La Belle Créole: The Cuban Countess Who Captivated Havana, Madrid, and Paris
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Known for her beauty and angelic voice, Mercedes Santa Cruz y Montalvo, la Belle Créole, was a Cuban-born star of nineteenth-century Parisian society. She befriended aristocrats and artists alike, including Balzac, Baron de Rothschild, Rossini, and the opera diva La Malibran.
A daughter of the creole aristocracy, Mercedes led a tumultuous life, leaving her native Havana as a teenager to join her mother in the heart of Madrid’s elite society. As Napoleon swept Spain into the Peninsular War, Mercedes’ family remained at the center of the storm, and her marriage to French general Christophe-Antoine Merlin tied her fortunes to France. Arriving in Paris in the aftermath of the French defeat, she re-created her life, ultimately hosting the city’s premier musical salon. Acknowledged as one of the greatest amateur sopranos of her day, she nurtured artistic careers and daringly paved the way for well-born singers to publicly perform in lavish philanthropic concerts. Beyond her musical renown, Mercedes achieved fame as a writer. Her memoirs and travel writings introduced European audiences to nineteenth-century Cuban society and contributed to the debate over slavery. Scholars still quote her descriptions of Havana life and recognize her as Cuba’s earliest female author.
Mercedes epitomized an unusually modern life, straddling cultures and celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic. Her memoirs, travel writings, and very personal correspondence serve as the basis for this first-ever English-language biography of the passionate and adventuresome Belle Créole.
first petition directly to Madrid, only to have it returned with terse instructions for its submission through the appropriate channels in Havana. With all the delays, the final approval did not arrive until the fall of 1788—while Teresa was pregnant with Mercedes. Since the royal license required Joaquín and Teresa to travel together—there seemed to have been some fear of scandal if this rich young couple separated so early in their married life—the couple had no choice but to wait until after
daughter of the nobility: the Convent of Santa Clara de Asis. Two of María Josefa’s own cousins, Joaquín’s Santa Cruz aunts, were well established there, and Mercedes could be their protégée, educated under their care and guidance. The Countess de Casa-Barreto wasted no time in convincing her son. Good-natured Joaquín, torn between filial duty and his great affection for his daughter, made the fateful decision. Along the Calle de Cuba between Sol and Luz, a long, blank-faced, two-story wall
one would expect, Mercedes makes no mention of any liaison between her mother and Joseph. Nor is there mention of Teresa in any period documents, unlike la Montehermoso, who occasionally appears in the official correspondence of the French ambassador, the Count de La Forest. But beginning around 1853, in an article on old Madrid, the distinguished Spanish writer Ramón de Mesonero Romanos, who himself met Mercedes, suggests a possible connection. By the time the same author wrote his often-quoted
article in Madrid’s El Heraldo marveled about her celebrity (its term) in sophisticated Paris: To achieve fame in Paris …is the easiest thing in the world … for one hour, for two, for half a day … [to achieve it] for a week, that is phenomenal. Paris … always needs to be devouring something.… Nonetheless, as we have said, Madame the Countess Merlin is one of the few privileged beings who maintain in Paris a constant and fixed value, one of those persons whom everyone knows and appreciates, even
salon, in which abounded artists … a few politicians … and certain men of fashion, all of whom admired Juana.” Juana’s social success is counterbalanced by her husband’s failures, eventually leading to a murderous ending. Balzac wrote that novella in 1832 but dedicated later editions to Mercedes. Madame Evangelista in The Marriage Contract (1835) is a fabulously wealthy Creole widow from the aristocratic family of Casa-Real, whose husband had “indulged even her most extravagant fancies” and