De Lesseps Family

The Vicomte de Lesseps was one of the most famous and respected Frenchman of the mid-19th century because of his role in building the Suez Canal. He came from a destinguished family of French diplomats. The Canal was finally opened (1869). It had an enormous impact on world commerce. It also featured prominately in history because of its geo-strategic importance. De Lesseps himself was not actually an engineer, but a diplomat great promoter. His effort to build a canal in Panama resulted in a huge financial scanal. Even the failure of his Panama project in his old age did not totally eclipse his great success at Suez. I am not sure how he was dressed as a boy. De Lesseps was a confirmed family member. He had what can only be described as a prodigious family. The family provides an interestung glimpse of French boyhood fashions and family life in the late 19th Century.

Childhood

Vicomte Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps (1805-94) was a noted French diplomat and financial promoter. He was widely seen as an engineer, but he was not. His achievement at Suez primrily came from his successful pfomotion. He was born on November 19, 1805 in Versailles, France. His Family was long distinguished in the French diplomatic service. I'm not sure how he was dressed as a boy and have few details on his childhood. Much of his boyhood was spent in Pisa where his father was the French Consul at Lirna. He attended the Liceo Henri IV and studied at the law school

Education

Ferdinand attended what had been called, and would be called again, the Lycée Napoléon.

Diplomatic Career

De Lesseps came from a destinguished family of French diplomats and he decided to continue in that venerable tradition. At age 19, having studied law, was appointed eleve??-counsel to his uncle, then the French ambassador to Lisbon. He also served in Tunis later with his father, until 1832 the year of his fathers death. Then came 7 years in Egypt, later Rotterdam, Malaga, Barcelona and Madrid. It was the time in Egypt that would prove to be critical time in his diplomatic career.

Suez

De Lesseps visited Egypt (1832). He began to plan a project to construct a canal across the Isthmus of Suez, but little progress was made until 1854 when he visited Egypt again. The Viceroy of Egypt, Said Pasha, granted him a concession for his proposed canal. With the backing of Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie, he raised half the funds by popular subscription in France. Work was begun in 1859 and the canal was formally opened in 1869. De Lesseps who surmounted enormous engineering, diplomatic, and administrative difficulties was awarded many honors and widely proclaimed throughout France. The Canal itself had a significant impact on world trade and for Britain helped to strengthen the connection with their main colony--India. This had been a factor even before the Canal was built. Napoleon launched an offensive in Egypt even before beginning his great coninental campaigns (1798-1801). There were three major campaigns involving Suez. The Central Powers (Ottomans with German assistance) tried to take it in World War I (1915). The Axis (Italians and Germans) attempted to take it in World War II (1940-42). After Nassar nationalized the Canal, the Isrealis, British, and French seized the Canal, but were forced to give it back (1956). The Canal also feartured in subsequent Middle Eastern wars. The development of Middle Eastern oil increased the importance of the Canal. Arab instability, however, reduced the reliability of the Canal. Thus the development of super-tankers has reduced somewhat the importance of the Canal.

Two Marriages

De Lesseps had two marriages, one as a young man and a second as an older man. All together he had 17 children and countless grand children. One French wag claims that this was an achievement rivaling the construction of the Suez Canal.

First marriage (1837-53)

De Lesseps became entanced married Mlle Agathe Delamalle. She was the daughter of a friend of his mother. He apparently was impressed with her spirited personality. Her father was a Napeonic official who made the transition to the restored monarchy under Louis XVIII. Thwy married after DeLesseps returned from Alexandria (1837). It was a felicitous marriage and they had five children. It was during de Lesseps diplomatic era and he moved from posting to posting. They lost their first child in Rotterdam. At the time deLesseps was involved in the continuing diplomatic problems between the Dutch and Belgians. Other than the fact theu moved a great deal, we know little about family life. Apparently DeLesseps career detracted from the time available for the children. [Beatty, p. 188.] I have no information on family life with details on how the children were dressed. Almost certainly they wore dresses as small boys. We simoly do not know what other clothes the children may have worn. I have been unable to find images of the children. I do know that the boys were sent to boarding school. Disaster occurred 15 after their wedding. Just as the couple was preparing to attend Napoleon III's wedding with Eugéine, their eldest boy Charles (1838- ) came home from school (Lycée Napoléon). This was the same school that DeLesseps himself had attended. Their eldest son Charles returned from school with scarlet fever. Agathe nursed him and managed to save him, but in the process contracted the disease. Within days, she and their youngest son Ferdinand had died (1853). [Beatty, p. 78.] Only two of the children (Charles and Victor) survived to adulthood. His mother-in-law, Madame Delamalle, after the death of her daughter, played a major role in raising the children. Charles followed his father into the canal ventures. Victor became a distinguished officer in the Foreign Service.


