The Book of the Courtesans

BOOK: The Book of the Courtesans
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The Book of the Courtesans

A Catalogue of Their Virtues

Susan Griffin

Broadway Books New York

for Odette Meyers




thank Leonard Pitt, who has been
generous with his time and his extensive library on nineteenth-century France.
I am also grateful to the late Odette Meyers, not only for her friendship, but for teaching me so much about the French language and French culture as well as for having what Leonard Pitt has called such a
belle intelligence.
My dear friend Edith Sorel has provided guidance, wisdom, invaluable knowledge, and her brilliant wit. Odile Hellier of the Village Voice Bookstore in Paris was helpful, as she is with so many writers. The Baron du Cassagne kindly gave me several interviews as well as an indispensable perspective on events in the nineteenth century. The Baroness Liliane de Rothschild was kindly helpful with reference to Marie Duplessis. Let me again thank Marlotte Reinharez for accompanying me to the Château du Monte Cristo and Raphael Balmes for accompanying me to the Musée Gace devoted to
Marie Duplessis. Carol Spindel helped me with more than one difficulty in Paris. Daniel Meyers, too, has been helpful to me in Paris. Thanks to Madeleine Barcheuska for sending me a tape of Sarah Bernhardt playing La Dame aux Camélias. Thanks also to Lea Mendelovitz for her helpful knowledge of Paris. Thanks also to Alberto Manguel for the reading list he gave me, his generous insights, and for helping me at the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris. Thanks to Randy Conner for his marvelous manuscript on Baudelaire and Jeanne Duval and for his suggestions. Thank you to Joanna Bernstein for her encouragement and for giving me an invaluable reading list. I
thank the Théâtre de la Ville, which was once the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt, for allowing me to see Sarah’s dressing room, and Micheline Boudet for her book
La Fleur du Mal.

Margot Hackett supplied me with two books difficult to find, and her wry
sensibility gave me courage. I thank Moira Roth for reading bits of the work in
progress and for her encouragingly whimsical perceptions. I thank Anita Barrows
for her friendship, her reading of the manuscript, her generous and fine mind.
Daidie Donnelly, too, has been a wonderful friend in this period, reading my
manuscript with sensitive, delicately intelligent encouragement. I thank Jodie
Evans for her passionate friendship, her encouragement, and profound
understanding of this book. Sandra Sharpe, too, has been a wonderful friend in
this period, laughing with me at the right moments, making me laugh at the
right moments, reading and listening with great perceptiveness. I thank Bokara
Legendre, too, for her friendship and help.

Thank you to Beverly Allen for immediately grasping what this work is about on
the deepest level and for her helpful knowledge of the Italian Renaissance and
Venice. Thanks to Gudrun Icsimo for her kindness in Venice. Thanks to Georgina
Morley for a day and evening in the courtesan’s Paris. Thank you to Joe
Wemple for his friendship, his playful encouragement, as well as several
helpful references. Thanks again to Isabel Villaud and Christian Roy-Camille
for their help with Marie Duplessis. Thank you to Monique Saigal for helping me
extend my research into a wonderful cyberspace network of French scholars. John
Levy helped me find a valuable reference, as did Dan Church, Jim Allen, and
Yvonne Bayer at Vanderbilt University Library. Lise Huerelle helped me from
time to time with French translation.

Let me thank my daughter, Chloe Andrews, for asking about this book and
listening, for encouraging the work and responding with great clarity to what
she read. And I thank my editor, Lauren Marino, for her intelligent reading,
her warm encouragement, and her perceptive editing. Thank you to Cate Tynan for
managing so many details. And to my agent, Katinka Matson, for her care,
understanding, and humor.



A Legacy of Virtues

She had charm, a dazzling complexion and wit. It was the
last great heyday for courtesans and she made hay.
Paris Was Yesterday

Goodness had nothing to do with it.

glance, the word seems to sit almost coyly on the page.
But first impressions can be misleading. The slightly risqué connotations
which come to mind hardly reveal the abundance that is hidden here. What was a
courtesan, really? As with any tradition that was once alive, the meaning is
far too rich for a simple answer. Dictionary definitions will hardly suffice.
Where one edition says the courtesan was a prostitute who associated with
wealthy men or aristocrats, another refers to her as a kept woman. Yes, she
shared characteristics with both. But she was neither.

To claim that courtesans were prostitutes would be deceptively simple. It
is true that Madame du Barry, favorite of Louis XV, was once patronized by
upper-class men who paid nightly for her favors. And we know that Céleste
Mogador, who eventually became a countess, worked in a brothel when she was
very young. But their stories only make what may seem a subtle distinction on
paper more clear. To become a courtesan was a promotion of great proportions, a
fortunate leap into an unimaginably better life. Unlike a prostitute, a
courtesan did not live in a brothel, never walked the streets, nor did she,
strictly speaking, have a pimp to control and bully her.

