Mail On Sunday: Sexuality & Its Impact On History…”A fascinating new read”
Published Sunday, April 8, 2018
Queen of the courtesans: Mistress who charged princes and dukes a MILLION pounds a night for her skills as the most famous of ‘Les Grandes Horizontales’ was a humble Brit!
- Cora Pearl had come a long way from Plymouth, with wealthy men as lovers
- They showered her with gifts, making her one of the richest women in France
- Now a new book by Hunter S Jones tells the story of Cora and others like her
It was, to say the least, an unusual dinner party. For one thing, the guests were all male. The only woman present was their hostess, famed for her extravagant hospitality. There were, it was said, no lengths to which she would not go to satisfy her visitors.
She did not disappoint them. They had tasted the very finest wines and dined on the most sumptuous dishes, prepared by her renowned Parisian chef.
But then came the denouement of the evening. Their hostess excused herself to supervise, she said, the presentation of the final course.
The gentlemen waited in eager anticipation. What delightful dish could she be preparing for them? The dining room doors opened and in came four footmen bearing aloft a huge, covered silver dish. It was laid on the table and the lid was lifted with a flourish to reveal the dessert: their hostess, naked but for a strategically placed rose (or parsley in some accounts).
The gentlemen gasped in amazement and did not hesitate to avail themselves of the dish on offer.
The story soon spread, just as she had planned, burnishing her reputation for decadence and exhibitionism. She was the Empress of extravagance, inventive, outrageous and sexually insatiable, outdoing every other courtesan in Paris, securing her crown as the most famous of ‘Les Grandes Horizontales’, as they were known.
Perhaps the greatest surprise of all, however, was that the infamous courtesan was not Parisian, let alone French. She was English, from a decidedly humble background.
Cora Pearl had come a long way from Plymouth, where she was born some 30 years earlier. Her lovers were the wealthiest men in Europe: princes, dukes and viscounts. They showered her with money, diamonds and houses, making this Englishwoman one of the richest and most notorious women in France. Yet her story is little known today.
Now a fascinating new book by Hunter S Jones, charting the hidden sexual history of Britain, tells the story of Cora, and others like her, whose stories reveal today’s lurid sex scandals are nothing new.
While Queen Victoria was setting an example of marital fidelity, popularising the white bridal dress to symbolise virginity, and giving her name to an era now synonymous with strait-laced prudery, for many women morality was a luxury they could not afford.
Some had to sell their bodies or starve, others topped up their regular earnings with occasional sexual transactions. And a select few made their fortunes from sex, becoming the celebrities and fashion icons of their day. Cora Pearl was one.
Cora was born Emma Crouch in 1835. Her father was a musician and composer who abandoned the family when Emma was young. Her mother soon remarried and Emma was sent to France to be educated in a convent.
When she returned to England, she refused to live with her mother and stepfather and her 15 siblings. Instead, she lived with her grandmother in London and began working in a milliner’s shop.
The pay was poor and many milliners’ assistants moonlighted as prostitutes. Cora (or rather Emma) claims, however, that she remained innocent until one day, walking home from church, she was accosted by a nice, middle-aged man who offered to buy her cakes.
She followed him to a house near Covent Garden market, where instead of cakes he plied her with gin, which she was too polite to refuse. She began to feel groggy.
As she later claimed in her memoirs, she awoke in bed beside the man. She had, she realised, been ‘ruined – wickedly, bestially. I have never pardoned men, neither this one nor the others’.
The man – a diamond merchant – gave her five pounds (£400 today) as payment for her virginity. It was not an uncommon tale in London at that time: many a naïve teenage girl was similarly ensnared. Too ashamed to return to her grandmother’s, she determined to make the best of her situation. With the five pounds she bought new clothes and began working as a prostitute, taking clients back to her new lodgings, near Covent Garden.
She renamed herself Cora Pearl, putting her former life behind her. She soon graduated to a job at a West End dance hall, where male customers could dance – and more – with the pretty hostesses.
Her looks and allure attracted the attention of the proprietor, Robert Bignell, and she became his mistress. Through him, she developed a taste for high living.
Bignell took her to Paris for a visit and she fell in love with the city. When he announced it was time to return home, Cora threw her passport on the fire. She was staying.
Alone in a new city, she had to start again, rapidly working her way up from backstreet prostitute to become the mistress – concurrently – of several wealthy men.
Her reputation spread. She had tumbling red hair, sometimes dyed blonde, ample curves and a tiny waist, the span of a man’s hands. Her breasts were said to be sensational. Even a rival courtesan described them as ‘marvellous’. She was witty and vivacious and her sexual prowess was legendary.
Soon she had bagged the first of her many aristocratic paramours, the Duc de Rivoli. This was the age of the French Second Empire and France was once more ruled by obscenely wealthy aristocrats whose ostentatious extravagance made it seem as if the French Revolution had never occurred.
