The most elegant “handshake link” of a living celebrity to Napoleon Bonaparte, who died 200 years ago this month, is likely via singer Paul McCartney, who was taught to oppose the Vietnam War in 1965 by mathematician Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), who grew up in the house of his grandfather, Prime Minister John Russell (1792-1878), who had a 90 minute interview with Napoleon on Elba in 1814.
There are of course other living people who knew Bertrand Russell, such as, likely, Queen Elizabeth II, but I like the McCartney connection.
Of course, one question is whether all these people who had face to face conversations shook hands. Perhaps etiquette required that the Emperor not shake hands?
Another one that works: Carl XVI Gustaf, the current King of Sweden, was born when his great-grandfather, Gustaf V, was King. Gustaf V's great-grandmother, who died when he was 2, was Desiree Clary, Napoleon's ex-fiancee
— Robert O'Brien (@RobertOBrien26) May 8, 2021
Désirée Clary’s sister married Joseph Bonaparte and she became engaged to Napoleon before he broke it off when he fell in love with Josephine de Beauharnais. She eventually married Napoleon’s marshal Bernadotte, who became, curiously enough, the King of Sweden. She was initially an unpopular Queen of Sweden, being a Catholic whose main topic of conversation was how they did things better in Paris. But she couldn’t speak Swedish, which probably helped, and eventually she came to be tolerated as a royal eccentric.
There are probably other such two degrees of separation links to Napoleon.
I just reread Anthony Burgess’s 1974 historical novel, The Napoleon Symphony, which had floored me when I read it in high school or first year of college. Burgess had begun the novel as a screenplay for Stanley Kubrick, after their Beethoven-oriented movie A Clockwork Orange had been a hit in 1971.
Kubrick, being an alpha male movie director, had long wanted to make a biopic of Bonaparte’s life (rather like how after Gladiator was a hit in 2000, Scorsese, Gibson, Luhrman, and Stone all announced plans to make their own long-dreamt of Alexander the Great biopics). In the late 1960s, Kubrick was considering for the title role Ian Holm (Bilbo Baggins) and a rising young actor named Jack Nicholson.
Burgess, a semi-pro classical composer, came up with the clever idea of structuring Napoleon’s life story around Beethoven’s 1804 Third Symphony, the Eroica, which Beethoven had intended to dedicate to First Consul Bonaparte of the French Republic until he crowned himself Emperor. Beethoven then was going to tear up his score, but friends dissuaded him, which was good because the Eroica was a great leap forward both for Beethoven and for music, being both in the classical style of the last half century and the Romantic style of the 19th Century.
Kubrick liked Burgess’s idea but didn’t like his screenplay, so Burgess turned it into a novel.
Rereading Burgess’s book, I found it more difficult going than I had in the 1970s, when I was taking European history courses. For a historical novel, it’s intentionally lacking in exposition, instead plunging directly into dialogue. Burgess seems to assume that, well, of course, you already know who Bessières, Masséna, and Ney were. Morever, the plot follows Beethoven’s musical organization rather than the actual timeline, so the retreat from Russia in 1812 is the second movement and Napoleon’s great triumph at Austerlitz in 1805 is the finale.
Eventually, I got the hang of the book. It’s really quite good. But it did strike me that I must have been a lot smarter when I was 17.
Also, Burgess was considered a genius in the 1970s, one of the most celebrated authors in the English language, on a par with Nabokov, so putting a lot of effort into reading his books was assumed to be his rightful due. Nowadays, you don’t hear much about Burgess other than his Clockwork Orange.