Élisabeth, Countess Greffulhe

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Countess Greffulhe, née Caraman-Chimay
Elizabeth, Comtesse Greffuhle 1905 , by Philip Alexius de Laszlo.jpg
Countess Greffulhe by Philip de László (1905)
Husband Henri, Count Greffulhe
Father Joseph de Riquet de Caraman
Mother Marie de Montesquiou-Fezensac
Died 1952

Marie Anatole Louise Élisabeth, Countess Greffulhe (née de Riquet de Caraman-Chimay; 11 July 1860 – 21 August 1952) was a renowned beauty and queen of the salons of the Faubourg Saint-Germain in Paris.[1]


Élisabeth was born in Paris, the daughter of Joseph de Riquet de Caraman, 18th Prince of Chimay (1836-1892) and his wife Marie de Montesquiou-Fezensac (1834-1884). Through her father she was a granddaughter of Teresa Cabarrús, one of the leaders of Parisian social life during the Directory, and a granddaughter of memoirist Émilie Pellapra, who claimed to be a daughter of Napoleon. The Countess entertained a necessarily unrequited love for her cousin, the exquisite aesthete Count Robert de Montesquiou, in concert with whom she was in contact with the cream of Parisian society, whom she regularly entertained at her salon in the rue d'Astorg. He would describe her eyes as "black fireflies". The colour of her eyes was unique, as Mina Curtiss – who visited her – noticed, her eyes were like "the dark purple brown-tinged petals of a rarely seen pansy."

She married Henri, Count Greffulhe (1848-1932), of the Belgian family of bankers, on 28 September 1881. He was an unfaithful quick-tempered man. They had one daughter, Élaine (1882-1958), who married Armand, 12th Duke of Gramont, half-brother of the openly bisexual writer Duchess of Clermont-Tonnerre, who wrote about Élisabeth: "The Comtesse Greffulhe is always beautiful and always elsewhere. But it would be a mistake to think that her life was merely the pursuit of pleasure (...) not only is she beautiful, but she is a lady. Preferring the privacy of her own house in the rue d'Astorg and at Bois-Boudran in the country, the Comtesse Greffulhe never dined out except at the British Embassy. When Edward VII came to Paris, he dined informally at her house. After a restricted youth (...) she set herself to attracting musicians, scholars, physicists, chemists, doctors."[2]

The comtesse helped establish the art of James Whistler, and she actively promoted such artists as Auguste Rodin, Antonio de La Gandara and Gustave Moreau. Gabriel Fauré dedicated to her his Pavane, which received its first full performance, with the optional chorus, at a garden party she held in the Bois de Boulogne. She was a patron of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and launched a fashion for greyhound racing. Fascinated by sciences, she helped Marie Curie to finance the creation of the Institute of Radium, and Edouard Branly to pursue his researches on radiotransmission and telemecanical systems.

She is one of the mains inspirations for the character of the duchesse de Guermantes in Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu.Her husband, count Greffulhe, is the main and almost unique inspirer of the duke of Guermantes. A recent biography demonstrates - relying in particular on researches in the draft notebooks of the author - that countess Greffulhe and her family, who inspired several of the characters in La Recherche, played a major role in the genesis of the work and in the discovery of the "magic" name of Guermantes.[3]

She died in Lausanne, Switzerland, on 21 August 1952.



  1. ^ (French) Cossé-Brissac, Anne de, La comtesse Greffulhe, Librairie académique Perrin, Paris, 1991
  2. ^ Mina Curtiss, Other People's Letters, Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1978
  3. ^ Laure Hillerin, La comtesse Greffulhe, l'Ombre des Guermantes, Paris, Flammarion, 2014 ( Part V, La chambre noire des Guermantes, p. 345-455.


  • Newton, Joy, 'Whistler's French Connections: Count Robert de Montesquiou and Countess Greffulhe,' Laurels, vol. 53, no. 1
  • Michel-Thiriet, Philippe, The Book of Proust, London, 1989
  • Munhall, Edgar, Whistler and Montesquiou. The Butterfly and the Bat, New York, 1995
  • Painter, George, Marcel Proust, Chatto & Windus, London, 1959.
  • Hillerin, Laure, La comtesse Greffulhe, l'Ombre des Guermantes, Paris, Flammarion, 2014