How Henri Rochefort—a fire-breathing journalist whose radical newspapers helped stir up the febrile atmosphere of 19th century France—came to upset the regimes of both an empire and a republic, escape from prison on a Pacific island and inhabit a Marylebone townhouse

Words: Glyn Brown
Illustrations: Matthew Hancock

Charismatic, urbane and deeply philanthropic, Henri Rochefort was a fire-breathing polemicist whose radical journalism some blamed for France’s tumble into borderline anarchy at the time of the 1871 Paris Commune. Occasionally known as the ‘prince of the gutter press’, he was adored, despised, but never ignored. Which is partly why he was painted by so many artists. With deep-set eyes and crazy hair, high cheekbones and a dark, pointed beard, he was a gift to Auguste Rodin, whose colossal sculpture bristles with brooding intensity. “Rochefort as Mephisto” is how one critic described the work to Rodin, who replied, “Yes, that was the intention.”

Looking like the devil mixed with Don Quixote, Rochefort wasn’t just a contrarian and iconoclast but, it must be said, a complete egotist. Painted by Gustave Courbet, he was horrified at what he saw on the canvas, and it made him briefly hate himself: he felt he was looking at a shallow, mercenary, self-regarding tyrant. Yet he was a gifted, hopeful liberal, and a witty, amusing man. During the time of his political exile from Paris, he lived at 4 Clarence Terrace, Marylebone. He adored and respected London, and could be seen strolling near Piccadilly, easily spotted due to his height and cockatoo-like plume of hair.

He was an aristocrat, full name Victor-Henri Rochefort, marquis de Rochefort-Luçay, and there was something of the Tony Benn about him, though far more pyrotechnic. He was born on 31st January 1831, his father a royalist fallen on hard times, a dramatist and writer of vaudeville. At 17, after college, Rochefort became a teacher. Finding pupils was tricky. “I hadn’t the knack of attracting people to me,” he explained. “My appearance was not seductive. My forehead stuck out like a cornice, driving my eyes into my head and making them seem very hard and unsympathetic. My jaws were fashioned like bill-hooks, my hair brushy and rebellious, while my cheeks were so hollow they almost met inside my mouth.”

But he did find work, and was a kindly, sympathetic tutor. He was also attempting to write, ghosting novels for talentless authors. At 20, Rochefort got a clerk’s job at the city council. It made him deeply miserable, but he spent most of his time thinking up plots for books, wrote a play, and began to get freelance work published in newspapers and magazines.

All this time, he’d been hurling himself into the ongoing mini-riots and revolutions against autocratic power in Paris, at one time even leading a charge to join a rampant mob outside his school gates. Now, he read up on the details of the blood-soaked French Revolution, which had ended with Napoleon Bonaparte in power. Rochefort came to despise the pompous, despotic Emperor. Following defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, Bonaparte was kicked into exile and in 1814 the monarchy was restored, but insurgency led to the Second Republic, proclaimed in 1848 when Rochefort was 18. (Confused? You will be.) It was headed by Napoleon III (obviously there was no Napoleon II), nephew of Bonaparte and elected by a landslide. But the new assembly was stuffed with closet royalist sympathisers. This Second Empire was characterised by plots, intrigues and whispering campaigns. Less than a year later, demonstrations were breaking out, and the government began to ban democratic and socialist newspapers. A new wine tax (merde!) sent even bourgeoise tempers off the scale.

Hot-blooded and idealistic
So that’s the background—and trust me, that was the potted version. Into this volatile arena strides hot-blooded, idealistic young man of the people Rochefort, desperate to see the Emperor deposed. By a complicated stroke of luck, he’s offered a freelance writing position at satirical left-wing magazine Charivari. Told this news, his mother and three sisters claim he’s too dim even to try; but his first piece is a stormer, run in full on the front page, and almost instantly he’s made political editor. “We were paid a penny a line, and in professional slang ‘died’ at a hundred lines”—which means that’s all they were paid for. Writers earned about 85 francs a month. Didn’t matter. “I was full of joy.”

Struggling to support himself, Rochefort wrote more and more provocative articles, repeatedly being challenged to duels and having to fit these tiresome things around features. Surprisingly, he was offered a column in the highly respected, though conservative, Le Figaro, for which he wrote such inflammatory socialist pieces that the authorities begin to take notice. The final straw was a hilarious opinion piece describing, he later recalled, how “a trained rabbit was placed a few yards in front of the Emperor at an imperial shooting party, and how the animal pretended to fall dead when shot at, only to appear in another spot five minutes later… The 350 rabbits comprising the total bag were, I alleged, one and the same rabbit.” With the over-sensitive Napoleon’s pride, if not the rabbit, wounded, the authorities demanded Rochefort’s resignation. No publication would employ him now, so he launched his own: the no-holds-barred Lanterne.

Scribbled entirely by himself, Lanterne was a crusade, a harder-hitting Private Eye/New Statesman mixed with a sort of early politicised Daily Mirror. Defiant but self-doubting, Rochefort thought issue one was the worst thing he’d ever written. He went to bed in misery and awoke next day, like Citizen Kane, to find his printer re-starting the presses to meet the demand (120,000 copies of the first issue sold). It was being read by those he longed to speak to: the underdog working class.

