Frances Wilson is seduced by Grandes Horizontales, Virginia Rounding's engrossing account of the glamorous courtesans who titillated 19th-century France
Saturday 12 July 2003 01.48 BST
by Virginia Rounding
337pp, Bloomsbury, £20
Being neither prostitute nor mistress but charging for those services a wife would give for free, the courtesan is an endlessly troubling figure. The ambivalence and uncertainty of her role is captured in the two titles by which she was most commonly known in 19th-century France: the grande horizontale and the demi-mondaine.
She was a symbol of decadence, as conspicuous and impertinent as Clésinger's scandalous statue of Apollonie Sabatier in the Musée D'Orsay, in which she appears magnificently horizontale, jutting her hips in the throes of orgasm.
But she was also barely visible, living as she did in the half-world, an exclusive underground terrain in which, like Eurydice, she was condemned to remain. A courtesan was a woman who fell from respectability and then rose to great heights in an alternative realm. She was an exile.
To complete this transferral from one world to the next a change of name was required, and the four grandes horizontales whose lives and legends are described by Virginia Rounding shared between them 15 names, including the titles bestowed on them by the public.
Marie Duplessis, whose childlike appearance and early death made her the prototype of the "modest" courtesan, was born Alphonsine Plessis, became Mme la Comtesse de Perregaux and was known posthumously as la dame aux camélias after her lover, Alexandre Dumas fils, portrayed her in his hit play as the saintlike Marguerite Gautier, who dies of a broken heart. "Compared with the courtesan of today," Barbey d'Aurevilly wrote when La Dame aux Camélias was revived in 1868, "and her monstrous corruption, squalor, language, slang and stupidity, Marguerite Gautier... seems nothing but a faded engraving of some vague design."
Esther Pauline Lachmann, the daughter of Russian Jews, was the type of contemporary courtesan of whom D'Aurevilly most disapproved. Shrewd and determined, she became known as La Paiva. The ambition and extravagance of La Paiva (whose husband's title was itself fictitious) were such that even Napoleon III asked to be shown around her marble, onyx and gold-encrusted palace, built for her by her lover and future husband, the Count Henckel von Donnersmark. After her death, Henckel remarried but kept her body in a large jar of embalming fluid, before which he would weep for hours.
Aglae-Josephine Savatier, whose more modest home became a salon for Bohemian intellectuals, including Baudelaire (who was her lover), Flaubert, Delacroix and Saint-Beuve, became Apollonie Sabatier, thus erasing any association between herself and a "savate", meaning an old, used slipper. Madame Sabatier was soon dubbed La Presidente, and such was her status that she received scatological and pornographic letters from Theophile Gautier.
English-born Cora Pearl, lover of Prince Napoleon, changed her name "for no particular reason" from Emma Crouch, but, as Rounding points out, she enjoyed word play and "the making of herself a gem strung on a chain of lovers". This changing of names was a form of reinvention but it was also a sign of the times: Louis Napoleon had adopted the title of Napoleon III, suggesting that one could be whoever one chose to be.
While courtesans have traditionally written about themselves as victims of an idle and hypocritical aristocracy who passed them around like after-dinner mints, they tend to have been written about in trifling, excitable, blushing terms, as though they represented no more than the glittering ephemera of a glamourous bygone age. Susan Griffin's The Book of the Courtesans (2001) and Joanna Richardson's The Courtesans (reprinted in 2000) idealise their subjects. Rounding breaks new ground; Grandes Horizontales is a historically precise, coolly analytical study of the rise and fall of second-empire Paris, a regime that is treated as inseparable from the dangerous opulence of the demi-monde.
After the Franco-Prussian war the extravagant lifestyles of the courtesans were blamed for the ills of France. "The first thought to enter everyone's head," wrote J de l'Estoile in 1871, "was where all the missing gold had gone." Most, it was presumed, was adorning the palace of La Paiva. Because Rounding sees courtesans as a product of economic and political pressure, she avoids the breathless prose and novelettish narrative that one tends to associate with tales of traviatas and marquises. "Amid all the glamour of the courtesan," Rounding reminds us, "there is a tendency to forget that money is being exchanged for sex."
The courtesan might appear to offer more than just her body: reputation was bought as well, along with wit, conversation, a good salon, beauty and status, but it was essentially sex she was selling.
