She was born Catherine Maria Fisher. But her admirers braided her impudence, audacity and charm together into a nickname that was toasted throughout mid-18th century London. They called her Kitty.
Her eyes were dark spirits; quiet temptations. Her flesh was pale and alluring. Its whiteness was a distant snowfall; only in her face did the frost melt. She was a fever of wit and insolence – working class rudeness tempered by a whimsical heart.
She was sought after by men, and followed by women. When she visited Vauxhall Gardens – a green labyrinth of arbors, walks and subdued waterfalls – hundreds watched: in shock, in wonder, in envy. Her style was copied by every rung of female society, from laundress to society hostess.
Sir Joshua Reynolds made her into Cleopatra, as she might appear in an emperor's dream, dissolving her pearl earring in a goblet of wine.
Nathaniel Hone sketched her in a rush of color, her profile a lazy curve.
He painted her with a kitten at her elbow, fishing in a goldfish bowl, in a fit of pretty symbolism. Kitty's life is in that bowl too: in its reflection is a crowd of people looking through her window.
She was a celebrity without pretense. She was greedy, shameless, immoral and altogether charming. She was a courtesan.
This meant that she was not a ragged bargain walking the streets; nor was she a pampered product sitting at the window of the 'abbeys' in St. James or Covent Garden. As one of the most successful and sought-after ladies of 1760's London, she enjoyed the luxury of choice.
In 1763 she was introduced to Casanova…who exercised his own choice:
"…for, though charming, she could only speak English, and I liked to have all my senses, including that of hearing, gratified."
His decision would not have angered Kitty. It would have appealed to her rollicking humor – foolish man! There would always be someone else to buy her diamonds of the most sparkling water, sequin-frosted dresses and gilded carriages for services rendered.
She 'was mistress of a most uncommon share of spirits'. She enjoyed the favorite sport of her generation: gossip. And more than once her name ran through those useless conversations like a scarf caught in the breeze. She had once eaten a banknote worth fifty pounds between two pieces of buttered bread, and "The other day they ran into each other in the park and Lady Coventry asked Kitty the name of the dressmaker who had made her dress. Kitty Fisher answered she had better ask Lord Coventry as he had given her the dress as a gift."
Kitty knew the value of advertising. In 1759, to better announce her arrival in the capital city, she staged a riding faux pas, affectionately remembered as "The Merry Accident".
Hyde Park was a gala place, attracting society's finest: ladies decorated like baroque meringues and gentlemen with waistcoats embroidered with gardens, oceans and aviaries. It was the fashionable theater to display one's horsemanship; to show off a new carriage: a swift curricle, or a closed phaeton where a white and rose face could peer through a window against the crimson upholstery, like a burning cameo.
During that social hour, Kitty chose her moment and – though an accomplished horsewoman – fell off her horse. As a result, her young and shapely legs were exposed before an admiring and curious audience. A witness observed: "…finding the danger over, she with a prity childishness stopped the torrent of tears and burst into a fit of Laughing." But another declared: "Why, 'tis enough to debauch half the women in London."
Her name was shouted down dank alleyways, and whispered in ballrooms that melted in pastel lights. Songs and poems were written about her. One, which has since found its way into kindergarten classes, begins: "Lucy Locket lost her pocket/Kitty Fisher found it/But ne'er a penny was there in't/Except the binding round it." Riddled with innuendo, it was originally the story of a barmaid who had discarded one of her lovers (her pocket). Kitty then took up with this unwanted and worthless scrap (with ne'er a penny').
But she ended her career with a good deal of pennies. In 1766 she married an M.P., John Norris. She used her fortune to help the local poor, including someone very local indeed: Norris himself.
Kitty enjoyed her respectable haven for only four months. She died, some say from the white lead-based cosmetics she used; from the gangrenous earth beneath the snow. She was buried, on her request, in her wedding dress.
"Kitty, repent, a settlement procure,
Retire, and keep the bailiffs from the door.
Put up with wrinkles, and pray paint no more."