Sigh. Courtesan is such a beautiful word, no? As is demimonde, the word that encapsulates the hedonistic lifestyle of the wealthy in XIX century Europe—those who spent their money on liquor, gambling, fashion and time with the most beautiful escorts society had to offer.
Cora Pearl was one such escort. She was born in London in 1835 as Emma Elizabeth Croutch. Her childhood would strongly influence her success as an escort in her adult life. Her father was a notorious philanderer, evidently fathering over 20 children in Europe and America. When he emigrated to the United States without his family, Emma’s mother pronounced him dead to them and remarried—to a man Emma and her sister evidently despised.
It is unsure as to whether Emma was taken to bed by her stepfather—historians speculate as much. But a riff in the family circle sent the daughters to a French boarding school, a second factor in training the woman who would become Cora Pearl.
In school she learned French manners, the language, and the general air of the culture that was much more sophisticated and less stuffy than her own British upbringing. Upon completing school, she moved in with her grandmother and began working as a milliner, a job that bored her to no end and one with consistent income but lacking completely in excitement.
Once again, history can only speculate what happened to send Cora into a new direction.
At the time she was already notoriously beautiful, with a full, sensual body that was both muscular and curvy. Naturally she attracted attention wherever she went. She had a desire to be an actress, a career that was scorned for women during the time. But her natural talent combined with her gorgeous figure and sexual drive lent her to be noticed by men, and lusted after.
One day Emma claimed to have been raped on her way home from church. The actuality of the incident was never confirmed, but the result was clear—as an “unclean” woman, Emma could no longer remain with her grandmother, and so she moved out. Was this a complete fabrication? Did she plant the story so that she could gain her independence in a time when women were boxed into familial and societal roles?
All we know is Emma got out. And took Europe on as her stage. Perform, she did.
Emma did originally look for work as an actress, though she lacked any training and knew no one in the business. Despite her lack of training she did perform as Cupid in a production of Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld. But it was not her portrayal that caught attention, but the character she created—decked out completely in white, curvy and voluptuous, she knew how to attract attention and make sure she, with her weak voice and questionable skills, was still received well by audiences and critics alike. It was her talent at playing the part of the desirable that would elevate her to infamy as the most famous escort of the time.
Emma understood that presentation was everything, and, inspired by her Orpheus performance, she began dressing the part of the desired woman of the rich and famous. Long before she could afford beautiful clothes she decked herself in couture dresses and expensive French lingerie. She was witty and gay, known for making even the most bored man laugh. The French manners she learned at her boarding school made her refined enough for the posh society of politicians and royals whom she charmed while her London upbringing made her slightly brash and inappropriate in ways that offered a little spunk the demimonde gentlemen so craved.
Through her talents she rose, notoriously making her first trip as an adult to Paris with her lover Robert Bignell only to leave him to return to England alone. There, she renamed herself Cora Pearl.
She donned the designer clothes, eventually attracting the Duke of Rivoli, then several princes and even Napoleon III’s half brother—who was considered a taller and handsomer version of Napoleon himself.
She was fiercely independent—always the bridesmaid and never the bride by her own determination, no matter how many successful and handsome men proposed. Whether this was a career decision, a result of possible sexual abuse as a child or simply the unhappiness she found in her mother’s second marriage after he father’s disposal of her and her family is unsure. But we know she was devout in her belief that she should be alone, making it clear to her paramours that she was never the property of one man.
Did she have a favorite lover? She knew it was her job to make sure all men thought they held that special place to her, that her time with them was to convince them of that place of honor, so she never singled out anyone as having any more of her heart than any other. Smart advise for working escorts still today.
Her reputation as an escort or courtesan (the pious of the day would claim she was a prostitute—though she seemed to make much more by her company than the carnal acts she was also evidently very skilled in) grew like wildfire amongst the social elite, as did her extravagant lifestyle. She threw lavish parties in the many houses she was gifted, with over the top meals that would last hours while the liquor poured. For a final course she would present herself, naked, dressed in sweet creams and flowers. She would sometimes dance, again naked, on a bed of wild orchids, luring all those around her with her eyes and wicked smile. And she would bathe (naked!) in a bathtub of champagne that was often the centerpiece of her table. Her homes were decked in expensive furnishings—artwork and antique furniture and chandeliers. She gambled big, lost big, lived big, and offered herself to her gentlemen clients so that they too could have big, exciting lives.
