“Why isn’t her face on a bank note yet?” is one of several slack-jawed questions you’ll ask yourself when reading about Alexandra David-Neel, the Franco-Belge éxploratrice whose life reads like an Oscar-winning film. She was an opera singer, and an anarchist; a student of philosophy, feminism and (rumoured) seductress of monks. And when she wasn’t meeting in secret to help the exiled Dalai Lama, she was catching rays at her “fortress of meditation” in the South of France, reflecting on what her journeys east could teach her next. That’s Alexandra in a nutshell: a life divided between the zen, and the fabulous.
Alexandra (not her real name, but more on that later) grew up in the île-de-France region with a Freemason father and a Catholic mother. Where most girls her age were being pressed to take up needle-point, Alexandra spent her time fasting, and plotting a run away trip to England, almost as if she knew she were destined for a spiritual path. She didn’t quite have the money to see it through, being only 15, but it didn’t matter. The trip had jump-started a lifelong taste for adventure in her.
She began joining multiple secret societies, like that of Russian occultist Helena Blavatsky (at age 18, no less), and befriended the geographer-anarchist (yup, a thing) Élisée Reclus. The latter even wrote the forward for her 1898 feminist manifesto, Pour la vie (For Life), and she started learning Sanskrit and Tibetan to truly understand the Eastern philosophies she was diving into. But it was her regular visits to Paris’ Guimet Museum, says critic Jean Chalon, that truly steered her towards a future in the Asia. She declared herself a Buddhist by age 21 — unheard of for any other young lady, or man, in Paris at the time.
But because we’re talking about Alexandra here, we can’t just hop a train to Tibet. This was also when she started taking opera classes at the Brussel’s Royal Conservatory, and it turns out she was good at it, even winning over the crowds at the Hanoi Opera House under the stage name “Alexandra Myrial.” Her roles evolved, but the moniker stuck. She’d go on to sing in places like Tunisia and Athens, fall in love with a pianist, and wear some pretty wonderful ensembles…
All the while, she kept cultivating her interest in Buddhism, and was nearly 40 when she married her husband Phillip with whom she had a curious relationship. Only a week after their wedding, Alexandra split for Asia…for 14 years. During that time, it was rumoured that Phillip bankrolled her lifestyle abroad. In reality, she had three different educational departments finance her trips, in addition to her own family inheritance.
She wasn’t simply dabbling in Eastern philosophies for eccentricity’s sake, like so many of the pseudo-intellectual, bourgeois Parisians at the time. Since the day she was born, it seemed like Alexandra was always trying to give her lifestyle a complete 180.
“She wore slacks that would have horrified her mother,” wrote her biographer, Ruth Middleton, in Alexandra David-Neel: Portait of an Adventurer; “Alexandra, who first observed the delights of the Champs-Elysées from a horse drawn carriage,” would also become the kind of woman to climb the Himalayas “mounted on a yak.” She also continued to lobby and write for leftist newspapers, citing her connection with Eastern philosophies as a means for better social engagement.
In total, she spent 25 years of her life in Asia, even meeting the 13th Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso, and becoming a disciple in various monasteries near the Tibetan border. Her mentor was the legendary Gomchen of Lachen — a figure both respected and feared by locals. He was rumored to have the power to fly and command demons, and taught Alexandra as best he could before her most daring mission yet: to get into the Forbidden City of Lhasa.
But Lhasa’s borders were under tight control. Going back to Europe also wasn’t an option, what with the onset of WWI. Suddenly, she was at an extremely dangerous crossroads, and traveled over 5,000 miles with her own disciple until finally arriving at the birthplace of Tibetan Buddhism, where she stayed disguised as a monk, all the while translating sacred texts into French.
When she did finally make it back to Paris to publish her story, the public was in awe. “Alexandra’s journey reveals amazing and almost incredible powers of physical endurance,” wrote The New York Times about her slumming it in the snow.
As for Alexandra, she spent her old age in her “Fortress of Meditation,” a quiet estate in Provence, until her death in 1969 at 101 years old. Her ashes were thrown in the Ganges, and she became a icon of Buddhism for countless Westerners, including Jack Kerouac and the Allen Ginsberg, into the 21st century. You can still visit her home-turned-museum in Digne, France, filled with her old clothes, traveling tools — oh, and a rosary made of 108 pieces of human skulls.
Learn more about Alexandra, and about visiting her home, here.