“The Orient In Her Hips”

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.

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21 responses to ““The Orient In Her Hips”

  1. I like what Colette wrote about Otero, that her face was "a masterpiece of convexity".

  2. I just adore getting to learn about these women from you, Aubrey.

  3. So beautifully written! I hear the jingles and charms, Aubrey. Masterfully done. Thank you!

  4. Magnificent but sad, and you hit exactly upon what makes me sad: the aura of slavery about beautiful women. Perpetually "escaping" with one lover, only to have to escape from him with another. The difficulty of being free when everyone wants you.

  5. This is so beautiful — the serpentines of the dance and her extraordinary life sing through the words.

  6. How exotic! I guess famous beauties invariably had to have a sad ending for us to remember them after they die. Beauty + misery = our adoration. Their life stories were adventurous, despairing, and memorable because we didn't suffer as much, therefore, didn't see much glitter in life. Knowing this, yet as a humble and eager reader, I cannot resist the Oriental beauty in these sad stories unfolding on The Silk Road.

  7. 1915, $15 mill? Eeegads!!

  8. I admire the way she continually remade her life to suit. Thanks for the introduction.

  9. Thank you, Aubrey. This was a wonderful description of her life. I often wonder whether, for women like Otero, their memories comforted or tortured them.

  10. What a woman; what a life.

  11. Divine writing – I love the image of a woman's body draped in rubys and emeralds, jewels that remind us of a woman's seductiveness. Dressing up to escape, as well, makes me think of college days and an artist's mind.

  12. A life full of passion. You draw those times so well that I start to wish I were born a hundred years ago.All the Orient was in her hips. Indeed.

  13. BA – that's it exactly! Never a classic beauty, but always masterful.
    DKN – oh, I have a list of lovely ladies I'd love the write about, and none of them were young in this century.
    JP – she had a vest made of over 240 diamonds. She rustled with fabulousness every time she moved.
    RedS – these ladies always seemed to be on the run, realizing too late the price to pay for their ipopularity.
    homebody – thanks! I've wanted to write about her for a long time.
    Singing Horse – unfortunately, tragedy always has an appeal to romantics and historians alike. It is the hook that keeps one from forgetting a story.
    lavender – thanks; wouldn't she have made a marvelous photographic study?
    LeendaDLL – no one knows how to spend money like a courtesean. No one.
    red pen – she was rather brilliant; she knew the value of good PR.
    wbrosie – that is a dangerous question; I shudder to think what the answer would be. I just hope that their memories did offer them some comfort.
    Emjay – such a life would be impossible now; there was suffering, but there was daring and outrageousness too…all in a style peculiar to the 19th century. Now, one can only imagine.
    Ellie – I think we agree that dressing up is an act more subtle and symbolic than the mere putting on of decorations!
    Purplesque – You and me both; to witness society's underworld, the demimonde – such enviable decadence!

  14. Wow. That was so nicely written and the subject absolutely fascinating! Thanks.

  15. Your words are so beautiful, Aubrey.

  16. let me raise my own glass of champagne to a stunner from ms. aubrey.

  17. You so intrigued me with this teaser that I have now bought La Belle Otero – A Biography by Arthur H. Lewis. The Foreward alone is worth the price of the book! 🙂 It was originally 95c !!

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