The lurid works of Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade, who lived from 1740 to 1814 and died in a mental asylum, were banned in France until 1957, and the diabolical aura around his literary output has lifted only gradually. In fact, according to Hugues [a modern descendant of the Marquis, currently living in Paris], his ancestor’s very existence was erased from the Sade family memory. Hugues’ parents had not even heard of him until the late 1940s, when the historian Gilbert Lely turned up on their doorstep at the Condé-en-Brie castle, in the Champagne region east of Paris, looking for documents relating to the author. “For five generations, the marquis’ name was taboo in our family,” Hugues marveled. “It was as if there was an omertà (conspiracy of silence) against him! The family no longer even used the title marquis.”
Intrigued by Lely’s tale, Hugues’ excited parents, then young newlyweds, began to explore the rambling Condé castle, and soon discovered that a wall had been bricked up in the attic. When they broke through, they found a jumble of dusty valises filled with documents hidden some time earlier by ashamed family members—the Marquis de Sade’s letters, papers, even shopping lists scrawled on scraps of parchment.
“The letters showed Sade the man, how he was a decent human being,” Hugues said. “How he wrote touching love letters to his wife, his two sons, his daughter.”
From that day on, the Sade family dedicated itself to vindicating the memory of its forgotten ancestor, mounting a crusade that coincided with the loosening of censorship in France in the 1950s. Sade’s work became widely available in the rebellious ’60s, and the door opened for the once-disgraced marquis to become France’s most decadent cultural hero, a frenzied aristocratic libertine who is now hailed by some as a literary genius and martyr for freedom.
—Tony Perrottet, writing in Smithsonian Magazine about the life and legacy of the Marquis de Sade.