A Personal Story: Self-Confidence and the Making of a Princess

European Straits #133

Dear all,

This is the week when many people worldwide are on vacation, which means that I expect a record low open rate. And so I’ve decided to indulge in a personal story—or rather a family story. If you’re interested, do read along 👇

In the beautiful movie Coco, you learn about the Mexican tradition of the family ofrenda. It’s a collection of objects created for an individual person who has died so that they have the possibility to pay a visit to the living—a display that coincides with the Día de los Muertos. I can’t say that my family has a strong tradition of remembering ancestors by displaying pictures or discussing their memory. However, my wife’s paternal grandmother, Geneviève Guyard, still holds a prominent position in our own virtual ofrenda. It means that she’s still alive up there, somehow connected to us 👻.

My wife and I met in 2006, so I never met Geneviève, who died in February 2003. However I’ve heard so much about her that I now feel able to write at length about her life. And I’m doing so for a special occasion: next Saturday, our family of four will go spend 24 hours at the Grand Hotel in Cabourg to drink champagne and celebrate Geneviève’s 100th birthday, as she was born on August 10, 1919!

Why was Geneviève’s life remarkable? In many ways it’s a typical French journey. She was 20 when World War II erupted in 1939. Very little is known about her first husband, Jean Vitaud, my wife’s grandfather. We only know that he died in the early 1980s, liked to paint (especially horses), and was likely an alumnus of both the Saint-Cyr military academy and the legendary horse riding academy known as Cadre Noir de Saumur. He and Geneviève had two children, including Jean-Luc, my father-in-law.

It is said that Geneviève joined the Résistance during the war. Like in similar cases, it’s impossible to know for sure. Many French citizens invented a glorious past for themselves when Nazi Germany was finally defeated in 1945. And the Résistance was by definition a clandestine organization, with few records and many people using pseudonyms (some of which were kept even after the war ended). One thing is certain, however: once divorced from Jean Vitaud, around 1946, Geneviève married a famous résistant, Henri Romans-Petit, who was a member of the Compagnons de la Libération, the order that went on to honor the most prominent members in the network.

The marriage with Romans-Petit ended in divorce just like her previous one, although it did give Geneviève a third child. But it also led to an unexpected outcome: it propelled Geneviève into a political career. Sometime in the 1960s, her resistance background and relationship with Romans-Petit helped her to be elected to the Paris municipal council as a member of the centrist MRP party, and she eventually rose to become the vice mayor. (After some research, we’ve discovered that Geneviève in fact only joined the council after another councillor, also a woman, died, and she was next in line on the list. She held office from 1966 to 1971.)

It should be said that local governments in France didn’t wield much power at the time—especially not in Paris, which was still a chasse gardée of the national government. But still, there was some prestige in occupying those offices. Geneviève was not an elected official anymore when my wife was born in 1978, but it was a big part of the family story. We still have pictures of her speaking at official events and shaking hands with prominent politicians. Click here to check them out.

At some point in the 1970s, Geneviève’s political career was brought to an end by her marrying her third husband, Polish prince Roman Sanguszko, with whom she went to live with in Brazil. That’s when she turned global: living the high life with a wealthy, exiled aristocrat in a faraway country, making the occasional trip to Europe, harboring money in Switzerland where she frequently stayed at the Hotel Euler in Basel. Until the end of her life, she bore the title “Princesse Geneviève Guyard-Sanguszko” on her checkbook, which was both impressive and ridiculous at the same time. For her, it was all too natural: after all, she claimed to be a descendant of the aristocratic Aubert Du Petit Thouars family.

But Geneviève was a difficult woman and her third marriage, too, soon ended in divorce. The prince allowed her a significant alimony, which his family paid (with some interruptions) a few years beyond his death in 1984. This provided Geneviève with a very comfortable lifestyle in Paris. She owned a big apartment on the posh Avenue Hoche—right next to the Arc de Triomphe and the beautiful Parc Monceau. She traveled a lot, including for managing her money in Basel. She spared no expense when it came to cars (Mercedes only, please) and helping her less fortunate family (she essentially paid for my wife’s studies at HEC, a prominent business school that was unusually expensive in France at the time).

In a typically French way, food also played an important part in Geneviève’s life. She only frequented the finest restaurants and traiteurs and introduced my wife to the best pastry art in the world. She was obsessed with her weight, like many French women, but would infrequently indulge in unhealthy dishes like vol au vent and anything with butter-rich pate feuilletée because, in her own words, “it’s as light as air”. She prided herself on embodying French elegance, but obviously didn’t know much about nutrition.

Even when she divorced Sanguszko and went back to France, Geneviève was still obsessively involved in politics. She was a faithful reader of the satirical magazine Le Canard enchaîné, joined a female Masonic lodge where she excelled at networking, stayed very aware of every piece of gossip in French politics, and read books by political journalists. My wife has never been impressed with my and having flirted with politics, but she always told me that Geneviève would have been so proud that her granddaughter married an inspecteur des finances. In a way, it helped strengthen our couple!

At the end of her life, Geneviève sold her Avenue Hoche apartment and moved to Dinan (in Brittany) to be closer to her eldest child, a daughter (who died recently and was long estranged from the rest of the family). What money was left was somehow embezzled and wasted, mostly by the daughter, who nonetheless went on to die in debt. And being away in Dinan cut Geneviève out of her Parisian power network entirely. At the time of her death, she had lost her fortune, her fame, and all her friends and connections. Only a handful people attended her funeral, including my wife, who was 25 at the time.

There are several things that I find interesting in this long, winding tale:

  • First, all of this has been recollected by way of oral history from my wife and my parents-in-law. Geneviève might have been part of the Résistance, a rather prominent female politician for her time, and the wife of an immensely wealthy Polish prince, yet there’s almost no trace of her on the Internet. What a difference a few decades make!

  • Second, it’s a story that demonstrates how you can squander a fortune. Geneviève rose to the top, but didn’t endow her children with anything of what she gained there. There’s still some of her ambition and spirit left, especially in my wife. But you can’t say it’s a family heritage. Geneviève’s story has convinced me that wealth management is more than passing money to your heirs. It’s also about passing a culture and a sense of achievement across generations.

  • Third, I like the global dimension in Geneviève’s life story. Again, hers is a typical French story. But she’s also an exception, as very few French people spent years in foreign countries at the time. My father spent a part of his childhood in Cameroon, but that was because it was a French colony back then. Today, the equivalent of Geneviève would be a true traveler, making her way from France to the UK to Brazil to South Africa to Singapore. The version of that in her time was momentarily escaping France to live the high life with a Polish prince in Brazil.

  • Finally, she was a kind of role model for my wife Laetitia, and an early example of what ambitious women can achieve. You can’t say she was a feminist: she enjoyed being the only woman in a crowd of men (the female equivalent of the rooster in the hen house). You can’t say she had attributes that our society equates with success, either: she was neither particularly beautiful nor particularly intelligent. What she had instead, according to Laetitia, was an extraordinary self-confidence that made it possible for her to submit anyone (husbands, politicians, and waiters at restaurants) to her strong will. She could be some kind of role model for all women: you can have it all—power, money, and love—provided you radiate with confidence.

🦍 Self-confidence was the most valuable asset that Geneviève had, and she made the most of it. Here are a few articles to learn about how women can use it, too:

💸 On wealth management and how not to squander a fortune, Geneviève would clearly have benefitted from using the services of my friend Emilie Bellet and her company Vestpod:

👣 Now here are articles relating to the digital footprint of people:

👨‍🍳 About French cuisine:

💣 And about the Résistance:

Warm regards (from Normandy, France),

Nicolas