Figure 1.--Portrait of the De Lesseps family taken about 1882. Despite the dresses on most of the younger children, several are in fact boys. Note that the two older boys wear sailor suits. (The children with a white dicky visible at the "V" of the middy blouse wear sailor suits to distinguish them somewhat from their younger brothers and sisters all with long hair. The children with the all black "V" are in dresses.) The boy at the back in the sailor suit standing next to his mother is Paul. Ferdanande is the child below him wearing bangs with her hair pulled back and tied with a hair bow. John the next oldest boy and probably almost 10 years old is the child at the front in the short pants sailor suit and hightop shoes. All the other children wear identical dresses, white socks and strap shoes. Some of the boys still in dresses look to be at least 7 or 8 years old, such as the child sitting at the extreme right next to Paul. Note that John in the front row has shorter hair than his older brother. A reader writes, "The child on his mother's arm could be Robert The one on his father's lap is Paul. Left of the father are Marie-Solange and Marie Eugenie Helene Right of the father in front are Ferdinande, Ismael and Bertrand Behind them Mathieu (Pierre) and Marie Consuelo."

Second marriage (1869-1894)

After an interlude of 16 years, De Lesseps remarried in 1869. He married Louise-Helene Autard de Bragard of ??????, just after the inauguration of the Suez Canal in 1869. Mlle was much younger than the Vicomte. He was then 64 and she was only 20. They had an impressive family of 11 children. The first child Ferdanande, named after her father, must have been born about 1870. Two boys followed, Paul (about 1871) and John (about 1872). Their youngest was born in 1885, Ferdinand's 80th year. Nine of the 11 children are in figure 1. We have compiled a complete list of the children. We believe that five of the children here are boys (figure 1 ). Our guess is that in addition to Paul and John, the child on the far right, the child on his father's lap, and the child held by the mother are boys. De Lesseps in 1879 moved to Panama with their three young children. Ferdanande inaugurated construction on the Panama Canal in 1880 for her father. The young second Madame de Lesseps (Louise-Helene) appears to have delighted in dressing the children in pretty outfits, sometimes including hair bows for their shoulder-length hair. Mothers, especially in wealthy families. could pretty much dress their children anyway she pleased. Perhaps it was her youthful romantic outlook or perhaps it was a special interest in fashionable attire--she was after all only out of her teens when first married. A reader writes about the image here, " You are right about Robert and Paul. The two children hugging I believe are Bertrand and Consuelo. They are fraternal twins. A site on the internet had a discussion concerning victorian boys wearing dresses. The person replying to a message mentioned that she had a portrait of the deLesseps twins at 12 wearing identical dresses, shoes, and hair ribbons. I did not pay much attention to this at the time because I did not think the deLesseps had twins."

Child Rearing

One interesting thought as we assess some of the images of the DeLesseps family is the insights they offer on child rearing. Unfortunately, we do not yet have any information on what family life was like. DeLesseps was one of the most acclaimed me of the age, at least untill the Panama fiasco. Thus there were many press interviews, including articles in illustrated magazines. There are thus some family type images. These are drawings because the technology for inexpensively published photographs had not yet been worked out in the 1870s. Some of the drawings appearing in magazines suggest significant differences between French and British approaches to child rearing. It is interesting to note that in magazine interview young children are present. I don't think this would be the case in an upper-class English family where the children spent most of their time in nurseries, looked after by nannies or other caregivers, and were only paraded out for special occasions.

