It takes a lot of hard work to achieve the status, where an entire genre of feelings (or perversions, whichever way you look at them) is named after one. It indeed needs a lot of hard work, or in some cases, just a lifetime of alleged carnal lust. In the case of Comte (Count) Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, better known as Marquis de Sade, it was definitely the latter.
Born on June 2, 1740, to Jean Baptiste François Joseph, the Count of Sade, and Marie Eléonore de Maillé de Carman, the Princess-to-be of Condé, in the Hôtel de Condé in Paris, Donatien's childhood was not much different from that of any other child born into the French nobility. His mother, being the lady-in-waiting for the position of Princess, Donatien was permitted to be the playmate of Louis Joseph de Bourbon, son of the Princess, and heir to the royal throne. However, allegedly the arrogance of the royal heir was too great for young Donatien to handle, and an angry retaliation caused him to be removed from the palace. He was then placed in the care of his paternal grandmother in Avignon. After spending some time there, he moved on to stay with his uncle Abbé de Sade in Saumanne. The Sade estate in Saumanne was a walled and a moated château, replete with dungeons, and this was probably where the seeds of his future perversions began to take root in his mind.
After graduating from the famous Jesuit school Louise-le-Grande, Donatien was sent to the Chevau-légers at Versailles to train for the king's light cavalry. A good soldier, Donatien was commissioned to the rank of Second Lieutenant in the king's foot guard. The Seven Years' War broke out the next year (1756), and he was dispatched to Krefeld a couple of years later, where he was soon promoted to the rank of the Captain of the Burgundy Cavalry. However, the fiercely independent streak in Donatien led him to regular conflicts with his peers, and in a letter to his father, he expressed his loneliness, stating that he had no friends in the encampment. In fact, probably his relationship with his father was the only true friendship he had ever known, as he had once written in a letter―"I open my heart to you, not as to a father whom one often fears and does not love, but to the most honest of friends, the most tender friend I deem to have in the world."
After the end of the war, Donatien returned to Paris, and like most young noblemen of the time, devoted himself to the theater and the arts, as also to frequenting brothels. Concerned over his son's future, his father arranged for his marriage to a girl from the rich, but socially inferior Montreuil family, and a reluctant Donatien was married to Renée-Pélagie de Montreuil. Immediately afterwards, the two families had a tiff over the sum of money that the Count was supposed to pay to the Montreuils for the marriage.
The marriage did little to curb the carnal desires of Donatien, however. In his quest for better sex, he continued visiting brothels, and in the October of 1763, he was arrested and imprisoned for the "excesses" committed in a bordello. Pre-revolution Paris was a conservative city, and the scandal that erupted from his arrest resulted in Donatien's reputation being severely tainted―a pariah now, he exiled himself to his Chateau at La Coste, accompanied by his mistress La Beauvoisin. Here, the young Count gave free reins to his sexual aberrations, and wild orgies were regularly organized with the provincial nobility, La Beauvoisin acting as the hostess and at times, as Madame Sade.
In 1767, his father's death left the young count with less inheritance, and a huge basket of debts. However, in August the same year, the Marquis de Sade was blessed with a son, Louise Marie. While this was an occasion to rejoice, it did not deter the Marquis from his carnal pleasures; in April the next year he was arrested for allegedly whipping a prostitute by the name of Rose Keller, in his Arcueil house. The public scandal that followed, led to another arrest on the orders of the King himself. He was released a few months later, after which he went into exile, mostly in his own province. During this time, he curbed his passions to a great extent, spending time with his sons Louise Marie, and Donatien Claude Armand, born in 1769.
In 1771, Donatien and his wife had another child, a daughter this time, who was christened Madeleine Laure. Their happiness was short lived, however. The Marquis was arrested for the third time, this time for debt. The consequent prison sentence seemed to break his resolve to live an "ordinary" life, and on his return, he once again began engaging in debauchery. Having set his eyes on his sister-in-law, Anne Prospere, the Marquis de Sade soon succeeded in winning her attention and ultimately, in seducing her. The French community did not approve of the affair, more so because Anne was a canoness. Fearing repercussions, the lovers fled to Marseilles, Italy, while in France a death sentence was imposed upon them in their absence. Anne, fearing for her life, took shelter in a church, while the Marquis hid in Savoy for a while.
When the Marquis finally returned to his Chataeu at La Coste, he decided to pursue the pleasures in the comfort of his own home. He hired several young valets and prostitutes, and for months thereafter, indulged in various sexual acts with them. His activities during this period blossomed into the fantastic novel "120 Days of Sodom" which, though inspired by his amorous days at La Coste, was a much wilder, incredibly perverted version of the acts.
In 1777, the Marquis was arrested once again, this time at the contrivance of his mother-in-law, Madame de Montreuil. This prison term was long, and while he did manage to escape once, the subsequent arrest saw him spend a decade in prison; first at Vincennes, and then at the ill-famed Bastille. He was released only when Bastille was stormed by the revolutionaries in 1789, and a new side to his personality unfolded after this release.
Soon after his release, the Marquis engaged himself in politics, and as part of his political responsibilities was required to serve as juror in several of the trials that had become commonplace in post-revolution France. Strangely enough, the Marquis de Sade, whose lifestyle has embossed the immensely derogatory term "Sadism", in the English dictionary, disliked the capital punishment. Most of the prisoners under trial walked away scot-free when he was the juror, especially notable among those being Madame de Montreuil, his mother-in-law, the same person who was responsible taking away a decade of freedom from his life. In fact, he was later arrested by the French revolutionaries themselves for being a moderate.
Much of history has been silent on this aspect of the much maligned character of the Marquis de Sade; perhaps it was assumed that it would not suit the palate of the readers to know about the humane side of a person that was, at worst, probably a misfit with immense sexual cravings. Yes, the phrase "at worst" has been used here consciously―in a world where bondage and similar sexual aberrations are given "rightful" cognizance, it is perhaps improper to use the name of a person, who weaved a similar fantasy as a substitute for cruelty. True, his writings, in particular the novel, 120 days of Sodom, do exhibit a marked fascination for cruelty; marked to the point of being morose, but one has occasion to wonder whether it was all just that―imagination. And can there be a censorship on imagination? As the Marquis himself once wrote, "... but I have certainly not done, and certainly never will, all that I have imagined". The Marquis seems to be a victim of his own fantasies, his name being molested in ways, probably worse than any acts he had actually committed. One has also to remember that in the days of the Marquis, debauchery was rampant, albeit closeted. Most of the noblemen were known for the sexual orgies that they held with "open discretion", and many of the acts described by the Marquis were actually practiced by many of these nobles. At the same time, there is little evidence of the Marquis himself indulging in acts such as murder or decapitation―the sickness pervading his works notwithstanding. While one does not condone his lustful nature and the excesses practiced by him, there always remain questions as to whether all the blame that had been showered upon him, was rightly deserved or not.
After his release from prison, the Marquis lost much of the passionate fire that had kept him going through the numerous years of intermittent imprisonment, and having lost much of his property during and after the revolution, the Marquis found himself in debt once again. He was arrested yet again in 1801, and was later moved to an insane asylum, where he spent his final years.
The Marquis de Sade died on December 2, 1814, leaving behind him two sons and a daughter, who had dissociated themselves from him, and a name that associated itself to him in a way he had never imagined.