Alexandre Dumas, the author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, among scores of other novels, was born on July 24, 1802. His father was somewhat of an adventurer-soldier, a mulatto, and was not a favorite of Napoleon because of his staunch republicanism. Therefore, on his father's death in 1806, when Alexandre was only four, the family was left in rather severe financial straits. The young boy's formal education was scanty, most of it provided by a priest, and as soon as he could qualify, Alexandre entered the services of a lawyer. As he grew older, he became close friends with the son of an exiled Swedish nobleman, and the two of them began to dabble in vaudeville enterprises. Later, as a young man, Dumas went to Paris and secured a position as a clerk to the Duc d'Orleans; this was a marvelous stroke of good fortune, for the Duc would soon become king, and Dumas would write a superb Memoir about his many and varied mishaps while he was employed by the future king.
At the same time, Dumas and his old friend, Leuven, produced several melodramas. When he was twenty-two, however, a melodrama of his own making presented itself: Dumas found himself the father of an illegitimate son by a dressmaker, Marie Labay; when the boy was seven, Dumas went to court to get custody of him, and succeeded.
Professionally, this was an extremely happy time for Dumas; for six years, he and Leuven had been collaborating on plays, and their legitimate dramas had been staged to much popular acclaim. Then in 1829, Dumas' Henri III et sa cour (Henry III and His Court) was produced; it was Dumas' first spectacular triumph. The Duc was so fond of it that he appointed Dumas the librarian of the Palais Royal.
The Revolution of 1830 interrupted Dumas' playwriting, and for a pleasant and amusing account of these years, one should consult Dumas' Memoirs for many rich and humorous anecdotes (not worrying unduly about the degree of truth in them, of course). Then, because Dumas was implicated in some "irregularities" during a noted French general's funeral, he suddenly decided to "tour" Switzerland; as a result, we have another long series of delightful Memoirs, this time issued as travel books. It should be noted, though, that Dumas always retained his affectionate relationship with the Duc, and that he eventually returned to France, where he composed many first-rate, long-running plays.
Dumas' well-known collaboration with Auguste Maquet began in 1837 and resulted in a series of historical novels in which Dumas hoped to reconstruct the major events of French history. For example, the Three Musketeers are united in order to defend the honor of Anne of Austria against Richelieu. This particular novel in the series was so popular that Dumas immediately composed two sequels and, by coincidence, The Count of Monte Cristo was also written during this same period, with the help of collaborators.
In fact, Dumas, with the aid of collaborators, turned out so much fiction and miscellaneous writing that it has been remarked that "No one has ever read the whole of Dumas, not even himself." We know now, however, that Dumas' assistants only provided him with rough plotlines and suggested incidents to him. He himself filled in the outlines, and all of his novels' manuscripts are in his handwriting.
Like so many creative and productive men, Dumas' life ended in a series of personal and financial tragedies. He built a strangely beautiful and impressive French Gothic, English Renaissance hybrid mansion and filled it with a multitude of scavenger-friends; both home and hangers-on were tremendous drains on his purse, as was the construction and upkeep of his own theater, the Theatre Historique, built specifically for the performance of his own plays.
In 1851, Dumas moved to Brussels, as much for his political advantage as it was to escape creditors — despite the 1,200 volumes which bore his name — and he died not long after a scandalous liaison with an American circus girl, a situation that he might well have chosen as a fictional framework for his demise.
Dumas' son, Alexandre Dumas fils, is remembered today chiefly for his first novel, The Lady of the Camellias, which was the basis for the libretto of Verdi's opera La Traviata, as well as for the plot of one of Hollywood's classic films, Camille, starring Greta Garbo.