Womens History Month Highlight: Micaela Almonester Pontalba

At first look, Micaela Almonaster Pontalba’s story seems relatively simple. A rich girl that grew up with the finer things in life. Though she was not considered classically beautiful, she was known for being intelligent and strong-willed, attracting the attention of many Parisans.

She is often characterized as many things, depending on who you are talking to. Contemporaries will say she was persistent, bright-eyed and shrewd. Male historians consider her strong-willed and self-indulgent, while female biographers would describe her as resilient.

Unfortunately, her story might be the biggest example of money cannot buy you happiness. Among her many trials and tribulations, Micaela Almonaster Pontabla is a pillar of survival and determination.  

 

The Beginning

Micaela Leonarda Antoniai Almonaster was born on November 6th of 1795 in New Orleans, Louisiana. She was the eldest daughter and only surviving child of Don Andres Almonester y Rojas and his aristocratic wife, Louise Denys de la Ronde. Her father, Don Andres, was a wealthy notary and politician who gained his massive fortune through real estate and land transfers. Her mother, Louise Denys, was a member of one of the most distinguished families in Louisiana. Due to her beauty and wealthy familial background, it is believed that this marriage was arranged to create an allegiance with Almonester. 

After her parents death, Micaela became the sole heir to their fortune, making her one of the richest girls in the city. Micaela was destined for greatness. She was educated and studied with the elites at the Ursuline Convent. While her native language was French, she knew Spanish and later learned English. From a young age, she possessed a talent for art and music, receiving a piano at the age of 13. While her future appeared bright, it was soon burned out from greedy, 

 

The Marriage 

As Creole tradition dictates, Micaela was placed into an arranged marriage in 1811 at the young age of 15. While she was in love with an impoverished man, Micaela was forced into a marriage of her mothers choosing. Her choice? Joseph-Xavier Celestin Delfau de Pontalba, who was Miceala’s 20-year-old cousin. The marriage was propositioned by the Pontalbas themselves, claiming it was a business merger that would transfer the Almonester wealth into their hands. Only three weeks after their first meeting, Micaela and Joseph-Xavier were married. 

The marriage took place on October 23rd in 1811, and the most influential members of Creole society were in attendance. The citizens of New Orleans actually approved greatly of this marriage, considering it one of the most important marriages ever contracted in New Orleans between two distinguished families. Immediately after her marriage, Micaela became a French citizen. Eventually, Micaela and her new groom, accompanied by both of their mothers, relocated to France. 

Shortly after their arrival to France, Micaela became pregnant with her first child. She would eventually go on to have a total of four sons and a daughter. In order to avoid boredom, Micaela converted a large room at the old chateau into a theatre. It was here that she would put on plays for her friends. Micaela was no stranger to theatrics, putting her heart and soul into these productions . She even went as far as to order costumes, hiring local people for minor roles, and hiring Parisian artists for the leading roles. Micaela often performed on-stage herself during these amateur productions. 

 

The Downfall

 

At first, the marriage appeared successful, but it was quickly turned into a disaster by her meddling father-in-law, Baron Joseph Dalfau de Pontalba. Baron’s greedy and unstable mindset along with her husband’s weak character played a major role in Micaela’s unhappy and intolerable life. 

From the beginning of their marriage, the baron was greatly disappointed with Micaela’s dowry. He was expecting to be much bigger than the amount he received. Apparently, the $40,000 in cash and the jewelry, approved upon before the marriage, was not enough for him. This amount only represented one-quarter of the Almonester inheritance, and the rest was retained by Lousie. Baron wanted the entirety of the Almonester inheritance. As a result, the baron forced Micaela into signing a general Power of Attorney, granting her husband control of her assets, rents, and capital. In the early 1820’s, Micaela convinced her husband to establish his own household in Paris. This allowed the couple and their children to move out from under the barons tyrannical hold and closer to her mother. 

Her mother, Louise, passed away in 1825, making Micaela the sole heir and manager of her parents’ estates.  This included a considerable amount of property in Paris. The Pontalbas’ instantly demanded her to sign the new property to them. In exchange, they would allow her to resume control over her mother’s Paris houses. In 1830, Micaela left on an unauthorized extended visit to New Orleans. It was at this time that she tried to assert her land rights on American soil. 

