By Polly Morris
The quaint Quartier de Mandeville was a dream which came true for a man of vision. Then it faded away, as dreams will.
Bernard de Marigny, creator of Mandeville, has been portrayed by historians as somewhat of a madman, laughingly tossing a thousand silver pesos into the molten metal for the bell of Fontainebleau. He also laughed as he threw coins on the gambling tables, and he Iaughed as he delicately balanced his rapier for yet another bloody duel.
Bernard de Marigny: Was he only a laughing libertine who lived a useless life with nothing better to do than squander the family fortune? Can Mandeville be proud of the founding father who gave his family title to a town on Lake Pontchartrain?
Historians, however well-intentioned, have not been kind De Marigny. Perhaps they have been too fascinated by flamboyant exaggerations of those who envied the handsome influential aristocrat of great wealth.
The man who was Mandeville, whose only monument in St. Tammany is the crumbling ruins of an old sugar mill, what manner of man was he? Perhaps he was only a lonely man behind a mask of merriment.
Poor Little Rich Boy
Bernard de Marigny enters the pages of history as a pampered and wayward heir to seven million dollars. He was so rebellious that his guardian sent him to wards in Pensacola and London, but they too failed. Perhaps he was only a broken-hearted boy of 15 who fought tears as the body of his father was carried from his retreat in Mandeville to the home of the Almonaster family.
Then to the Cathedral where he was entombed by his father and his father's father. Miserable and bereft, the boy needed compassion instead of the iron wills that sought to reshape him into a conservative mold. So he sought companionship away from his austere custodians.
Bernard was shipped home like contaminated cargo returned to its sender, and immediately he became a reproach to his reproachers. It was 1803 and the eve of the difficult double transfer of loyalties and Louisiana.
The territory was under three flags in less than 30 days, and the Spaniards, the Frenchmen, and the Creoles were hostile to the rule of a raw republic of the young United States. English-speaking Bernard harbored no prejudice for the newcomers, so he diplomatically offered his services to the Americans. At 18, he was Alderman and aide to the staff of General Wilkinson.
A year later Bernard ended all escapades. He married the Creole-American daughter of the American counsul. He called her Pomponne, but her name was Mary Ann Jones. She presented him with two sons, and ecstatic happiness. For four years, Bernard was a truly happy man. Then Pomponne died and Bernard was desolate.
He buried her in the flower garden to keep her close to him, even in death. Friends took the two sons to their home, and he stayed alone in the great house on the Mississippi River, except for servants.
Bernard's anguish seemed to deepen as days passed, and concerned friends finally persuaded him to take a trip to Pensacola.
When he was there he met a beautiful young Spanish girl named Anna Mathilde Morales. Had he been less lonely, he would have taken time to learn of her disposition, and there would have been no rebound romance.
After a whirlwind courtship, the amiable Bernard realized his mistake. Anna Mathilde was arrogant, haughty, and given to violent temper tantrums. When she screamed and threw things, Bernard left the mansion and sought more pleasant companions.
Although there were five children born of this union, the marriage was unhappily as explosive as a Spanish musket.
Politics and Peccadillos
Bernard developed other interests, like politics, public activities... and peccadillos. In 1811 he was Alderman, Colonel, and a member of the Territorial Legislature. When Louisiana became a State, he was the youngest delegate to the first Constitutional Convention.
When the British threatened New Orleans, he had command of a post at Chalmette and was on the Legislative Committee for Defense. Later he would be several times State Representative and State Senator, in which latter position was President of that august body. These trusted positions would surely have not been given to an irresponsible man.
De Marigny ran for Governor twice, and although he was defeated, he made a good show, considering the powerful opposition.
Evan as a Lothario, Bernard can be defended, for he was not a libertine after his first marriage, and had he been happy with Anna Mathilda, he might not have ever strayed. But let it be said that he was neither a sly seducer nor was he a gay deceiver. He was handsome, rich, and gallant, a fatal combination that attracted women to him.
Not that he objected.
Moreover, he did not love them and leave them. He provided for his favorites in no miserly way, and at a time when keeping a mistress was no back street affair. Only a side street alliance that was discreetly ignored by everyone except Anna Mathilde.
Bernard never denied or defended his many amours. "When is it a crime to be a man?" he would ask with disarming guile.
