• We all know the word callgirl but how many people know what a courtesan is?

    Courtesans were at the top of the callgirl hierarchy. They were above , escorts, madams and lorettes. They were the upper tier and they had very elegant lifestyles.

    Courtesans were basically mistresses. They were supported by wealthy men who provided them with anything they could ever want.

    Usually a woman of an upper class household would turn to the world of the courtesan for several different reasons. To begin with, marriage in the nineteenth century was more of a business deal then an act of true love. This idea was abhorrent to some women and so, not wanting to leave the comfort of their lifestyle would simply turn to a life that would allow them to continue on as they had without the confines of a husband. Some women chose the life of a courtesan in order to cultivate their minds which they usually, were they not independent, were meant to keep dormant.

    Defining the courtesan basically comes down to this: "a callgirl with a courtly, wealthy, or upper-class clientele." (Courtesy of the Merriam Webster dictionary)

  • o claim that courtesans were prostitutes would be deceptively simple. It is true that Madame du Barry, favorite of Louis XV, was once patronized by upper-class men who paid nightly for her favors. And we know that Céleste Mogador, who eventually became a countess, worked in a brothel when she was very young. But their stories only make what may seem a subtle distinction on paper more clear. To become a courtesan was a promotion of great proportions, a fortunate leap into an unimaginably better life. Unlike a prostitute, a courtesan did not live in a brothel, never walked the streets, nor did she, strictly speaking, have a pimp to control and bully her.

    On occasion, usually early in their careers, some women did have procurers, but it was their mothers who played this role. Sarah Bernhardt, for example, was given her first liaisons by a mother who, being a courtesan herself, looked to her daughter to provide for her in her old age. This arrangement was common in sixteenth-century Venice and Rome, where mothers who had once been courtesans would, as a matter of course, procure for their daughters. The relationship between mother and daughter is entirely different from that between pimp and prostitute in many significant ways, including the fact that unlike the prostitute, who enriches a pimp more than herself, while she supported her mother, a courtesan could benefit from her own success.

    But the distinctions are far greater. With some legendary exceptions, the agreements made with courtesans were hardly quid pro quo. It is probably true that la comtesse de Castiglione was given 1 million francs for a twelve-hour orgy with Richard Wallace, natural son of the fourth Marquess of Hertford. And the rumor may be justified that Liane de Pougy was given 80,000 francs by Henri Meilhac, the librettist for Offenbach's popular operas, just to see her nude (or so Edmond de Goncourt writes in his Journal). But the usual arrangements were like those made with mistresses and even wives -- longer lasting and more subtle in nature. And in distinction to the support given mistresses, who were often modestly kept, these relationships were far more lucrative. Soon after their liaison began, for instance, Louis XV presented Madame de Pompadour with an estate, one of several she was to receive in her lifetime, including the mansion known as the Palais Elysée, now the home of French presidents. A hundred years later, following the same tradition, in addition to giving Marie Duplessis a splendid coach, a team of the finest horses, and a monthly allotment to pay for a maid and a cook, le comte de Stakelberg bought the courtesan her fashionable apartment on the boulevard Madeleine.

    The splendor in which the great courtesans lived is fabled. At times their riches grew to exceed those of their protectors. They accumulated town houses, châteaux, villas, all decorated with frescoes and sculptures by important painters, with wood embellishments carved by the best craftsmen, endowed with precious materials -- gold gilt, silver, crystal, marble, and onyx -- and furnished with the finest antiques, silver services, porcelain vases, the most select china, and priceless tapestries. Their coaches rivaled those sported by the elite. Their wardrobes, made from the most luxurious fabrics and by the most celebrated designers -- Charles Worth, for instance, or Paul Poiret -- were envied by respectable and titled women who copied the styles they wore. And above all, courtesans collected jewelry: strings of diamonds and pearls, diamond tiaras, sapphires and ruby rings, emerald brooches, which they displayed with a good measure of pride and also canniness. In a memorable scene from Colette's novel Gigi, the daughter of a courtesan is carefully taught to tell the difference between a canary diamond and topaz; a cocotte's cache of gems served both as an emblem of success and as a fund for her retirement.

