Paul Morphy at his chess peak was the toast of the town, feted by great men, leaders and royalty. His coming and goings were public record, written about and talked about. He was a celebrity - all because he effortlessly excelled at an inconsequential diversion. The threat of Chess taking over his life was beyond anything Morphy could justify or condone with the values under which he was raised. Knowing that in his position merely dabbling in chess would be an impossibility, he resigned completely and irrevokably from public chess. Suddenly the man of whom the world knew too much became the man of whom the world knew nothing. His private life from the time he retired from public chess became a mass of rumors and myths and very little truth.
In attempting to understand Paul Morphy from our perspective a century and a half later we mostly have third-hand knowledge and misinformation. During Morphy's chess period we were fortunate to have his chronicler, Frederick Edge. Later, most of what we know was presented by his niece, Regina Morphy-Voitier, who was 15 when Morphy died and living in a different household. She wrote her memoirs of Morphy almost 40 years after he died. In effect, her writing was also third-hand.
So, where does that leave us?
Most people are unaware of Léona Queyrouze Barel, an outstanding Creole woman and an intimate friend of the Morphy's during the decade before Paul died. In 1889, just five years after Paul's death, she completed the first draft her own memoir of Paul Morphy in manuscript form. She never published the manuscript but rewrote it in 1938 with the futile idea of publishing it. It remains unpublished, and mostly unknown, today. This is terribly unfortunate. The First and Last Days of Paul Morphy is a masterpiece and the closest we'll ever come to seeing the real Paul Morphy.
Morphy in his final years was indeed a peculiar spectacle of eccentricities. Acknowledging this, Queyrouse, writing under the pen-name Constant Beauvoir, gives us glimpse behind this tattered curtain and presents Morphy as a sensitive man of great kindness, impeccable manners and profound intelligence and learning, but at the same time describes for us the side of the man that the outside world might see. She opens her memoir, dated July 10, 1884, with a hauntingly disturbing, yet touching portrait of Morphy.
"Proeliis ex sanguinatis facile princeps."
July 10th, 1884.
One o'clock p.m.
He was once young, handsome and wealthy; wooed by women, flattered by men, lionized by all, and courted by sovereigns who deemed it an honor to be vanquished by him. ____
Who? That small, slender man, wandering aimlessly through the streets of New Orleans, with incoherent gestures, and muttering strange words to himself, with an unfrequent, sarcastic smile?
Yes; he was once a king, that frail-looking man, gliding with light, elastic steps through the crowd gathered on Canal Street, the great fashionable avenue which marks the limit between the Creole and American quarters.
Insane, did you say? Insane? That may be, if you are sure of not being yourself more or less demented, you one of this senseless, grinning multitude. Watch him well. He bows to someone. Have you noticed how gracious his smile can be? He has stopped abruptly at the corner of Royal street, and there he stands abstractedly, wrapped up in his thoughts, totally unconscious of the surrounding noise and excitement, and heedless of that ever renewed human current which sweeps past him. He leans back against the wall; and his deep, scrutinizing gaze is intently fixed upon some object invisible to us. No other eyes but his, can perceive the mysterious things that strike his mind's vision. The keen profile of his emaciated face, wearing the pallid hue of meditation, stands in relief on the brown wall and looks like an ancient ivory carving. His fine, nervous hand holds a light cane, with which he draws geometrical figures on the pavement around him.
What do they mean, you ask? Surely no one could tell, except himself, the wonderful man whose marvelous memory could once simultaneously retain the strategy of eight or eleven chess-boards without his casting a single glance upon them; and whose unrivalled genius transported the world with such admiration, that the title of "Chess-King" was universally and with one voice bestowed upon him forever.
There he stands, isolated as if he had drawn a magical circle about him. See how his glance brightens. All at once he ceases his moves, as though he had at last found the long sought for solution of some problem, known to him alone. He puts his glasses on and lifts a more animated look to the throngs of women passing by, attired in their fresh summer dresses. He has started again, walking with the same peculiar and characteristic elasticity of gait.
Now he shakes his head with an expression of discontent. Shrugging his slight shoulders, he hastens away, evidently disappointed; and the habitual weary look again darkens his countenance. He clinches his hands convulsively, speaking aloud this time. Mark the harsh, bitter laugh which distends his pale lips, displaying the beautiful white teeth, whose gleam unexpectedly illumines the faded features with a fugitive reflection of youth.
Once more he turned to cast a withering glance, full of unutterable contempt, upon the crowd, among which several persons point at him derisively.
- Did you hear what he said?
"Que ces gens la sout têtes! (How stupid those people are!)"
He has gone now, and disappeared from the sight of those women who untiringly smile that bland, meaningless smile which is a part of their dress, like their conventional, chronic laugh. He hurries away from those and others who stare at him haughtily, with rigid faces upon which self-consciousness is indelibly stamped. Far better does his country-woman know who is that newly imported, foreign fop, thrown over by fortune's wheel on this side of the ocean, with perhaps a problematic title before his name, than who is that unassuming man with the simple and exquisite manners of a genuine grand seigneur. Some of them even think that he looks rather funny.
Upon leaving Canal Street and it's ordinary monotonous exhibition, he wends his way down in the direction of the Carré, the Creole city. He cuts across another human wave, that bragging, boisterous assemblage of business-men issuing from the bar-rooms situated on his road. There meet Americans with ruddy cheeks and fair hair; Creoles with pale faces and dark, flashing eyes, and many of those commercial parvenus, with thick, confident laughter and heavy wit, gentlemen by the right of the purse.
Whither is he going, with that supremely scornful and weary air?