In almost any other age, you might have called Pierre-Augustin Caron an arriviste. He even gave himself the title by which we know him best, when at twenty-four he married the widow of his former boss Pierre-Augustin Franquet and, in the process, picked up an estate twenty-five miles south of Paris formerly belonging to a man named Beaumarchet. It did not take long for a young man on the rise to parley this into the officially recognized moniker “de Beaumarchais.” So began the steep ascent to fame and wealth, although by the time of his death in 1799 his fortunes had plummeted in the wake of the Revolution.

The spectacular rise he enjoyed was far from unique in his lifetime. Seldom have self-created confidence men found an era more open to their talents. Brazen adventurers living by their wits much like Figaro began to pop up all over the Continent, and inevitably there were a few more who made it big in America. Quacks or...

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