At the height of her popularity she was making 5000 Francs a night. Any day laborer was making 3 or 4.
Critics of the time couldn’t quite understand how such a woman rose to infamy—they claimed she was a prostitute, a woman of ill repute, just another who had used her body when all else failed to gain access into a world she might otherwise never have been welcomed into.
But Cora was a smart, incredibly forward-thinking woman. She was not coerced into the escort trade—she embraced it. She loved the lavish lifestyle that included being adored by handsome, successful men. She had a natural hunger for companionship and sex—she was allegedly able to do it while on a horse. She had a flair for the dramatic, the theatrical. So her trade made complete sense, and she did it well.
Political tension was mounting around her beloved Paris in the late 1860s, and the Franco-Prussian war ended the period of lavish parties that had helped to create her character. She opened up her homes to infirm soldiers and paid for their medical expenses herself. When Napoleon III fled to England with Prince Napoleon at the end of the war (who at the time was a paramour and financially supported her) she went as well, but was not accepted back into British society. A few months later she returned to Paris, the city she so loved that was no somber and frugal, with a new order that forbid the demimonde lifestyle she had become accustomed to. By 1874, the Prince could no longer support her.
In fact, few men could help support her lust for all things that glittered or were gold. So when she met Alexandre Duval, she was hooked. Over a decade younger than her and swimming money from his family’s restaurant business, Alexandre adored her, fawned over her, threw his money at her until she basically spent it all. When he went bankrupt and his family refused to give him any more of their earnings, Cora moved on.
But Alexandre, it seemed, could not. He wanted to marry Cora, who was still fiercely independent. He began to literally stalk her, breaking into her home, becoming violent. One notorious night he showed up at her doorstep with a gun and, in response to something she said, shot himself in the side in anguish.
History is unkind to Cora about this event. A New York Times report claimed directly after that she had him brought inside and immediately called for help. Other accounts claimed she left him there and went up to bed. Still others say it was a long time before she realized the severity of the situation and called for medics. No matter the reality of the situation, she was sentenced by the court to leave France because of the incident. She sold her house and, after a short time in Monaco, returned to her native English soil.
A few years later, at 51, she died of cancer in a small room she rented. Few people came to her funeral, which was funded by a few lovers who still had soft spots for her. Her remaining possessions were sold for a small sum, and her name—Emma Crouch—was inscribed on her headstone.
Is this a depressing ending to a fantastic life? Well, we could look at it that way. A woman who was once the center of society died comparatively alone. She published her memoirs shortly after her return to England, and some might read them as a cautionary tale promoting the security of marriage and family.
And marriage and family are great, for some. Women today still turn to escorting as a career to set them up financially so that they can pursue education, save to start their own unrelated companies or support their families.
But others, like the escorts who so famously exposed celebrities like Charlie Sheen and Wayne Rooney, also have another personal motivation—they love the lifestyle. Parties are, obviously, fun! Most of us will never get to deck ourselves in diamonds, as Cora did for her Orpheus performance. Nor wear thousands of dollars worth of lingerie and designer clothing that even Princess Kate would drool over.
Cora loved the lifestyle. And it was only the politics and social order of her beloved Paris that determined where and how the final days of her life would be spent. In our current society she might have fared better with a little investment planning and with a greater international social set. In her 51 years she had more excitement, received more attention, was loved in greater quantity and with more ferocity, than many of us could dream of. And did Cora, herself, regret?
This is taken from her memoirs:
I have had a happy life; I have squandered money enormously. I am far from posing as a victim; it would be ungrateful of me to do so. I ought to have saved, but saving is not easy in such a whirl of excitement as that in which I have lived. Between what one ought to do and what one does there is always a difference.
So, sad ending? Only if we look with a traditional, rather judgmental point of expecting others to live a life properly. From her perspective, she danced on orchids and bathed in champagne.
Something to recall on the death bed—which most of us won’t have.