Benjamin Franklin’s Battery of Lovers

Franklin in London, 1767, wearing a blue suit with elaborate gold braid and buttons. Detail of painting by David Martin, displayed in the White House.

If there was ever a theme song for Benjamin Franklin, it would definitely be the 1970 Steven Stills folk-rock ditty, “If You Can’t Be With the One You Love, Love the One You’re With.” Walter Isaacson summed up Franklin’s personal life: “Throughout his life he had few emotional bonds tying him to any one place, and he seemed to glide through the world the way he glided through relationships.”[1]

Sexual affairs? “With his many women admirers, he preferred flirting rather than making serious commitments, and he retreated into playful detachment at any sign of danger.”[2] But Benjamin Franklin still had his scandalous moments in life. He was a world famous celebrity, a babe magnet, and idolized as a rock star of his day. Adored by women in both England and France, his many affairs of the heart, mind, and body were far from boring.

Deborah Read

Benjamin Franklin had quit his brother’s print shop apprenticeship in Boston at age seventeen, and headed to the new metropolis of Philadelphia. Barely off the ship, he ran into the first female relationship of his long life: Deborah Read, his landlord’s daughter. But a newspaper job in England awaited young Ben, so Deborah married a scalawag named John Rodgers, who ran up debts, spent all of  Deborah’s dowry and then took off for the West Indies, where it was rumored he was killed. But without a death certificate, legally Deborah was still married. That’s the situation Ben found Deborah in eighteen months later, in 1730, when he returned; so he proposed a mutually-beneficial plan to Deborah. They could set up house on Market Street as a common-law marriage. That way, if Rodgers returned, Deborah couldn’t be charged with bigamy (which brought a life sentence). And in turn, Benjamin wouldn’t be liable for the debts of Rogers as Deborah’s common-law “husband.” Oh … and there was one more thing … Deborah could help take care of young William Franklin,[3] the love child from a night Ben spent with Philadelphia’s “low women.”[4] Benjamin and Deborah went on to have two children, Francis Folger Franklin (“Frankie”) who died from smallpox in 1736, and Sarah Franklin (“Sally”). For eighteen years, Deborah ran the store and kept the books, while Benjamin branched out in business ventures, printing, science, politics, and writing. Franklin wrote some pretty bawdy material which only in the early twentieth century was cleared from the censor’s red pen.[5] Benjamin started to travel for business,[6] but Deborah always preferred staying home in Philadelphia.

Catherine Ray

The first big affair of Franklin’s was at the age of forty-nine when he traveled back to Boston on business. He met beautiful twenty-three-year-old Catherine “Caty” Ray,[7] who Franklin alternately called “Katy” and “Katie” in letters. They engaged in sex-laced games and dialog. Franklin sent her flirtatious letters saying things like, “Your Favours come mixd with the Snowy Fleeces which are pure as your Virgin Innocence, white as your lovely Bosom.”[8] Uh huh. When Franklin lightly suggested they go to the next level, Caty feigned shock and Franklin backed off, so that the relationship stayed platonic. But then, like most of the women Franklin met, all the friendly relationships lasted for the rest of Franklin’s life.

Margaret Stevenson

Next up, Franklin was sent to England as an agent for the colonies of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Georgia. Again, he asked Deborah to go with him and again she refused, this time because of her fear of ocean travel. Benjamin took up residence at No. 27 Craven Street,[9] a convenient flat in central London near Whitehall and (what would become) Trafalgar Square. His landlord was the sophisticated and well-to-do widow, Mrs. Margaret Stevenson. Franklin was already a well-known celebrity and Margaret was flattered that Franklin had chosen her residence. But soon after arriving, Franklin took ill with severe breathing problems (probably from London’s foul, polluted air) and for eight weeks, Margaret nursed Ben back to health again. During that time, a strong relationship developed and soon Londoners became used to seeing the two in public as a couple. “Though it is possible that their relationship had some sexual aspect, there was no particular passion, and it provoked very little gossip or scandal in London.”[10] Apparently there were no secrets between Ben and Margaret as Ben was continuing in London his practice being a morning nudist. He believed “air baths” were healthy and upon rising, and spent about an hour in the buff taking care of correspondence. Sometimes Dr. Franklin would even wander through Margaret’s backyard garden in the early morning being one with nature.

