04/24/14

The Courtesans And The Art Of Male Maintenance

Courtesan, 1520, Bartolomeo Veneto (1470-1531).

Courtesan, 1520, Bartolomeo Veneto (1470-1531).

Lady Cavendish of the Devonshire clan pronounced one of their kind to be “a woman of notorious, shameless character.” The memoir of another was said to be a “list of dirty laundry.” In sixteenth century Venice, Sumptuary Laws forbade them from flaunting in public the gold, silver, silks, and gemstones that were the spoils of their sorcery. Nor were they allowed to “stand, kneel, or sit on the benches that in the church are occupied by noblewomen … taking care not to give offence to other decent persons.”

The Sultanette can think of no finer authorities on the art of male maintenance than the pleasure-loving, shunned, wily, worldly courtesans.

But wait! Weren’t these misguided damsels at the mercy of their masters? Marginalized by society? Dependent upon the beneficence of their caretakers? Or was that their wives?

 “… for I can never submit to the control of a husband, or put it in his power to say I have been imprudent in life.” Courtesan Sophia Baddeley

If you have cozied up to the notion that the courtesans were hapless victims or reprobate she-wolves, I invite you to read London Times’ best-selling author, Katie Hickman’s Courtesans: Money, Sex and Fame in the Nineteenth Century.

The first myth Hickman dismantles is that the courtesan’s fate was to die destitute. Consider the items auctioned from the “handsome greybrick Parisian home” of courtesan Cora Pearl in 1886, after she died “in great poverty and distress.”

Satyr copping a feel, Pompeii fresco, Naples National Archaeological Museum.

Satyr copping a feel, Pompeii fresco, Naples National Archaeological Museum.

Highlights include the pearl necklace (20,000 francs? Sold!), an “exquisite silver tea service” from lover Prince Bonaparte, books illustrated by another lover, Paris lingeres of “extraordinary fineness,” a satin upholstered bed, and plaster cast of her breasts. (When asked what was the optimal size breast to attract a lover, courtesan Ninon de L’Enclos replied, “Large enough to fill the hand of an honest man.”)

 “My Independence was all my fortune, and I have known no other happiness; and it is still what attaches me to life.” Courtesan Cora Pearl

Another assumption that Hickman quashes is that the courtesans were bimbos in nice clothes who relied solely on sexual charms and were inconsolable at not being allowed entrée into Downton Abbey.

Nikolai Sheremetev, oil on canvas,19C,Vladimir Borovikovsky, State Russian Museum.

Nikolai Sheremetev, oil on canvas,19C,Vladimir Borovikovsky, State Russian Museum.

Consider their clientele. Men born into the power club when England was an empire and Europe a chessboard maneuvered by the inbred elite. Too smug to be arrogant, this crowd would have had a Jamie Dimon or Lloyd Blankfein, Vladimir Putin or Bill Clinton for lunch. (Though randy Bill might have given them a run for their money on skirt-chasing.) Occasionally a war might put them in their place but certainly not their wives.

The courtesan’s legendary sexual prowess might have been enough to attract the attention of these masters of the universe but hardly enough to keep it. One begins to get the niggling sense they had other assets on their calling cards.

Hickman quotes the nineteenth century novelist and man of letters Georges Ohnet: “It requires more intelligence to succeed in being a whore kept in luxury than to make a future in a respectable business.” Indeed, Courtesan Laura Bell was rumored to have exacted today’s equivalent of millions from Nepalese Prince Jun Bahadoor for one night with her.

Marquess de Pumpkin, Nino Barbieri.

Marquess de Pumpkin, Nino Barbieri.

Yet when the Marquess de Sévigné made a move on Ninon de L’Enclos her white paper was definitive. The Marquess had “a soul of boiled beef, a body of damp paper, with a heart like a pumpkin fricasseed in snow.” Where did a courtesan get the idea she could choose her penises?

 “I will be the mere instrument of pleasure to no man.” Courtesan Harriette Wilson

La Belle Otero, circa 1880.

La Belle Otero, circa 1880.

Not only were they choosy, they lived extravagantly. Cora Pearl was dressed by the famous couturier Charles Worth and once dyed her dog blue to match an ensemble. (Alas, the pooch died.) There were taffetas imported from Baghdad, linens from Rheims, Persian silks, negligées, muffs, sable and fox. A Cartier bolero of diamonds, gold and jewels owned by Belle Epoque courtesan La Belle Otero, was kept in a Crédit Lyonnais vault.

A cross between Lady Gaga and Arianna Huffington the courtesan had an innate talent for creating a persona and working it. Hickman tells of aristocratic ladies scrambling to copy the single-piece, skin-tight riding habit of courtesan Catherine Walters, even as it was purported in outraged letters to The Times that she wore nothing underneath. Ann Cately’s hairdo was so envied that to achieve it was to become “Cately-fied.” A cocktail was named “The Tears of Cora Pearl.”

