The Red Widow

Written by Sarah Horowitz
Review by Gail M. Murray

Professor Sarah Horowitz’s fluid, story-like biography of colorful femme fatal Marguerite “Meg” Steinheil makes this Belle Époque hostess accessible through her thorough research, set in the context of Parisian mores of the time. It begins as a sympathetic portrayal of a young woman wrenched from her first love, Lt. Sheffer. As Captain Sheffer, he later appears as a strong character witness at her trial. Raised by a controlling father—who possibly abused her but certainly taught her how to charm men—in a dysfunctional family with a history of mental illness, she earns the reader’s empathy. What if she had been allowed to marry her first love?

Instead she is coerced into marrying a mediocre artist twenty years her senior. For the bourgeoisie, social class is the bottom line. Meg uses her considerable charms to climb the social ladder into Parisian high society, offering her sexual favors to clients who will purchase her husband’s paintings, thus retaining propriety. She sold art, and sex came as a bonus. Her clients are prominent and powerful men, judges, industrialists, and royals. Her affair with French president Felix Faure brings patronage for her friends and relatives.

When Faure dies of a heart attack in flagrante, it further increases her reputation as a creature providing exquisite pleasure, and no scandal ensues until her husband and mother are found dead. Murdered? Was it a robbery? Was she an accomplice? She can’t get her story straight, and she’s talking to the press, hampering the investigation. It’s like a modern celebrity media circus and crime thriller. The investigation and trial go on for several chapters, and one can imagine the drama and suspense if this were a film, so well has the author captured this facet of her life.

A true account of sex, scandal, and murder about une grande amoureuse.