MYTH: When faced with the poor demanding bread, Marie Antoinette, the last proper queen of France, uttered "Let them eat cake."
REALITY: Marie Antoinette never said it.
"It was first said about Louis XIV's wife. A hundred years earlier. And then it was said about three other people in the early 18th century. And then it got stuck with her," Lady Antonia Fraser said, referring to Marie Antoinette. "It's not her character, because it's callous and ignorant."
Fraser, the 74-year-old British doyenne of biography, spent five years researching the extravagant, foolhardy, blighted and ultimately tragic life of the queen, guillotined at 12:15 p.m. on Oct. 16, 1793, in front of what Fraser describes in her biography of the queen as a "joyous public."
Although the book, Marie Antoinette: The Journey, was published five years ago, Fraser's take on one of history's most reviled women is again attracting attention - this time as the source material for Sofia Coppola's new film, Marie Antoinette. Fraser humanized a phantom figure who's exerted a sway over the public ever since she, the Austrian-born daughter of the emperor and empress of the Holy Roman Empire, became the dauphine of France at age 14. Marie Antoinette was the Princess Di of the 18th century, until the tide of republicanism turned against the French royalty and she was savaged in the libelles, the pamphlets of the day, which often portrayed her as adulterous and sexually omnivorous for men and women. The press' ferocity makes today's tabloid writers seem like church mice.
Why did they hate her so? "Xenophobia. Misogyny. Never to be ignored. And things getting bad in France. Nothing to do with her. Deficit due to the American [Revolutionary] war and you want a scapegoat. I was quite interested in the idea of the scapegoat. Driving someone out from the tribe. Even if it's just a goat." Fraser was speaking over a cup of tea in her Holland Park home, which she shares with her husband of 25 years, the Nobel-prize-winning playwright and screenwriter Harold Pinter.
It's a cozy, English sort of house, with slightly faded comfortable couches and tons of paintings and photographs of her six children and multiple grandchildren. A black cat named Placido wandered through, and Fraser kindly poured milk into a china tea saucer for him. Dressed in a swooping aqua jacket, with golden hair framing her face, she seemed proper as well as hearty, speaking with the clipped, precise tones of the British upper classes yet evincing dollops of clear-eyed empathy for her various subjects and a puckish wit.
Marie Antoinette is the first of her 11 nonfiction books to have made it to the big screen. Coppola's candy-colored interpretation of the doomed queen, with its 1980s New Wave soundtrack, makes use of many memorable moments from Fraser's book, though it concentrates on Marie Antoinette's extravagant, hedonistic youth.
The film shows her to be the naive pawn of her dominating mother, Empress Maria Theresa, who has Marie Antoinette married off to the nebbishy, socially awkward dauphin, who is unable or unwilling to consummate the marriage for seven years. Kirsten Dunst's fresh-faced Marie Antoinette romps around Versailles, gambling, shopping and sporting fantastical hairdos. The film stops when the royal family is forced from the palace and misses much of the heart-wrenching drama that makes the end of Fraser's book so poignant - from a foolhardy escape attempt in what amounted to a royal RV, to Marie's stays in various, increasingly desperate houses of confinement, to her show trial in which her 8-year-old son was forced to testify - falsely - that she had molested him.
A few French critics booed when the film debuted at the Cannes Film Festival and proceeded to gripe about Coppola's interpretation of the icon when the film opened in wide release in France, but Fraser - whose book is currently a best-seller there - seems pleased enough. "I love the film," she said, smiling.
Fraser became aware of Coppola when she fished out the DVD of The Virgin Suicides from her Oscar season stash. "I just happened to watch it, and I thought: 'There's a talent,'" Fraser said. A few weeks later, Coppola, who'd read Marie Antoinette in manuscript, approached her about making the movie. The literary veteran and the tyro director met in London and New York to discuss the film and e-mailed and talked as Coppola wrote the script. "Whenever I had a question, she was this great resource - mentor," said the director. "The French are very passionate about what they think about certain areas of [Marie Antoinette's] life. Everybody has different opinions about her. I trusted Antonia's opinion. I thought hers made the most sense."
Suddenly, however, Fraser received a message from Coppola via the director's agent. The director, Fraser said, left word: "I'm going to the Far East to make a movie" - Lost in Translation - "but I'll be back and I'll make Marie Antoinette." "And I said, 'And pigs will fly'," Fraser recalled. "So that's the end of that. But it was lovely getting to know her. And I kept thinking, 'The Far East. Who needs it?' You know, not realizing that she'd make this wonderful film. Which I loved."
During the course of filmmaking, the writer also acted as an Antoinette oracle for some of the actors, such as Mary Nighy and Jason Schwartzman, who crossed the English Channel to discuss their characters. Schwartzman plays Marie Antoinette's husband, Louis XVI, who was considerably portlier than the vulnerable idiosyncratic star of Rushmore and Shopgirl. "I thought, 'What's this attractive man doing playing Louis XVI?' And also, he's very well made, but he's not totally fat ... and he kept saying he had to eat, he had to eat," Fraser said. "But what I thought in the film he captured was sort of a nerdy quality. Which is right."
Fraser's generous mien seems of a piece with her style as a biographer. She's rigorous, painstakingly piecing together personality from scraps of memoir and letters, sorting through biases and weighing context. Many of her subjects, such as the wives of Henry VIII, were moons orbiting the lives of great men and left scant writing of their own.
"I think I like looking at people who've been the subject of myth, actually, and examining the myth and seeing what's real and what's false. That's, I would say, my main motive. Curiosity," she said.
This month, Fraser's follow-up to Marie Antoinette is being published. Love and Louis XIV: The Women in the Life of the Sun King traces the complicated amorous entanglements of the gargantuan-appetitive king as well as his relationships with other significant women, such as his mother, Anne of Austria, and his sister-in-law, Henriette-Anne, the Duchesse d'Orleans.
Compared with Marie Antoinette, it's a positively sunny romp through royal romance.
"Louis XIV was quite different from what I expected," she said. "I did not expect to find this tremendous religious dimension. I expected to write a book about sex. But not about sex and religion. It's much more interesting."
The book is in some ways reminiscent of Fraser's The Six Wives of Henry VIII, but not as grim. After all, the French king didn't behead those who disappointed. "I have a catch phrase," Fraser said with a twinkle. "I'd rather be the mistress of Louis XIV than the wife of Henry VIII."
Rachel Abramowitz writes for the Los Angeles Times.