Pencil sketch: Franklin and a lady, 1767, attributed to Charles Willson Peale. (American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia)
Pencil sketch: Franklin and a lady, 1767, attributed to Charles Willson Peale. (American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia)

Polly Stevenson

Ben liked Margaret Stevenson a lot, but historians think his eyes were really on Margaret’s eighteen-year-old daughter, Mary Stevenson, who went by “Polly.” Polly was extremely bright and Franklin found it exhilarating to teach his eager student about science, nature, and life. Polly was also very flirtatious, which of course ol’ Ben played along with. The famous painter Charles Willson Peale walked into the Craven Street flat unannounced one day and drew a pencil sketch of what he saw. It’s of a young woman sitting on Franklin’s lap, with Franklin and the girl locked in a kiss. The girl is thought to be Polly. It’s doubtful if anything past flirting ever happened, but Franklin made a huge impression upon Polly. So much so, that they wrote beautiful letters to each other for the rest of Franklin’s life. (When Franklin was on his deathbed in 1790, Polly had crossed the ocean to be with him and was at his bedside when he died.) In December 1774, Franklin had received word from Philadelphia that Deborah had suffered two strokes and had died. Franklin also had to leave London in March 1775 to return home because the threat of war was now imminent. At that time, Franklin didn’t know if he’d ever see Margaret or Polly again[11].

Madame Brillon de Jouy

Congress didn’t fully realize it when they sent Franklin to France as the American minister, but it was akin to locking a kid in a candy store. This is where Ben became the national rock star celebrity. Invited to virtual non-stop sensuous parties lasting into the wee hours, Ben dressed the part on purpose and charmed all that he met. The nobility crowds yearned to see the simple, new world American man. As an actor in a play, Franklin dressed like a Quaker, often wearing his marten-fur cap. The French upper-class women loved it. At one reception, hundreds of women surrounded him and put a laurel wreath on his head. He masterfully swooned the ladies as they lined up to kiss him, because Franklin knew those same ladies gave favorable reviews of Franklin (and therefore the cause of liberty) to the policy-making men in the daytime. But aghast, Franklin’s fellow diplomat Arthur Lee of Virginia wrote Congress that Franklin had made Paris “a corrupt hotbed of vice.”[12] Franklin, the man who tamed electricity, would counter, speaking in French, that it was “the power of the attraction”[13] and almost shruggingly wrote that the ladies desperately wanted “to have their necks kissed.”[14]  Madame Brillon de Jouy became the standout female favorite of Franklin’s. At the age of thirty-three, she was a married, beautiful Passy[15] neighbor to Franklin and an accomplished pianist on her harpsichord. Franklin and Brillon hit it off by the use of witty, sexy banter, as she sat on his lap, kissing him and discussing topics in the third person and even role playing. She called Franklin “Mon Cher Papa.”[16] When conversing about religion, she promised to absolve him of all sins, “present, past and future.”[17]

In the HBO-Playtone series John Adams, Adams is depicted finding Franklin and Madame Brillon in a bathtub playing chess together. The French could be decadent, but in this case, that scene is all Hollywood. John Adams was never in the bathroom, and it was really Franklin playing chess with a male neighbor (Louis-Guillaume le Veillard) in the bathroom while Madame Brillon watched, soaking in a bathtub covered with wooden planks across it. Not so scandalous. But soon, Franklin’s eye had caught sight of a new French mademoiselle.

Madame Helvetius

The new prospect who lived over in the next village of Auteuil, was beautiful and widowed, and although was distantly related to Marie Antoinette, was financially so-so in her lively country house. But that’s the way she liked it. She had this salon group of bohemian philosophers living with her, along with dogs, ducks, and her dog named Poupon. It was very much like a hippie commune[18] in a sense, because her late husband had been the writer of the famous novel De l’Esprit, which touted the love of carnal hedonism. Franklin was immediately attracted to the whole set-up, of course, and to Madame Helvetius herself, who like hippie free spirits often wore little clothing out in her earthy French gardens.

