Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Poor Richard's Armonica and Septuagenarian Desires

Originally uploaded by chrisbreitenbach.
I had no idea that, among his numerous other inventions (the lightning rod and bifocals being among the most well known) Benjamin Franklin also invented a popular, at least in its day, musical instrument called the Armonica. Here’s an excerpt from H.W. Brands alternatingly grueling and fascinating biography of Franklin, The First Amarican:

Franklin did not exaggerate when he described the armonica’s tones as “incomparably sweet.” They had a haunting, ethereal quality, much like that which would characterize “New Age” music more than two hundred years later. Franklin quickly became adept at playing, and took to entertaining guests on the instrument. Others followed his lead. Marianne Davies, a singer who played flute and harpsichord- and who was another young woman charmed by Franklin- became proficient enough to offer public performances. For a time the armonica achieved a genuine vogue. Royal wedding vows were exchanged in Vienna to armonica accompaniment; some of the greatest composers of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, including Mozart and Beethoven, wrote for Franklin’s instruments.

You can play an approximation of the Armonica here.

Of those core (and near mythological) founding fathers, Franklin is the one I’d most like to share a beer with. Washington was too regal, Adams too puritanical, Hamilton too overwhelmingly scintillating and Jefferson and Madison too connivingly political. Franklin, however, seems the most human, a Renaissance man securely tethered to the joys of the quotidian, a polymath able to hold his own with experts in the fields (to name just a handful) of geology, linguistics or electricity and yet never flaunting his intellectual prowess to such an extent or degree as to miss the opportunity to gain the affection of the common man. He, of all the founding fathers had the best sense of humor, the most flirtatious sense of fun and the most unwavering and appealing temperament. Of all the founding fathers, Franklin is the only one I can imagine barreling down a water slide, spilling out into the waiting pool and emerging with an amused smile and sparkle in the eye ready for another go.

He was also a notorious, highly accomplished flirt. One of the ways history has distilled Franklin’s character, or that of any of the founding fathers, is to trim away anything but the mythos-Washington chopping down the cherry-tree, for example, or Franklin and his electric kite. To become an icon is to lose nuance, shades and degrees of an otherwise complex life lost to the majority in favor of readily digestible fable. So, in addition to his juiced up kite, most folks, I’m assuming, know something (maybe just a hint) of Franklin’s reputation as a lover. Brand thankfully helps to shed more light on Franklin’s amorous charms, focusing most intensely on his time in Paris when Congress had appointed Franklin to a Committee of Secret Correspondence in hopes of gaining foreign support, namely that of France, for the war back home.

Then in his 70’s, Franklin was well known and adored by the French, who considered him one of their own. In between his talks with Comte de Bergennes, King Louis’s foreign minister, Franklin stayed in the rustic village of Passy, just outside Paris where he summoned his many septuagenarian charms in service of wooing numerous objects of affection.

Madame Foucalt, sister of Madame Chaumot who in turn was the wife of Franklin’s landlord, Jacques Donatien Leray of Nantes, was one such pursued interest. Brand quotes liberally from their letters, the sparring contents of which are a blast to read, with Franklin administering a variety of deliciously naughty reasons why she should sleep with him while she nimbly curtsies and denies him. Franklin tries again:

Adopting yet another analogy, he likened their sparring to war, and proposed a preliminary peace treaty.

Art. 1. There shall be eternal peace, friendship and love between Madame B. and Mr. F.

Art. 2. In order to maintain the same inviolably, Made. B. on her part stipulates and agrees that Mr. F. shall come to her
whenever she sends him.

Art. 3. That he shall stay with her as long as he pleases.

A few more concessions on his part, then:

Art. 8. That when he is with her he will do what he pleases.

Art. 9. And that he will love any other woman as far as he finds her amiable.

Let me know what you think of these preliminaries. To me they seem to express the true meaning and intention of each party more plainly than most treaties. I shall insist pretty strongly on the eighth article, though without much hope of your consent to it. And on the ninth, also, though I despair of ever finding another women that I could love with equal tenderness.

Ben Franklin, founding father, septuagenarian stud extraordinaire.

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