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Duchess de Polignac

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Yolande Martine Gabrielle de Polastron, Duchess de Polignac (known to her friends as Gabrielle) was Marie Antoinette’s best girlfriend...some say in every sense of the word.  

She was devastatingly beautiful, with dark brown hair, perfect teeth, and a pair of violet eyes that would make Liz Taylor’s turn green with envy.  She was said to have the voice of an angel, and a face like a madonna by Raphael.  Admirers raved that a simple rose tucked in her hair was more dazzling than diamonds on most women.

When Gabrielle was presented at Versailles, Marie Antoinette was instantly smitten, and paid off her family’s colossal debts in order to keep her at Court. Gabrielle quickly nudged the Princess de Lamballe aside to become head honcho of the Queen’s girl squad.  Antoinette and Gabrielle had an intense girl crush, and their public displays of affection fuelled rumors that they were lesbians, inspiring thousands of pornographic pamphlets depicting them in various sexual positions.  Alternate gossip accused Gabrielle of cuckolding her husband with the Vicomte de Vaudreuil, or pimping for the Queen by arranging adulterous liaisons with Count Axel von Fersen.

Added to the sexual rumors was a public resentment over her privileged social position in the Queen’s inner circle, and the extravagant financial benefits she and her family reaped from the friendship.  Historians paint two pictures of Polignac: either as a calculating adventuress who used her enchanting looks to hide ulterior motives and a spiteful love of gossip, or as a naive innocent whose parasitic relatives used her as a pawn to leach off of her closeness to the Queen.  Vigee Le Brun sided with the latter opinion, finding her lovely and sweet-tempered.  Whether deserved or not, Gabrielle’s bad reputation made her the most hated woman in France...besides Marie Antoinette, of course.

Though they had an outwardly tolerant relationship, Gabrielle had a secret rivalry with the Queen’s steadfast but less glamorous former favorite, the Princess de Lamballe. Lamballe was considered too virtuous for court intrigue, but quietly conspired to have Polignac temporarily banished from Court.  During this period Gabrielle stayed with the gorgeous Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire in England.  Georgiana was an ancestor of Princess Diana and mutual friend of Marie Antoinette, and was likewise suspected of having lesbian leanings. When Georgiana had visited Versailles a few years earlier, she, Antoinette, and Gabrielle often frolicked about together cuddling, kissing, swapping dresses and locks of hair...everything but pillow fights in their panties. 

Gabrielle managed to win back the Queen’s favor and return to France, but when the Revolution erupted the entire Polignac clan fled under cover of night and barely escaped with their heads.  Gabrielle spent the remainder of her short life in Switzerland and Austria, her famous beauty ravaged by the grief of exile and failing health.  She died shortly after hearing of Marie Antoinette’s execution, some said of a broken heart, but it was probably of cancer.

She has been portrayed numerous times in pop culture, including the Japanese manga, anime and media franchise "The Rose of Versailles," and by Rose Byrne in the 2006 movie Marie Antoinette.  Historians can’t get past the new wave soundtrack in the Sofia Coppola version, but Byrne’s portrayal captures much of the Duchess’ fun-loving yet irresponsible spirit, which charmed the Queen but ultimately led to her downfall.