"The actual nature of the transaction is veiled," Rounding writes; "when a demi-mondaine is looking for a protector, or even just a client, she is offering a package in which the sexual act is implicitly included but may be the one thing which is not overtly displayed."
So La Presidente advertised her sexuality instead in Clésinger's writhing statue and La Paiva trumpeted her accomplishments in her marble mansion. Cora Pearl played cupid in Offenbach's operetta Orphée aux enfers dressed only in strategically placed diamonds. The demi-mondaine only revealed half of herself, her promise and her success; this is what makes her so elusive, and thus so desirable.
Rounding is strong on the role and etiquette of the courtesan's salon and on the details of her appearance and toilette, but she is as interested in the legends generated by the grandes horizontales as she is in their lives, and she deftly analyses the ways in which fact and fiction bleed into one another in the making of a reputation. While none of her four women knew the others, they knew of one another, and Rounding shapes her narrative so that each life weaves into the next, as lovers are shared and others' legends are consumed. This is a rich, timely, engrossing book that puts its forerunners to shame.
· Frances Wilson's biography of the Regency courtesan Harriette Wilson will be published by Faber in the autumn.
Marie Duplessis (15 January 1824 – 3 February 1847) was a French courtesan and mistress to a number of prominent and wealthy men. She was the inspiration for Marguerite Gautier, the main character of La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas the younger, one of Duplessis' lovers. Much of what is known about her has been derived from the literary persona and contemporary legends.
Marie Duplessis was born Alphonsine Rose Plessis in 1824 at Nonant-le-Pin, Normandy, France. At the age of 15, she moved to Paris where she found work in a dress shop.
As recorded in art of the day Marie Duplessis was evidently an extremely attractive young woman, with a petite figure and an enchanting smile. By the time she was 16, she had become aware that prominent men were willing to give her money in exchange for her company in both private and social settings. She became a courtesan and learned to read and write, and to stay abreast of world events so as to be able to converse on these topics with her clients and at social functions. She also added the faux noble "Du" to her name.
Duplessis was both a popular courtesan and the hostess of a salon, where politicians, writers, and artists gathered for stimulating conversation and socializing. She rode in the Bois de Boulogne and attended opera performances. She also had her portrait painted by Édouard Viénot.
Duplessis was the mistress of Alexandre Dumas, fils between September 1844 and August 1845. Afterwards, she is believed to have become the mistress of composer Franz Liszt, who reportedly wished to live with her. Throughout her short life, her reputation as a discreet, intelligent, and witty lover was well known. She remained in the good graces of many of her benefactors even after her relationships with them had ended.
She was briefly married to at least one of her lovers: a French nobleman, Count Édouard de Perregaux.
Marie Duplessis died of tuberculosis at the age of 23 on 3 February 1847. Her husband the comte de Perregaux and her former lover the Baltic-German count Gustav Ernst von Stackelberg were by her side. Within a few weeks of her death, her belongings were auctioned off to pay her debts. Still, her funeral in Montmartre cemetery, where her body still rests, was said to have been attended by hundreds of people.
Dumas' romantic novel La Dame aux Camélias was based on Duplessis. It appeared within a year of her death. In the book, Dumas became "Armand Duval" and Duplessis "Marguerite Gautier". Dumas also adapted his story as a play, which inspired Verdi's opera La Traviata and various films.
Esther Lachmann / La Paiva
Esther Lachmann (7 May 1819 – 21 January 1884), generally known as La Païva, was arguably the most successful of 19th-century French courtesans. A a notable investor and architecture patron, and a collector of jewels, she had a personality so hard-bitten that she was described as the "one great courtesan who appears to have had no redeeming feature". Count Horace de Viel-Castel, a society chronicler, called her "the queen of kept women, the sovereign of her race".
Rising from modest circumstances in her native Russia to becoming one of the most infamous women in mid-19th-century France to marrying one of Europe's richest men, Lachmann maintained a noted literary salon out of Hôtel de la Païva, her luxurious mansion at 25 avenue des Champs-Elysées in Paris. Completed in 1866, it exemplified the opulent taste of the Second Empire, and since 1904 it has been the headquarters of the Travellers Club.
Lachmann also inspired the promiscuous, traitorous spy Césarine ("a strange, morbid, monstrous creature") in Alexandre Dumas's 1873 play La Femme de Claude.
Born in Moscow, Russia, Esther Lachmann was the daughter of Martin Lachmann, a weaver, and his wife, the former Anna Amalie Klein, who were Jewish and of Polish descent.
