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The Book of the Courtesans, страница 1


The Book of the Courtesans

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The Book of the Courtesans

  The Book of the Courtesans

  A Catalogue of Their Virtues

  Susan Griffin

  Broadway Books New York


  Title Page



  Prologue A Legacy of Virtues

  Chapter One Timing


  Chapter Two Beauty


  Chapter Three Cheek


  Chapter Four Brilliance


  Chapter Five Gaiety (or Joie de Vivre)


  Chapter Six Grace


  Chapter Seven Charm


  Epilogue In The End



  Art Credits

  Also by Susan Griffin


  for Odette Meyers




  LET ME ESPECIALLY 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.

  —JANET FLANNER, Paris Was Yesterday

  Goodness had nothing to do with it.


  COURTESAN. AT FIRST 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 1 million 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 given 80,000 francs by Henri Meilhac, the librettist for Offenbach’s popular operas, just to see her nude (or so Edmond de Goncourt writes in his Journal). 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 Madeleine.

  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 Gigi, the daughter of a courtesan is carefully taught to tell the difference between a canary diamond and topaz; a cocotte’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 Yorker 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 Pygmalion (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 society.

  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 both.

  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.

  But this state of being could also easily prove her downfall. A descent of this kind has been painfully captured by Edith Wharton. In her great novel The House of Mirth, Wharton depicts the financial and sexual naïveté of Lily Bart, a young woman who is upper class by birth, with only a small inheritance, whose ignorance leads her to commit several social follies that leave her both penniless and unmarriageable. By painful degrees of descent, she meets the worst fate imaginable for a woman born to privilege—she is forced to begin life as a working woman.

  The fact that throughout centuries of European history the majority of women had to work is often omitted even from accounts that purport to focus on women’s lives. Peasant families depended on the labor of women and children alike to eke out a living. And among those who lived and worked in the city, apart from the nobility or the wives of the professional classes and the bourgeoisie (who only began to grow to significant numbers in the eighteenth century), whether women took in laundry, worked as chambermaids, charwomen, seamstresses, or weavers, they were wage earners. Married or not, the income they earned was necessary to their own survival as well as that of their families, yet they could earn only a fraction of what men could. In Paris in the early nineteenth century, for example, when peasant economies in France began to collapse and the cities, especially Paris, were flooded with refugees from the countryside seeking employment, even the salaries of workingmen were barely sufficient for survival. Though they worked long hours, often sixteen hours a day, many women could not live on the salaries they were paid.

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