On occasion, usually early in their careers, some women did have procurers, but
it was their mothers who played this role. Sarah Bernhardt, for example, was
given her first liaisons by a mother who, being a courtesan herself, looked to
her daughter to provide for her in her old age. This arrangement was common in
sixteenth-century Venice and Rome, where mothers who had once been courtesans
would, as a matter of course, procure for their daughters. The relationship
between mother and daughter is entirely different from that between pimp and
prostitute in many significant ways, including the fact that unlike the
prostitute, who enriches a pimp more than herself, while she supported her
mother, a courtesan could benefit from her own success.

But the distinctions are far greater. With some legendary exceptions, the
agreements made with courtesans were hardly quid pro quo. It is probably true
that la comtesse de Castiglione was given
francs for a twelve-hour orgy with Richard Wallace, natural son of the fourth
Marquess of Hertford. And the rumor may be justified that Liane de Pougy was
francs by Henri
Meilhac, the librettist for Offenbach’s popular operas, just to see her
nude (or so Edmond de Goncourt writes in his
). But
the usual arrangements were like those made with mistresses and even
wives—longer lasting and more subtle in nature. And in distinction to the
support given mistresses, who were often modestly kept, these relationships
were far more lucrative. Soon after their liaison began, for instance, Louis XV
presented Madame de Pompadour with an estate, one of several she was to receive
in her lifetime, including the mansion known as the Palais Elysée, now the
home of French presidents. A hundred years later, following the same tradition,
in addition to giving Marie Duplessis a splendid coach, a team of the finest
horses, and a monthly allotment to pay for a maid and a cook, le comte de
Stakelberg bought the courtesan her fashionable apartment on the boulevard

The splendor in which the great courtesans lived is fabled. At times their
riches grew to exceed those of their protectors. They accumulated town houses,
châteaux, villas, all decorated with frescoes and sculptures by important
painters, with wood embellishments carved by the best craftsmen, endowed with
precious materials—gold gilt, silver, crystal, marble, and onyx—and
furnished with the finest antiques, silver services, porcelain vases, the most
select china, and priceless tapestries. Their coaches rivaled those sported by
the elite. Their wardrobes, made from the most luxurious fabrics and by the
most celebrated designers—Charles Worth, for instance, or Paul
Poiret—were envied by respectable and titled women who copied the styles
they wore. And above all, courtesans collected jewelry: strings of diamonds and
pearls, diamond tiaras, sapphires and ruby rings, emerald brooches, which they
displayed with a good measure of pride and also canniness. In a memorable scene
from Colette’s novel
, the daughter of a courtesan is
carefully taught to tell the difference between a canary diamond and topaz; a
’s cache of gems served both as an emblem of success and as
a fund for her retirement.

The rivalry between courtesans over jewelry had occasional dramatic moments. A
story is told about the competition between Liane de Pougy and the Belle Otero
which is true, though the setting is disputed. Some say it occurred at
Maxim’s; others, such as Janet Flanner, the correspondent to
The New
in the early twentieth century, place it at the Opéra; and
still another, Pougy’s recent biographer, places it at Monte Carlo. But the
essence of the action is always the same. First, Otero makes her entrance,
dripping with diamonds and precious gems in every form: necklaces, bracelets,
earrings, anklets, layered and piled in a glittering display of astonishing
abundance. Then, shortly after, Pougy enters, wearing only one very elegant
diamond necklace, but she is followed by a maid who carries a high pyramid of
her priceless jewelry stacked on a red pillow.

The goods would have come from many sources. If, as with a mistress, an affair
with a courtesan was rarely just a one-night stand, that is where the
similarity ends. Courtesans could be both less and more than mistresses. Less
because they were by no means always faithful. Usually, they had several lovers,
some who contributed to the household expenses and some who did not. Like
other Venetian courtesans, Veronica Franco had many protectors. Sharing in her
support, each was pledged a different night of the week in her schedule.

And unlike the mistress of a married man, who is often kept hidden, just as the
courtesan was proud of her jewelry, she too was proudly displayed. She was
expected to accompany her various lovers to public places and events, café
s, restaurants, balls, parties, the theatre, the opera, even hosting gatherings
of her lover’s friends at her own home. In

sixteenth-century Rome, when the powerful banker Chigi entertained at his villa
near the Vatican, his lover, the courtesan Imperia, was usually the hostess. It
is thought that her beauty inspired Raphael’s famous fresco of Galatea that
still adorns one wall there. During the Belle Epoque in Paris, among the
wealthy playboys, aristocrats, and businessmen who belonged to the exclusive
Jockey Club, it was considered de rigueur to keep a courtesan—so much so
that even homosexual men felt they had to do it for show.