On 11 August 1836, aged 17, Lachmann married Antoine François Hyacinthe Villoing, a tailor (died Paris, June 1849). They had one son, Antoine (1837-1862) who died while he was in medical school.
Lachmann left Villoing shortly after her son's birth, and after traveling to Berlin, Vienna, and Istanbul, she ended up in Paris, near the Église Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis and assuming the name Thérèse. Around 1840 she became the mistress of Henri Herz (1803-1888), a pianist, composer, and piano manufacturer, whom she met at Bad Ems, a fashionable spa town in Germany. The relationship gained her entry into artistic, though not aristocratic, society. Richard Wagner, Hans von Bülow, Théophile Gautier, and Emile de Girardin were all friends of the couple. Though Herz often introduced Lachmann as his wife, and she was commonly called "Madame Herz," the couple never married, since she already had a husband. The couple had a daughter, Henriette (ca. 1847-1859), who was raised by Herz's parents.
Lachmann's avariciousness took a toll on Herz's finances, and in 1848, after their affair began, he traveled to America to pursue business opportunities, including playing concerts, where his performances were characterized by "tameness and torpidity." While he was abroad, Lachmann's spending continued, and Herz's family turned her out of the house in frustration.
When it became clear that Lachmann was destitute after Herz left for America, one of her friends, courtesan Esther Guimond, had a solution. She took Lachmann to a fashionable milliner, Camille, who advised the Russian emigré to seek her fortune in London, where she could take advantage of that "fairy-land in which noble strangers present beautiful women with £40,000 or £50,000 a year in pin-money." Dressed in borrowed finery, Lachmann "managed to get to ... Covent Garden, where she made a profitable display of her other gifts". Her first British conquest was Edward Stanley, 2nd Baron Stanley of Alderley, and she became his mistress for a time.
Her affair with Lord Stanley was followed by other remunerative alliances with "other more or less well-known men of the day", including the duc de Guiche (later 10th duc de Gramont).
Cornelia Otis Skinner wrote that one of La Païva's conquests was Adolphe Gaiffe, a banker of whom she demanded twenty banknotes of one thousand francs each -- which, she stipulated, he must burn one by one during a scheduled 30 minutes of lovemaking. The banker decided to substitute counterfeit banknotes. Even so, the sight of their incineration was so unnerving that he could not accomplish his part of the tryst. Another source, however, states that the courtesan burned the notes, one by one, during her sexual congress with Gaiffe, who bet his friends he would be able to access her favors without payment -- and so he did, because the money was fake.
In the late 1840s, at the spa at Baden, Lachmann met Albino Francisco de Araújo de Paiva (1824-1873), an heir to two important Macao wholesale fortunes, each based, in part, on the opium trade. Though he was sometimes called a marquis or a viscount, Araújo was not an aristocrat and had no title, being the son of commoners, Albino Gonsalvez de Araújo, a Portuguese Colonial merchant, and his wife, the former Mariana Vilência de Païva. It is possible that that Araújo's spurious title came from a popular assumption that he was related to Viscount Païva, the Portuguese ambassador to Paris in the 1850s; however, they were not related.
Two years after Lachmann's first husband died, "Pauline Thérèse Lachmann" (as the marriage banns read) and her rich Portuguese suitor were married on 5 June 1851, at a church in Passy; the writer Théophile Gautier was one of the witnesses. The day following the wedding, however, according to the memoirs of Count Horace de Viel-Castel, the new Madame de Païva gave her husband a letter ending the marriage. "You have obtained the object of your desire and have succeeded in making me your wife," she wrote. "I, on the other hand, have acquired your name, and we can cry quits. I have acted my part honestly and without disguise, and the position I aspired to I have gained; but as for you, Mons. de Païva, you are saddled with a wife of foulest repute, whom you can introduce to no society, for no one will receive her. Let us part; go back to your country; I have your name, and will stay where I am".
Leaving his wife with the £40,000 in securities that were specified in their marriage contract, as well as all the furnishings of their house in rue Rossini, Araújo decamped for Portugal. Not long after their separation, his estranged wife's fortunes greatly changed, through an affair with one of Europe's richest men.