    The rivalry between courtesans over jewelry had occasional dramatic moments. A story is told about the competition between Liane de Pougy and the Belle Otero which is true, though the setting is disputed. Some say it occurred at Maxim's; others, such as Janet Flanner, the correspondent to The New Yorker in the early twentieth century, place it at the Opéra; and still another, Pougy's recent biographer, places it at Monte Carlo. But the essence of the action is always the same. First, Otero makes her entrance, dripping with diamonds and precious gems in every form: necklaces, bracelets, earrings, anklets, layered and piled in a glittering display of astonishing abundance. Then, shortly after, Pougy enters, wearing only one very elegant diamond necklace, but she is followed by a maid who carries a high pyramid of her priceless jewelry stacked on a red pillow.

    The goods would have come from many sources. If, as with a mistress, an affair with a courtesan was rarely just a one-night stand, that is where the similarity ends. Courtesans could be both less and more than mistresses. Less because they were by no means always faithful. Usually, they had several lovers, some who contributed to the household expenses and some who did not. Like other Venetian courtesans, Veronica Franco had many protectors. Sharing in her support, each was pledged a different night of the week in her schedule.

    And unlike the mistress of a married man, who is often kept hidden, just as the courtesan was proud of her jewelry, she too was proudly displayed. She was expected to accompany her various lovers to public places and events, café s, restaurants, balls, parties, the theatre, the opera, even hosting gatherings of her lover's friends at her own home. In sixteenth-century Rome, when the powerful banker Chigi entertained at his villa near the Vatican, his lover, the courtesan Imperia, was usually the hostess. It is thought that her beauty inspired Raphael's famous fresco of Galatea that still adorns one wall there. During the Belle Epoque in Paris, among the wealthy playboys, aristocrats, and businessmen who belonged to the exclusive Jockey Club, it was considered de rigueur to keep a courtesan -- so much so that even homosexual men felt they had to do it for show.

    But perhaps the greatest distinction we must make here between kept women and courtesans is that the latter were personages. They were, indeed, what we call today celebrities. Friends of kings, regents, emperors, statesmen, financiers, famous writers and painters, they were the constant subject of columns printed in weekly journals, gossip about their romances, what they wore and what they did providing continual fodder for public curiosity. Flaubert, Zola, Balzac, Colette, the Goncourt brothers, all based major characters on the lives of courtesans. And of course, from Praxiteles to Titian to Manet, they were favored as subjects by painters and sculptors.

    For this reason, a courtesan had to be highly cultivated. Often born to poverty, with no education and lacking upper-class manners, a young woman would have to be taught many skills in order to play her new role. As in Shaw's play Pygmalion (or the musical that followed, My Fair Lady), she would have to learn to speak with an upper-class accent, dress well if not lavishly, arrange her hair fashionably, walk gracefully, dance, and play the piano. She would be required to know table manners, of course, but also different protocols, including at times the protocols of the court. A woman who may not even have been able to read very well would now be expected to know the plots of operas, recognize literary references, and have some familiarity with history. Only the brave and intelligent would be able to survive the course.

    Many courtesans exceeded these requirements. Some, such as Céleste Mogador, who wrote novels, or Tullia D'Aragona, three hundred years earlier, who wrote a philosophical text on Eros, were writers. Veronica Franco was a respected poet. A great many wrote their autobiographies. More than can be counted were notable actresses, dancers, singers, music-hall and circus performers. A few, such as Sarah Bernhardt and Coco Chanel, became far more famous in other professions. An even smaller group, the comtesse de Loynes for instance, gained titles when they married their aristocratic lovers, then having learned to behave well enough and after acquiring sufficient wealth, they slipped past the arbiters of class into high society.