Franklin, completely smitten with Madame Helvetius, made a huge mistake when he brought two of the most proper (and puritan) people in the world, John and Abigail Adams, to meet her. John was shocked at the total lack of morality in every detail of the commune. But Abigail was traumatized about Madame Helvetius herself, writing, “After dinner she threw herself upon a settee where she shew more than her feet. She had a little Lap Dog who was next to the Dr. her favorite. This She kisst and when he wet the floor she wiped it up with her chemise [skirt].”[19] So taken was Franklin, of course, that he more or less proposed marriage to Madame Helvetius in 1780, who turned him down, saying she was honoring her late husband by never marrying again. It was “more or less proposed marriage” because Franklin never really jumped one hundred percent into any commitments, it seems. This tendency was summed up by Franklin biographer Carl Lotus Becker: “Always immersed in affairs, he seems never completely absorbed by them.”[20]

In 1783, Franklin, along with peace commissioners John Adams and John Jay, negotiated the Treaty of Paris which recognized American independence. Franklin also found out then that Margaret Stevenson had passed away. Franklin finally sailed back home, alone, but to a hero’s welcome. In the next years Franklin, as a Constitutional Convention delegate, battled mostly bladder stones. But he continued to receive letters of love from Madame Helvetius, Madame Brillon, and Catherine Ray (Greene). Polly Stevenson (Hewson), as mentioned, came to Philadelphia for Ben and was at his bedside when he died in 1790. “Despite a reputation for lecherousness that he did little to dispel, there is no evidence of any serious sexual affair he had after his marriage to Deborah.”[21] But he had sure earned an international female fan club.

Madame Brillion summed up what made Ben irresistible to women: “that gaiety and that gallantry that cause all women to love you, because you love them all.”[22]

 

[1] Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (Simon & Shuster, New York, 2003), 487.

[2] Ibid.

[3] William was Benjamin Franklin’s constant companion through many of his father’s most famous moments, including the famous scientific experiment of flying a kite in an electrical storm. He traveled to England with his father, and eventually became the royal governor of New Jersey and a lifelong Tory. This drove a wedge between William and his father from which the wound was never healed in Benjamin’s lifetime.

[4] Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, John Bigelow, ed. (Philadelphia, PA., J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1869), 190.

[5] Franklin wrote such gems as, “Advice to a Friend on Choosing a Mistress;” later writing “The Speech of Polly Baker.” “Fart Proudly” (a.k.a. “To the Royal Academy of Farting”) remains a juvenile classic. It was not until the early twentieth century when these items were included back into Franklin’s own Autobiography (which was the only book Davy Crockett took with him to the Alamo); Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin, 479.

[6] He had earned a royal commission as deputy postmaster general of the American colonies.

[7] Catherine Ray eventually married William Greene, the future governor of Rhode Island during the Revolutionary War and third cousin to General Nathanael Greene.

[8] Benjamin Franklin to Catherine Ray, March 4, 1755; The Franklin Papers: Vol. 5:502a,  http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp?vol=5&page=502a (accessed February 15, 2016).

[9] Later, the same flat was renumbered from No. 27 to No. 36 Craven Street. This is the house where in 1998, human remains were found buried below the house. The likely suspect was Dr. William Hewson, who also lived at the house for two years and who used the remains to learn anatomy, as was sometimes common during that period. Hewson would later marry Polly Stevenson. When Hewson was living there, Franklin and Margaret Stevenson moved out to No. 1 Craven Street, where Franklin would spend his last couple years in London. An excellent examination of the various numbered flats occupied by Margaret Stevenson and Benjamin Franklin is in the Journal of the American Revolution article “A Brief History of Benjamin Franklin’s Residences on Craven Street, London: 1757 – 1775” by David Turnquist, https://allthingsliberty.com/2016/03/a-brief-history-of-benjamin-franklins-residences-on-craven-street-london-1757-1775/

[10] Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin, 176-177.

