In 1998, David Bowie answered a series of questions. First put to Marcel Proust in the 1880s by his friend Antoinette Faure, daughter of the then French president Felix Faure, these questions would reveal much about the respondent’s fears, prejudices and desires, or so was the idea.
President Faure died in the ‘arms’ of his mistress ‘Meg’ Marguerite Jeanne Steinheil during a tryst at the Elysee Palace’s Blue Room – allegedly in the midst of fellatio. Meg was a prolific lover, linked to such notables as René Lalique, King Sisowath of Cambodia, Jules Massenet, François Coppée and Émile Zola. To add to her impressive legend, Meg was later suspected of the murder of her husband and stepmother at their Paris home: Adolphe Steinheil had been strangled; his mother had choked to death on her false teeth. Marguerite said she’d been overpowered by burglars, who’d tied her to a bed. After much confusion and claim, Meg was cleared. She moved to Hove, England, where she married the barrister and minor aristocrat Robert Brooke Campbell Scarlett, 6th Baron Abinger.
Meg published ‘Mes Memoirs’ in 1912. In it she makes no mention of sex with the President, claiming to have left his company in full dress (the story went that he was discovered wearing only his vest) after advising him to get some fresh air and lay off the drugs.
Antoinette put her questionnaire to many of higher high society friends. (We have no evidence she asked her father’s mistress – which is a pity.) Antoinette recorded their responses in long hand, collecting the answers in a red leather-bound book marked Antoinette Faure’s Album.
Proust took the test twice, at ages 14 and 20, publishing his answers in a 1892 article for La Revue Illustrée XV entitled Salon Confidences Written by Marcel.
Proust’s original manuscript “by Marcel Proust himself” wasn’t discovered until 1924, two years after his death.
Confessions—An Album to Record Thoughts, Feelings
Questions by Antoinette Faure, answered by 15-year-old Marcel Proust, 1886
(Answers translated from French by Emily Meehan)
Your favorite virtue. – All virtues that are not partisan: the universal virtues.
Your favorite qualities in man. – Intelligence, moral sense.
Your favorite qualities in woman. – Gentleness, naturalness, intelligence.
Your favorite occupation. – Reading, dreaming, poetry, history, theater.
Your idea of happiness. – To live close to those I love with the charms of nature nearby,
enough books and music, and not far from a French theater.
Your idea of misery. – To be separated from Mama.
Your favorite color and flower. – I love all colors, and as for flowers, I don’t know.
If not yourself, who would you be? – Don’t ask me that question, I prefer not to answer it.
I would, however, have liked very much to be Pliny the Younger.
Where would you like to live? – In the country of the ideal, or rather, of my ideal.
Your favorite prose authors. – George Sand, Augustine Thierry.
Your favorite poets. – Musset.
Your favorite painters and composers. – Meissonnier, Mozart, Gounod.
Your favorite heroes in real life. – A mixture of Socrates, Pericles, Mahomet, Musset,
Pliny the Younger and Augustine Thierry.
Your favorite heroines in real life. – A woman of genius with an ordinary life.
Your favorite heroes in fiction. – The poetic heroes, those who are ideals rather than types.
Your favorite heroines in fiction. – Those who are more than other women without
becoming like men, full of tenderness, poetry, purity and beauty.
Your pet peeve. – Those who don’t show feelings, who ignore gentle affection.
For what fault have you most toleration? – The privacy of geniuses.
Your favorite motto. – One that can’t be boiled down, but acknowledges the beauty and
goodness that can be found in nature.
In 1993, Vanity Fair magazine realised the value of the test – not least of all for breaking the ice in a celebrity interview. The‘Proust Questionnaire’ began to feature on the the last page of each issue.
A few highlights:
What’s the one thing you’d change about herself?
Jane Fonda: “My inability to have a long-term intimate relationship.”
How would like to die?
Hedy Lamarr: “Preferably after sex.” (The star of the first on-screen orgasm was age 85.)
What is your greatest extravagance?
Arnold Schwarzenegger: “I am a major shoe queen.”
In August 1988, it was David Bowie’s turn:
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
What is your most marked characteristic?
Getting a word in edgewise.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
What is your greatest fear?
Converting kilometers to miles.
What historical figure do you most identify with?
Which living person do you most admire?
Who are your heroes in real life?
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
While in New York, tolerance.
Outside New York, intolerance.
What is the trait you most deplore in others?
What is your favorite journey?
The road of artistic excess.
What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Sympathy and originality.
Which word or phrases do you most overuse?
What is your greatest regret?
That I never wore bellbottoms.
What is your current state of mind?
If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?
My fear of them (wife and son excluded).
What is your most treasured possession?
A photograph held together by cellophane tape of Little Richard that I bought in 1958, and a pressed and dried chrysanthemum picked on my honeymoon in Kyoto.
What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Living in fear.
Where would you like to live?
Northeast Bali or south Java.
What is your favorite occupation?
Squishing paint on a senseless canvas.
What is the quality you most like in a man?
The ability to return books.
What is the quality you most like in a woman?
The ability to burp on command.
What are your favorite names?
Sears & Roebuck.
What is your motto?
“What” is my motto.
Read them all in Vanity Fair’s Proust Questionnaire: 101 Luminaries Ponder Love, Death, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life, by Graydon Carter