"La Paiva", as Lachmann became known after her second marriage, crossed paths in 1852 with the 22-year-old Prussian industrialist and mining magnate Count Guido Henckel von Donnersmarck. They met at a party given by the Prussian consul in Paris, and according to Count Viel-Castel, she pursued him across Europe, pretending not to be interested in him but always managing to be in the same city at the same time and at the same social events. The young Reichsgraf was smitten and, upon meeting her again in Berlin, offered to make La Paiva his mistress and declared that, if she agreed, she would share his fortune. La Paiva, who craved riches more than anything, was reported to have said, after settling down with the count, "All my wishes have come to heel, like tame dogs!"
On 16 August 1871, La Païva obtained an annullment of her marriage to Albino Francisco de Araújo de Païva, and two months later, on 28 October, Thérèse Lachmann (the name she used on the marriage certificate) wed Guido Georg Friedrich Erdmann Heinrich Adalbert, Count Henckel von Donnersmark, in the Lutheran Church in Paris. (The groom's gift to the bride was a triple-strand diamond necklace formerly owned by the deposed French empress, Eugénie.) As for La Païva's former husband, he committed suicide the following year, after his fortune was depleted by his ex-wife's avarice, gambling debts, and investments gone sour.
In addition to purchasing Château de Pontchartrain, near Paris, for La Paiva and giving her an annuity of £80,000, Henckel von Donnersmarck financed the construction of the most ostentatious mansions in Paris: Hôtel de la Païva, located at 25 avenue des Champs-Élysées. The land was acquired on 11 July 1855, and the couple commissioned architect Pierre Manguin. The house was finally completed in 1866 by architect Henri Lefeul, and among the artisans who participated in its creation was the young Auguste Rodin, then working for the sculptor Albert Carrier-Belleuse. Among the mansion's celebrated features is a central staircase made of Algerian yellow marble, which matched the Donnersmarck yellow diamonds, and a tub of the same North African stone; another tub, made of silver, had three taps, one being for either milk or Champagne.
La Païva reigned for years as a popular hostess known for her lavish open houses, teas, and dinners and salon frequented largely by well-known male writers, such as Gustave Flaubert, Émile Zola, Paul de Saint-Victor, Arsène Houssaye, and others, including the painter Eugène Delacroix. The bill of fare was so lavish that she overheard two guests discussing how much she could possibly be worth. One posited 10 million francs a year, at which comment La Païva scoffed, "You must be mad. Ten millions? Why that would barely yield an income of 500,000 francs. Do you think I could give you peaches and ripe grapes in in January on 500,000 francs a year? Why my table alone costs me more than that!"
The Henckel von Donnersmarcks also commissioned, in the 1870s, a country house known as Schloss Neudeck; the architect was Hector Lefeul, who worked on Hôtel de Paiva in Paris. Located on the couple's estates in Upper Silesia, Schloss Neudeck was demolished in 1961.
By the middle of the 19th century, age had eroded La Païva's physical charms, with Count Viel-Castel noting in 1857 that "she is at least forty years old, she is painted and powdered like an old tightrope walker, and she has slept with everyone ..."
A decade later, the Goncourt brothers, diarists of the Second Empire, provided the fullest eyewitness portrait of La Païva, then close to 50 years of age. "White skin, good arms, beautiful shoulders, bare behind down to the hips, the reddish hair under her arms showing each time that she adjusted her shoulder straps; a pear-shaped nose with heavy wings and the tip thick and flattened, like a Kalmuk's nose; the mouth a straight line cutting across a face all white with rice powder. Wrinkles which, under the light, look black in the white face; and down from each side of the mouth a crease in the shape of a horseshoe meeting beneath the chin and cutting across it in a great fold bespeaking age. On the surface, the face is that of a courtezan who will not be too old for her profession when she is a hundred years old; but underneath, another face is visible from time to time, the terrible face of a painted corpse".
Esther Lachmann, Countess Henckel von Donnersmarck, died on 21 January 1884, aged 64, at Schloss Neudeck.
According to legend, La Paiva's husband preserved her body in embalming fluid but did not inter it, preferring to store it in an attic at Schloss Neudeck. It reportedly was later discovered by his second wife, Katharina Slepzóv (1862-1929), whom he married in 1887.
