The Devil’s Playground

You should never visit the Marquis de Sade’s castle on a pretty summer’s day. No, to appreciate the site, you need an atmosphere of infernal darkness, with torrential rain and howling wind. At least, that’s what I told myself as I tried to find the place while blinded by a brutal thunderstorm. I’d been soaked to the bone just walking to the car-rental agency. Now, with lightning darting about my cobalt-blue Picasso (yes, a Picasso—some sort of Citroën), I had to pull over for the 20th time to make sense of the road map. Sade’s castle is in a little village called Lacoste, only 25 miles east of Avignon in Provence, which is supposed to be southern France’s most seductive idyll of lavender fields, vineyards, and quaint B&Bs. But paradise certainly wasn’t behaving as advertised today. I might as well have wandered into the opening sequence of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, en route to the Annual Transylvanian Convention.

At last, a sign to Lacoste protruded from the murk. I parked by a medieval fortress wall; ahead lay a stone arch engraved with the words Le Portail des Chèvres, the Goats’ Gate, the entrance to the upper part of the village. The marquis’s old stomping ground was as welcoming as Salem on a witch-trial day. The houses were shuttered, so I walked cautiously up a steep alley, trying not to slip on the uneven cobblestones as the rain gushed in a channel between my feet, then I climbed a trail littered with weeds and loose chunks of masonry. And there, crouching like a wolf in the mist, was the Château Sade. It still appeared to be half ruin, with a veil of crumbling outer walls, yet the core has been renovated to a habitable state—the ideal haunted refuge, you could imagine, for a deranged monk or bestial aristocrat from one of Sade’s pornographic classics like 120 Days of Sodom. At the very least, a Dungeons & Dragons computer game designer.

Au contraire. I climbed the wet stone steps and banged on the wooden door, but I was answered by grim silence. No lights shone in the windows.

I would have to come back to meet the new lord of the lair, Pierre Cardin.

France has always been a hot destination for literary tourists: The land is lousy with shrines like Victor Hugo’s apartment in central Paris or Balzac’s cottage in Passy, where even the author’s old teapot is revered like a piece of the true cross.  But only a certain type of traveler is lured to this corner of Provence, where the château of Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade, still looms in decaying grandeur. This 42-room redoubt was Sade’s most beloved residence. He visited it often as a child, and after his father gave it to him as a wedding present in 1763, he lived here for long stretches of his 20s and 30s—his feral prime. The château soon became the core of his fertile imaginative life. As biographer Francine du Plessix Gray points out in her classic At Home With the Marquis de Sade, its position hovering above the village fed Sade’s outdated fantasies of feudal inviolability, where he could act out his rabid carnal desires with no fear of reprisal. Even while he was in prison, the château remained a font of inspiration for Sade’s grisly literary works—a Walden Pond for the polymorphously perverse.

Essentially, the château was the mise-en-scène for some of his more outrageous real-life escapades. To take one example, it became the setting of a light-hearted romp dubbed by biographers “The Little-Girls Episode.” At the end of 1774, the charismatic, 34-year-old marquis came to winter at Lacoste with his family and a string of fresh-faced household servants he’d hired in Lyon, including five unsuspecting virgins. These were intended to supplement his more knowing staff, such as the lovely housekeeper Gothon, whom Sade had hired because she sported “the sweetest ass ever to leave Switzerland,” and the studly male valet Latour, by whom Sade liked to be sodomized while prostitutes watched and cavorted. For the next six weeks, Sade dedicated himself to corrupting the captive minors. As far as historians can discern, he held them hostage in the château’s dungeon, forcing them to act out scenes from pornographic literature as well as Sade’s own intricately stage-managed sexual rituals. (A control freak, Sade like to choreograph every detail: As a character complains in one of his comic fictions, “Let’s please put some order into these orgies!”) Modern French wives are legendarily indulgent of their husbands’ peccadilloes, but Sade’s wife, Pélagie, took spousal freedom to new levels by overseeing this marathon debauch, keeping the five girls compliant, and then hushing up the ensuing scandal. When the police came knocking, she helped bribe the outraged parents and spirit the girls, decidedly damaged goods, away to convents.

Pondering this edifying tale, I puddle-jumped through the castle’s former moat and climbed in the pelting rain up to the wild plateau of Sade’s old estate. This was once a splendid garden and orchard, where the dashing young marquis and his three children would frolic on summer days. (He was, by all accounts, a devoted father, with a fondness for playacting and games like hide-and-seek and musical chairs.) Now, there were loopy artworks installed on the grounds, including some fairly gross sexual cartoons painted on panels by a Russian artist and a few surreal sculptures—a giant fly, a human finger the size of a tree trunk, and an enormous skull, its eye socket filled with pinkish rainwater.

But the most striking piece, perched on a strategic precipice, was a shiny, new bronze sculpture of the Divine Marquis himself. Erected in the summer of 2008, it displays Sade’s bewigged 18th-century head surrounded by a cage—Sade the perpetual prisoner. After being seized by police during a night raid in 1777, he spent most of his life in prisons and nuthouses, including 13 years in the Bastille and 11 in Charenton Asylum, the setting for the film Quills. Both proved futile efforts to censor his literary outpourings.

Some 40 years after Sade’s death, poet Baudelaire wrote that if a statue of Sade were ever erected, thousands would come to lay flowers at its feet. Well, the crowds might have been thin on this rainy day in October, but there’s no question that the marquis can bring in the fans. His presence in Lacoste 250 years ago has given the village a notoriety it might otherwise lack. And what began as a trickle of a few lecherous pilgrims has escalated exponentially since the Château Sade was snapped up by—of all people—Pierre Cardin, the elderly haute couturier based in Paris.

The billionaire fashion icon was evidently tickled by the Sade connection when he purchased the decrepit castle seven years ago for a nominal 1 million francs, including 70 acres of the estate and an oil painting of the marquis. In the village, rumors flew: Some said Cardin was related to Sade; others whispered that Cardin is bisexual and thus wanted to vindicate the broad-minded writer’s memory; still others alleged he was looking for some mythical Sade family treasure. Since then, Cardin has renovated the château as his holiday residence and has started an annual summer arts festival on the grounds, luring crowds from Paris and the Riviera. (Cardin’s Web site presents it as an homage to Sade, who loved the theater and used to stage plays on the estate. And Cardin has certainly caused more tumult in Lacoste than anyone since Sade himself: In recent years, the fashion designer has been buying many of the village’s historic structures in a real-estate grab along the lines of Ted Turner in Montana. The reaction among some villagers has been violent. Lacoste is being torn apart by a miniature civil war with a viciousness that only the French can manage.

You could almost imagine the ghost of the marquis pirouetting in glee.

I wanted to stay in Lacoste for several days to see how Sade’s mischievous legacy was playing out, so I’d booked a room above the Café de France, the only lodging available off-season. When I pushed open the door, four farmers were hunched over a wooden table, ripping into roast chickens like gourmandizing Orcs, the one missing a leg pausing to shoot me a scowl. The barman also eyed me suspiciously, then led me up a dark, creaking stairway that smelled of last month’s cooking oil.

As I sat sodden and hungry in my freezing garret, staring out at the ghoulish fog, I had to wonder if this was really Provence, and if so, what century.

It seemed to be less Brueghel and more Hieronymus Bosch.