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Rogues Gallery Uncovered

Episode 10

Cora Pearl

PARIS 1867

I’ll be honest, I don’t really spend a lot of time at the theatre or worshipping at the altar of so-called "Celebrity." I’m more of a sporting gentleman myself - the horses don’t you know.

But last week at the Theatre Bouffes-Parisien I saw a filly playing the part of Cupid in Offenbach’s Orphée aux Enfers that I’d happily ride - all way from Paris to Newmarket.

I don’t mind telling you fellows, I think I’m in love….. with Cora Pearl.

I know that she is one of Europe’s most famous Courtesans, the toast of “Le Grandes Horizontales” but I think if we could just spend a little time together, she would understand my deep admiration for her and see just how much we have in common.

Then, once pleasantries had been exchanged, we could rut, savagely, like wild animals on the Serengeti plains. By Christ, but she’s a handsome woman.

Tall, shapely shoulders, with a waist so tiny you could span it with your hands and breasts so spectacular they could stop traffic on the Champs-Élysées.

Underneath all the makeup that she wears, I suppose she could be considered somewhat ordinary looking but there is something so powerfully earthy and erotic about her. I’m not surprised that men pay a fortune for an hour of her company.

Her lovemaking skills are the stuff of legend as is her ability to spend money. She lives a lifestyle so luxurious that Marie Antionette herself would be put to shame.

Miss Pearl appeared on stage before an audience made up primarily it seemed of French noblemen, wearing a costume that left very little of her marvellous body to the imagination.

Only strategically placed jewels and precious stones protected her modesty, even the soles of her boots were studded with diamonds.

Behind me, a group of rowdy students offended that the role and been given to a celebrity rather than a professional singer were booing and catcalling her but she seemed not to care – damn long-haired bohemians.

I suspect few in the audience were remotely interested in what her voice sounded like anyway and she knew it – the glorious minx.

It came as the utmost surprise when I learned that this love goddess who can wrap the most powerful men in Europe around her dainty little finger was born humble Eliza Crouch in the English port of Plymouth.

How did she reach such Olympian heights of success and sensuality?” you ask?

I have made substantial enquiries.

Cora’s father was a wayward cellist who ran away to America when she was a child.

Her mother – furious at this abandonment – told her daughter that her absconding father had, in fact, died and she would never see him again.

The shiftless wastrel had however left something of value behind before he decamped to the Colonies – a ballad called “Kathleen Mavoureen”

Written the year Cora was born, the tune proved popular and lucrative enough for her to attend a girls-only boarding school at a convent in Boulogne.

This was fortuitous as Cora (Eliza’s’) mother soon remarried and the young girl’s relationship with her stepfather was far from a happy one.

Cora attended convent school for eight years learning French and how to carry herself as a lady of quality.

On her return to England, the teenage Cora moved to London to live with her grandmother - a pious and God-fearing woman who attended church every Sunday.

She found employment as a milliner, stitching hats for wealthy ladies. It was a position that bored her to distraction.

Cora’s only time away from the hat shop (apart from church of course) came when she and her grandmother would stroll through the bustling streets of the West End.

As the couple explored theatreland, the fancy carriages and expensive attire of passers-by filled her with envy.

She longed to experience this exotic world without her grandmothers' sour-faced presence.

Of course, the many dangers faced by a young girl walking unchaperoned through the city streets are all too clear to those of us who read the daily newspapers.

But Cora’s rebellious and curious nature, would not be denied and one evening she made the fateful decision to walk home alone.

The nineteen-year-old was approached by a “gentleman of around forty” who claimed to be a diamond merchant. He flattered and charmed her with promises of cake – Who doesn’t enjoy a slice of cake?

But rather than a jolly baker’s shop, he took her to a crowded and noisy drinking den where, in its smoky confines, he plied her with cheap "rot-gut gin" until she passed out.

When Cora recovered consciousness, she found herself lying naked in a boarding house bed, with "The Gentleman" furtively getting himself dressed in the corner of the room.

Her virginity taken, the man impertinently asked if she would like to become his companion. It was an offer the sobbing girl refused so he put £5.00 on the bedside table and left.

Cora says that the experience gave her “An instinctive horror of men” which is hardly surprising and should, I feel serve as a warning for today’s rebellious youth.

Obviously, returning home no longer a virgin was simply out of the question, as she was now irrevocably ruined.