    But if these women were remarkable in their accomplishments, they were exceptions among the already exceptional. Altogether, there can be no doubt that courtesans were extraordinary women, not only considering their talents but because, as Simone de Beauvoir writes, they created for themselves "a situation almost equivalent to that of man... free in behavior and conversation," attaining, "the rarest intellectual liberty." For centuries courtesans enjoyed more power and independence than did any other women in Europe. To understand why this was so, we must consider the history of women in Europe, a history that is by no means always the same as the history of men. The consideration is crucial, especially because outside the context of the larger narrative of women's lives, the word "courtesan" loses much of its meaning.

    For the several centuries during which courtesans practiced their skills, women were far more confined and regimented than they are today. Except among courtesans, if a woman had wealth, it was almost never her own, but hers to use only through the beneficence, permission, or parsimonious allowance of a father, brother, or husband. Thus it was rare even for women born to wealthy families to be financially independent. Though a luxurious dependency may sound attractive, economic dependency implies a loss of freedom. An upper-class woman did not own the houses she inhabited, could not in fact purchase a house if she wanted to, nor even furniture, china, jewelry, clothing, or food without approval, nor could she travel by her own choice or alone. She was controlled by those who controlled the purse strings.

    This circumstance was coupled with still another condition that served to keep upper-class women dependent. They were not fully educated. According to the century in which a lady lived, she might be taught to embroider, to sing, to play the piano, and to dance; she would be instructed in religion and given the rudimentary skills of reading and writing, but what she knew of history, literature, philosophy, or politics she would have had to glean by inference from listening to the conversations of the men in her family. And until the latter part of the nineteenth century when, because of the influence of feminist movements, a few women were admitted to universities, medical, law, and art schools, women were denied the training they would need to enter a profession. Thus the ways available to upper-class and respectable women to earn an independent living were very few. Lacking either inheritance, a family wealthy enough to sustain her, or a husband, an aristocratic or bourgeois woman might become a governess. For the most part, her only other option was to join a convent.

    The purpose, therefore, of a young girl's life was to prepare her to attract a husband. She was taught to dress and dance and curtsy so that she might be presented at court or at a debutante ball, where it was hoped she would meet her future husband. But though she was required to enter the rituals of courtship, neither her feelings nor her preferences were considered relevant. Most marriages were not made for love. They were, rather, thinly veiled financial agreements, arranged to benefit a young woman's family or the family of her future husband, while conferring prestige on one or the other or both.

    Even the instructions she was given to be pleasing to men had unnatural limits. Given almost no sexual education except the advice to behave with a modestly flirtatious deference to men, her efforts to catch a husband were supposed to be innocent, just as her limited knowledge of the worlds of finance and politics was thought to add to an air of innocence, lending her an attractive naïveté. We might say that, paradoxically, by the rules of this social world, her dependency was her chief asset.

    But this state of being could also easily prove her downfall. A descent of this kind has been painfully captured by Edith Wharton. In her great novel The House of Mirth, Wharton depicts the financial and sexual naïveté of Lily Bart, a young woman who is upper class by birth, with only a small inheritance, whose ignorance leads her to commit several social follies that leave her both penniless and unmarriageable. By painful degrees of descent, she meets the worst fate imaginable for a woman born to privilege -- she is forced to begin life as a working woman.

    The fact that throughout centuries of European history the majority of women had to work is often omitted even from accounts that purport to focus on women's lives. Peasant families depended on the labor of women and children alike to eke out a living. And among those who lived and worked in the city, apart from the nobility or the wives of the professional classes and the bourgeoisie (who only began to grow to significant numbers in the eighteenth century), whether women took in laundry, worked as chambermaids, charwomen, seamstresses, or weavers, they were wage earners. Married or not, the income they earned was necessary to their own survival as well as that of their families, yet they could earn only a fraction of what men could. In Paris in the early nineteenth century, for example, when peasant economies in France began to collapse and the cities, especially Paris, were flooded with refugees from the countryside seeking employment, even the salaries of workingmen were barely sufficient for survival. Though they worked long hours, often sixteen hours a day, many women could not live on the salaries they were paid.

