The future Madame du Barry was born Jeanne Bécu on 19 August 1743 as the illegitimate daughter of Anne Bécu. Her father was most likely a monk named Brother Angel or Jean-Baptiste Gomard de Vaubernier.
Jeanne and her mother travelled to Paris with her mother’s lover Monsieur Dumonceaux in 1747, after Anne had given birth to a son named Claude. They initially lived with Anne’s sister Helene, who was the housekeeper to the King’s librarian. Little Claude died just a few months after their arrival in Paris. After this, Monsieur Dumonceaux took Anne and Jeanne home with him, although he lived there with an official mistress named Francesca. Anne worked for them as a cook on the condition that Monsieur Dumonceaux did not go down to the kitchen very often. Francesca was fond of Jeanne and spoiled her.1
With Monsieur Dumonceaux’s help, Anne settled down with a respectable widower by the name of Nicolas Rançon. For Jeanne, this meant that she was now to be educated in the convent of St Aure in the heart of Paris. Although her time there was not the happiest, she eventually realised how much she owed the nuns there. She would spend nine years there and only occasionally received visits from her mother. At the age of 15, she left the convent and returned to live with her mother.
It was her aunt Helene who suggested that Jeanne become a hairdresser’s apprentice, and by the age of 16, she had a job and an employer who was madly in love with her. Her employer, Lametz, was so smitten with her that he allowed her to live in his apartment, and he showered her with gifts. When his mother learned of his infatuation, she raised hell with Jeanne’s mother, Anne, who promptly lodged a complaint for defamation of character. She won the case, and Lametz was forced to sell his business. Around this time, she may have given birth to an illegitimate daughter named Marie Joséphine, who was officially the daughter of Nicolas Rançon.
Jeanne briefly disappears from the records and reappears in 1761 at the age of 18 when she was employed by a rich widow, Madame de la Garde, first as a lady’s maid and then as an official companion. This all fell apart when Jeanne took up her mistress’s two sons, and one of their wives found out and made a scene. But she had now broken into higher society and was taken on as an apprentice at a fashion house run by Monsieur Labille. Although she lived and worked on the premises, weekends were free, and she soon found suitors willing to pay her price. None were long-term, but Jeanne longed for a luxurious life.
Jeanne met Jean-Baptiste, Count du Barry sometime in 1763, although details are a little vague on how both she and her mother came to live with him. Jeanne became his mistress, and he, too, showered her with the finest things in life. Although he was besotted with her, he offered her to the Duke of Richelieu in order to find a place for his son at court. It was the Duke of Richelieu who opened the gates of Versailles for her. As the Count’s mistress, she was an instant hit. An Inspector wrote, “She is a young woman of about nineteen years of age, tall, well-made with a noble carriage and the loveliest of faces. He will certainly try to barter her to his own advantage, for it is what he always does when he begins to tire of a woman.”2 It all ended rather suddenly after a fight, and Jeanne promptly moved out.
She returned after three months and was soon given a new apartment. She gained two new suitors, but the Count also exercised his “rights” by sleeping with her every night. Even the police, who were ever present in observing, noted that “the young lady is overdoing it. She has not the stamina to stand up to this sort of life.”3 From the Count’s son, she began to learn the etiquette of Versailles. In the spring of 1768, she was finally received at Versailles by the Duke of Choiseul.
He was unmoved by her beauty and later wrote, “I found her only moderately pretty. There was a certain awkwardness in her manner, which made me take her for a young woman from the provinces.[..] I was kind, but in order to be rid of her, I passed her on to Monsieur Foulon, who was in charge of that department.”4 On her second visit, she referred to the Count and was recognised as a “kept woman.” Although she had no luck in the office, it was on her way to the state apartments to meet a friend, that she ran into King XV going to mass. Even though the court was gloomy as the Queen was dying, he caught sight of the smiling Jeanne. That same evening, he summoned his valet to find out who she was. It wasn’t too difficult, and Queen Marie was in her last week of life as Jeanne spent her first night with the King.
He later said, “I am delighted by your Jeanne. She is the only woman in France who has managed to make me forget that I am sixty.”5
It would not be long before Jeanne would come face to face with the future Queen of France, Marie Antoinette.