Almonester Pontalba: The
Baroness of Extremes
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Almonester Pontalba was the wealthiest woman in New Orleans, but
her biographer called her a frump for her lamentable everyday wardrobe.
Like most Creoles, she married a cousin, but her in-laws turned
out to be more interested in her money than in family love and loyalty.
She grew up in New Orleans where she completed her greatest work,
but spent most of her adult life in Paris. She is known to history
as the "Baroness Pontalba," a title inherited by a lackluster
husband as she was about to divorce him. Contemporaries called her
persistent, bright-eyed, intelligent, vivacious, prompt, shrewd
and business like. Male historians characterized the Baroness as
strong-willed, imperious, penurious, self-indulgent and vacillating,
while her female biographer uncovered a life of affliction and resilience.
Her portrait as a young wife shows a woman of grace and reflection;
her photograph at an older age shows a hardened veteran with unmistakably
Micaela Almonester Pontalba - Photo Courtesy of Louisiana State Museum
Married to Misery
No contradiction was greater than the chasm between her privileged
life and her sufferings at the hand of her husband's family. Born
in 1795, she was married to her cousin Xavier Celestin de Pontalba
at the age of fifteen. Her father, Andres Almonester y Rojas,
had been a wealthy New Orleans notary and politician who amassed
a fortune in colonial real estate with the indulgence of Spanish
authorities. In 1777 the crown allowed him to acquire public land
on both sides of the town square, which he developed into lucrative
rental property and the base of a fortune. Micaela's father-in-law
was the Baron Joseph Delfau de Pontalba, who served the French
and Spanish as a military officer and lived in a state of paranoia
about money and social control. Almonester was seventy years old
when Micaela was born, and died just three years later. In a marriage
contract of 1811, her widowed mother agreed to an expensive dowry
for her daughter to seal the alliance to their socially prominent
Pontalba cousins. After her wedding, Micaela was promptly whisked
from New Orleans to Mont l'Eveque, the Pontalba family chateau
Micaela bore her husband five children, but
the influence of his father on their marriage was disastrous.
It soon became apparent that the elder de Pontalba was intent
on seizing the Almonester fortune. Two years after the wedding,
he had her sign a general power of attorney to her husband giving
him control of her assets, rents, and capital, both dotal and
as heir of her father. French law provided a "head and master"
marital regime, but husbands had grave obligations to account
for their wives' funds, mortgaging their own assets as guarantee.
Micaela began to suspect their intentions when she discovered
that the elder Pontalba had no intention of fulfilling his side
of the marriage contract and was appropriating her money.
No Way Out?
By the 1830s, Micaela was a virtual prisoner of the Pontalba family,
who made her life miserable. If she visited New Orleans, she was
accused of deserting her husband. In Paris she began a series
of lawsuits to get a separation, but consistently lost to the
strictures of French law on marriage. Her efforts to protect her
fortune enraged the Baron her father-in-law, who in November 1834
shot her point blank with a pair of dueling pistols at the family
chateau. That evening, after brooding through the day, he took
his own life with the same pistols.
With four round gunshots to the chest, fingers
shattered, and blood pouring, Micaela survived. Several lawsuits
later, she received her separation. In New Orleans a civil law
judge ordered the restitution of her property. She lived to build
the elegant row houses known to history as the Pontalba Buildings,
on Jackson Square, and a vast Parisian hotel, now used as the
American Embassy. She died in 1874 at the age of seventy-eight.
Micaela's life has been the subject of two
books and an opera. Intimate Enemies, a riveting 1997
biography by Christina Vella, reads like a novel. Dense and vibrantly
written, it portrays its subject sympathetically. Baroness
Pontalba's Buildings, an earlier and shorter work by the
late architect Samuel Wilson, Jr. and historian Leonard Huber,
shows respect for her accomplishments in building the Pontalba
Buildings, but lacks the pathos of the full story. Thea Musgrave's
opera Pontalba was commissioned as a fitting France-Louisiana
subject to commemorate the Louisiana Purchase Bicentennial of
In the end, French law notwithstanding, the
Baroness got her money back.
Sally Reeves is a noted writer and historian
who co-authored the award winning series New Orleans Architecture.
She also has written Jacques-Felix Lelièvre’s New
Louisiana Gardener and Grand Isle of the Gulf – An Early
History. She is currently working on a social and architectural
history of New Orleans public markets and on a book on the contributions
of free persons of color to vernacular architecture in antebellum