Being approximately the right age and indisputably French, Audubon came to be regarded as a serious Lost Dauphin candidate among the True Believers. Audubon did nothing to discourage them. His style, when pressed, was to murmur enigmatic statements, such as, "My own name I have never been permitted to speak" and "If I say a few words more, I must put an end to my existence, having forfeited my word of honor and oath."
One of his finest efforts at fueling the fires for those who would make him king came while he was visiting Paris. He claimed to be struck by the great irony of his walking the streets of the French capital like a "commoner" when in justice he "should command all." (The phrase later became the title of a once-popular, thoroughly unconvincing "history" of Audubon as the Dauphin.)
It seems likely that Audubon did divulge his imagined lineage to his wife so that she could enjoy real royal feelings. Unfortunately, Lucy Audubon—nee Bakewell—came from a hardheaded Quaker clan, one of whose members remarked in regard to the Audubon/Dauphin tale, "It was ridiculous. No one on our side of the family believed it for a moment."
Altering, dressing up or simply ignoring reality was a lifelong habit of the naturalist. His autobiographical writings are chock-full of incidents that did not occur as he said they did—or at all. One of the gaudiest examples of this genre was recorded by Audubon in his journal in New Orleans in 1821. At that time he was nearly destitute and alone (his wife and two sons having taken refuge with her family in the North). He was supporting himself by turning out portraits. One day he was approached by a heavily veiled young woman, obviously of the gentry, obviously beautiful. She asked him to come to her apartment to discuss some work she had for him. He did, and in privacy she inquired, "Most sweetly.... 'Have you ever drawn a full figure—naked?'
"Had I been shot with a 48-pounder through the heart, my power of speech could not have been more suddenly cut off," journalized the Naturalist. But he recovered and, not being in a position to turn down commissions, said he thought he could handle the job. The "beautiful young woman" disrobed behind a screen. Reappearing, she asked, Audubon wrote, " 'Tell me, will I do, so?' I said I feared she looked only too well for my talents." Whereupon he began sketching and continued to do so for each of the next 10 days. During that time the two remained chaste but became very friendly, Audubon musing, "Certainly this is a well-informed female."
When the portrait was finished, both model and artist signed it, though the artist, of course, vowed that he would never divulge the woman's name. Before departing Audubon's life, the lady said that under the circumstances she thought it inappropriate simply to pay him a fee. Instead she presented him with a shotgun that he had long coveted. Audubon concluded the story: "The lady was kind. The Gun is good." Really now.
Audubon biographers and scholars generally have dealt with this sort of material by noting, via various euphemisms, that all great men have their flaws, and their man's principal flaw was that he, well, he lied a lot. Another way of putting it is to say that Audubon was an incurable, almost pathological romantic. He was forever trying to legitimize his imagined experiences by reworking his real ones to make them more extraordinary. Wandering about the hinterlands he was continually directing and starring in what amounted to romantic movies. For many years these productions flopped, simply because the audiences found them preposterous. Then, in desperation and with some luck, he came upon the perfect script: John James Audubon Meets the Birds of America.
The leading role in this epic permitted Audubon to play the romantic to the hilt. Also, it was a part on which he was finally able to concentrate his great imaginative powers. This production was an immediate hit and has remained one ever since. It is more than likely that had Audubon not been of the ilk to play a role so ludicrous as the Lost Dauphin, he would not have been the man to conceive of, carry out and promote his masterpiece, The Birds of America.
Audubon cast himself in this movie as a rich merchant and prominent member of the gentry. As he himself was later to comment ironically, he probably would not have had the need to create The Birds of America if he had in fact been rich or landed. But he was not.
To recapitulate. When he was not yarning, Audubon's account of his youth agreed approximately with family records. Jean Audubon returned from Haiti to his ancestral home in Nantes, France in 1789 with his two love children, whom he presented to his lawful wife, Anne. Madame Audubon accepted the children gracefully and, in fact, doted on little John James. In time Jean Audubon, who was often away from home on business, decided that his son was becoming spoiled. He therefore enrolled the boy in a grim sort of military preparatory school. Audubon proved to be a very truant student who often escaped that institution to pursue his private pleasures. They were principally hunting and fencing and roaming the countryside, looking at birds and animals, collecting and sketching them. This seems to have been the basis for his great works, for it is believed that Audubon received virtually no formal instruction in either natural history or art.