Friday, February 10, 2023

Q&A with Sarah Horowitz


Photo by Jen Fox



Sarah Horowitz is the author of the new book The Red Widow: The Scandal That Shook Paris and the Woman Behind It. It focuses on Marguerite Steinheil, a woman who was involved in a 1908 murder case. Horowitz also has written the book Friendship and Politics in Post-Revolutionary France. She is a professor of history at W&L University in Virginia.


Q: How did you learn about Marguerite Steinheil, and at what point did you decide to write this book?


A: About 10 years ago, I was on a tour of Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris with friends. As we passed by the tomb of Félix Faure, who was president of France in the 1890s, our tour guide told us that Faure had died in the arms of his mistress. He then said that the woman, named Marguerite Steinheil, had later been suspected of involvement in the murders of her husband and mother.


At the time, I wasn’t sure I believed our tour guide and thought he was just repeating an urban legend. But I was curious enough to start digging and found out that he had been telling the truth. Once I got into the police archives in Paris, I realized that the full story was wilder than anyone knew!


I decided to write the book a few years after that. I was fascinated by all the twists and turns of Marguerite’s life. She was a femme fatale who left a trail of death and destruction in her wake, a woman who broke all the rules in the book – and got away with it.


Q: The Washington Post said of the book, “Horowitz deepens the allure of this true-crime page-turner by contextualizing how sexuality was used by and against women in belle epoque Paris, and how far police went to protect elites.” What do you think of that description?


A: First of all, I’m grateful to The Washington Post for such kind words!


In addition, it’s lovely to see the reviewer picking up on what most interested me about Marguerite’s story. She spent her entire life navigating complicated rules about women’s sexuality. At times, she was harmed by them, as when her parents broke off a relationship with a suitor when she was a young woman. But later in her life, she managed to use her considerable charms to enter French high society and achieved a fair amount of political influence through her relationships with prominent men.

As I was reconstructing the police’s investigation in the murders of her husband and mother, I was struck by how far they went to shield her from scrutiny, even though it was obvious she was lying about what she knew. After all, Marguerite was so well connected and knew so many secrets about powerful men. She wanted to clear her name and the police were more than willing to help her, but her own actions ultimately made that impossible.


Q: How well known was Steinheil in her day, and what do you see as her legacy today?


A: She was very well known in her time. Before the murders, many in France had heard about her relationship with Faure and the circumstances of his death. And after the murders, the case was front-page news on and off for 18 months in 1908 and 1909.


I think she has an important legacy as a sexual celebrity. Today, there are a lot of women who are famous for their tumultuous love lives and who acquire some level of wealth and fame through their sex appeal. Marguerite strikes me a late 19th- and early 20th-century version of this phenomenon. At the same time, her life was derailed by all the press attention, which is an important reminder of the perils of celebrity and how quickly public opinion can turn on a person.


Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised or fascinated you?


A: I was lucky that I had a lot of sources about Marguerite’s life. She wrote her memoirs, although they are wildly unreliable. There was also a lengthy police investigation into the murders which delved into her background. And then finally the press breathlessly covered the criminal case. I was particularly fortunate that the national library of France digitized a lot of newspapers from the era, so I didn’t have to go anywhere to read the coverage.


One of the challenges of writing this book was that these accounts were not always truthful. Marguerite Steinheil lied to protect or enhance her reputation and many of the individuals around her told their own lies about her. Plus, there were rumors about her flying around Paris and I didn’t always know if they were true or just products of someone’s imagination.


I spent a lot of time figuring out what was fact and what was fiction. In some cases, I had multiple accounts of the same event and had to figure out which was the most believable.


As I was researching the book, I was surprised and fascinated by how much the press and the public admired her, even though she did some pretty terrible things. They were a lot more indulgent than I think we would be!


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I haven’t found another book project yet, since I’m mainly busy with teaching. In the coming summers, I want to take some time to poke around in some archives to figure out if there is another interesting woman from France who deserves to be better known.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Readers of the book can find some fun extras on my website at There are videos from the time there, including one of her, as well as images that I couldn’t fit into the book. There is also a link to the crime scene photos, which are haunting.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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