Showing an admirable spirit of determination and enterprise, Cora used the money she had been given to purchase some new clothes.

She also rented a small room in Covent Garden, where she began to ply the trade into which so many “Fallen” young women find themselves reduced.

On a whim, she changed her name - Eliza Crouch was no more, Cora Pearl was born.

Despite her circumstances, Cora revelled in her new-found freedom and independence. While she loathed men, she found that she greatly enjoyed sex and a plan began to form to use her obvious allure to rise above her lowly station.

She met a gent by the name of Robert Bignell, the proprietor of the infamous Argyll Dance Rooms.

A generation before, “The Argyll” had been one of the most exclusive venues in London.

It had since deteriorated, into a collection of casinos and dance halls where cheap drink flowed, laughter was loud and fashionably dressed young women enticed tipsy gentleman into candlelit alcoves – for assignations, at a price.

Cora soon dominated this tawdry world; her vivacious personality and boundless energy meant that all eyes were upon her as she spun around the dancefloor to raucous “young people’s music” like the Polka.

She quickly became Bignall’s mistress and moved into a suite of rooms above the dance hall.

Bignall was so enamoured of her that he took Cora with him to Paris on business.

He claimed that she was his wife although he was actually already married to someone else – the lying swine.

The two enjoyed a whirl of gaiety and laughter, seeing the sights and mixing with Parisian society.

When the time came to return to London however, Cora was adamant she would stay in the French capital and as a horrified Bignall looked on, she threw her passport into their hotel room fire.

With a crestfallen Bignall back home with his wife, Cora made the acquaintance of a lonely sailor by the name of d’Amenard who wanted them to wed but was told in no uncertain terms that Cora hated men far too much to ever walk down the aisle.

Also, crestfallen, he took his broken heart back to sea.

Cora immediately formed a liaison with one Monsieur Roubise.

He possessed the money to set her up in slightly finer accommodation than she had been used to and the social contacts to introduce her to the upper echelons of French nobility.

Cora began to entertain men of substance who appreciated her beauty and amorous skills and were happy to pay for it in gold jewels and fancy gowns.

For all his highfalutin ways, however, Monsieur Roubise was little more than a trumped-up greasy pimp.

He controlled Cora's life with "une main de fer" for six long years.

So, it came as a great relief when Cora head that he'd unexpectedly collapsed and died from a heart attack.

Those six years, though, had not been wasted as Cora had learnt all the myriad ways to ensnare, pleasure and keep the wealthiest and most powerful men in France.

She used these hard-learned lessons to attract the first of what she described as her “Golden Chain” of wealthy lovers. His name was Victor Masséna, third Duke du Rivoli.

Devilishly handsome, charming and with more money than Midas, he bought Cora her first house which he filled with servants and even a private chef.

It was with Massena that she first realised her genius in hosting parties. At one event, so many guests were clamouring to attend that when the doors were finally shut, they simply climbed in through the windows.

Massena also furnished her with the funds to gamble extravagantly at fashionable casino resorts such as the German town of Baden.

It appears this was the beginning of a gambling habit that’s seen her get through several fortunes to date.

She seemed not to care how much money she spent, but then, why should she?

Of course, just because she was enjoying horizontal refreshment with Masséna, it didn’t mean to say she wasn’t making a stich with other well-heeled fellows.

There was Prince Achille Murat, a besotted old duffer who bought her an entire stable of horses, complete with her own grooms, decked out in yellow livery.

Cora actually became a very accomplished horsewoman – it’s all in the thighs you see. In fact, it’s often been said that she treats her horses far better than her lovers.

Royalty couldn’t get enough of her, The Prince of Orange - heir to the throne of the bloody Netherlands no less - bought her a string of black pearls which she wore constantly.

Charles Duc de Morny, half-brother to Emperor Napoleon III, was another one.

They met when – on account of her colourful reputation - she was refused entry to a fashionable gaming house. In typical flamboyant style, Cora had turned up with an entourage that consisted of “a baggage wagon, six horses and many servants.”

This did not cut any ice with the concierge however who ignored her demands to be admitted.

As she turned away in embarrassment, de Morny, entranced by her beauty, offered her his arm - among other things.

Cora and her new beau made a grand entrance and she was never refused entry again.

When the elderly de Morny collapsed and died – probably from exhaustion - Cora took up with the Emperor's cousin, Prince Napoleon.

