One of the most colorful and passionate French leaders of the 20th century was Georges Clemenceau, born 171 years ago this week on Sept. 28, 1841.
He was nicknamed "the tiger" ("Le Tigre") for his aggressive and passionate style of debating. An ardent republican, Clemenceau railed against the French monarchy of Napoleon III in his early years and got in trouble for his political beliefs. He took refuge in the United States, where he came to teach both French and equestrianship at the Aiken school for girls in Stamford, CT.
"It was here that he fell in love and married one of his students — "beautiful Mary Plummer."
Mary Plummer was born in Springfield, MA, in 1849. In 1857, the Plummer family moved to Skinner's Prairie near Durand, WI. A chance visit from a wealthy uncle in New York City would forever change Mary's life. Struck by his niece's beauty, Mary's uncle, Horace Taylor, offered to pay for her education at the prestigious Aiken Seminary in Stamford, CT. Her parents agreed to the proposal. It was at the Aiken school that Mary first encountered Georges Clemenceau, her French teacher.
The French Tiger, smitten by his student, soon had a whirlwind courtship and in less than a year, the couple married on June 23, 1869, in New York City. She was 20, and he was 28. The marriage would last about seven years and produce three children — two girls and a boy — before they separated. Their eldest, Madeleine, was born in 1870. Two more children — Therese and Michel — were born in France in 1873 and 1874, respectively.
Meanwhile, Clemenceau, originally trained to be a doctor, abandoned medicine and actively pursued a career in politics in France, first as a mayor and then as a representative in the National Assembly. As "The Tiger" rose in political influence, he grew distant from his wife, and they separated. Clemenceau provided Mary with a small living allowance for their family, but she had to supplement her income by becoming a tour guide and magazine writer.
Mary's daughter, Madeleine, became a famous journalist and speaker and a Red Cross nurse during the war (see photo gallery). Therese married and later divorced. Mary's son, William Benjamin Clemenceau, became a colonel in the French army. He was the first French officer to enter St. Mihiel after that famous World War I battle had ended.
In 1917, Clemenceau became Prime Minister of France, a position that he held through 1920. His influence in that capacity was immense. As most of the Great War was fought in France, the French citizenry was often living in great danger, including Clemenceau's family. He offered to evacuate Mary from Paris when that city was under siege, but she refused.
After America entered the war in April of 1917, troops from Durand, WI, visited Mary at her home in Paris. Soon thereafter, her former husband played the most prominent role in the Paris Peace Conference that ended World War I. Clemenceau, who secretly despised former Wesleyan University football coach Woodrow Wilson, was perfectly suited to host the conference, as he was almost as fluent in English as he was in French. The Tiger survived an assassination attempt by an anarchist during the peace talks. Clemenceau recovered quickly and carried a bullet in his back for the rest of his life.
The Tiger of France was determined to make Germany pay for its aggression in World War I. The heavily punitive Treaty Of Versailles bore his vengeful stamp, ensuring that Germany would seek payback in the future. Adolph Hitler, himself an embittered veteran of the Great War, rode Germany's resentment of the treaty to political victory in the 1930's and brought about the greatest conflagration in human history — World War II. It was a war in which an estimated 60-70 million would die.
Meanwhile, Mary Plummer Clemenceau, the former Connecticut schoolgirl who married one of the most powerful leaders in the world, remained a devoted mother and wife, despite being virtually ignored by her estranged husband. Troops from Wisconsin who visited her home at 18 Grande Rue Sievres during the war told of a kind of shrine she had made in one of the rooms of her home. It was filled with articles and pictures of her famous husband and his achievements. Mary died in February 1923, just a few days before her 74th birthday. Her husband survived her by six years, dying in 1929 at 88.