Tag Archives: paris

‘The Ugliest Girl In Paris’

Emilie Marie Bouchaud was born in Algeria, in 1874.  She spent her childhood in a harsh landscape, with colors blasted into sepia by a sun so hot it seemed to kiss the mountains with a fiery, merciless passion.

Her father died when she was five.  Of her eleven siblings, only one still lived by the time she was sixteen.  When she was seventeen, she had run away to France. She sang in cafes and cabarets, her smoky voice wafting above the demimonde that assembled there to in their lavender languor.

Within the year she was singing and dancing in music halls.  She named herself after the Pole Star – the brightest star in the sky:  Polaire.

During a time when women were as indolent as flowers, when pink and porcelain coursed through their skin in delicate confusion, Porlaire was viewed with both horror and desire.  A lithe, dark animal, she was a feral object who twisted and coiled like a cat trying to escape.


Her short, thick hair was wavy and expansive; it was parted on the side so that one undulating curl draped across an almond-shaped eye, steeped in shadow, caught in a perpetual eclipse.  The mouth was wide and spoke of a curved invitation, even when silent.  Everything about her face was bold and seductive, alarming those who could not accept a woman who felt no shame.


She was proud of her sweaty barbarism – the scandal of her magnificent allure.  When she debuted in New York, she was billed as ‘the ugliest woman in the world’.

Polaire danced like an untamed sprite, a thunderstorm descending from the sky and unleashed upon the stage.  Her spitfire body was fluent and sinuous, and when she pulled her skirts to her knees, balancing on unstill muscles, she moved with an unhinged grace.   She sang ‘Ta-ra-ra- Boom-de-ay (“Just the kind you’d like to hold/Just the kind for sport I’m told”).  Toulouse-Lautrec sketched and painted her inelegance, her cropped hair, her wide mouth and shrouded eyes.


People came to watch her dance and act.  They came to listen to her sing.  But they also came to stare – at her tiny, tortured waist, punished inside of a ring of whalebone that rumor claimed was as small as 16 inches.  Though petite – she was 5 foot three inches and naturally slim – women “gasped sympathetically” at the sight of the ribcage crushed like folding hands, and men swooned at its minute perfection.  Her agent, displayed one of her 14 inch corsets in a theater where she was performing, describing her waist as “this gift of the gods.”

No photoshop

This was a superficial time that embraced beauty and triviality.  Women at the opera stood on their chairs and balanced their lorgnettes on judgmental noses for a close look at the current mistresses.  They crowded bridal paths to view courtesans drive their carriages paid for with the wages of sin.  They made Polaire the star she always wanted to be – because they wanted to stare at the forests of furs wrapped around her shoulders, the jewels wrapped around her arms and neck.  They came to regale in the foreign magnetism that burned within her shocking silhouette.


Someone in that admiring, desiring audience had written a song for her, which began:

“When I started in a music-hall, my waist fitted in a man’s collar” (“Quand j’députais au music-hall,/Ma taille tenait dans un faux-col.”).

Many gentlemen found this a charming image, and sent her their collars, to see if she would fulfill it.

Polaire died at the age of sixty-five in 1939 – a time when such gallantries would have been laughed at.  It was said that she suffered from depression – the spider that crushes mind and body within its shadowy web.  But for a few delirious decades, she was the brightest star in the sky, guiding Paris’ ships in the night, their bright faces staring up at her like lanterns held aloft.


Pretty Stupid

If history was a piece of fruit, perhaps there was one slice that was the sweetest, the most sublime.

The 18th century was a time when a person did not only measure his or her success in terms of wealth, beauty or possessions.  For if one was not clever, these other things became meek and useless:  and the person in question became the victim of a jaded, cruel  – albeit entertaining – society.

Catherine-Rosalie Duthé was a convent student, a courtesan, a companion to royalty and a dancer – moving like a puppet made of satin – at the Paris Opera Ballet.  The 3rd Earl of Egremont gave her a gilded coach, before he moved on to other mistresses and other gifts.  Her friend Jean-Frederic Perregaux commissioned a portrait of her and is said to have contemplated her image on his death-bed.  With her skin tinted rose and arsenic, and her blonde hair raising like a dusted cloud behind her, she was a much requested subject for such portraits.  She appeared many times  in Fragonard’s silvery garden parties and Prud’hon’s dark forests. 