Gambling was in Bernard's blood, which made him no worse than others of his time. Having an after-dinner game of chance was much like having an after-dinner drink. Instead of being a vice, gambling was a respectable way to support charitable institutions such as hospitals and orphanages.
The North Shore
It may well be that Mandeville and Fontainebleau owe their existence to the irritable Anna Mathilda. Bernard had always loved St. Tammany for he had frequented the north shore when his father had his modest place on the lakefront.
And Bernard was desperately in need of peace and quiet. His New Orleans home was being crowded by his Faubourg Marigny, a suburb he created for the Creoles who were in need of reasonably priced property outside the Vieux Carre.
Bernard began to buy tracts of land in Tammany. At first it was only for a retreat, but it was not entirely extravagance. There was a sugar mill, brickworks, and a profitable plantation. There were also winding roads, alleys of fine trees, and gardens that made it a showplace.
He invited guests to share in his sylvan Paradise, and his hospitality almost crowded him out of the plantation home called Fontainebleau... after his friend-king's country estate in France.
Bernard then began to dream of a town where everyone could live like a kingling without great wealth. Bernard, aristocrat-millionaire, had compassion for the working man, and determined that they, too, should have a chance to pursue happiness.
So he planned a model town called Mandeville and offered its lots at reasonable prices, for he was not interested in profit. Only people.
Bernard had a reputation as being a daring and skillful dualist who had been the victor in at least 18 duels, all quite bloody, it was rumored. The truth was that he never killed a man in a duel. An expert with the rapier, he tried only to nick his opponent. A slight show of blood was sufficient to end a duel, and Bernard was an exceptionally mild-mannered man in this respect.
Duels to the death and a false honor seemed foolish. Later Bernard was the President of an anti-dueling society.
Bernard was a sensitive and emotional man, but no doubt his laughter often came close to tears. Few historians have written about the tragic death of young Mary Ann or the death of Prosper, her son, who also died young to Bernard's dismay.
There was Bernard's son-in-law who died before a firing squad. But the greatest sorrow of all came on October 26, 1830. Friends brought home the blood-soaked second son by Mary Ann. There was an ugly gaping wound in his chest. Gustave Adolph had lost a duel, and Bernard had to helplessly watch him die. He was the son so much like Bernard himself, and he was only 23 years of age.
What of the vast family fortune he frittered away? Of the seven million dollars that he inherited in about 1804, and the 40 plus years it took to throw it away, during which there were two wives, seven children and two major depressions?
His acknowledged extravagances were only a part of the story.
Bernard never tried to make a great profit on either his Faubourg Marigny or his town of Mandeville. The only time he tried to profit from the former ended in humiliation.
The Americans offered him a handsome price for his property in New Orleans which might have become the beautiful Garden District. Bernard accepted the offer and set up an appointment for the signing of the necessary documents. It fact, he set up three different appointments.
Each time everyone but Anna Mathilde was present. To the Americans, it was a deliberate insult, and they bitterly blamed Bernard. But Anna Mathilde was his wife and he had to silently endure the burning shame of it all.
Bernard had made wise investments in plantations, sugar mills, brickworks, and stocks. He helped start a bank and a railroad. He weathered the depression of 1820. He weathered the panic of 1837 although 14 banks closed and 136 sugar plantations went broke.
No one was buying land, sugar prices had dropped, and bricks were not worth the making. Yet Bernard borrowed and schemed and planted. Somehow he kept going until 1830.
A flood that year broke the levee, and his crops were swept away. He replanted the next year and the same thing happened. He was fighting with his back to the wall.
Little by little, he sold his New Orleans property until only the mansion on the river was left. When that too was sold, he moved the furnishing to a house on Frenchman Street. Only Mary Ann was left sleeping at the old family estate mercifully unaware of misfortune.
One by one, Bernard was forced to sell the things from the old home Anna Mathilda, nearing 70 and bed-ridden, sued him for her part of what was left. They had been separated for years, and she won the suit and died shortly thereafter.
Bernard was reduced to living in two rooms of the three story house on Frenchman Street. He lived alone, except for a servant. He had outlived all his old friends, and his children seldom saw him, except for his daily walk and at a distance.
Contrary to his wishes, he was not buried next to Mary Ann. He was 83 years old.
He often said that he had all the vices of a gentleman.He never mentioned that he had many virtues, too.
Mandeville can have pride in her founding father because his life was gentle and the elements so mixed in him that she may stand up and say to all the world, "This was a man."