Rétaux de Villette
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He was born in France, near the city of Lyon in 1759. The younger son of a minor aristocrat, his family lacked the financial resources to secure him a position suitable to his status in life. At a young age, Rétaux left home and enlisted in the army as an ordinary soldier. It is unknown how long he remained in military service, or whether he was discharged honorably, or else deserted. However, by 1778, at the age of 19, he was known to be living in Paris and representing himself as the ‘Comte‘ de Villette, a title that in reality belonged to his elder brother. While in Paris, Rétaux supported himself by recruiting young women to work as prostitutes, for which he was paid a fee by brothel owners. It is thought that he also worked as a male prostitute to help make ends meet. It was during this time that Villette developed a talent for forgery. While plying his trade, he was known to forge letters of credit for sums of money greater than what was owed for his services. In addition to these nefarious activities, Villette occasionally resorted to blackmailing his clients.
The Affair of the Diamond Necklace
Through an intimate relationship with Jeanne de Saint-Rémy de Valois, the pair staged a scandal involving a diamond necklace. This famous "Affair of the Diamond Necklace" made history in France. Villette played the role of forger, writing letters to Jeanne in the hand of Queen Marie Antoinette, making it seem as if the Queen desired the necklace, but was unable to purchase it due to reluctance on the part of the King, Louis XVI. These letters were presented in turn to Cardinal Rohan, persuading him to buy the necklace for the Queen, or so he thought. After the necklace was purchased by Rohan and given to Saint-Remy to pass along to the queen, she and her husband, Nicolas de la Motte immediately took off to London and began selling the jewels from the necklace for their own profit. Villette later testified against the La Mottes. The scheme was eventually exposed and all those involved were prosecuted, including Villette.
As punishment for his involvement in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, Villette was exiled from France. Moving to Italy, he wrote a book about the affair published in Venice in 1790 (three years before Marie Antoinette was executed). .