Sure, on the surface, Benjamin Franklin might have all the sex appeal of a hedgehog, but back in the day, the Founding Father was renowned for an unparalleled charm that not only made him America’s most valuable asset in foreign affairs, but a major hit with the ladies. Especially with French ladies.
In 1776, a 70-year-old Franklin was named Ambassador to France. According to the CIA, “Franklin’s charm and established friendships with French officials allowed him to successfully manipulate French perceptions of America….[he] convinced the French not to reduce secret aid or block American privateer ships from using French ports despite British protests and threats.” Not too shabby.
Claude-Ann Lopez, author of Mon Cher Papa: Franklin and the Ladies of Paris, explains that although Franklin arrived to France in a frail state after learning of his wife’s death, he soon began to perk-up. “On the road we met six or seven country women,” he wrote, “…all of fair white and red complexions, but among them was the fairest woman I ever beheld” (superlatives were a Franklin staple in matters of love and libido).
It should be noted that some of the “relationships” Franklin entertained with the following women were understatedly saucy, ostensibly platonic, and often confined to the written word. Flirting was just done differently back then. Often, it consisted of keeping a steady correspondence in which one signed one’s letters with, “devotedly thine” or “ever your faithful servant” (the ye olde equivalent of the eggplant emoji).
So heat up the popcorn and hoisten your pantaloons, because we’ve whittled down a list of some of Franklin’s most notable relationships with the many (seriously, many) women he adored.
Deborah Read Franklin
First up, Franklin’s wife, Deborah Read. The “homely carpenter’s daughter” was with the revolutionary for 44 years, although Franklin spent much of that time working and partying abroad to her chagrin. Their relationship was one of mutual admiration, but also a lot of strain.“Though not his first choice,” says Lopez, “the stolidly middle-class Deborah seems a good ‘helpmate.’” Romantic, right? Franklin also wrote her a song whose title doesn’t necessarily ooze with passion, called, “I Sing My Plain Country Joan.” Deborah ultimately died alone while Ben was in Europe. Poor Deb.
Margaret and Polly Stevenson
Ok, so technically two women. Margaret was Polly’s mother, and initially Franklin started a romance with the former when he began letting a room from her London house on Craven Street. But then along came Polly, who was remarkably clever at just 18-years-old. Franklin was impressed, and then some.”I shall only say,” he signed a letter to her, “that I find my self, with greater Esteem and Regard than ever, Dear Child, Your sincerely affectionate Friend and Servant.” Sizzle.
Anne-Catherine de Ligniville d’Autricourt (Helveticus)
What’s not to love about Helveticus (or, “Minette,” as some called her)? She presided over one of the Europe’s hottest salons (La Société d’Auteuil), which overflowed with stimulating conversation and, apparently, tons of her own Angora Cats, which she dressed in sateen jackets. According to Lopez, it was thanks to “her late husband’s fortune” that she could “operate a bohemian, animal-filled estate on the fringes of the Bois de Boulogne.” Franklin was dazzled, felt “like a little boy” in her presence, and even worked up the nerve to propose to her. Unfortunately, she declined.
Marianne Camasse (Duchesse de Deux-Ponts)
Marianne, the “Duchess of Two Bridges” (by one of her various marriages), was the daughter of dancers and a talented one herself. Her letters with Franklin are filled with blush-worthy lines, such as, “I was as sad as stone the moment I lost you from my sight,” and, “you have have rendered my heart infinitely jealous.”
Catharine Ray Greene
These two met in New England during the winter. Catharine was 23, Franklin, 48. The sparks flew immediately, and a passionate correspondence began that would endure long after they called their seasonal love quits (34 years, to be exact). Here’s an excerpt of one of his letters:
“Be a good girl…until you get a good husband; then stay at home, and nurse the children…that when I have again the Pleasure of seeing you, I may find you like my Grape Vine, surrounded with Clusters, plump, juicy, blushing, pretty little rogues, like their Mama. Adieu.” – Bejamin Franklin
Anne-Louise d’Hardancourt Brillon de Jouy
Franklin had a big appetite for incredible women. The French Brillon was bright, beautiful, and a killer harpsichord player. She called the diplomat “Cher Papa,” and Franklin even wrote her a risqué “Treaty of Peace” that had some pretty flirty “requirements,” one being: “That when [Franklin] is with her, he shall be oblig’d to drink Tea, play Chess, hear Musick; or do any other thing that she requires of him.” Ohlala!
Elisabeth Françoise Sophie Lalive de Bellegarde, Comtesse d’Houdetot
“Sophie” was another bright French noblewoman who is often remembered as one of the Philosopher Rousseau’s inspirations for Confessions (1782). The Countess’ appeal was, according to Rousseau, in her generous spirit and intelligence. “Madame la Comtesse d’Houdetot,” he writes, “…was by no means handsome. Her face was pitted with small-pox, her complexion was coarse, she was shortsighted, and her eyes were rather too round,” yet “She overflowed with delightful sallies of wit, which were perfectly spontaneous, and which often fell from her lips involuntarily.” Franklin also became impressed, and began a correspondence with her. One of Houdetot’s affectionate letters is signed, “Mille Tendres Compliments à Monsieur Franklin (“a million tender compliments to Mr. Franklin”).”
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Ok, so this one is just an amicable bromance– but we had to throw it in because it’s so darn cute. The Austrian composer was apparently a big fan of Benjy, and wrote him a song intended to be played on Franklin’s latest invention, the glass harmonica.
The glass harmonica took the idea of playing wine glasses (the Greek word hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica means roughly, “to produce music for the soul by fingers dipped in water”) and made it much easier (at least transportation wise).
The result? A kind of giant, glass kebab. Have a listen to Mozart’s “Adagio in C for Glass Harmonica”: