Alexandre Dumas was born on July 24, 1802, in Villers-Cotterets, a small village in France. His grandfather was a nobleman, the Marquis de la Pailleterie, and his grandmother was a black slave, Marie-Cessette Dumas. After quarreling with the marquis, Alexandre’s father renounced the family and enlisted in the army as Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, using his mother’s name. In a remarkable career, Thomas-Alexandre rose from the rank of lieutenant to general under Napoleon in less than two years. His boldness in battle prompted the enemy to nickname him “the Black Devil.” While serving in the army, Thomas-Alexandre married Marie-Louise-Elizabeth Labouret, the daughter of a prominent hotel proprietor, and the couple had one child, Alexandre. In 1806, when young Alexandre was four years old, Thomas-Alexandre was killed.
Just as Thomas-Alexandre had argued with the marquis, Alexandre argued with his mother about her wish for him to be educated as a priest. Rather than accepting her plans for sending him to the seminary, Alexandre ran away from home. Educating himself, Dumas began writing plays and in 1829 produced his first literary success, Henri III. He soon established himself as the most popular playwright in Paris, often producing plays in collaboration with other writers. His plays helped change the public’s taste in drama from formal tragedies based on Greek drama to highly romantic works that reflected the rapidly changing modern society.
Although Dumas was best known in his own time for drama, he is best known now for his novels. Dumas’s romantic plays were influenced by Sir Walter Scott’s novels, and when Dumas was 40 years old he decided to try writing fiction of his own. His first novel, The Three Musketeers, was a great success and was shortly followed by the immensely popular Count of Monte Cristo. Dumas capitalized on the success of the first novel by writing two sequels to it: Twenty Years After and The Vicomte de Bragelonne (the last third of which has been published as The Man in the Iron Mask.)
His plays and novels made Dumas a rich man. He built a fabulous mansion, called Monte Cristo, and traveled a great deal, writing many books about his adventures. Eventually, his generosity and extravagant lifestyle drained his fortune. One of his two sons, also named Alexandre Dumas and a novelist in his own right, looked after him in his last years. Dumas died in Puys, France, on December 5, 1870, of a stroke.