Aglaé Joséphine Savatier
Apollonie Sabatier (born Aglaé Joséphine Savatier; 1822–1890) was a French courtesan, artists' muse and bohémienne in 1850s Paris. She hosted a salon in Paris on Rue Frochot, where she met nearly all of the French artists of her time, such as Gérard de Nerval, Nina de Villard, Arsène Houssaye, Edmond Richard, Gustave Flaubert, Louis Bouilhet, Maxime du Camp, Gustave Ricard, Judith Gautier, daughter of Théophile; Ernest Feydeau, father of Georges Feydeau, Hector Berlioz, Paul de Saint-Victor, Alfred de Musset, Henry Monnier, Victor Hugo, Ernest Meissonnier, Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, Charles Jalabert, Ernesta Grisi, Gustave Doré, the musician Ernest Reyer, James Pradier, Auguste Préault, Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly, Auguste Clésinger and Édouard Manet.
Gustave Flaubert, Théophile Gautier and some others have written articles about her and she was one of four women (Caroline, Jeanne Duval, herself and Marie Daubrun) who inspired Charles Baudelaire's famous work Les Fleurs du Mal. Edmond de Goncourt was the first to nickname her "La Présidente".
In Gustave Courbet's painting L'Atelier du peintre she is said to be shown together with her longtime lover, the Belgian tycoon Alfred Mosselman (1810-1867). After his death she was the longtime mistress to art collector and donor to the Wallace fountains, Sir Richard Wallace, 1st Baronet.
Apollonie Sabatier, sculpted by Auguste Clésinger
Cora Pearl (1835–July 8, 1886), born Emma Elizabeth Crouch, was a 19th-century courtesan of the French demimonde who enjoyed her greatest celebrity during the period of the Second French Empire.
The date and place of her birth are uncertain. Her date of birth has been given as February 23, 1842, however the actual year may have been 1835. Her birth name too is uncertain. Source material indicates her given name to be Eliza Emma Crouch. The place of birth cannot be verified. It is known that the Crouch family resided on the south coast of England in the port city of Plymouth.
Her father was the cellist and composer Frederick Nicholls Crouch. The family endured constant financial uncertainty, and was plagued by debt. The strain of life caused her father to desert the home in 1847. Escaping his creditors, Crouch was able to make his way to America in 1849. With six young daughters to care for, her mother Lydia brought a man into the household, who was to be considered a “stepfather” by her children. The arrangement proved untenable for young Pearl and induced her mother to send her to a convent boarding school in Boulogne, France. She remained there for eight years, returning to England in 1854 or 1855 to live with her maternal grandmother in London. Life with her pious, kindly grandmother, Mrs. Watts, was a regulated one. Other than attending church services every Sunday, Pearl's activities were restricted to the home she and the elderly woman shared. The two took walks together through the London West End neighbourhood in which they resided located in proximity to Covent Garden.
It was a life she found confining and her restless nature and innate curiosity rebelled. She defied her grandmother’s cautions regarding the dangers a young woman faced out in the streets unchaperoned. On her own one day, she accepted the advances of an older man who approached her on the street, allowing him to take her to a drinking den where he wooed her with cakes and plied her with alcohol and ultimately took her virginity. Upon awakening, she found the man had left her a five-pound note — more money than she had ever seen. She was approximately twenty years old at the time and later said the encounter left her with "an instinctive horror of men." While this may have been her first experience of this type, she was not entirely innocent of sexual matters. During her years at the all female French convent school she attended, she had engaged in numerous same-sex relationships. After her abrupt initiation into heterosexual sex, she did not return to her grandmother's home, nor go back to her mother, but rented a room for herself in Covent Garden.
On her own in London, Pearl made the acquaintance of Robert Bignell, proprietor of a notorious pleasure establishment, The Argyll Rooms. A combination of bar, dance hall, and women available for hire, it provided private alcoves and rooms where couples could retire for sexual activity. She soon vacated her single room and moved into a suite at the Argyll Rooms, becoming Bignell’s mistress. Studying the life around her she realized that the lot of the common prostitute was a tragic one, at best the women would end up "poor and degraded," at worst the future held "disease and death." She was determined to practice her trade with higher expectations. Her goal was to become the kept woman of select dedicated lovers, ones with the financial means to keep her in luxury.
Her involvement with Bignell lasted for some time. They traveled to Paris, posing as a married couple. So enamored did she become with the city that she insisted that Bignell return to London without her. She was determined to remain in the French capital. It was at this time that Emma Crouch became "Cora Pearl," a fanciful name chosen to resonate with the new identity and future she hoped to craft for herself in Paris.
