895, who also experienced great social degradation after a public trial finding him guilty of "gross indecency with other male persons". Perhaps d'Adelswärd-Fersen was lucky in that his feasts were also attended by other notable figures of Parisian high society, which more or less forced the court to drop some charges to minimize the impact of the scandal.

On Capri

After his marriage plans were foiled, d'Adelswärd-Fersen remembered the island of Capri from his youth and decided to build a house there. He bought land at the top of a hill in the very northeast of the island, close to where the Roman emperor Tiberius had built his Villa Jovis two millennia earlier. His house, initially called Gloriette, was eventually christened Villa Lysis (later sometimes simply referred to as Villa Fersen) in reference to the Socratic dialogue Lysis discussing friendship, and by our modern notion, homosexual love.

Jacques d'Adelswärd-Fersen died, allegedly a suicide achieved through a cocktail of champagne and cocaine, in 1923. His ashes are conserved in the non Catholic cemetery of Capri.

The Villa Lysis-Fersen, built in 1905, has been purchased by the Capri Town Council and can be visited. There is no admission fee but check with the Capri tourist office for current hours. It can be found on the road which leads to Villa Jovis, and contintuing straight ahead rather than turning right towards the archaeological site. Tiles set into the wall provide directions. It is a steady 45 minute walk from Capri center, much of it uphill. There is no other way for tourists to reach it. It is available to rent for parties and dinners.

It is a splendid building, described as "Liberty" style in some references, but it is not Liberty or Art Nouveau in the French manner. It is, perhaps best described as "Neoclassical decadent." The large garden is connected to the villa by a flight of steps which leads to a portico with ionic columns. In the atrium a marble stairway, with wrought iron balustrade, leads to the first floor where there are bedrooms with panoramic terraces, and a dining room. On the ground floor there is a lounge decorated with blue majolica and white ceramic, facing out over the Gulf of Naples. In the basement there is the 'Chinese Room' in which allegedly opium was smoked.

Lord Lyllian

Lord Lyllian, published in 1905, is one of d'Adelswärd-Fersen's novels and perhaps his most important work, satirizing the scandal around himself in Paris, with touches of the Oscar Wilde affair thrown in for good measure.

The hero, Lord Lyllian, departs on a wild odyssey of sexual debauchery, is seduced by a character that seems awfully similar to Oscar Wilde, falls in love with girls and boys, and is finally killed by a boy. The public outcry about the supposed Black Masses is also caricatured. The work is an audacious mix of fact and fiction, including four characters that are alter egos of d'Adelswärd-Fersen himself.

Akademos

Akademos. Revue Mensuelle d'Art Libre et de Critique (1909) was d'Adelsward-Fersen's short-lived attempt at publishing a monthly literary journal. It was magazine of a very luxurious kind, each issue printed on several sorts of deluxe paper, with contributions by many famous authors, like Colette, Henry Gauthier-Villars, Laurent Tailhade, Josephin Peladan, Marcel Boulestin, Maxim Gorky, Georges Eekhoud, Achille Essebac, Claude Farrère, Anatole France, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Henri Barbusse, Jean Moréas and Arthur Symons.

In each issue, very carefully, as is clear from Fersen's letters to Georges Eekhoud, a homosexual element was introduced: a poem, an article, or a hint in the magazine's serial Les Fréquentations de Maurice by Boulestin. As a magazin with a homosexual agenda, it was the first publication of its kind in the French language. However, only an estimated 10 % of Akademos may be counted as homosexual. Thematically, as for the gay part, it trod somewhat similar ground as the German journal Der Eigene, published between 1896 and 1931 by Adolf Brand. This is not a coincidence, as d'Adelswärd-Fersen studied the German publications that tried to push for the social acceptance of homosexuality before launching Akademos. Also, he corresponded with both Brand and Magnus Hirschfeld.

Unfortunately, Akademos lasted only one year - there were twelve monthly issues, amounting to some 2000 pages. It is generally thought that the reason for its demise was that its production proved to be too costly for Adelswärd-Fersen. In one of his letters to Eekhoud, Fersen complained of the lack of interest of the press and the reading public. However, other factors like the pressure generated by a hostile attitude of the press or society in general cannot be ruled out entirely.

Further reading

Biographical

  • Patrick Cardon (ed.): Dossier Jacques d'Adelswärd-Fersen. Lille, Cahiers Gay-Kitsch-Camp, 1993
  • Norman Douglas: Looking Back, 1933
  • Wolfram Setz [ed.]: Jacques d'Adelswärd-Fersen – Dandy und Poet. Bibliothek Rosa Winkel, 2006. ISBN 3-935596-38-3

Fictionalized

Film

Music video of neo soprano, Nicole Renaud, singing Baron Fersen's poem, "Mon Coeur est un Bouquet ...". Shot in super 8 film at Villa Lysic, Capri, by Karine Laval





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