Nationwide — Patti Flinn, an African American author from Central Ohio, has released a fictional biography entitled The Greatest Thing, which tells the story of Louis-Benoit Zamor, who was purchased as a child in 1771 and gifted to Madame Jeanne du Barry, mistress of King Louis XV. He would live with du Barry until 1793 when his testimony became pivotal in sending her to the guillotine, an act that would forever leave him branded as a traitor.
Flinn says that didn’t know anything about Zamor until she ran across a portrait of him on Pinterest. A full-time executive assistant, part-time romance novelist—and self-professed Francophile, Flinn was surprised this bit of information had never come to her attention.
“French was my language in high school and college,” she said. “I knew general French history, but nothing had ever come up about this man. It might have been helpful to know while learning about black history in the U.S. – to help understand the connection between the U.S. and what was happening to black people in the rest of the world. Growing up, I had no idea any black people had ever lived at the Palace of Versailles or that we were in Europe at all.”
Flinn hadn’t yet decided to write about Zamor when she began studying the politics of 18th-century France, reaching out to historians to gain a better understanding of the legalities related to slavery. She even took a course on the French Revolution, for context. Though the research was hampered by her rudimentary French language skills, she pulled all the English-language secondary source material she could find, contacting researchers at the National Library of France to help fill in the blanks.
When asked why the Pinterest image of this particular man prompted such a reaction, the writer admits to feeling a kinship toward the man who grew up in predominantly white spaces who loved books, the violin, and was, at times, called too uppity or some variation of the insulting term. By all accounts, as a child, he suffered a great deal of abuse while at the Palace.
Expected to be loyal to a system that had torn him from his family, Zamor’s audacity in breaking away from that system—and du Barry—would earn him the wrath of over two hundred years of resentment. His rejection of the notion that he owed this woman his life was unforgivable in the eyes of the general public.
Flinn says she felt a visceral need to remove the tarnish from his name and began writing. By developing a fictional character based on this real man, she feels able to showcase the irrational sense of ownership over his personhood and link it to the same sentiment that spread over the globe and drove the slave trade.
Flinn has penned two short novels—Véronique’s Journey (IPPY Award-Winner) and Véronique’s Moon—featuring a character who will prove pivotal in the fictional account of Zamor’s life.
Later this year will see the release of Flinn’s The Greatest Thing, the first of the three-book series, The Last Favorite’s Page, inspired by the life of Louis-Benoit Zamor. With this story, Flinn hopes to give his reputation a long-overdue overhaul; much like the film Jeanne du Barry is said to be doing for the woman who owned him.
To the question of whether an executive assistant from the Midwest is the appropriate person to take on the story, the writer feels being a descendant of the transatlantic slave trade qualifies her to speak on behalf of mistreated brethren. Acknowledging existing French-language novels on Zamor, the author finds it telling that in over two hundred since his death, no one has fictionalized his story in English. Even though he was such a mainstay in the life of du Barry (often only referred to as Du Barry’s Page), his image has popped up in films like Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette and is rumored to appear briefly in the recently released Jeanne du Barry film by Maïwenn, not yet released in the U.S.
“At the end of the day, somehow this man managed to survive the French Revolution, and, still, no one speaks of him except as a footnote to her life. You don’t live through all that without a story to tell. I don’t know if his voice was heard during his time or if it was scrubbed from history, but even the little I could find on him suggests he likely had plenty to say. I looked at his portrait and I thought, who’s going to tell the story of this man who was all alone in the world? Who’s going to tell the story from his perspective, with du Barry being merely a footnote in his life? Who’s going to give him the benefit of the doubt? I guess it’s going to be me.”
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