When Micaela finally returned home, the baron had accused her of deserting her husband. As a result, he forced her to be a “virtual prisoner” of the de Pontalbas. This appears to be the breaking point for Micaela. Shortly after, she left for Paris with her child. It was her that she began filing a series of lawsuits to obtain a separation for her husband, Celestin. Unfortunately, these attempts failed, due to the strict French marriage Laws at the time. 

 

The Shooting

 

Micaela’s attempt to separate herself and her fortune from the de Pontalbas only angered the Baron, resulting in him resorting to violence. On October 19th of 1834, Micaela returned to the chateau for a visit. The baron surprised her in her bedroom, shooting Micaela 4 times at point-blank range with a pair of dueling pistols. Despite her pleas, he shot her four times in the chest, one passing through the hand she used to shield herself. 

Through pure will to survive, Micaela attempted to escape the room. Once outside the door, she fell into the arms of her maid, who quickly dragged her down the stairs to the drawing room. While the baron stood over her body, he did not attempt to fire any more more shots, returning to study.  That evening, Barcon de Pontalba ironically took his own life with the same pistol he used to shoot Michaela. 

Miraculously, Micaela survived the attack, but she was not unscathed. She was left with a crushed hand, two mutilated fingers, and a disfigured chest. While she no longer looked the same, she was alive and that was all that mattered.  

 

The Hotel de Pontalba 

 

After the baron’s demise, Celestin became the successor to his fathers assets. As a result, Micaela became known as the Baroness de Pontalba. After several lawsuits, Micaela regained her property and was granted a legal separation from her husband. Despite the permission, the couple never actually went through with the divorce.  Micaela later commissioned Louis Viscont, a noted architect, to construct a mansion in Paris. It was here that she held an endless amount of lavish balls and soirees, gaining the name Hotel de Pontalba. Today, it serves as the official residence of the United States Ambassador to France. 

 

The Pontalba Buildings 

 

In 1848, Micaela and two of her sons relocated to New Orleans after the outbreak of revolution in France. It is no surprise that, once there, she quickly became the leader of the fashion society, quickly gaining the title of the richest woman in New Orleans. Her salon drew the city’s only the most important and influential individuals of New Orleans. 

Upon her arrival, Micaela noticed that the once-stylish French Quarter had since lost its charm. The Place d’Armes, located in the heart of the French Quarter, had become muddy and noticeably neglected. Micaela owned most of this property from past inheritance, and her assets were valued at $520,00, making it the third most valuable property in the French Quarter. Despite this, she made little to no profit from it because her tenants were not paying the rent regularly.   

In order to remedy the situation, Micaela had the original houses demolished. In their place, she constructed the Pontalba Buildings that are seen today. Micaela personally designed and commissioned the construction of the red-brick townhouses, bearing resemblance to buildings in Paris. She even went as far as to decorate the cast-ironwork with her initials “AP” carved into the center of each section.

Micaela was no stranger to the construction site, often supervising the word on horseback. With her vast knowledge of design and construction of buildings, she is often described as a “lay genius in architecture”.  In the end, this whole project cost her more than $300,000. 

This would later be referred to as Jackson Square. Micaela also played an instrumental role in this name change. It was also her idea to convert it from a parade ground to a formal garden. Allegedly, she threatened the mayor with a shotgun when he attempted to stop her from tearing down two rows of trees. She also helped finance the bronze equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson, featured in the square. 

 

A Visitor Arrives 

 

If you have watched The Greatest Showman, you are familiar with the name Jenny Lind, but did you know that she has history with Micaela ALmonseter Pontalba? While the swedish singer was visiting New Orleans, Micaela offered up her own home and chef for use. When it was time for her to leave, Lind publicly thanked Micaela for her lavish hospitality. After Lind’s departure, Micaela, the ever-present business woman, quickly auctioned off the furniture that the famous singer had used. 

Shortly after this visit, she left New Orleans for good. Her and her eldest son relocated to Paris when she spent the remainder of life. Later, her husband suffered a physical and mental breakdown. As a result, she took him and cared for him before she ultimately passed away.