    Thus the word for a woman working in the garment industry, the most common form of employment for women, grisette, which derived from the dull gray of the muslin dresses she wore, acquired a second meaning. Even into the mid-twentieth century, dictionaries still defined the grisette as "a woman of easy virtue." Earning 1 to 1.5 francs a day for work that was seasonal, the garment worker had to turn to other sources for her income. Some walked the streets; some lived with casual lovers, oftentime students, who helped to pay the bills; others attended the many public balls that were popular then in Paris to search for wealthier men who might pay for their favors for a night.

    It was for this reason that so many courtesans began as grisettes. If they were lucky enough or extraordinary in some way, they could climb the rungs of a ladder that could lead them further and further away from penury and a grueling schedule of hard work. At a public dance hall, a young woman might meet a man who would set her up in an apartment. A woman who had this good fortune was called a lorette, the word for a would-be courtesan, a woman who was kept only modestly. She did not habituate the elevated circles in which courtesans traveled, though she was a social fixture of the bohemian world. Mimi in Henri Murger's Scènes de la Vie Bohème was a lorette. But the story is better known as Puccini's opera La Bohème.

    Only the few who were the most talented among lorettes would ever become courtesans. The heroine of another famous opera, Violetta Valéry in Verdi's La Traviata, was modeled after Marie Duplessis, a real woman who started as a grisette, became a lorette soon after, only to ascend with remarkable rapidity to the rank of courtesan. Her story is typical of the rags-to-riches ascent that was both as desirable and improbable then as is the dream of becoming a sports hero today. Born to near poverty in Normandy, Marie's mother died early. After a period in which her alcoholic father, an itinerant salesman, hauled her with him about the countryside, offering his daughter at least once as merchandise, and after being abandoned by the same father to distant and unwelcoming cousins in Paris, she began work as a grisette. That she was poverty-stricken during this period is verified by the testimony of Nestor Roqueplan, director of the Opéra, who spotted her a year before she became famous, on the Pont-Neuf, dressed in dirty, ragged clothing, begging for a taste of the pommes frites that were sold on the bridge. It did not take her long to meet a restaurateur who established her as a lorette in her own apartment. But this tenure was equally brief. She rose quickly to become one of the highest-ranking courtesans of her time. Well fed and housed, considered to be the best dressed woman in Paris, the woman known as "the divine Marie" had acquired great fame, not to speak of a title, before her death from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-three.

    Class is an essential ingredient in the history of courtesans for many reasons, including the dramatic transformation that occurred in the life of a woman who was elevated thus. According to accounts from the eighteenth century, Madame du Barry, who herself experienced a spectacular rise from grisette and sometime prostitute to become the favorite of Louis XV, spoke far better French than his previous mistress, Madame de Pompadour. Since the celebrated Pompadour had been educated by her bourgeois family, she spoke a French that was at least passable at court. But because Barry's working-class language was entirely unacceptable, she was compelled to learn an upper-class grammar that was far more correct than that of her predecessor.

    Still, the plot thickens. The issue of class cannot be understood apart from issues of morality. For several centuries in European cultures, with some variations, it was thought that a woman should be chaste before marriage, and if not absolutely faithful, she should at least behave with enough discretion to protect her reputation. The requirement was not uniform. In certain periods and places, especially those in which the poor were driven to desperate measures, a woman's chastity had less significance among working people than it did for the aristocracy. But this division of sentiments was not consistent. The peccadilloes and open liaisons of nobles, kings, and emperors were known to incite wrath from the less privileged public.