A Blank Canvas

Frothy and immoderate, childish and infamous, she destroyed the reputations of Parisian noblemen and “broke in” 15-year old French princes.  She offended the aristocracy by riding in the royal carriage, an honor set aside for the rich and blue bloods of the king’s family – not for a plump horizontale, a languid queen of her trade.  It was then that she became the subject of a popular tune, “La Duthé a dû téter”, (“La Duthé must have suckled royally.”)


But for all her popularity, Mlle. Duthé was not a clever girl.  Her answers were not quick.  She paused unbearably before speaking – her silences were a labyrinth of vacuity and confusion.  She did not possess the twisting logic and humor of a wit.  She was stupid.  In 1775 she inspired a satire, Les Curiosites de la Foire (“Curiosities of the Fair”):  that “kept Paris laughing for weeks”. 

But it was her foolishness, not her intellect, that kept such a subtle capital amused.  A courtesan was not expected to be a nocturnal creature.  She did not entertain solely in the dark, living beneah the sheets, soft and patient.  She was expected to be diverting in the daytime as well, when, Geisha-like, she would embrace all of a hostess’ virtues.  A pretty girl who lacked intelligence might  earn a king’s bed, but she earned society’s mockery, as well.

Catherine-Rosalie Duthé was blonde.  And she was dumb.


Historians of society and culture have long analyzed the origin of the “dumb blonde” stereotype and all have agreed that its first representative was Catherine-Rosalie.   Women before her time were expected to be ignorant…but the demanding 18th century expected a little more from a lady. 

Mlle. Duthé died in 1830, never realizing her dubious fame.  She was saved from knowing the path of ignominy she had paved for her pale sisters.


Paris trembles under many lights.  Looking down on the city, it meanders like a circle of galaxies.

During the Second Empire, in the mid-19th century, Paris was a delightful gamine, overdressed with crinolines and diamond sandals.  She was a shocking, immoral child – but always held back with the soft ribbons of etiquette, always wearing an extravaganza of couture.

Paris was also an epicurean state, with a history of exotic tastes, extravagant meals and wasteful, profligate menus.  There is one story of a dinner that was served during this time:

Waiters stood tall and handsome as they shouldered a lengthy, silver platter.  It was covered, and heavy.  They were en route from the kitchen to the dinner table, only this time the kitchen wasn't below stairs, but upstairs, in milady's boudoir.

Beneath the silver cover, the feast reclined in the edible darkness.  She thought luxuriously of the corsets, taffetas, crinolines and sandals left behind in her 'kitchen'.  But the black pearls – product of an oyster's imagination and passion – still rested around her neck, floating atop a milky sea.

Bouquets of lilies and violets tickled her shoulders and knees – staining her skin with a layer of perfume.  Petals curled in her hair, and she tapped their glossy colors with her fingers, feeling their tints run through her hands.  Her veins were now a delicate cartography of blue, lavender, bronze and mint.

It was well known throughout the city that the finest chef in the country was on this lady's staff.  But for this one night only, she would be the one presenting the most delicious flesh in the Empire.

"What!  That girl leaning forward?  Oh, that is a distinguished member of the demi-monde.  She is but just arrived from Paris, where her beauty, her wit, and her profligacy were the theme of every tongue.  I have met her there frequently, so, if you want an introduction I will give it to you – her name is Cora Pearl."

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“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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Condemned To The Ground

Today it is little more than the remains of a decorative pretension, a thin fabric caught on time's sharp edges.  The stitching has come undone, exposing the soft underside like a delicate wound.  Still, the unknown artist's work retains its allure, even as it continues its charming decline.  And the memories still live within the shadow of its whimsical architecture.