A strange fellow, his nickname was “Plon Plon” and he looked like the village greengrocer.

He was, however, totally besotted with Cora, fabulously wealthy and immensely powerful.

He gave Cora two houses in which to entertain, one of them on the Rue de Chaillothe was said to be the finest in France.

I’ve heard that some underhanded snoop read one of her private ledgers in which she listed the names of all her lovers, the dates and times of their assignations and the various amounts they spent on her.

She also recorded her personal observations upon their physical endowments and performance - most of which were far from flattering.

She had become, it seems, a very thorough and astute businesswoman - although the idea of women engaging in such a masculine arena as business is most unseemly.

In 1860 she caused a sensation when she attended a masquerade party dressed – or rather undressed- as the Biblical Eve.

Her costume was about the size of a postage stamp but her brazenness and fabulous contours were the talk of Paris for weeks afterwards.

One facet of Prince Napoleon's character that was not so generous was his almost obsessive jealousy and rank hypocrisy.

So, while it was perfectly acceptable for him to have more than one mistress, Cora was under strict instructions to take no other lovers.

Had it been anyone else, Cora would have told him to stick his head in a Plum Pudding, but the prince also wielded the power to have Cora deported.

She trod very carefully.

I’m told she instructed her other “amours” to simply refrain from seeing her for a while - before secretly carrying on as normal.

No man however powerful was going to tell her what to do and even though Prince Napoleon was giving her ten thousand Francs a month she knew she could earn more.

Cora made it clear that she was running a substantial risk in seeing any additional bed partners.

As such, those "gentleman visitors" who were not related to Napoleon would be required to pay even more than usual for the privilege.

No one Complained.

Cora lived like a queen. She slept in black silken sheets embroidered with threads of gold. Excursions were made in a pale blue carriage with a bright yellow interior.

Her heavily made-up face was covered in powder flecked with silver or crushed pearls and she would often dye her hair outrageous colours to match her outfits.

Once, she coloured her hair bright yellow and her dog light blue to match her famous conveyance. This caused a sensation along the Bois de Boulogne. It also caused the untimely death of the unfortunate mutt from dye poisoning.

Her clothes, from her dresses to her lingerie, were designed and made by renowned and very expensive couturier Charles Frederick Worth and her jewellery collection was valued at one million francs.

Cora became a walking fashion plate, envied by women everywhere. Someone even named a drink after her, “The Tears of Cora Pearl.”

I could happily get intoxicated on that.

By God but she lives well. She once got through thirty thousand francs in two weeks – I couldn’t earn that much in two lifetimes.

Her current residence is a chateau in the Loiret called Chateau de Beauséjour.

Obviously, it's as palatial as you would expect, in fact, it’s known as “les Petites Tuileries” and the parties that she hosts there are the stuff of dreams…well my dreams anyway.

I’ve heard that in her boudoir she has a custom-made bronze bathtub monogrammed with her initials.

She sometimes fills it with vintage champagne and invites her guests to watch her bathe.

I now understand what common types mean when they say they would drink a lady's bathwater.

Her love of fireworks is well known and they often light up the sky whenever she hosts a soirée.

There were so many firecrackers going off during one casino evening that the croupiers are supposed to have flung themselves on the gaming tables in fright and covered the betting money with their bodies while drunken guests laughed and danced around them.

Her long-standing personal chef named Sale, is, by all accounts, a culinary genius, who creates the most luscious feasts imaginable.

In winter, when there are no flowers in bloom, he serves fruit on a bed of Parma violets - which cost a king’s ransom to import.

To the French, food and dining are an important part of one’s social standing.

Unlike in Britain where they would serve up an old shoe as long as it was full of roast beef and beer.

At one dinner party, Cora dared the guests to “Cut into the next dish” which, when it was served, was Cora herself lying naked on a silver platter - her mouth-watering body sprinkled with parsley.

A hostess of perfection, she did everything she could to make her dinner guests feel at ease.

When one accidentally broke an expensive wine glass, she interrupted his stammering apology by laughing that it was “no matter” and smashing the rest of the glasses herself.

Her suitors went wild trying to please her, one fellow presented her with a silver horse stuffed with jewellery. Another, appealing to her sweet tooth offered her a box of marron glaces with each confection wrapped in a 1000-franc note.

Cora happily played off one lover against another in order to increase the value of the gifts she was offered.

