Visiting Versailles, the palace of French kings, and the Conciergerie, the prison where Queen Marie Antoinette spent her last days, one can’t help but wonder, How could it possibly have ended like this? Elements of the story do make sense: the queen seemed largely unschooled, her spouse weak, her home far removed from any squalor. But still. Her mother was the leader of Austria, she had family throughout Europe, advisors were aplenty. Could not one have said, quite forcefully, Cut back? Contrasting Marie Antoinette with Catherine the Great of Russia, one wonders how Catherine—also a foreigner (from Prussia), also married to a weak man—managed to take over a country and to lead, while Marie Antoinette stood by her man all the way to the guillotine. How could the queen of France possibly have been so obtuse?
Interestingly, a documentary on another Versailles, the largest single-family home in the United States being constructed in Florida, is instructive on the happenings at the real one. The Sunshine State Versailles, being constructed by David and Jackie Siegel, is monstrously large and exorbitantly extravagant, just as the real one. Not owned by a king or even a politician, Florida Versailles is the apparent dream home of a time-share maven. Siegel’s company sells little bits of paradise to those who may not be able to afford it; he seemingly wants a bigger piece of paradise but also may not be able to swing the expense, according to Lauren Greenfield’s 2012 documentary, The Queen of Versailles, which chronicles the Siegels’ marriage, their life, and the meltdown of their business after the 2008 financial crisis. They are forced to cut back, sort of. Private jets and limousines are out; rental cars are in. That Jackie Siegel doesn’t understand that Hertz doesn’t provide private drivers reminds viewers how oblivious even people from very humble roots can become.
Jackie Siegel is originally from Binghamton, NY, and from a seemingly very modest life. She is quite likable. She’s educated. She just can’t seem to cut back like she should. She claims she can’t afford a watch but hasn’t sold off her furs. She seems to think American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds should be used to help people like her. Like that long-ago queen of France, she’s too far removed from the real world around her. What she and Marie Antoinette should have done is taken a lesson from Catherine the Great: If your life, your marriage, your country aren’t going the way you want them to, don’t sit around and wait for your husband to fix it. Take charge.