When I was a kid, the high point of my year was the two-week trip my dad and I took every August to Arizona and New Mexico. He was an avid rockhound and lapidary, so his goal was collecting agate and turquoise and jasper to bring home and make into jewelry. Mine, on the other hand, was wandering in the beautiful, desolate hills that were so unlike the lush near-jungles of my native southern Louisiana.
Another thing I loved about that part of the country was the abundance of peculiar little curio shops. Some were clearly tourist traps, but some were run by honest-to-goodness old-time eccentric southwesterners, and filled with weird and wonderful oddities. One of these I recall well was in Alpine, Texas, and was mostly a used book store, but had all sorts of other stuff (including, to my dad's delight, rocks).
That's where I picked up a copy of Richard Cavendish's book The Black Arts, about the history of occultism. At that age (I was about thirteen at the time) I was absolutely fascinated with this stuff. And it was in The Black Arts that I first ran across the peculiar character known as the Comte de Saint-Germain.
Saint-Germain is one of a handful of people who are, supposedly, immortal. Here's the passage about him from Cavendish's book:
One of of the most famous of all those who are supposed to have possessed the Elixir of Life is the Count of Saint-Germain. "The Comte de Saint-Germain and Sir Francis Bacon," says Manly P. Hall, the leading light of the Philosophical Research Society of Los Angeles, "are the two greatest emissaries sent into the world by the Secret Brotherhood in the last thousand years." The Secret Brotherhood is a group of Masters, whose headquarters are said to be in the Himalayas and who are attempting to guide mankind along higher paths.
Saint-Germain hobnobbed with the highest social circles in France, winning the favour of Madame de Pompadour in 1759 with his "water of rejuvenation." Immensely erudite and enormously rich, he was a skillful violinist, painter, and chemist, had a photographic memory, and was said to speak eleven languages fluently, including Chinese, Arabic, and Sanskrit... He was believed to be over two thousand years old... He delighted in reminiscing about the great ones of the past with whom he had been on familiar terms, including the Queen of Sheba and Cleopatra. He was a wedding guest at Cana when Christ turned the water into wine. There is a pleasant story of him describing a dear friend of long ago, Richard the Lionheart, and turning to his manservant for confirmation. "You forget, sir," the valet said solemnly. "I have only been five hundred years in your service."
Saint-Germain attributed his astonishing longevity to his diet and his elixir... He is supposed to have died in Germany in 1784, but occultists believe that he was probably given a mock burial... It is said that he was frequently seen alive in the next century and was known to Bulwer-Lytton.
It's a curious story, to say the least. In Umberto Eco's brilliant novel Foucault's Pendulum, his character of Agliè coyly hints that he's the latest rebranding of the Comte de Saint-Germain -- but when the main character, Casaubon, tries to tell this to his psychologist, and that Agliè/Saint-Germain is at the center of a gigantic and murderous conspiracy, the doctor gives him a level look and says, "Monsieur, vous êtes fou." ("Mister, you are crazy.")
Reading about this stuff can definitely leave you feeling that way, but there's no doubt Saint-Germain was a real guy. He left behind a number of surviving musical compositions, and two extant written works are attributed to him. He was employed on diplomatic missions by French King Louis XV. Voltaire met him, and despite Voltaire's generally skeptical view of things, he apparently at least halfway believed the Comte's grandiose tales. He called Saint-Germain "the Wonder-Man -- a man who does not die, and who knows everything." Prince Charles of Hesse-Kassel called him "the greatest philosopher who ever lived."
Giacomo Casanova, however, wasn't so impressed, although he had to admit to some grudging admiration for Saint-Germain's ability to lie so convincingly:
This extraordinary man, intended by nature to be the king of impostors and quacks, would say in an easy, assured manner that he was three hundred years old, that he knew the secret of the Universal Medicine, that he possessed a mastery over nature, that he could melt diamonds, professing himself capable of forming, out of ten or twelve small diamonds, one large one of the finest water without any loss of weight. All this, he said, was a mere trifle to him. Notwithstanding his boastings, his bare-faced lies, and his manifold eccentricities, I cannot say I thought him offensive. In spite of my knowledge of what he was and in spite of my own feelings, I thought him an astonishing man as he was always astonishing me.
Throughout his life (assuming he did actually die!), Saint-Germain's ability to astonish kept him the darling of high society. His portrait hangs in the Louvre:
So who was he?
This is where it gets even more interesting, because no one knows for sure. In fact, no one even knows his real name; he had a dozen or more by which he was regularly known. He claimed to be the son of Francis II Rákóczi, Prince of Transylvania, but keep in mind that the guy also claimed to be thousands of years old, so that should be taken with a large handful of salt. Rákóczi did have a son, named Leopold George -- but the records indicate Leopold died at age four. The occultists, of course, have an answer for that (they seem to have an answer for everything, don't they?) -- they say that Rákóczi kept his son's survival a secret to protect him from the scheming Habsburgs, which accounts for Saint-Germain's education and wealth (and penchant for secrecy). All through his life he wove a web of mystery around himself, and reveled in the cachet it gave him with the aristocracy.
P. T. Barnum, though, in his 1886 book The Humbugs of the World, clearly wasn't having any of it:
The Marquis de Créquy declared that Saint-Germain was an Alsatian Jew, Simon Wolff by name, and was born at Strasbourg about the close of the 17th or the beginning of the 18th century; others insist that he was a Spanish Jesuit named Aymar; and others again intimate that his true title was the Marquis de Betmar, and that he was a native of Portugal. The most plausible theory, however, makes him the natural son of an Italian princess and fixes his birth at San Germano, in Savoy, about the year 1710; his ostensible father being one Rotondo, a tax-collector of that district.
Barnum was an expert on fooling the gullible; there's the sense here that he wasn't fond of the competition.
Whoever Saint-Germain was, there's no doubt he was a fascinating character. Predictably, I'm not buying that he was thousands of years old, nor that somehow, he's still alive. And many of his claims are somewhere between "implausible" and "ludicrous." But there's no doubt that he was an accomplished and skilled trickster, and relished the air of mystery his stories gave him. It'd be nice to have some answers to the questions he surrounded himself with, but the truth is, he was too good at covering his tracks -- and like the more famous mystery of Jack the Ripper, we'll probably never know his identity for sure.