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Saturday, 31 December 2011


 Some scandalous lives of the Belle Epoque
“I have to admit that I'm up to my neck in frivolity, buried in dresses to the point of ruin!”
Liane de Pougy; My Blue Notebooks
"I have been a slave to my passions, but never to a man."
Carolina Otero

“The thought flashed across my mind,” Carolina Otero explained with studied flippancy to the journalist from the London Daily Mail. “Why not try marriage, just to see what it is like?” In January 1907 she had been married to Englishman Rene Webb for just two months. He came to the marriage with a substantial dowry including a promise to set La Belle Otero’s sister up in business, and something else – his collection of several thousand postcards of the dancer. These images were almost certainly in the collection. Leopold Reutlinger, photographer to the stars of Parisian theatres and dance halls had shot Ms Otero over hundreds of sessions and she was one of the most popular subjects for his photographs. 
The biography of Carolina Otero that appears in the Who's who on the stage 1908 makes for fabulous reading. Born in 1871, the daughter of the Count and Countess Cassarow, she first appeared on the stage at age eight. While performing in Madrid she was kidnapped “by secret agents of the Spanish King, spirited off to his palace and locked in a room. She forced a window and escaped.” More likely she was born to poor Galician farmers a few years earlier, may have been raped when she was ten and possibly married an Italian count when she was fourteen. What is certain is that in the process of bedding a fair number of Europe’s royals and statesmen she accumulated several million dollars worth of jewelry, which she gambled away, dying penniless in 1965 aged about 96.

American journalists working around the beginning of last century referred to prostitutes as courtesans. They would not however call a courtesan a prostitute. A true courtesan was not paid for her services, she received gifts sometimes more from a single assignation than typical streetwalkers could expect to earn in their entire lives. Caroline Otero had no problem with the word courtesan, she exploited her reputation to the fullest, but she was usually referred to as a dancer or, in that way that French can be simultaneously explicit and inoffensive, la belle horizontale. The three great horizontales in the Belle Époque were Otero, Liane de Pougy and Emilienne d’Alencon. They made no secret of their lifestyles or the price they attached to it but flaunted their extravagances with a kind of grinning contempt for the ordinary people who found something offensive about it. Of the three, d’Alencon pushed the idea of succès de scandale to its limits, sharing her bed with the usual motley crew of dissolute nobles as well as the famous can-can dancer La Goulue, the American poet Renée Vivian and possibly de Pougy. She was also an enthusiastic consumer of opium and cocaine, which led many people to assume she lived her final years in a drugged out fog. Actually she lived a respectably long life, dying in 1946 aged 77.
This portrait by Reutlinger presents her as an epitome of innocence. She started out her stage career as a young girl with a troupe of performing pink rabbits and was described by Jean Lorrain (author of Nightmares of an Ether Drinker) as ‘raspberry ice’ – presumably he meant something cute. By the turn of the century the rabbits had been packed away and she was performing with a python as her dancing partner. She was also an inspiration to Coco Chanel and one of her favourite models for headwear in the 1910s.

Were Otero and d’Alencon talented performers or was their fame thanks more to their notoriety? It’s hard to say since very little survives of their work – a brief clip of a frenzied Otero on YouTube and a book of poems by d’Alencon that veers between sentimental and crassly erotic. One way a critic could show disapproval of their lifestyles while maintaining a veneer of sophistication was to soundly trash their performances. That happened often but no performer came under so much cruel scrutiny as Gaby Deslys. “The worse she sings and the further in her dancing she widens the limits of choreographic mediocrity, the more evident it is that she is a pretty girl.” That was Paris critic Ernest Charles writing in 1912 in an article that was so nasty she sued. A year earlier the Italian soprano Luisa Tetrazzini tersely dismissed her as ‘not art’. (In the same interview the opera singer complained that she had recently seen a suffragette parade but ‘they are all ugly and not neat in their dress’.) In her brief career Gaby Deslys managed to have official censors called in during performances in London, Paris and the US and became the focus of a riot by Yale students when the police cut one of her performances short. Part of the problem was her popularity. She was one of the very few to make a name for herself in Europe, Britain and the US, and that was because her stage act hovered between highbrow and popular. Filling a concert hall with ill behaved students was one way to offend the arbiters of taste. Another was to carry on a very public affair with King Manuel II of Portugal. When Manuel was deposed in a revolution in 1910 Deslys was widely held to be a culprit; her goings on with the King apparently inflaming radical Portuguese tempers. Actually the revolution had been brewing for years and might not have happened had the initial insurrection been handled properly. She had nothing to do with it though years later she was still referred to in some papers as the woman who brought down the king.
In December 1919 she was hospitalized with a throat infection. It may have actually been a tumour. Thinking surgery would destroy her looks and her voice, she refused to allow the doctors to cut into her neck. After nine operations, on February 11 1920 she died, aged 38. One of the minor scandals in her affair with Manuel had involved a string of pearls he had given her on their first date. It was estimated to be worth $70 000. In her will she directed that all her jewelry including the infamous string of pearls be sold and the proceeds distributed among the poor of Marseilles.

