Agustina Otero Iglesias was born in western Spain, into a childhood pocked-marked with poverty and abuse. Her parents – a Greek officer and a Spanish gypsy – gave her an insolent, passionate heart, but little else. Her proud inheritance lept unbidden from them to her mysterious blood, which flowed like rapids to their destiny over the cliffs.
When she was ten – in 1878 – she was working as a servant. In that same year, she was raped. Four years later she ran away with a lover to Lisbon, and began her dancing career in the local taverns and clubs. She was young, charming and careless in those dark and dangerous places, her skin glowing like a lost pearl.
She escaped to France with another lover when she was twenty. Within the year she was free once more, and had reinvented herself as La Belle Otero, swathed in silken shawls hung with silver coins and black roses, her hypnotic feet tracing Spanish patterns on the stages of Marseilles and Paris.
She was very soon the star of the Folies Bergere and one of the most desired courteseans of a generation that devoured beauty with eyes hidden beneath heavy, lavender colored lids.
Her "followers" were legion. Stories of madness and desire flashed above her like lightning sparking above a velvet landscape. The suicides of the men she had turned away. The duel that was fought over her. The cupolas of the Carlton Hotel , modeled after her famous breasts. A writer, Hugues le Roux, observed in the language of education and dissipation, "All the Orient was in her hips."
Whad did he mean? That all the secrets and danger of an unknown continent curled within her muscles in a seductive implication? That the exoticism of The Silk Road traveled along the bends and curves of her body? When he watched her, did he see things that exceeded the dreams of respectable men? In her luscious prime, Otero must have been magnificent.
Le Belle Otero died in 1965, aged 97. The world by then must have become offensive to her: sloppy, rude and loud. Reputations were no longer gracefully destroyed in whispers, in the shadows, but in the street for all to see. Fifty years earlier she had purchased a home for $15,000,000 – now she was shamed by a monthly rent.
She had her memories: of the lives she ruined, of the underworld she ruled; of the jewels that glittered from her neck and arms – passion's decorations. Perhaps she rested her hands on her hips and marveled at their once singular power. She remembered that their slightest movement inspired words as brilliant as a diamond dropped into a glass of champagne and raised to her lips.