The Red Widow recounts a gripping scandal surrounding perhaps the most notorious crime of Paris’s belle époque. For years Margeurite (Meg) Steinheil skated along the boundary between self-made society dame and manipulative sex worker (of sorts).
Meg projected an irresistible image that merged the salacious with the matronly, forging a unique figure in a milieu of glamorous courtesans, extreme social stratification, and blatant double standards about acceptable “moral” behavior for women and men. Conducting affairs with influential notables up to and including France’s president Félix Faure, Meg traded sex – and sometimes real affection – not for riches per se but to further the career of her commercially hapless artist husband Adolphe Steinheil.
On May 31, 1908, in the Steinheils’ comfortable home in a not-so-fashionable part of Paris, police found the corpses of Adolphe and of Meg’s mother, Émilie. Meg herself was discovered tied to her bed with suspiciously flimsy ribbons. The motive and identity of the murderer or murderers remain unknown to this day, though intriguing circumstantial evidence points in a certain direction.
In Sarah Horowitz’s lively telling, we learn how police and justice officials commonly assumed that helping to preserve the reputations of the prominent was an important part of their responsibilities. As a contemporary journalist put it, the “larger duty” of the examining magistrate – more important than his duty to get to the bottom of a crime – was “to respect the mysteries of the regime, to deny what must be denied, to keep its secrets hidden.”
By “regime” the journalist was referring not specifically to the government but to the wider skein that encompassed privileged-class families and corrupt officialdom. This was a society that equated high status with high moral standards while presuming the poorer classes prone to bad behavior. It treated the latter far worse than it did wealthy folks for similar offenses. Sadly, too little has changed.
The historical record here is quite porous. Meg’s memoir was ghostwritten, her stated accounts unreliable. The only witness to the crime, she gave several conflicting accounts of what she had seen. She used the prevalent antisemitism of the day to blame young foreigners who had airtight alibis, then implicated her housekeeper’s son. None of it was convincing. Eventually Meg was arrested for concealing what she knew. She spent a significant spell in prison, an experience that seems to have opened her eyes at least partially to the inequities of the society she had conquered by her own wiles and will.
But when she finally went on trial she was handily acquitted. Horowitz is good on the tacks taken by prosecution and defense. Appeals to psychology and bias took precedence over reason and fact.
Meg lived out her remaining years in self-imposed exile in England, taking a new husband and resuming a quieter version of the high-flying social life she had led in Paris.
Her story is remarkable for how she became an influential society matron by trading sex for access (and art sales). “Fundamentally Meg managed to eroticize the idea that bourgeois women were uninterested in sex…She gave lovers the sense that underneath it all, high society women were roiling with currents of raw sexuality,” writes Horowitz. Years earlier Meg had been at the center of another scandal, this one surrounding President Faure’s death during an assignation with Meg, with whom he had conducted a long and serious affair. At that time and for many years afterward Meg became an object of public fascination, much like what happens to women at the center of sex scandals today. In an Afterword, Horowitz astutely points out the parallel inequities of French society then and ours now.
Partly because of the flood of speculation and gossip surrounding Meg’s life and loves, we can know only so much. The reluctance of the police to investigate effectively and the unreliability of Meg’s statements and recollections make it even harder to zero in on the truth. The text of the book is laced with might-have-beens and may-haves, and Horowitz acknowledges this. She still gives us an interesting and readable look at belle époque society and the scandal that shook it little more than a century ago.
The Red Widow is out September 6, 2022.