German historian Wilhelm Roscher dubbed a cohort of absolute monarchs (Catherine II of Russia, Joseph I of Portugal, Joseph II of Austria, Charles III of Spain, Gustav III of Sweden and Louis XVI of France) the “enlightened despots of the 18th century.”
They may have been big fans of such enlightenment thinkers as Voltaire, Locke and Rousseau, but they were typically driven to improve the lives of their subordinates to strengthen or reinforce their own authority.
And, of course, implicit in their philosophy was the belief that they knew what was best for everybody — so, to them, political participation by their subjects was not really necessary. Still, these rulers pursued reforms that included freedom of speech, press and religion as well as the right to hold private property.
Even before we became a nation, we found allies in Charles III and Louis XVI. Without question, their coffer-emptying contributions of land and sea power proved decisive in winning the Revolutionary War.
Next, not only would Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and Gustav III of Sweden be brought together on this very day in 1784 to witness the triumphant flight of La Gustave (named to commemorate the Swedish ruler’s visit) but would witness Élisabeth Thible being given a place in the history books as well.
Although only two weeks previously in Paris, the Marchioness/Countess of Montalembert, the Countess of Podenas and Mademoiselle de Lagarde would ascend in a tethered balloon, it was Thible who would get the nod as the first female to soar in a free-floating globe aerostatique.
Ironically, Madame Thible, the “épouse délaissée” (abandoned spouse) of a Lyon wax worker, was not even listed on the La Gustave flight manifest. This particular aeronautical voyage, in fact, was actually a “do-over” after the Jan. 19, 1784, trip aboard the Flesselles (named for the promoter) had to be aborted.
All original subscribers were offered a second chance, but 44-year-old Count Jean-Baptiste de Laurencin wasn’t about to risk life and limb again. When Thible volunteered to take his place on June 4, 1784, he hurriedly responded, mais oui, madame.
So what freaked out the count? A hot-air balloon ride should have seemed like the bucket list opportunity of a lifetime. At least that’s what promoter Jacques de Flesselles (later, a victim of the French Revolution) claimed as he set about convincing wealthy men they couldn’t live without a bird’s-eye view of Lyon.
Not only, wheedled Flesselles, will you meet Joseph-Michel Montgolfier, the first hot air balloon’s co-inventor (with brother Jacques-Étienne), but he has also agreed to serve as pilot.
Yet, contrary to the promoter’s claim, Flesselles would not be “the first manned balloon flight.” French record books credit, instead, an earlier 25-minute hop by Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis D’Arlandes on Nov. 21, 1783. Regrettably, de Rozier would also be named the first air crash fatality when his balloon went down crossing the English Channel.
The blue, white and gold paper that made up the skin of Flesselles’ envelope would rip apart and smolder after only 12 minutes in the air. Although Montgolfier would bring all his passengers to terra firma without injury, he, like the count, would refuse, ever again, to sail up, up and away.
Montgolfier initially hatched the idea for the globe aerostatique, according to Popular Science Monthly, after observing his wife airing out her formal ballgown in front of the fireplace. He noted that the warmest air currents caught the extra fabric in her skirt (usually held out to each side by a pannier of stiff, heavy whalebone) and caused the multihued dress to seemingly float — not unlike the dozens of rainbow-colored balloons that punctuate the Santa Paula sky each July.
Eight months after the ill-fated Flesselles flight, La Gustave would soar for 45 minutes — traveling approximately three miles and reaching an altitude of 8,500 feet.
According to a newspaper account, Monsieur Fleurant credited Thible for the success of the mission. He lavishly complimented her on her extraordinary courage (she sustained a sprained ankle during the jarring landing) and for assisting him in feeding the firebox (in actuality, a silver chafing dish) with handfuls of straw.
No evidence exists that she had ever been a professional opera singer, but as soon La Gustave left the ground, Madame Thible, dressed as the Roman goddess Minerva, performed two duets with the pilot, Monsieur Fleurant. The opera they chose? Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny’s “La Belle Arsène” — based on a poem by Voltaire, the so-called darling of the “enlightened despots.”
Exactly why Thible chose to break into song midair remains a mystery. One thing we do know, however, is she’s not the lady who sang the blues.
The lady who sang the blues was the one who made the mistake of saying, “Let them eat cake.”