    What remains relevant to this history, however, is another condition that fostered the tradition of courtesans, the simple fact that as with Edith Wharton's character Lily Bart, a wellborn woman could fall, and in falling not only lose any chance for marriage but be shunned by society as well. In that case, one of the better options open to her would be to become a courtesan. There were so many women who chose this solution in Paris at the turn of the century that a special word was used for them: they were referred to as demicastors. Because of a scandal that had ruined her reputation, one such woman, Laure Hayman, was ostracized until she made her way back into society in another role, as a courtesan. She counted among her lovers many powerful men, including Louis Weil, the uncle of Marcel Proust. It was probably because Proust had known her since he was a boy that he took Hayman as a model for Odette Crécy, the fictional courtesan whose story threads through A la recherche du temps perdu.

    The tangled skein of double standards regarding both sex and money, gender and class, creates an interesting controversy over whether or not certain historical figures ought to be classified as courtesans. Agnès Sorel, favorite of Charles VII of France, is generally not considered a courtesan, nor is Alice Keppel, longtime mistress to the Prince of Wales, though both were given financial aid by the monarchs who loved them. One might answer that they did not take money from any other lovers. Except that Pompadour, who took remuneration from no other lovers either, is called a courtesan by almost everybody, probably for the sole reason that she came from the bourgeoisie. Rather than probe the justice of this reasoning, the hope is that these controversies might be resolved by the chapters to follow, which in general use the term "courtesan" as a favorable designation.

    Yet it should not be construed that The Book of the Courtesans attempts to argue that its subjects were virtuous in a moral sense. No effort will be made here either to defend or condemn their behavior. Rather, the virtues in the title take their definition from an older usage -- one that was once applied exclusively to men, but which, though it has been out of fashion since the Renaissance, this book revives and applies now to women. In this older definition, virtue has nothing at all to do with chastity. It refers rather to the strengths and attributes that characterize as well as distinguish a person.

    Though circumstances must and will be summoned so that these stories can be better understood, the emphasis here will be on the creative response each woman showed to the conditions she confronted. For this phenomenon to be entirely explained, we must explore the considerable magic of human ingenuity here. There are so many kinds of genius to be found in these stories that were we not to place our focus on virtue, we would be squandering a treasure that belongs to all those who are the inheritors of this history.

    For history it is. Although the many virtues that courtesans possessed were employed to defy circumstances, the role they played depended on the same circumstances over which they triumphed -- conditions which today, fortunately for modern women, no longer exist. At least within modern European cultures women are not expected to be virgins before they marry, nor do they have to be dependent on husbands, brothers, or fathers for their economic survival.

    And there is still another reason for the disappearance of this tradition. The temper of the times has shifted, too. Technically speaking, many women today do what courtesans did; it is quite common still for a married man to support his mistress, and a whole population of highly cultivated and elegant women serve today as escorts, call girls, and modern hetaerae. But just as surely as the role of the courtesan was created by historical conditions, she was also inextricably linked to a historical mood that had come to an end by the third decade of the last century. In 1948, after visiting La Belle Otero, Anne Manson wrote: "When Otero departs there will depart with her the last symbol of an epoch, superficial, light and at the same time virtuous and cynical, covetous toward others yet madly extravagant in its pleasures, full of faults but not without its splendors."

    To become a courtesan, a woman required a setting. Though she was center stage, she was not alone. Nor was she hidden. Almost by definition, she was surrounded by scintillating activity. She was inseparable from the demi-mondes she inhabited -- slightly rebellious, risqué, or naughty worlds, alternate societies where a certain sophistication, including carnal knowledge that was banned from proper society, was allowed to thrive. The Belle Epoque, the period that Otero symbolized, was famous not only for its writers, artists, playwrights, and actors but also for the glittering social scene which was staged almost continuously on the Grands Boulevards in Paris, the epicenter of the atmosphere, and the stage on which the courtesan played a vital and charismatic role.