Why He Was A Babe Magnet

Even when he was old and rotund, Ben had sex appeal. He knew the way to a woman's heart was through her head

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AMERICAN PHILOSOPHICAL SOCIETY

DEBORAH FRANKLIN: Franklin's wife, stepmother to William. She kept the home fires burning when Benjamin was away

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He imagines, he tells her, a marriage between her and his son William, so she would "become his own in the tender relation of a child." But William is in love with another woman. Leaving London soon thereafter, Franklin laments how distressed he is at the thought of never seeing Polly again. But he returns two years later, in 1764--and before long gives her away in marriage to a physician, William Hewson. Sixteen years later, after her husband's death, Franklin finally gets her permanently at his side when she and her three children come to live near him in Philadelphia until he dies.

MESDAMES BRILLON AND HELVETIUS: PARISIAN SOUL MATES Music is her Cupid's arrow. The lovely and talented Anne-Louise d'Hardancourt Brillon de Jouy plays the harpsichord and piano like an angel. Eager to meet her new neighbor in the fashionable Paris suburb of Passy, the celebrated envoy from America, she inquires about his musical tastes and woos him with a recital of Scottish songs. She follows with invitations to tea, chess games and tete-a-tetes in which she pours out her troubled soul to him. The delighted Franklin, now in his 70s, soon presses her for more tangible evidence of her affection. She plays coy, however, and steers the relationship with "Cher Papa" (her endearing term for him that soon catches on widely) into a safer daughter-father pattern, over his useless protests.

The Franklin libido really stirs when he encounters the brilliant and beautiful Anne-Catherine de Ligniville d'Autricourt, a descendant of Austrian nobility known by her married name, Madame Helvetius. Outgoing, exuberant and earthy, she uses her late husband's fortune to operate a bohemian, animal-filled estate on the fringes of the Bois de Boulogne, where she reigns over a salon of Enlightenment philosophes. To Franklin, this is an intellectual heaven.

Franklin proposes marriage to Madame Helvetius but frames the offer so coyly that it can be seen either as serious or as a joke, a canny way of saving face for both parties. He tells her that her late husband and his late Deborah have tied the knot in heaven, so it would be fitting revenge if she accepted him on earth. Ah, mon cher ami, she tells him in effect, it cannot be. When he finally decides to return home to America, her friends chide her for not accepting his proposal and keeping the adored Franklin in France.

CLAUDE-ANNE LOPEZ is the author of Mon Cher Papa: Franklin and the Ladies of Paris

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