'Scarlet Women'

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In 1965, an elderly impoverished woman was found dead in a hotel room in Nice, France. Her death marked the end of an era. She was the last of the great courtesans. Known as La Belle Otero, she was a volcanic Spanish beauty whose patrons included the Vicomte de Chênedollé, Kaiser Wilhelm II, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) and Grand Duke Peter Nickolaevich of Russia. She is also sometimes credited as the world’s first movie star. She accumulated an enormous fortune, but gambled it all away. On her death, a rare species slipped into extinction, quietly and unnoticed.

Scarlet Women: The scandalous lives of courtesans, concubines and royal mistresses tells the stories of the lives of the most famous (or notorious) women whose prey were the wealthiest and most powerful men of their time.

They include:

·      Thais, a famous courtesan of ancient Greece, who was responsible for the burning of Persepolis;

·      Marie Duplessis, who made such an impact in her short life (she died aged only 23) that she inspired characters in Dumas’ La Dame aux Camélias and Verdi’s La Traviata;

·      Cora Pearl, who is reputed to have served herself naked on a silver platter to guests at one of her legendary parties;

·      Harriette Wilson, a British courtesan who tried to blackmail her aristocratic and royal clients;

·      Clara Ward, a rare American courtesan who hunted for a European aristocrat to give her the royal title she craved, but having married a Belgian prince, she ran away with a gypsy violinist;

·      La Belle Otero, whose breasts are said to have inspired the shape of the cupolas on the Hotel Carlton in Cannes;

·      Veronica Franco, the most famous Venetian courtesan, who had a brief liaison with King Henri III of France and survived an accusation of witchcraft by the Inquisition;

·      Ninon de L’Enclos, who was offered 50,000 crowns by Cardinal Richelieu for one night in her company. Money left in her will bought books for a nine year old boy called François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire;

·      Mesdames de Pompadour and du Barry, two of the many mistresses of Louis XV;

·      Liane de Pougy, who escaped to Paris to become a courtesan after her husband shot her;

·      La Paiva, whose husband couldn’t bear to be parted from her body so he kept it in the attic, where it was discovered by his next wife;

·      Lola Montez, a fake Spanish dancer who caused a revolution;

·      Cixi, who rose from obscurity to become a concubine in imperial China and then herself ruled China for nearly half a century.

The secret of a great partnership is that each partner contributes something of value to the other. It was said of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers that he gave her class and she gave him sex appeal. Together, they were unbeatable. Courtesans and kings danced a similar game. Each benefited from the other’s contribution … although courtesans didn’t face quite as challenging a task as Ginger Rogers – she had to do everything her incandescently talented partner did, but backwards and in high heels!

Marriages in European aristocratic and royal circles in past centuries were almost invariably not great partnerships. On the contrary, they could be a lonely business. And ‘business’ is the appropriate word. Marriage in the upper echelons of society was seen as a way of forming alliances between important families, protecting inheritances and producing heirs. Love was not a consideration. A couple sometimes met for the first time on their wedding day. When King George III of Great Britain married Princess Charlotte Mecklenburg-Strelitz in 1761, the king and his queen had not met before the day they wed.

Upper class women were schooled in social etiquette but little else. Their thoughts and limited conversation were rarely of any interest to their husbands. The queen’s job was to produce an heir, but, having had a very sheltered upbringing, most queens knew little about how to please their husbands, either in bed or out of it. Husbands looked elsewhere for companionship, conversation and sexual pleasure, so it was common for the nobility and royalty to take mistresses, providing a fertile hunting ground for ambitious and avaricious courtesans.

The woman who died in a Nice hotel room in 1965, La Belle Otero, was the last of a group of fiercely ambitious and competitive women known as Les Demimondaines. They inhabited a twilight realm or shadow word, particularly in France, where it was known as the demimonde – hence demimondaines. In view of their profession, these extraordinary women were also known as Les Grandes Horizontales.

They courted publicity. They were as famous in their time as movie stars or sports stars are today. And, to make the biggest impression, they constantly tried to outdo each other in terms of their flamboyance, fashion, extravagant spending, grand homes and outrageous scandals. Some of them amassed jewelry collections and palatial homes worth a king’s ransom.

Unlike the courtesans of previous centuries, we can see exactly what les demimondaines looked like – not approximate likenesses fashioned by flattering artists, but lifelike images frozen in time by some of the first celebrity photographers. The photographs show women who, to twenty-first century eyes, are often not striking beauties. They appear to be confident women, comfortable to be on show and under the gaze of observers. They often stare straight into the camera lens, courting it as they might flirt with a prospective client. But still photographs taken using the slow film of the day, requiring long exposure times, can’t convey the demimondaines’ most valuable properties – their animation, the way they moved, the way they danced and the sound of their voice. For those, we have to rely on descriptions written by the men and women who knew Les Grandes Horizontales and observed them at work and play.

‘Scarlet Women: The scandalous lives of courtesans, concubines and royal mistresses’ was published in Britain by Thistle Publishing and in the United States by Thomas Dunne Books.

© Ian Graham 2018