[11] By May 1775, Margaret was writing Ben hoping that he’d be able to return to her and they could get married. Or perhaps, she wondered if she and Polly could come to Philadelphia? Franklin side-stepped the questions by giving Margaret financial advice during wartime – that she should move money from government bonds to private investments. Ben and Margaret exchanged letters until Margaret’s death on January 1, 1783.

[12] J.C. Ballagh, ed., Letters of Richard Henry Lee (New York, 1911-14), vol. 2, 202.

[13] Claude-Ann Lopez, Mon Cher Papa, Franklin and the Ladies of Paris (New Haven, CT., 1966), citing Albert Henry Smyth, The Writings of Benjamin Franklin (New York, 1905), vol. 7, 132. Lopez specialized in translating French documents during Franklin’s time in Paris and has opened new insights into this period. According to Franklin scholar Carl Lotus Becker, Franklin spoke French “although with a homely accent.”

[14] Ibid. Franklin added that necks were okay, but the French ladies did not want their cheeks kissed. It “rubbed off the paint.”

[15] Passy is now just a western extension of the City of Paris, but then it was across the Seine River and out in the country.

[16] Smyth, The Writings of Benjamin Franklin, 7:132.

[17] Madame Brillon to Benjamin Franklin, March 7, 1778; Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin, 358.

[18] While Franklin was living with Madame Helvetius, he wrote her a now-famous tale, called “The Elysian Fields,” which itself became the “Elysian Park” name of the most famous hippie “love-in” in Los Angeles during the late 1960s. Jefferson mentions the name also to his love, Maria Cosway, “But I took a peep only into Elysium.” Jefferson to Cosway, July 1, 1787.

[19] Abigail Adams to Lucy Cranch, Auteuil, September 5, 1784; in Adams Family Correspondence, vol. 5, at http://www.masshist.org/publications/apde2/view?id=ADMS-04-05-02-0229 MHS Digital Editions – Massachusetts Historical Society (accessed February 21, 2016). In the letter, Abigail added how she liked Paris: “You inquire of me how I like Paris? … One thing I know, and that is, that I have smelt it. If I was agreeably dissapointed in London, I am as much dissapointed in Paris. It is the very dirtyest place I ever saw.”

[20] Carl Lotus Becker, “Benjamin Franklin,” Dictionary of American Biography, Volume 3 (New York: Scribner’s, 1931); http://rjensen.people.uic.edu/franklin.htm#becker (accessed February 17, 2016).

[21] Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin, 165.

[22] Madame Brillon to Benjamin Franklin, December 20, 1778. Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin, 362.

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2 Comments

  • Well, John, it seems as though you have the Revolutionary War sex department cornered – nobody could compare with your zealous pursuit of this interesting aspect of the Founders’ private lives!

    Loved the article, but did miss out in not seeing Franklin’s “grey cat” quote:

    “Because in every Animal that walks upright, the Deficiency of the Fluids that fill the Muscles appears first in the highest Part: The Face first grows lank and wrinkled; then the Neck; then the Breast and Arms; the lower Parts continuing to the last as plump as ever: So that covering all above with a Basket, and regarding only what is below the Girdle, it is impossible of two Women to know an old from a young one. And as in the dark all Cats are grey, the Pleasure of corporal Enjoyment with an old Woman is at least equal, and frequently superior, every Knack being by Practice capable of Improvement.”

    Oh, and don’t forget the quote about older women, “Because they are so grateful!!!”

    Good ole Ben!

    • Gary – Ha! In my effort to show the Founders in a more modern light to unfamiliar but eager new readers, what better common ground to show the “men in marble” as human beings with foibles… as with sex?

      At least it also piques everyone’s attention, and as in Dr. Franklin’s case with Madame Helvetius – is hilarious. Especially imaging the wide-eyed shock of Abigail Adams and what she beheld on her visit. I have no way of proving it, but I’m just betting the impish Franklin brought John and Abigail Adams out to the bohemian commune of Madame Helvetius just to get a rise out of them.

      Yes, your “grey cat” quote is legendary and I thank you for adding it to this thread.
      “… in the dark all Cats are grey” is a fine metaphor for republican equality, isn’t it? “Good ole’ Ben” is right!

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