This is the story of a survivor.
Micaela Almonester had everything going for her. Smart, beautiful, and sole heiress to one of the most prominent (and wealthy) couples in 19th century New Orleans, she was destined to do great things. Unfortunately, she would have to go through decades of misery before achieving them.
The devils of her personal hell were her husband (and cousin), Celestin de Pontalba, and his unhinged father, Baron Joseph de Pontalba. How unhinged? Upon being separated from his wife for a couple months early into their marriage, the baron neurotically demanded she write him daily accounts of everything that happened to her, like you would a diary. His son Celestin received the same treatment – in a letter early in the separation, the baron wrote to his young son, “Are you not sorry not to have your dear papa put his arms around your neck and squeeze you tighter and tighter?”
Buddy had issues.
The wedding between Micaela and Celestin was a pretty standard affair for high society. Arranged by their parents, the two had barely met before getting hitched. The baron’s reason for marrying off Celestin was purely to get his hands on the Almonester fortune (it’s less clear why the Almonester family went along with it). Shortly after the wedding, Micaela was whisked off to France to live with the Pontalbas — which turned unpleasant quickly.
Life in France
The baron, you see, felt cheated. As Micaela’s shrewd mother had written the marriage contract (and Micaela’s will), virtually the entire fortune was, in ironclad terms, to be solely at Micaela’s discretion. This is not what the baron had signed up for. Upon realizing this, the baron, in a move typical of emotionally abusive assholes everywhere, systematically cut off Micaela from her friends and family, and over a period of years browbeat her into signing over Power of Attorney. This move was to be later described by American judges as “a violation of all fair principles.”
Now, signing her rights away was a dumb move on Micaela’s part — but, as biographer Christina Vella points out, it may have been part of a private bargain on her part to save her marriage, or at least gain some autonomy. Vella argues, reading between the lines of the available documents, that Micaela was likely trying to get her spineless husband (and their by now four children) away from the manipulative influence of the baron. Moreover, there’s evidence she had actual affection for Celestin, and was trying to make things work.
Unfortunately, her attempt failed. Shortly after she signed over Power of Attorney, Celestin left — but they were still technically married. She moved to Paris, rented one of Celestin’s houses, and lived off the pitiable $600/month allowance he provided. Seeing no point in continuing to try and make the marriage work, Micaela began making moves. Over the next several years, she went back to her home town of New Orleans, reestablished her claims on her own property, and bumped up her income to $40,000/year. She then threatened Celestin with a divorce under Louisiana law.
And then things got ugly.
Spy vs Spy
The Pontalbas started hiring spies to follow Micaela around, drumming up evidence to accuse her of infidelity. They garnished her income, then got the French courts to order her back to France, where they attempted in earnest to drive her insane. She was only allowed to stay in one room, without even the maids visiting – in an age where a second pair of hands were required merely to get in and out of undergarments. The entire house was ordered to not talk to or look at her, and visitors were told to leave if they showed “any consideration to the mistress of the house.” They were making her into a ghost.
The entire house was ordered to not talk to or look at her, and visitors were told to leave if they showed “any consideration to the mistress of the house.”
Things came to a head after four years of this, when the baron, enraged she’d not given in, stormed into her room with two dueling pistols. He shot her four times in the chest — mangling her left hand in the process as well, as she’d held it up to protect herself. The baron then retired to his study, spending the day getting his affairs in order2 before shooting and killing himself.
Miraculously, she survived.
Light at the End of the Tunnel
Her recovery was painful, slow, and awful. She could not sleep from the pain, and had epileptic seizures on a near-daily basis for three weeks. She lost one of her fingers, and one of her lungs was so collapsed that for the rest of her life, merely climbing a flight of stairs would leave her out of breath. Throughout this recovery period, her mother in law did not check in on her once. Her husband Celestin, however, stayed by her side and took care of her. Of this, she said only that he “behaved towards me as he should.”
At the end of the three weeks, she moved to Paris and continued suing for divorce. Once again, the courts ruled against her, and the scandal was at this point so public that she lost a number of her high-society friends. Worst of all, in a particularly cruel celebration of his court victory, Celestin printed up special copies of the court proceedings, particularly the parts insulting her, and gave them out to anyone who passed by.
This, however, proved his undoing.
In openly mocking her, Celestin opened the door for her to sue again for separation, as he was obviously in violation of his husbandly duties to protect her. This time, at long last, she won. The now-forty-year-old Micaela, now finally free, wrote of this that “I can now say that I have gone through my purgatory while still on this earth.”
A Free Woman
“I can now say that I have gone through my purgatory while still on this earth.”
So good was she with money that she became the de facto head of all family affairs. When her children ran into money issues, she’d bail them out. She went through her childrens’ marriage contracts and wills, in particular, with a precision and tenacity one can only forge in the fires of hell.
We only have glimpses of her more tender side. Most tellingly, when her erstwhile husband, in his later years, became senile and borderline destitute, she looked after him. She managed his belongings, saw to his meals, and hired his servents. Little of the interactions between the two have been preserved to present day, and the details of their very complicated relationship forever remain a mystery.
She died peacefully at age 79, a deeply respected – if not outright feared – figure of the New Orleans elite.
- The window here is casting a shadow on her, creating the visual illusion of shackles on her wrists, shoulders, and neck. It’s also got some rain cast on her, which is mean to give the faint impression of tears.
- She’s sitting at the head of the table, in reference to her cat-and-mouse game with the Pontalbas.
- In the background is the baron with dueling pistols and Celestin with his horribly defamatory newsletter.
- Arrayed on the table around her are some contracts and blueprints. Additionally, on the plate in front of her is the elaborate A+P (Almonester + Pontalba) logo that she engineered for herself, and still exists in much of the buildings she oversaw.
Enjoy the art?
Next Time on Rejected Princesses
The princess in the leather burqa.