The Marquis de Sade Is Dead! Long Live Pierre Cardin!

“Oh, he loved Lacoste did the Marquis de Sade. He adored it! Every time he was on the run, he came back here. And Cardin, he loves the place, too.”

Finn Mac Eoin, wild-haired gardener and local poet, was showing me around the renovation work under way in the Marquis de Sade’s old village, which is being funded by Parisian fashion king Pierre Cardin. Suddenly, carried away with the grand ambition of it all, he stopped and decided to orate a celebratory poem. “I call this one ‘Resurrection,’ ” he said, striking a mock-heroic pose like a Shakespearean actor on the tiles. “It’s dedicated to Cardin.” Raising one hand, a knee up on a medieval wall, Mac Eoin swept back his curly hair and pronounced in a rolling Irish brogue:

Up from ancient ruins in Phoenix flight,

Domain de Sade Pierre’d before my very eyes—

Stone by stone this titan feat rose and rose beyond a dream

Where lark and passing cloud can meet …

Mac Eoin pointed with a flourish to another picturesque hilltop village, Bonnieux, in the distance, for centuries Lacoste’s bitter Catholic enemy.

Now, a beacon on this once Lacoste’d hill has

Far-off Bonnieux put to shame. And soon the moon it will.

“Cardin’s got that poem up on his wall in the château,” Mac Eoin exulted. “Right next to the Marquis de Sade’s portrait.”

A villager stuck his head out of the window to see what all the noise was about, then, seeing it was Mac Eoin, pulled his head back with a snort of disgust.

“Ah, they hate me here,” Mac Eoin chortled. “They fuckin’ hate me! I don’t care. Friends make you weak. Enemies make you strong! I’ll make ‘em hate me more.”

That next morning in Lacoste, things had livened up in every sense. When I creaked open the shutters of my garret in the Café de France, the fog from the day before was rapidly burning off to reveal the sorts of views that would make an Impressionist drool. Lacoste, I now discovered, floats above the region called the Lubéron like a hot-air balloon, with sweeping vistas across verdant fields and succulent orchards. In the distance was Mount Ventoux, whose peak looks snowcapped but is actually bare white limestone.

So, this was the mythic Provence of Peter Mayle memoirs, beloved by British retirees and anyone with a passion for produce markets and renovating farmhouses.

Fine for some. But I prefer a bit of drama in my paradise, and Lacoste was delivering the goods. By 9 a.m., the village—which had been deserted the day before in the Gothic deluge—was ringing with activity. Construction workers were everywhere, scurrying like ants along the Rue Basse, Lower Street, where in the last year Cardin has purchased a dozen buildings, bringing his total to more than 25. On all the work permits, I noticed Pierre Cardin’s name had been crossed out by hand, and little slogans scribbled in—”Sauvez Votre Village,” Save Your Village.

Lacoste has always had a contrarian streak. It was a Protestant village in a sea of Catholics, and more recently, it was run by a Communist mayor for 50 years. Now many of the villagers are revolting again—against Cardin’s renovations. In an inevitable conflation, the billionaire in the marquis’s manor is being denounced as a haughty “neo-feudal” overlord trying to turn back the clock to prerevolutionary days. It’s a theme that has delighted newspapers like Le Figaro and French TV. But not everyone in Lacoste is ready to light torches and storm the château. A minority view sees Cardin as saving the village from provincial stagnation. When the designer first arrived, several villagers actually donated houses for Cardin to renovate, saying they had been in the family for generations, but they could no longer maintain them. Others have approached him on the sly, aware that they could get up to three times market rate for ramshackle properties.

By chance, I was getting this positive view first, from Finn Mac Eoin, a one-man PR team for Cardin.

“I’m pro-Cardin, and I’m pro the Marquis de Sade,” Mac Eoin declared, swearing that he had read every word Sade had ever written. (This is quite something; even some leading biographers admit they have never been able to slog through the deadening litany of carnal horrors.) “People don’t know shit about the Marquis de Sade,” he said. “They come here and they tell me, ‘Oh, do you know he killed his wife and cut out her heart?’ Such crap! So much misinformation. He loved his wife! She was like Florence fucking Nightingale to him. Everyone wants to see blood. Everyone wants to add to the rumors.”

Certainly, there are subtleties to the marquis’s life that get lost in the sensation. As biographer du Plessix Gray points out, he should perhaps be termed “a nonviolent sadist.” He never drew blood in his rituals, preferring to use psychological torture. He denounced the death penalty, was never in a duel or even went hunting. The very word sadism was not coined until the 1880s, more than 60 years after his death, and anyway, Sade was probably more of a masochist: He liked to be whipped, often demanding hundreds of lashes to provoke his erections. A lot of French aristocrats were at least as deranged.

“So what if de Sade was a rapist and a murderer?” Mac Eoin railed. “You can’t judge him by our modern standards.”

Mac Eoin’s wife was patiently making breakfast throughout this tirade. I asked her if she shared his passion for the Marquis de Sade. “I think it’s good in a marriage to have different interests,” she said sweetly.

Mac Eoin took me out into the warm autumn sunshine to visit charming old houses that Cardin had renovated into gallery spaces, and two mansions destined for hotels: one five-star, the other budget. The marquis would surely have approved of Lacoste’s artsy new life as host to Cardin’s summer theater festival; he was passionate about the stage, and his dearest wish was to be recognized not as a pornographer but as a playwright. Come to think of it, he would have approved of Cardin’s profession, too, since he was obsessive about fashion. His prison letters are filled with demands for trendy new stockings, shoes, and suits. (“Send me a little prune-colored riding coat,” Sade ordered his wife in 1781, “with a suede vest and trousers, something fresh and light but specifically not made of linen.” In the same letter, he requests a suit that is “Paris Mud in hue—a fashionable color this year—with a few silver trimmings, but definitely not silver braid.”)

Everything in the new Lacoste is cashing in on the Sadist theme. We peered into the Cardin-owned Café de Sade, where a fortune was being spent to raise the antique ceilings. And we looked in at the new grocery, the Boulangerie du Marquis, which Cardin had taken over from its former owner and expanded. “This used to be such a shitty grocer,” Mac Eoin scoffed. “The owner didn’t even bake her own bread!”

When I learned that Cardin had even opened a boutique gift store named after the Divine Marquis, my imagination ran riot. Would it be a high-end sex shop for the dominatrix and fetishist? Would it stock Sade’s favorite accessories, like the hand-carved dildos he particularly liked for his auto-erotic rites, or his beloved enema syringes, which bore tasteful engravings of men kneeling in worship before plump buttocks? At least it could offer some books from the marquis’ secret library, I thought, classics like The Fornications of Priests and Nuns, or antique illustrated editions of his own phantasmagoric works, which were once passed secretly among the cognoscenti.

No such luck. Instead, when I entered the cool stone cavern that is the Boutique le Moulin de Sade, I was confronted with an array of gourmet food: foie gras, jams, pâtés, and honeys. When I quizzed the elderly shopkeeper about Sadist souvenirs, she gave me a bookmark bearing his profile.

The truth is, Sade would probably have been delighted. He was a fervent gourmand who loved Provençal delicacies like quail stuffed with grape leaves, cream of chard soups, and luscious jams. He once demanded that his wife send him a chocolate cake black “as the devil’s ass is blackened by smoke.” Fine food appears in all his writings about orgies, inspiring the participants to fits of lust. As one character notes, “Our cocks are never so stiff as when we’ve just completed a sumptuous feast.”

Which, I guess, is a more direct way of saying that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.