Cora Pearl, the Kim Kardashian of the 19th Century

All quotations are from Katie Hickman's Courtesans.

When it comes to fame-seeking courtesans of the Victorian era, Cora Pearl is, without question, the Queen Jezebel of Attention Whores. She was one of those women who was considered by the standards of the time to be quite ugly, but she had such a commanding presence and an ability to distract people so well that most people completely forgot she wasn't actually a beauty.

Scarlett O'Hara, eat your heart out. I mean, look at how she sits–that pose, that expression, that necklace, that ermine cape. Sister's got some SERIOUS swagger, and she knows it.

People either 'got' her, or didn't. Some thought she was a crude, ugly vulgarian, (most) others found her mesmerizing. In all honesty, I think that X-factor that people either did or didn't get was what we now call self-confidence; only hers was seen in the light of all the other, delicate, reticent, self-effacing women of society. She naturally stood out, and knew how to work it to her advantage.

What really set Cora apart was her ability to entertain, either through scandalous stories or vivacious behavior. She had a ton of energy and was easily bored, so she was always willing to do the next outrageous thing; she commodified her legend, and boy did it pay off with wealthy clients.

"When an admirer sent her £1000 worth of orchids . . . she strewed them all over the floor of her drawing room and danced a hornpipe (another source says it was the can-can) on the top of them. (234)

"On another occasion she is alleged to have filled her bath with the very best vintage champagne and invited her guests to watch her in her ablutions. (234)

"The most famous story about Cora, however, is the one in which at dinner one night four footmen, resplendent in her livery, came staggering into the dining room carrying a long silver dish which they placed in the centre of the table. On taking off the cover, there lay Cora herself, completely naked" (234) If I had been at that party, I'd be like, "Look, that's great and everything. You know, lovely boobs and all that, but . . . are we actually going to eat, or . . .?"

Cora also "spent fabulous sums on her underwear; so much so that in February 1864 she is recorded as having taken her lingere [lingerie maker] to court. Her latest bill, which was for the sum of 9500 francs (nearly £18,000) for 'part of the year,' even Cora, no stranger to the art of conspicuous consumption, found excessive. In court, some of the trimmings and exquisite lace work were produced as evidence, causing such a stir that the case was reported back in London by the Daily Telegraph . . . In the end, Cora won her case, and a thousand francs was knocked off the bill" (243-4).

Cora always dressed within an inch of her life, but "one of the most striking features of Cora's costume, remembered William Osgood Field, was that the soles of her boots were completely encrusted with diamonds." (264). Because she would never profane her feet to walk on the regular ground, like some sort of medieval peasant.

She "once even dyed her dog blue to match one of her outfits (unfortunately the dog died)" (266).

Finally, she took a lover named Alexandre Duval, who became obsessed with her. "But when he was unable, or unwilling, to go on paying, Cora refused to see him . . . in a desperate state, Alexandre once again went to Cora's house, and this time managed to force his way in. During the terrible scene that followed he took a pistol from his pocket, which went off, wounding him so badly that he was lucky to escape with his life . . . The scandal that became known as 'the Duval incident' destroyed Cora completely. 'The pig might at least have done it in the ante-room,' she is alleged to have said afterwards; 'then he would not have stained my carpet.'" (273). Sorry, I know she sounds heartless, but I'm siding with her on this one.

It is unclear whether he came there to threaten Cora with the gun, kill her, kill himself, or perhaps just wound himself and frame her for it. Whatever happened, he lived, but her career was over. Public opinion turned against her and she went into self-exile from Paris, returning only many years later to die at home at the age of fifty-one.

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