Beyond artifice there was art. The sought-after salon of Ninon, nicknamed Notre-Dame des Amours by Horace Walpole, was frequented by Moliere, Scarron, and Voltaire. How could a man resist being drawn into competition within the scintillating atmosphere the courtesans created in the shadows of the demi-monde?

More than wily, these women knew who they were. They knew the style in which they wanted to live and the rules of the game they needed to play to achieve it. How like a man, even today. But men do business. They don’t do magic. Being female creatures, the courtesans imbued beyond their charmingly mercenary quality, a magic that only a woman possesses.

Lovers in a Landscape, 18C, Pieter Jan van Reysschoot, Yale Center for British Art.

Lovers in a Landscape, 18C, Pieter Jan van Reysschoot, Yale Center for British Art.

Hickman describes the enduring attraction to Cora Pearl of the financier and diplomat, the Duc de Mornay. “With all her laughing grace, her wit and her tremendous intelligence, Cora was more than a match for him. … She was always so physically at ease, with her very un-French exhibitionism and her taste for voluptuous eccentricities, so unabashed and sparkling with erotic energy.”

In turn, Cora had a genuine affection for de Mornay. “He was one of those who never grows old,” she said. “My greatest delight when I was with him was to listen to his delicate irony and his fine criticism.” They talked of poetry and theatre and when she snuck up his secret staircase, he played the piano for her “charmingly, wearing a violet velvet suit.”

The courtesans reveled in the indulgence of these men who lived so exquisitely but they also enjoyed their company. Did they share a similar arrogance? Not about to surrender their autonomy for any Tom, Dick or Marquis, they made a business of their pleasures. They enjoyed sex, not for the security a woman feels she is owed for cracking open the inner sanctum but for the freedom it gave them as CEO’s of their libido. A paltry freedom perhaps when looked through today’s lens, but not at a time when even highborn ladies were men’s chattels.

Greek courtesan engaging in precarious pleasures, Euphronios-potter, Onesimos-painter, British Museum.

Greek courtesan engaging in precarious pleasures, Euphronios-potter, Onesimos-painter, British Museum.

And with apologies to those modern women who see it as a capitulation in the war between the sexes, The Sultanette confesses to a hot and high regard for the penis-wielding enemy. Unattached beyond the precarious pleasures of Male Harem membership, they’ve proven to be more than enough. Mature enough to treat me beautifully, clever enough to be amusing, generous enough to take a shot at being themselves, open enough to see me. I like them even when they’re male enough to be the oafish, unsentimental, inappropriate, self-absorbed breed that is the reason they’re called opposite. We’ve had our run-in’s and scrapes. Some have crashed and burned. Others continue to delight. Always, I find enough of them and more of myself.

In ancient Greece, Hickman writes, the courtesan Neaera, was so beloved by her patrons they organized to buy her freedom. From then on she gained the honorific, “Herself mistress of herself.”

If you’re looking for tips on male maintenance that might not be a bad place to start.

This is the first in The Courtesan Chronicles. Expect more profiles of these exquisite outlaws in weeks to come.

04/10/14

What’s Love Got To Do With It?

Prostitutes rue Saint Denis, 1960.

Prostitutes rue Saint Denis, 1960.

The Sultanette will never turn down a gooey evening of romance. Candlelight, moist eye contact, a brush of hand on knee, a glass of Bordeaux the size of a fish bowl haven’t lost their power to get me flailing by night’s end. Unlike their preferred approaches such as sexting, guys know the intimate dinner is the PC way to get between a woman’s legs, the more stars to the restaurant, the better the chances.

Romance, the bedrock of love American-style, has always looked to the French for inspiration: Doris Day’s head spinning in the 1952 film, April in Paris – the song originally written in 1932 for Broadway; Sartre and de Beauvoir chain-smoking at the Café de Flore. When the Good Ex and I announced to the New York advertising agency where we had been surreptitiously dating, that we were getting married and moving to Paris, we became instant poster children of the fantasy.

Paris nosh.

Paris nosh.

So quelle surprise when I learned upon moving there as a young bride that the City of Love was the City of Subsidized Lust. Hookers were stylishly dressed on the Rue St. Denis. Transvestites can-canned before roaming headlights in the Boise de Boulogne. Oral sex was a noontime nosh if you parked your car along ritzy Avenue Foch. There was a “couples” club down the street from our apartment in the bourgeois Eighth arrondissement. And naturally affairs were de rigueur.

I was reminded of that epiphany upon reading La Seduction: How The French Play The Game Of Life by Elaine Sciolino. A former Paris bureau chief for The New York Times, Newsweek foreign correspondent in Paris and Rome, and chevalier of the Legion of Honor who now lives in Paris, Sciolino trains a steely eye on chestnuts in blossom. Her survey of the French prediliction for seduction in politics, art, society and fashion, including chapters on the French kiss, lingerie, and a class that teaches bourgeois women how to strip, are downright educational.

Titus36, Wiki Commons.

Titus36, Wiki Commons.

