1849 – 1926
Geneviève Halévy was born in Paris on February 27, 1849. Her mother, Léonie Rodrigues-Henriques (1820–1884), was a sculptor and art collector of Portuguese Jewish descent. Her father, Jacques Fromental Élie Halévy (1799–1862), was permanent secretary of the Académie des Beaux-Arts and the renowned composer of thirty-two operas, including La Juive (1835), a tragedy of religious intolerance between Christians and Jews. His nephew, Ludovic Halévy (1834–1908), a novelist and librettist, collaborated with Henri Meilhac on operas by Jacques Offenbach. Geneviève Halévy and her older sister Esther (born in 1843) studied piano with Charles Gounod. The death of Geneviève’s father in 1862 and of her sister in 1864 precipitated a chronic melancholy, which was eventually mitigated by the creation of her salon.
Geneviève had met her father’s brilliant protégé Georges Bizet at one of her parents’ soirées; although her family initially opposed her union with a man of humble economic origins, the two were married in 1869. Geneviève dismissed the possibility of converting to Bizet’s Catholicism, claiming that she had “trop peu de religion pour en changer” (too little religion to change it). They lived at 22 rue de Douai with their son Jacques (1872–1922) and with Geneviève’s cousin Ludovic Halévy, his wife Valentine and their two sons, Élie and Daniel. The Bizets’ marriage suffered because of their precarious finances, which were exacerbated by the economic chaos of the Franco-Prussian War. Geneviève’s fragile nerves and her mother’s declining mental health only heightened the tensions.
Mere months after the premiere of his opera Carmen in 1875, Georges Bizet died of cardiac arrest; Geneviève was left widowed at the age of twenty-six. Bizet’s fame grew posthumously, and Geneviève inherited the fortunes of his success, as well as the rights to her father’s oeuvre after her mother’s death in 1884. She drew to her home a group of intimate friends whose company staved off her depression and her salon soon widened in scope and ambition. In 1886 she married Emile Straus (1844–1929), a wealthy lawyer to the Rothschild family and an avid art collector. The couple moved first to 134 boulevard Haussmann, and in 1898 to 104 rue de Miromesnil. In 1893 the construction was finished on their villa, Le Clos des Mûriers, in Trouville, where Geneviève spent many summers.
The Straus drawing room in Paris, decorated with paintings by Jean-Marc Nattier, Georges de La Tour and Claude Monet, attracted an elegant society of artists, politicians and nobility that captivated the young Marcel Proust, a schoolmate of Geneviève’s son. Over the years of their friendship Straus served as Proust’s muse and literary confidante. In letters to her he ruminated about the shape of his characters and the quality of his prose. In 1908, Geneviève gave Proust a gift of five small notebooks, in which he began to sketch the fragments of his novel À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time); she provided one of the models for the Duchesse de Guermantes. Her refined elegance and melancholic air were immortalized on canvas by Gustave Moreau, Giovanni Boldial, Auguste Toulemouche and Jules-Élie Delaunay, and in the pages of Edmond de Goncourt’s journals and Guy de Maupassant’s Notre coeur (Our Heart).
In 1894 the French military captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew, was charged with espionage against the government. In October 1897 Joseph Reinach, a politician, lawyer and longtime friend of Geneviève’s, announced at her salon that Major Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy was the author of the seditious bordereau accusing Dreyfus; upon hearing this defense of Dreyfus, salon habitués Edgar Degas, Jules Lemaitre and Jean-Louis Forain left indignantly, never to return. Geneviève Straus’s salon became the center for pro-Dreyfus forces. Émile Zola, a regular attendee, published his “J’Accuse” in the journal L’Aurore on January 13, 1898; this fierce call for justice was supported the next day by the “Manifesto of the Intellectuals,” signed by Proust, Élie and Daniel Halévy, Jacques Bizet and others. The Dreyfus Affair, which challenged the status and identity of assimilated Jews, brought politics into Straus’s salon, at the cost of broken friendships and turmoil.
After World War I the salon, well past its heyday, gathered loyal friends of a time past, including the writers Louis Ganderax and Abel 1 and such promising literary figures as Julien Benda and André Gide. On November 3, 1922, Jacques Bizet committed suicide; his death was followed fifteen days later by the death of his mother’s beloved Proust. Geneviève Straus died on December 22, 1926. Her obituary by Robert de Flers appeared the next day in Le Figaro: “With her departs an incomparable woman, unique, with infinite grace and a supreme spirit. Madame Straus’s salon gathered five generations of the most celebrated and distinguished artists and men of letters. Here she reigned … in the tradition of the maîtresses de maison who by their very presence create around them an atmosphere of intelligence, wit, taste, tact, warmth and trust.”
Excerpted with permission from Jewish Women and Their Salons: The Power of Conversation (New York: The Jewish Museum; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005). © The Jewish Museum and Yale University Press.