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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.