Relevant here, is a chapter on tits and ass, or the fesse, which translates less specifically than “buttock” to the overall curvature of the behind. According to a 2003 survey in the news weekly L’Express only 38% of French males were breast men while 50% preferred the fesse and legs.

“Paris” 1920, Shalva Kikodze, 1895-1921.

“Paris” 1920, Shalva Kikodze, 1895-1921.

Across the pond, a girl soon learns the American male’s fixation for mammaries of all types and sizes. I’ll never forget working in Chicago after college when news of a tit-sighting – a topless sunbather on a neighboring terrace – spread through the office like a California wildfire. Grown men in suits abandoned their PowerPoint’s to crowd the nearest window for a view like they hadn’t seen a set of jugs since they’d suckled at their mother’s breast.

Naturally Frenchmen take a more philosophical approach to ass appreciation. In Breve histoire des fesse, Jean-Luc Hennig traces the derrière’s influence in art and society from classical antiquity to the present. The Hidden Side of the Fesses, a documentary produced by Arte, the PBS of France, describes how the tush has contributed to the advance of civilization. When it was aired in Christmas 2009, the companion book sold out in bookstores – the perfect stocking stuffer.

Does the French male get this as a petit chou or is it in the DNA? One soggy grey afternoon in Paris, I was walking along the Boulevard Raspail when a kid approached in the opposite direction, walking his bike. I had barely noticed him or any premeditated behavior, so I was entirely caught off guard when, upon passing me, he copped a squeeze of my left cheek, jumped on his bike, and rode off.

My initial reaction was righteous indignation. Who did this impudent prepubescent think he was! But when I turned to offer a Franglais rebuke and watched his young fesse pedal off, I thought, “I’m a married woman who just got her ass grabbed by a boy on a bicyclette. Tant pis!” I now understand that he was fulfilling his inborn right for fesse appreciation.

Doris and Ray.

Doris and Ray.

But I’ve strayed from the original topic of romance and its best-selling sequel, true love. See how easy it is to get distracted when unadulterated lust comes into the picture? How can this preoccupation with body parts lead to the Holy Grail of sexual intimacy?

And what is sexual intimacy anyway? Is it feeling physically close?  Erotically simpatico? You can get that on a one-night stand. The American translation as it relates to committed love seems to get all tangled up in emotional security. We’re intimate because it’s you-and-me-and-nobody-else and if I catch any hanky-panky I’ll have your balls in couples’ therapy before you can say, “Hi Honey, I have to work late at the office.” That’s the true of true love – no need to account for individual passions, provocations or inclinations.

Or is it time for another definition? Cultural critic Susan Sontag wrote in her diaries, “Part of the modern ideology of love is to assume that love and sex always go together. They can, I suppose, but I think rather to the detriment of either one or the other. And probably the greatest problem for human beings is that they just don’t.”

Dangerous Liaisons, Illustration Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, 1796, "Valmont entrant la chambre de Cécile".

Dangerous Liaisons, Illustration Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, 1796, “Valmont entrant la chambre de Cécile”.

In La Seduction, Sciolino references a book on men and fidelity. Ben, a sociology professor, married with three children and “deceitful monogamist” lists a 17-point “honor code of the unfaithful but loyal husband.” Along with guidelines for covering your tracks (“Monitor the contents of your pockets, your mail, your e-mails, your cell phone.”) smart boundaries (“Never sleep or even flirt with the wife of a friend, colleague, neighbor or relative.”) major no-no’s (“It is unacceptable to frolic in the home of your wife and children”) and damn straight behavior (“Surround your wife with true, sincere, loyal love and genuine attention.”) honor code Number Eight is stunning: “Never fall in love. Know how to keep your heart if not your hormones under control. Affairs don’t count.  With them, you relax. You don’t fall in love.”

Relax? What a concept! In a world suffocating in obligations to spouses, partners, children, in-laws, ex’s, employers and God if you have one, is the affair more necessity than luxury? A sexual rendezvous with a harem member is a blessed escape from my work, my worries, my lists of lists, myself.

Theda Bara,1917 film Cleopatra.

Theda Bara,1917 film Cleopatra.

In preparation, I pomade like Cleopatra, roll out the heavy artillery lingerie, review meaty topics for intellectual foreplay, and finally turn off all electronic devices to fully participate in the attentions of a smart, generous, sensual, worldly grownup. A man who, married or not, is here like me, to carve out a space of pure pleasure in a life he takes full responsibility for. We have sex. We make love. But we don’t fall in it.

But we all know that falling in love is easy. It’s tolerating someone else’s toe jam that gets icky. Borrowing from Thomas Hobbes’ description of the life of man, committed relationships can be solitary, nasty, brutish – and if you’re lucky – long. They’re also bound by mutual understanding, true affection and shared experiences. But why do we expect ourselves to run that lifetime gauntlet without an occasional shift in the conversation? Spark of unexpected attraction? Thrill of outside attention? Curve of another body?

With this delinquent attitude, how will The Sultanette ever find true love? Don’t know. But if it’s ever April in Paris again, I hope I’ll remember what sex has to do with it.