Over 300 years ago this dainty shoe, with a shape as unnatural and modish as the most expensive of ladies, was a dainty and expensive treasure.  The colors were so light, they dared to evaporate into the living air, and merge into the perfumed, witty atmosphere of 17th century Paris.  The slope of leather was decorated with an avalanche of ice blue ruching and lace.  The decorations tumbled and grappled until the landscape was littered with their delightful meddling.

But despite all its elegant weightlessness and refined geography, it was condemned to the ground: living its useless and beautiful life on unswept, polished acres.

And for all its potential for mischief, the shoe was only seen rarely:  winking saucily from behind oceans of embroidered hems, then receding as the frothy tides returned.  Or there could be a thrilling but brief exposure as the lady was being handed down from her carriage.  Perhaps they held a message:  in the turn of the heel or the feline arch of the toe during an otherwise sedate curtsy.

There was once a hidden language in the small things – a fan, a calling card, a flower, a patch, a shoe; in the excitement of subtle daring.  And there was once a time when Beauty was a formidable predator; when it waited patiently and secretly.

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Saving Face

Modern sensibilities sometimes deal too lightly with the past.  When modern eyes look at the famous faces from a hundred years ago, they narrow in puzzlement.  People shake their heads at Lillie Langtry's pale eyes and masculine nose; they look askance at the feathery and shallow prettiness of Daisy Pless.  Consuelo Vanderbilt's swanlike neck and dark eyebrows emphasize her grace and loneliness, butnothing more.  Yet their splendor lit up The Gilded Age.

Place their portraits in any contemporary window, and no one would be tempted to step in and ask who they were.  The romance of their lives cannot penetrate the sepia ink of their photographs.  Their dramas are caught within a frame, suffocating under glass.  They remain stoic birds; posed and poised.

No one understands what all the fuss was about.

But I know of one face that has traveled well.  In the mid-1890's the eyes of kings and of University rogues traveled over her figure as she danced the ballet, paused on demi-point and flew across the stage like a dark-haired spirit.  Their perusal slowed at her tiny waist and then stopoped at her remarkable face.

This face was drawn in the softest of ovals with a clear, wide forehead.  The landscape that traveled from cheek to lip was a gentle progression.  Her large, black eyes were deeply set – so that the shadows accentuated their cloudless whites.  Her strong, dark eyebrows added charm to her face – the type of charm you would find in an overly-serious child.

Cleopatra Diane de Merode – Cleo – was one of the most reknown beauties in Paris, a city fairly bubbling with light, ornament and vogue.  At eight, she entered the Opera School of Dance; at eleven she was dancing professionally.  Then, when she was thirteen – ini 1884, when all the salons were buzzing about Madame X's bare shoulder and blue-white skin – she was given a part in 'Choryhee'.  She devised a new hairstyle for her role – ropes of braids curled like a nest of complaisant snakes, forming a bun at the nape of her neck.  The excitable city embraced her new look, and she came to focus in many a jeweled opera glass, angled downwards from the balconies, held by discerning courtesans, contessas and chaparones.

In 1896 she was dancing  for the Ballet of the Opera of Bordeaux.  It was there that she was first noticed by 61 year-old Leopold II, King of Belgium.  Married, the father of illegitimate children, disappointed suitor for Mrs. Langtry's affections, he was in in France on secret political matters, and turned to the Paris theater as an excuse for his presence.

But the pretty ballerina turned a feigned excuse to real interest; after the performance she received a bouquet of roses:  a dozen scarlet petitions, with the thorns more eloquent than the petals.

The King's attachment became the talk of Paris.  The affair was a sensation.  Coffeehouses and salons echoed with whispers – scandalized and delighted – about 'Cleopold' and his little dancer.

There was one problem:  the affair never happened. Cleo appealed to the French government for an official statement declaring that there had been no liason, nothing beyond the gift of an armful of roses, by then dead and dry.  But her reputation in Paris was destroyed – her name would forever by linked with the future murderer of the Congo Free State. 

She continued to dance; her beauty continued to entrance:  her fame continued in Hamburg, Berlin, St. Petersburg (she was the first female to dance with a male dance partner in the Russian Ballet), Budapest and New York.  But her shame drove her away from the city she loved.  She never returned.

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