A generous fool who sent her a massive bouquet of very expensive orchids was galvanised into being an even more generous fool when he heard how she had strewn his gift upon her floor, before dancing a sailor’s hornpipe on them.

Not everyone, of course, finds Cora irresistible.

Many find her earthy, vulgar and coarse. Fredericks Worth’s son took one look at her heavily made-up face and declared her “Shockingly overdone.”

Unlike most fashionable Parisian ladies Cora enjoys the outdoor life of dogs and horse riding. She is not afraid to get her delightful porcelain body tanned a delicious chestnut brown by the sun.

She cares not a jot what anyone else thinks, is wealthy beyond avarice, and is beloved of the powerful.

She's also world famous – even Harpers Weekly in America has written an article about her.

A rarity in the modern woman, she is totally in charge of her own destiny.

Cora is an enigma - fiercely loyal and generous to her female friends yet she seems to hate men with as much passion as she enjoys horse riding and sex.

The writer Alfred Delvau wrote of her "You are today, Madame, the renown, the preoccupation, the scandal and the toast of Paris. Everywhere they talk only of you..."

Did I mention that she also has an outstanding figure?

At the moment I believe the going rate for an evening with Cora Pearl is ten thousand Francs.

I don’t suppose you could loan me the money, could you?

God, she’s handsome.

Cora’s success was sadly not fated to last.

The death of the emperor’s cousin Maximilian in Mexico led to a period of extended morning at the French court along with a more restrained and serious mood in French society.

It was a mood in which Cora’s extravagances would seem vulgar rather than charming.

In 1870 France went to war with Germany and Cora did her bit, turning one of her houses into a hospital for the wounded and paying for its upkeep out of her own pocket.

Before the siege of Paris, she managed to get eight of her horses out of the city on the pretext that she was exercising them. It was a wise move as they would undoubtedly have been eaten by staving Parisians before the siege was lifted.

After the French defeat The Emperor – Cora’s most powerful supporter and patron – went into exile in Italy.

He continued to write passionately to her and they were due to meet in London – Cora’s first visit to the city in twenty years.

Unfortunately, when booking a suite of rooms at the Grosvenor Hotel she was recognised as a courtesan and thrown out.

In 1872 she began a relationship with a man ten years her junior by the name of Alexander Duval. A passionate young man from a very wealthy family he was besotted – some would say obsessed with her.

When his father died he inherited more than 10 million francs and used much of it to wo Cora with jewels, horse and ridiculously extravagant gifts.

It was said he once gave her a beautifully bound 100-page book with each page bookmarked by a 1000 franc note.

His generosity helped Cora support herself in the absence of the emperor – who had underwritten all of her substantial debts.

When he stopped paying her however – we are not sure why – Cora flatly refused to see him anymore.

Enraged he went to her house to demand an audience but Cora’s servants shut the door in his face.

He returned later with a loaded pistol – some say to kill himself in front of Cora, while others say he had murder in mind.

Either way shortly after he confronted Cora he appears to have accidentally shot himself through the lung.

He very nearly died and Cora’s reputation was destroyed.

He was portrayed as being a love sick boy from a respectable family enticed and rejected by an avaricious whore.

Its claimed – probably falsely - Cora said as he lay bleeding

“The pig might at least have done it in the anti-room, then he would not have stained my carpet”

France was outraged and two days later she was forced to leave the country.

She was taken in by friends and fellow courtesans but gradually her wealthy protectors abandoned her -including the emperor.

With her debts mounting – she maintained a reckless gambling habit and her looks fading she fell on hard times.

A gentleman by the name of Julian Arnold, stumbled across her outside a casino in Monte Carlo writing later

"I found a woman seated on the kerbstone and weeping pitifully. She appeared to be about fifty years of age, handsome… but much bedraggled."

Apparently, she had been thrown out of her lodgings and had nowhere else to go

An old friend of hers went to see her when she was living above a carriage shop and was surprised by the warmth of her welcome despite her much-reduced circumstances.

When he commented upon how beautiful she still was Cora Replied

“No I’m not, look my cheeks are furrowed with tears, don’t say that in the papers, Paris doesn’t like women who weep.

Cora Pearl died in 1886 at the age of fifty-one.

That’s a bit of a miserable ending

Next week on Rogues Gallery Uncovered


Celebrate the ignominious end of the eighteenth century’s most deeply unpleasant man

James Lowther

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That’s all for now …see you yesterday.

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