But perhaps the greatest distinction we must make here between kept women and
courtesans is that the latter were personages. They were, indeed, what we call
today celebrities. Friends of kings, regents, emperors, statesmen, financiers,
famous writers and painters, they were the constant subject of columns printed
in weekly journals, gossip about their romances, what they wore and what they
did providing continual fodder for public curiosity. Flaubert, Zola, Balzac,
Colette, the Goncourt brothers, all based major characters on the lives of
courtesans. And of course, from Praxiteles to Titian to Manet, they were
favored as subjects by painters and sculptors.

For this reason, a courtesan had to be highly cultivated. Often born to poverty,
with no education and lacking upper-class manners, a young woman would have to
be taught many skills in order to play her new role. As in Shaw’s play
(or the musical that followed,
My Fair Lady
), she
would have to learn to speak with an upper-class accent, dress well if not
lavishly, arrange her hair fashionably, walk gracefully, dance, and play the
piano. She would be required to know table manners, of course, but also
different protocols, including at times the protocols of the court. A woman who
may not even have been able to read very well would now be expected to know the
plots of operas, recognize literary references, and have some familiarity with
history. Only the brave and intelligent would be able to survive the course.

Many courtesans exceeded these requirements. Some, such as Céleste Mogador,
who wrote novels, or Tullia D’Aragona, three hundred years earlier, who
wrote a philosophical text on Eros, were writers. Veronica Franco was a
respected poet. A great many wrote their autobiographies. More than can be
counted were notable actresses, dancers, singers,

music-hall and circus performers. A few, such as Sarah Bernhardt and Coco
Chanel, became far more famous in other professions. An even smaller group, the
comtesse de Loynes for instance, gained titles when they married their
aristocratic lovers, then having learned to behave well enough and after
acquiring sufficient wealth, they slipped past the arbiters of class into high

But if these women were remarkable in their accomplishments, they were
exceptions among the already exceptional. Altogether, there can be no doubt
that courtesans were extraordinary women, not only considering their talents
but because, as Simone de Beauvoir writes, they created for themselves “a
situation almost equivalent to that of man . . . free in
behavior and conversation,” attaining, “the rarest intellectual
liberty.” For centuries courtesans enjoyed more power and independence
than did any other women in Europe. To understand why this was so, we must
consider the history of women in Europe, a history that is by no means always
the same as the history of men. The consideration is crucial, especially
because outside the context of the larger narrative of women’s lives, the
word “courtesan” loses much of its meaning.

For the several centuries during which courtesans practiced their skills, women
were far more confined and regimented than they are today. Except among
courtesans, if a woman had wealth, it was almost never her own, but hers to use
only through the beneficence, permission, or parsimonious allowance of a father,
brother, or husband. Thus it was rare even for women born to wealthy families
to be financially independent. Though a luxurious dependency may sound
attractive, economic dependency implies a loss of freedom. An upper-class woman
did not own the houses she inhabited, could not in fact purchase a house if she
wanted to, nor even furniture, china, jewelry, clothing, or food without
approval, nor could she travel by her own choice or alone. She was controlled
by those who controlled the purse strings.

This circumstance was coupled with still another condition that served to keep
upper-class women dependent. They were not fully educated. According to the
century in which a lady lived, she might be taught to embroider, to sing, to
play the piano, and to dance; she would be instructed in religion and given the
rudimentary skills of reading and writing, but what she knew of history,
literature, philosophy, or politics she would have had to glean by inference
from listening to the conversations of the men in her family. And until the
latter part of the nineteenth century when, because of the influence of
feminist movements, a few women were admitted to universities, medical, law,
and art schools, women were denied the training they would need to enter a
profession. Thus the ways available to upper-class and respectable women to
earn an independent living were very few. Lacking either inheritance, a family
wealthy enough to sustain her, or a husband, an aristocratic or bourgeois woman
might become a governess. For the most part, her only other option was to join
a convent.

The purpose, therefore, of a young girl’s life was to prepare her to
attract a husband. She was taught to dress and dance and curtsy so that she
might be presented at court or at a debutante ball, where it was hoped she
would meet her future husband. But though she was required to enter the rituals
of courtship, neither her feelings nor her preferences were considered relevant.
Most marriages were not made for love. They were, rather, thinly veiled
financial agreements, arranged to benefit a young woman’s family or the
family of her future husband, while conferring prestige on one or the other or

Even the instructions she was given to be pleasing to men had unnatural limits.
Given almost no sexual education except the advice to behave with a modestly
flirtatious deference to men, her efforts to catch a husband were supposed to
be innocent, just as her limited knowledge of the worlds of finance and
politics was thought to add to an air of innocence, lending her an attractive
naïveté. We might say that, paradoxically, by the rules of this
social world, her dependency was her chief asset.

BOOK: The Book of the Courtesans
12.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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