La Belle Créole: The Cuban Countess Who Captivated Havana, Madrid, and Paris
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Known for her beauty and angelic voice, Mercedes Santa Cruz y Montalvo, la Belle Créole, was a Cuban-born star of nineteenth-century Parisian society. She befriended aristocrats and artists alike, including Balzac, Baron de Rothschild, Rossini, and the opera diva La Malibran.
A daughter of the creole aristocracy, Mercedes led a tumultuous life, leaving her native Havana as a teenager to join her mother in the heart of Madrid’s elite society. As Napoleon swept Spain into the Peninsular War, Mercedes’ family remained at the center of the storm, and her marriage to French general Christophe-Antoine Merlin tied her fortunes to France. Arriving in Paris in the aftermath of the French defeat, she re-created her life, ultimately hosting the city’s premier musical salon. Acknowledged as one of the greatest amateur sopranos of her day, she nurtured artistic careers and daringly paved the way for well-born singers to publicly perform in lavish philanthropic concerts. Beyond her musical renown, Mercedes achieved fame as a writer. Her memoirs and travel writings introduced European audiences to nineteenth-century Cuban society and contributed to the debate over slavery. Scholars still quote her descriptions of Havana life and recognize her as Cuba’s earliest female author.
Mercedes epitomized an unusually modern life, straddling cultures and celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic. Her memoirs, travel writings, and very personal correspondence serve as the basis for this first-ever English-language biography of the passionate and adventuresome Belle Créole.
Pedroso, later Count de Casa-Barreto, and had four more children, but her new husband was known as one of the cruelest of Havana slave owners. Part of the Barreto fortune was based on the license granted for the brutal but lucrative occupation of capturing and reselling the runaways who hid in the hills and caves. One story tells of the count inviting a group of beggars to receive alms but then setting loose his slave-hunting dogs on the defenseless gathering. The pandemonium that ensued left
off with his nomination as sub-inspector general of Cuba and the rank of brigadier. How had this happened so suddenly? Shortly after arriving in the Spanish capital, Joaquín and Teresa embarked upon a luxurious lifestyle. Renting various houses in the heart of what is today’s Old Madrid, they eventually settled on a home on the Calle de la Luna and offered regular dances and a tertulia, a Spanish version of a salon. Their lavish entertainment attracted notice and comments for many decades. They
herself to charm the Spanish court and the Parisian salons in later years. But Mercedes was still very young, and even if her father thought dances and parties were appropriate for a nine-or ten-year-old girl, Mercedes herself preferred spending more time with Mamita. “Seated at her feet, perched on her knees, I listened with vivid interest to tales from the Old Testament or Roman history and I experienced some unknown sense of conviction that in preferring Mamita’s company to a ball, I did well
repay the expenses of the French treasury and fund Joseph’s kingdom. Napoleon finally ordered his brother to leave Vitoria, and the entire convoy arrived in Burgos two days after the French victory on November 10. An appalling sight met them: deeply rutted roads showing the marks of the artillery trains led them through a plain still strewn with fallen soldiers, the accompanying stench of decomposition in the air. Mercedes could only shut her eyes, hide her face on her knees, and cry. In
appropriate recognition. Moreover, he happened to be correct. Napoleon did indeed name Merlin a baron, an act the emperor had confirmed to Joseph on July 7, 1808. Furthermore, there was Mercedes to consider. Merlin would later stress, on another matter to the ministry, that he had married the daughter of a count and grande of Spain. One only has to remember Joaquín’s machinations in search of higher ranks to understand the importance that the Santa Cruz family (and other Cuban elites) placed on