Now 37 and with three children, Rochefort became a heartthrob and a bit of a Casanova. “My cheeks were just as sunken, my complexion as pale, but during this triumphal period I don’t think there was a popular tenor who could vie with me for feminine solicitations,” he said. “It is rather delicate to recall these stupid affairs...”

There was soon no time for that. With issue 11, he overstepped the mark, allegedly “inciting hatred and disgust at the government” and yet again “insulting the person of the Emperor”. He fled to Brussels, the police ensuring his popularity by burning the final issues of Lanterne, in which his picture appeared.

High-profile duels
The deeply dashing Rochefort continued to publish his paper in exile. What he said offended the authorities and the aristocracy beyond measure, resulting in a series of high-profile duels that kept him as well-known as if he’d had his own blog or TV news show. But commentating on politics wasn’t enough, and in 1869 he returned to France and stood as a republican socialist candidate, winning hands-down and taking his place in the French parliament, representing Belleville.

Keen to keep pressure on the Empire, Rochefort started another magazine, the incendiary Marseillaise. With a further revolution (oh yes) and the announcement of the Third Republic, he was released to play a key role in government.

Briefly. There was infighting and brainless competitiveness. Besieged by Prussia in a hopeless war, France endured more violent uprisings; frankly, it’s astonishing anyone remained alive. The Paris Commune, led initially by working-class radicals, was badly led, full of double-speak, and finally span out of control. The mob sacked their own city and Rochefort, due to his leftist writings, was seen as an instigator. He was condemned to imprisonment, and then transported to New Caledonia, 750 miles east of Australia.

Banged up for two years before he was shipped out, Rochefort by now cut a grim figure—riddled with fleas and skin diseases and prematurely aged. He made the four-month voyage chained in a cage in a barely seaworthy vessel, alongside hundreds of other prisoners up to their ankles in vomit (from sea-sickness, and Rochefort’s was the worst). His cage was close to one holding 22 female political prisoners, most of whom had been wounded on the barricades, and his deference was immense: these were “some of the noblest, bravest and most intelligent women I have ever known”.

But Rochefort didn’t linger on his remote prison island, engineering a daring escape aboard an Australian schooner. He was garlanded by exiled French in Sydney, made his way by ship (sick again) to San Francisco and by train to New York. Everywhere he was feted, and the Chronicle and New York Herald vied to run the biggest feature on him.

In 1880, a general amnesty meant Henri could finally go home. He launched another socialist sheet, again found himself a government minister and, when the inevitable double-dealing and corruption set in, left for London, and comparative freedom.

Large and magnificent
It was about now, in 1890, that he moved with his entourage into 4 Clarence Terrace. The building was and remains large and magnificent and, as a connoisseur who frequented Christie’s, he soon amassed a vast collection of artworks. In his autobiography, The Adventures of My Life, Rochefort talks with fascination about the area, and London in general, with its rushing, busy people and lack of respect for the dead. “Near my pretty little residence in Clarence Terrace, overlooking Regent’s Park, was the entrance to a cemetery, where I occasionally went to sit down, for these resting-places have not at all the same lugubrious aspect that they bear in France. They are almost gardens. Well! I have seen children playing hide-and-seek round the tombstones...”

In a letter to his daughter Noëmie, he boasts of the exotic parrots he keeps, about his two landaus and a fabulous Arab stallion he’s purchased from Syria. So, there’s money sloshing about, presumably from his successful writing. What no one is quite clear on is the place of the women in Rochefort’s life. In London he lived for some time with Marguerite Werwort, whom he briefly married. He’d been married at least once before, and for years, Rochefort also had an on-off relationship with Anna-Catherine Strebinger.

An editor, Strebinger translated many of the deeply pervy books of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, after whom masochism is named; she also features prominently as the character Catherine in Wanda Sacher-Masoch’s slightly disturbing Confessions de ma Vie. I’ve actually found a wedding announcement in The New York Times dated 9 May 1878 for Strebinger and Rochefort, who would then have been 47; whether or not that’s accurate, it’s possible they remained together through Rochefort’s other liaisons, since Wanda insists the couple had an open relationship, with Catherine taking numbers of lovers. This is an angle Rochefort’s autobiography skittishly omits, and it tells us quite a lot about him as a man. Who knows what charming 4 Clarence Terrace has in fact seen.

Rochefort found much he didn’t like about England, but he admired our relative calm when it came to government. “The English recognise our superiority in matters of artistic taste,” he wrote. “They pay tribute to our theatrical instinct. But politically, they regard us as spoiled children. Our diplomacy makes them laugh as they would at a Punch and Judy show.” (Hm. Well of course, you’re tempted to say, who’s laughing now?)

In the end he returned to France, where he became almost right-wing in his final years. He was an astonishing character, audacious, passionate and funny. Paris’s handsome Rue Henri Rochefort, not far from the Arc de Triomphe and with a flashy HSBC on the corner, honours him with an entire street. There’s not even a plaque on his Clarence Terrace wall.

HealthMark Riddaway