Rivoli was a generous benefactor, giving her money, jewels, servants and horses. She happily entertained him and his boisterous friends but refused to become his exclusive mistress, preferring the independence – and income – of having a roster of lovers, including the teenage Prince Achille Murat as well as his father; the Prince of Orange, heir to the Dutch throne; and the Duke of Morny, one of the most powerful men in Paris.
Morny was famed for his wit and charm and Cora admired him, but never loved him, or indeed anyone. Referring to passion and love, she admitted: ‘Luckily for my peace of mind I have never known either.’ Sex was for fun, and for money, it was separate from love.
She accrued yet more lovers. Becoming one of Cora’s lovers became a hallmark of success: if you could afford Cora, you were clearly doing well. One long-term lover was the influential Prince Napoleon, known as Plon Plon, cousin and confidante of the Emperor. Tall, paunchy and unattractive, his coarse demeanour hid a keen intellect. He was also phenomenally wealthy.
But he was a jealous man and when Cora refused to give up her other lovers, he threatened to have her deported. She appeared to acquiesce, but continued to play the field as energetically as ever.
Two Russian aristocrats and a Turkish diplomat were among her male ‘harem’. They competed with each other to shower her in lavish gifts. One gave her a huge silver horse, filled with jewels and gold.
She charged an astonishing 10,000 francs for a night in her company; equivalent to a staggering £1million in today’s money. Meanwhile, Prince Napoleon continued to deluge her in gifts. Two houses in fashionable streets in Paris, an allowance of 12,000 francs a month (though she spent more than double that, racking up huge debts), and diamonds galore. She rented a chateau near Orleans and installed a huge bronze bath, engraved with her monogram. She liked to fill it with champagne and entertain her guests while bathing in it.
When one of her admirers sent her bouquets of priceless orchids, she strewed them on the floor and danced the can-can on them. She was unstintingly generous, entertaining her friends and hangers-on with no expense spared: her household expenditure was around £30,000 a week in modern money.
But she was ruthless, too. She had a habit of plucking a rich young man, captivating him and, over mere months, picking him clean of his fortune, then discarding him. She kept an account of her lovers, recording their visits, gifts and, in the last column, commenting – sometimes harshly – on their performance.
Cora was theatrical, ostentatious and uninhibited: she liked to display her perfect breasts in public and was even said to enhance them by painting rouge around the nipples. She wore heavy make-up, mixing pearl dust with powder for a translucent complexion.
She patronised the most fashionable couturier, Charles Worth, and spent several fortunes on his exquisitely cut dresses, and on expensive lingerie – although she spent as much time naked as clothed and once went to a fancy dress party as ‘Eve’, wearing nothing at all.
She gambled – and lost – heavily in casinos and squandered huge sums on horses, grooms and sumptuous carriages in which she would drive around the fashionable Bois (woods) outside the city.
She once dyed her hair yellow to match her carriage upholstery and, another time, dyed her dog blue to match her clothes (sadly the dog apparently died as a result). Crowds would turn out to admire her latest look. Capitalising on her celebrity, she was cast in an opera as Cupid. Her singing and acting were undistinguished but it did not matter: half the audience consisted of her past or current lovers who showed their appreciation when she appeared, naked but for some strategically placed diamonds. Even the soles of her boots were diamond-encrusted. The jewels later sold at auction for 50,000 francs – £5million today.
Cora’s dazzling reign came to an abrupt halt when war between France and Prussia broke out in 1870. France defeated, the Emperor went into exile, Prince Napoleon fled to London and Cora tried to follow him, but she was barred from joining him at the Grosvenor Hotel when the management learned of her reputation. Ironically, it now has a suite named after her.
Returning to Paris, she converted one of her houses into a convalescent home for wounded soldiers, but her money was starting to run out. Aged 37, she took another lover, Alexandre Duval, ten years her junior. Besotted, he lavished gifts on her including a book whose pages were thousand franc banknotes.
When his fortune was spent, Cora wanted nothing more to do with him. Distraught, and unable to live without her, Duval forced his way into her house with a gun planning to kill her. A tussle with her servants ensued during which Duval accidentally shot himself. He survived, but Cora’s reputation did not. She was condemned for her callousness: she had apparently been more concerned about the blood on her fine carpet than Duval’s survival.
Now disgraced, she was forced to leave Paris. Years later, by the time she was allowed to return, her fortune had largely gone, and her looks were waning, although her body was, it was said, as magnificent as ever and men came to gaze on it still.
But Cora’s days as a courtesan were over and she was forced into low-end prostitution and auctioning her silverware and other gifts from happier times. She died of cancer, aged 51, in semi-obscurity.
Today, Cora is remembered not only at the Grosvenor Hotel but by a restaurant bearing her name opening soon in Covent Garden, where she first began her notorious career. Famed for her sense of humour, would no doubt have been delighted.
Sexuality And Its Impact On History: The British Stripped Bare, by Hunter S. Jones, is published by Pen & Sword History, priced £14.99. Offer price £11.24 (25 per cent discount) until April 22. Order at mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on orders over £15.
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5589975/Queen-courtesans-charged-princes-dukes-MILLION-pounds-night-humble-Brit.html#ixzz5DGMjXL6c
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