The Children as Adults

A Canadian reader reports that Count Jacques (John) De Lesseps, apparently a son of Ferdinand De Lesseps, was a distinguished aviator. He flew the first flight over the city of Toronto and the second flight over the English Channel. He was a very distinguished bomber pilot in the World War I. The Count crashed in the Gulf of St. Lawrence near Gaspe Quebec in October 1927. His body was discovered on the beach at Port Au Port Newfoundland in December 1927. The reader understand that his remains were interred at Gaspe Quebec and some type of memorial erected in his honor. The reader asks if HBC has any confirmation of his birth date, parents, etc. Is he the John De Lesseps in the write-up? HBC can not confirm this the relationship at this time.

The Family

Figuring out who is who in these old DeLesseps family portraits. The problem is especilly difficult because there were so many children and grandchildren. A HBC reader has provided us detailed information about the children. Here is a complete list of the children of Ferdinand de Lesseps. From his first marriage he had 5 children. Only Charles and Victor suvived to adulthood. From his second marriage he had 12 children, 6 boys and 6 girls. One of the girls died in infancy. Ferdinande was his third child. Before here came Pierre and Ismael Paul was born in 1880 and Jacques (John) in 1883. Jacques was the aviator who died in Quebec in 1927.

Failure in Panama

De Lesseps was chosen president of the French company that worked on the Panama Canal from 1881-88. He ws chosen of course because of his stunning success with the Suez Canal. As a promoter, he was widely optimistic and because of his reputation French investors committed massive amounts of funds. The decision to build a sea-level canal like the one in Panama proved a disaster. Thousands died and the money eventually gave out. Trying to combat rumors that Panama had an unhealthy climate, DeLesseps took Hélène and three of the children (Mathieu 9, Ferdinand 8, and Ferdinande 7) with him to Panama. [Beatty, p. 287.] They seem to have traveled through New York. At the time there may have been no direct maritime connections between France and Panama. (He may have taken more of the children to Panama. We note a portrait that appears to show seven of the children in Panama.) Given the pressence of yellow fever, one wonders about this decession, especially as he had lost children earlier. The project was eventually abandoned for political and financial reasons. A huge scandal resulted. The financial failure was one of the largest in French history. The financial crisis resulted in an investigation of the project. De Lesseps and his son Charles (1849-1923) were tried for misappropriation of funds. They were fined and sentenced to prison, but the sentences were never executed. The project of building the Panama Canal would be left to President Theodore Roosevelt and the Americans.

Statue of Liberty (1886)

De Lesseps was very much involved with the Statue of Liberty. He was in Panama in February 1886 and New York in October, where he spoke at the Dedication Ceremony at which President Cleveland was present. There is no mention in any or the reports of any children being present.

Hollywood

Ferdinand de Lesseps was a confirmed family man as can be seen here. When he began his great accomplishment of building the Suez Canal (1859), he was already a widower age 54 with five sons by his first wife. Only 5 days after completing Suez, de Lesseps married his second wife (1869). The new couple had another six sons as well as six dughters. There were 7 of these 17 children still alive in 1937 when Twentieth Century Fox began making a movie about the great promoters life. It was a major $2 million project. A sizeable sum at the time. Producer Darryl Zanuck selected Tyrone Power for the fil, He was only 23-years old, hardly suitble for a man with all those children, but I supose good for the box office. The producers decided to cut the children and wives entirely out of the film. As far as American movie goers could tell--DeLesseps was a bachelor. This was quite a plot shift for a man with 17 children! Of course with 17 childre, the DeLesseps family descendents were numerous by 1937. One of them sw "Suez" in London when it was released (1938). The family met in Paris to consider legal action against Twentieth Century Fox. The folm company was worried. Princess Irina Youssoupov had recently been awarded some $0.9 million in damages from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for having libeled her in "Rasputin and the Empress". As a result, Twentieth Century-Fox offered to scren the movie to the de Lesseps before it was released in France. The family, including two surviving sons (Mathieu and Paul) view the film, Afterwards despite bing cut out of the story with the implied implications on their parentage, the de Lesseps decided not to bring suit. They did make a few minor changes. A relieved Twentieth Century-Fox officials quickly agreed to make them. [Bachelor's]

References

Beatty, De Lesseps of Suez: The Man and His Times (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956), 334p.

Nigel Gosling, Nadar (Alfred A Knope, New York, 1976).

"Bachelor's children," Time (December. 12, 1938).







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Created: August 12, 1998
Spell checked: August 9, 2002
Last updated: 9:25 PM 2/12/2008