Even in death Gaby Deslys could not be left in peace. It had always been assumed she was born Marie-Elise-Gabrielle Caire, daughter of a middle class merchant in Marseilles and her stage name was a contraction of Gabrielle of the Lilies. During her affair with King Manuel a private detective claimed to have discovered that she was in fact Hadiwga Nawrati, a Czech farmer’s daughter. This obviously excited a few people though unlike Otero and d’Alencon Deslys had never concocted a past so at the time the story never gained real traction. After her death however various Czechs, Hungarians and Americans bearing similar surnames came forward claiming her inheritance. One Hungarian man declared he was her father while an American woman cited a cross shaped scar on her finger and a nurse’s story as proof she was the singer’s daughter. It was also said that the real Gaby Deslys, that is to say the woman whose identity she had stolen, was still alive and could be found. These claims dragged on for years. None were found valid though in accumulation they had the effect of adding mystery to a fairly ordinary background. On March 21, 1930 thieves inspired by stories she had been buried draped in pearls smashed open her mausoleum but couldn’t get past a steel plate.
A bed bought for her by King Manuel and designed in the shape of a swan was bought by Universal Studios after her death and appeared in several films, most notably it was Norma Desmond’s in Sunset Boulevard.

Sophisticated critics were in no doubt that Lina Cavalieri was an exceptional singer, and that she deserved her reputation as one of the most beautiful women in the world. The difference in their treatment of Deslys and Cavalieri speaks volumes, especially as both performers came from similar backgrounds and both began their careers in the less than high-toned music halls. What mattered was that Deslys’ persona was funny and animated while Cavalieri played her part with cultivated poise. Reutlinger’s photo of her above was taken near the turn of the century, as she was making the transition from the music halls to opera. Opera singers were expected to lead glamorous public lives with enough romantic intrigue to keep the public interested, but scandal and by extension open sexuality was out. In the future she would be portrayed in ways more fitting to a world famous soprano. Cavalieri might have been astute enough to keep her affairs discreet but she was helped by a fawning press. Critics whose ears pricked up at the latest gossip concerning d’Alencon or Otero turned a deaf one to news that, yet again, Cavalieri’s recent marriage was foundering.
In August 1908, Princess Vittoria de Teano, who claimed a lineage extending back to the 5th century and included several popes among the various dukes and princes, attended a reception held by the Duchess of Sutherland. On hearing that Lina Cavalieri was to be the guest of honour the Princess announced; “I am not accustomed to meeting such people,” before making a haughty exit. A few of her equals, including well known pouncer Edward VII, approved of her stand. Cavalieri’s great offence apparently was that she had begun her working life as a humble flower seller. Apart from casting an unnecessary light on how class bound Europe was, the story reveals something of how the lives of celebrities were already being confected to suit the market. The Princess claimed to have principles and in her vulgar way, she was saying she saw through the hype. No matter how beautiful or talented Cavalieri was, she came from the streets. 

 Cavalieri’s private life doesn’t quite square with her press (Whose does?). Take her four marriages, all to men with either artistic credentials or titles, two of which lasted just months. She could have made poor choices but one mark of an elegant woman is that she shouldn’t. The suspicion is that behind the quietly dignified persona lurked an unpleasantly temperamental diva. Her death is also obscured by conflicting accounts. On February 7, 1944, the US Air force began a bombing raid over Fiesole outside of Florence. Either she was collecting her jewellery before running to the air raid shelter or she suddenly jumped from a car and ran back to collect it but a bomb hit the house, killing her. The first version suggests bad timing, the second that she had misplaced her values.


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