Again on her own in a major metropolis, the self-christened Cora Pearl was initially forced to reside in humble quarters and offer her services to commonplace men. Working as a street prostitute, she made a connection with a procurer, a "Monsieur Roubisse," who set her up in more suitable quarters, taught her the business rudiments of her new trade and tutored her in refining and broadening her repertoire of professional skills. After six years, she despaired of ever freeing herself from his all-encompassing influence. However, fate stepped in, the procurer died of a heart attack, liberating Emma.
Her first lover of distinction was the multi-titled, twenty-five-year-old Victor Masséna, third Duke du Rivoli, and later fifth Prince of Essling. He set her up in opulence, showering her with money, jewels, servants and a private chef. He provided her with funds for gambling when she visited the casinos and racecourse in the fashionable resort of Baden, Germany. He bought her the first horse she ever owned, and she became an accomplished equestrienne; it was said "she rode like an Amazon" and "was kinder to her horses than her lovers." Her liaison with Masséna lasted five years. While cultivating Masséna, she was simultaneously sharing her favors with Prince Achille Murat, a man much older than Masséna.
By 1860, Pearl was one of the most celebrated courtesans in Paris. She was the mistress of notable aristocrats, the Prince of Orange, heir to the throne of the Netherlands, Ludovic, Duc de Grammont-Caderousse, and more significantly Charles Duc de Morny, who was the half-brother of the Emperor Napoleon III. The Emperor’s brother generously contributed to the opulent life Pearl demanded.
In 1864, Pearl rented a chateau in the region of the Loiret. Known as the Chateau de Beauséjour ("beautiful sojourn"), it was a luxuriously appointed residence of stained glass windows, costly decorations and immaculately maintained interiors and grounds. Her boudoir boasted a custom-made bronze bathtub monogrammed with her intertwined initials. The château was conceived for gala entertainments. There were rarely fewer than fifteen guests at the dinner table, and the chef was instructed to spare no cost on the expenditure for food. Pearl was known for devising entertainments of an unexpected and outrageous theatricality, of which she invariably was the star attraction. On one such evening, she dared the group assembled around the dinner table "to cut into the next dish" about to be served. The meal’s next course was Cora Pearl herself, presented lying naked on a huge silver platter, sprinkled with parsley, and carried in by four large men.
Her most dedicated benefactor and enduring admirer was Napoléon Joseph Charles Paul Bonaparte, the Emperor’s distinguished cousin. She met the extremely wealthy prince in 1868 when he was forty-two years old. Their liaison lasted nine years, the longest relationship in Pearl's career. He bought her several homes, one a veritable palace: "les Petites Tuileries."
In 1860, Pearl made an appearance at a masquerade ball attended by the elite of Parisian society. She caused a sensation as a scantily costumed Eve, whose degree of nudity diverged little from the biblical original. Invariably enthusiastic about exhibiting her physical charms to an audience, she took the role of a singing Cupid in the Jacques Offenbach operetta Orphée aux Enfers, (Orpheus in the Underworld) performed at the Theatre Bouffes-Parisien in 1867. It was written that "Cora Pearl made an appearance half-naked on the stage. That evening the Jockey Club in its entirety, graced the theatre. All the names…of French nobility were there…It was a success of a kind…" The chronicle of the evening continued, "Apparently the beautiful Cora Pearl had already munched up a brochette ("skewer") of five or six historical fortunes with her pretty white teeth."
The high point of Pearl’s career as courtesan were the years 1865-1870. In his biography of Pearl, The Pearl From Plymouth (1950), author W. H. Holden writes that there is evidence that Pearl regularly sent money to both her mother in England and father in America. For Cora Pearl, money was for spending, for accumulating the luxuries of life and buying her way to a coveted perch in the upper echelons of society. Her jewel collection alone was valued at some one million francs; at one point, she owned three homes, and her clothing was made for her by the renowned couturier Charles Frederick Worth. As her career prospered, the gifts from her suitors needed to be both costly and imaginative. She pitted her admirers against one other, raising the price for her favors as the game between competitors escalated. In her heyday, she was able to command as much as ten thousand francs for an evening with her.
She dressed creatively, with the intent to provoke either shock or awe. Théodore de Banville wrote of her affinity for dyeing her hair bold colors. She was seen riding out in her carriage, her hair the color of a lemon, dyed to match the carriage's yellow satin interior. She once appeared in a blue gown, her dog’s coat colored to match her wardrobe. She was a proponent of the obviously made-up face, using makeup for her eyelashes, eyes, and face powder tinted with silver or pearl to give her skin a shimmering translucence. Jean-Philippe Worth, the son of the couturier Worth, pronounced her "shockingly overdone." In 1867, a drink came into vogue, inspired by Pearl, dubbed the "Tears of Cora Pearl." Alfred Delvau wrote a tribute to Pearl in Les Plaisirs de Paris (1867): "You are today, Madame, the renown, the preoccupation, the scandal and the toast of Paris. Everywhere they talk only of you..."
