La Belle Créole: The Cuban Countess Who Captivated Havana, Madrid, and Paris

Recreating the Life and World of the Condesa de Merlin

Known for her beauty and angelic voice, Mercedes Santa Cruz y Montalvo, la Belle Créole, was a Cuban-born star of nineteenth-century Parisian society. She befriended aristocrats and artists alike, including Balzac, Baron de Rothschild, Rossini and the opera diva, La Malibran.

A daughter of the creole aristocracy, Mercedes led a tumultuous life, leaving her native Havana as a teenager to join her mother in the heart of Madrid’s elite society. As Napoleon swept Spain into the Peninsular War, Mercedes’ family remained at the center of the storm and her marriage to French general Christophe-Antoine Merlin tied her fortunes to France. Arriving in Paris in the aftermath of the French defeat, she recreated her life, ultimately hosting the city’s premier musical salon. Acknowledged as one of the greatest amateur sopranos of her day she nurtured artistic careers and daringly paved the way for well-born singers to publicly perform in lavish philanthropic concerts. Beyond her musical renown, Mercedes achieved fame as a writer. Her memoirs and travel writings introduced European audiences to nineteenth-century Cuban society and contributed to the debate over slavery. Scholars still quote her descriptions of Havana life, and recognize her as Cuba’s earliest female author.

Mercedes epitomized an unusually modern life, straddling cultures and celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic. Never forgetting her beloved homeland, she strived to evoke its soft, scented air and blazing sun and ultimately embodied the Romantic Era’s celebration of emotion. Her innate romantic sensibility rings clear in her memoirs, travel writings, and very personal correspondence which now serve as the basis for the first English-language biography of this passionate and adventuresome woman.

In La Belle Créole (Chicago Review Press; September 2014), biographer García-Lapuerta beautifully unravels her seven years of research and travels in Mercedes’ footsteps to the little known worlds of a magnificent woman in history: colonial Cuba, Napoleonic Spain and Parisian society from 1813-1852. This first English-language biography of la Belle Créole strings together stories, memoirs, travel writings and very personal correspondence to reveal a captivating and seductive portrait of a nineteenth-century daughter of the Creole aristocracy who epitomized an unusually modern and sophisticated life.
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