Scandal: L'affaire Duval
At age thirty-seven, Pearl found herself involved in an incident that would result in an irreversible downturn in her fortunes. She had become embroiled in a relationship with a wealthy young man, Alexandre Duval, ten years her junior. His obsession with her was so intense, he spent his entire fortune on sustaining his liaison with her—giving her jewels, fine horses and money. It was reported that at one point Duval gave her an exquisitely bound book, a hundred-page volume where each page was bookmarked by a one thousand franc bill. Pearl ultimately dismissed him, a finality that Duval could not countenance. On December 19, 1872, Duval went to her home, it is believed, with the intention of killing her. The gun he brought accidentally discharged, wounding him. Initially near death, he eventually recovered. Nevertheless, the consequences of what had occurred proved disastrous for Cora Pearl’s reputation. Publicized as l'affaire Duval, the scandal caused the authorities to order Pearl to leave the country.
She fled to London, thinking that a change of scene might improve her spirits and her reputation, only to find that rumour had traveled faster than her ship.
Her attempts at continuing her career as a courtesan in London were unsuccessful. She returned to Paris.
The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 brought at its end a new French republic and a cultural as well as political shift. The era in which Pearl had achieved her greatest success was over. The Third French Republic saw a diminution of aristocratic privilege and a resurgence of conservative values. She was no longer able to attract the titled men who had been her prime clients. In 1874, her long tenure as the mistress of Prince Napoleon ended at his request. He wrote her a touching, carefully worded letter of regret; he could no longer sustain the emotional and professional toll the relationship required of him.
Pearl was slowly forced to liquidate the fortune she had accumulated. While not destitute, by 1880 her financial situation had become dire. In 1873, she sold her rue Chaillot home. By 1883, she had returned to common prostitution, taking an apartment above the shop of a coachbuilder on the avenue Champs-Elysées, where she received clients. In July 1885, she was forced to sell her chateau in the Loiret.
Her reduced finances did not abate her passion for gambling. Habitually committed to playing for large stakes, she was now restricted to betting modest amounts. Julian Arnold, an old acquaintance, encountered Pearl outside a casino in Monte Carlo. He later wrote in his memoirs: "I found a woman seated on the kerbstone and weeping pitifully. She appeared to be about fifty years of age, handsome…but much bedraggled." She told him that she had been turned out of her apartment, her few belongings seized by the landlord in lieu of rent. She had no place to go, and she was hungry and in misery.
The Mémoires de Cora Pearl had been greatly anticipated when it became known that Pearl was penning the story of her career as courtesan to the rich and mighty. Published in 1886, the book proved a dull disappointment and soon disappeared. Pearl had made a feeble attempt to disguise the names of the key players and given a tame recitation of her past. There is some speculation that the work was ghost written, as Pearl’s facility with French was known to be lacking.
In the early 1980s, William Blatchford claimed to have located the Memoirs of Cora Pearl, which he said had been published in 1890, after Pearl’s death. Supposedly an earlier version of the book published in 1886, this volume purported to date back to an earlier date, perhaps even as early 1873. Decidedly more frank and sexually explicit than the 1886 memoirs, their idiomatic English - expressive of a provincial, unsophisticated use of the language - convinced many people of the work's authenticity when the memoirs were published by Granada under the title Grand Horitzontal, The Erotic Memoirs of a Passionate Life. However, Blatchford turned out to be a pseudonym adopted by the real author of the 'memoirs', Derek Parker, a former chairman of the Society of Authors, who later admitted that he had hoaxed Granada.
Soon after the publication of her memoirs, Pearl became gravely ill with intestinal cancer. Her biographer Holden writes: "The various accounts of Cora spending her last days in dire poverty in one squalid room are very much exaggerated." She died on July 8, 1886. Obituary notices appeared in the London and Paris papers. Her remaining possessions were disposed of in a two-day sale in October 1886. She is buried in Batignolles cemetery, (plot number 10, row 4), her grave unmarked by a tombstone.