Why you should care
Because it’s a long way to the top if you want to be the world’s most famous prostitute.
The dinner guests at Château Beauséjour in the Bordeaux wine region came with an expectation of being scandalized. Not that it would take much. It was 1864 after all, and Queen Victoria’s conservative influence extended even across the English Channel to more libertine Second Empire France. So when dessert was about to be served and the hostess, the famous courtesan Cora Pearl, coquettishly challenged them to “cut into the next dish,” they knew they were about to get a bit hot under the collar. On previous nights, Cora had bathed in a silver tub filled with Champagne and danced naked on a bed of orchids for her invitees, who were among the richest, most influential men in France.
Miss Pearl did not disappoint. After excusing herself, she reappeared, sprawled on an enormous silver platter carried by four servers and covered in sweet creams, grapes, candied flowers and meringues, all with a light dusting of sugar. Cora herself was served as the final course.
She attracted even wealthier men until she landed her biggest fish of all: the cousin of the emperor of France, Prince Napoleon Bonaparte.
The woman who would become one of the era’s most famous courtesans came from humble beginnings. She was born Eliza Emma Crouch around 1835 in the port city of Plymouth, England. Her father was a cellist, her mother a singer, and the two supported their family in relative comfort. But happiness was elusive: When her father abandoned the family to escape mounting debts, Eliza was sent to boarding school in Boulogne. When she graduated at age 19, she went to live with her grandmother in London and work as a milliner’s assistant. It was in the bustling British capital that Eliza’s luck took a turn for the worse — and then for the much, much better.
Every Sunday Eliza’s grandmother sent her to church accompanied by a maid. One day after the service the maid was nowhere to be seen, so the young lady decided to walk home alone. She was soon approached by an older gentleman who offered to treat her to cake. Instead, he took her to a gin palace where he plied her with alcohol. The next day Eliza awoke naked and alone in his bed; a £5 note was on the dresser. No longer a virgin, she was too ashamed to go home and used the money to rent lodgings.
With an ample bosom and a tiny waist, Eliza soon attracted more admirers, one of whom was Robert Bignell, owner of a notorious brothel called the Argyll Rooms. Eliza became Bignell’s lover, and the two traveled to Paris, posing as a married couple. She was so taken by the glittering French capital that she insisted on staying after Bignell returned to London. From that moment forward, Eliza abandoned all the pain of her past and became Cora Pearl, goddess of sex.
The newly christened Cora worked her way up a hierarchy of suitors until she landed her first royal — the Duke of Rivoli, Victor Masséna, whom she referred to in her memoirs as the first link in her golden chain of lovers. “The courtesan phenomenon flourished in France in the 19th century because a number of factors came together at the right time,” says Ian Graham, author of Scarlet Women: The Scandalous Lives of Courtesans, Concubines, and Royal Mistresses. “France was at peace for most of the century. This long-term peace and stability meant that princes, dukes and other noblemen could spend their fortunes on pleasure and leisure instead of the defense of their property, territories and titles in battle.”
The duke introduced Cora to an opulent lifestyle she would soon become all too accustomed to, lavishing her with jewels, couture clothing, a private chef and servants. He also introduced her to what would become her greatest vice — gambling. Their six-year liaison didn’t prevent Cora from acquiring other lovers, including the heir to the Dutch throne, the Duke of Orange.
When Masséna finally cut ties with Cora after her gambling debts nearly ruined him, she attracted even wealthier men until she landed her biggest fish of all: the cousin of the emperor of France, Prince Napoleon Bonaparte, who gave her an allowance of 12,000 francs per month and bought her several properties. Cora was at the height of her influence, unabashedly flaunting her wealth to the Parisian masses. On weekends she rode through the Bois du Boulogne in extravagant horse-drawn carriages, dressed in her finest clothing and dripping in jewels from a collection that was said to be worth 1 million francs. She once dyed her hair canary yellow to match the interior of one carriage, fiery red for another.
After the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 and the Second Empire collapse, Paris adopted a sober postwar conservatism. It was no longer the hedonistic wonderland that had won the heart of the young Cora. Furthermore, at age 35, she was no longer the effervescent young thing who had once delighted aging royalty. After an affair with a wealthy young man named Alexandre Duval ended in gunplay, Cora was exiled from France.
In 1881 she made her way to Monte Carlo, where an English tourist found her crying curbside in the rain. Her landlord had kicked her out of her apartment for failing to pay rent and had seized what was left of her belongings. On July 8, 1886, just four months after publishing her memoirs, she suffered a painful death at age 51 from intestinal cancer. She was buried in an unmarked grave in Paris’ Batignolles Cemetery in a modest ceremony paid for by former clients. In death, the infamy of Cora Pearl is sustained in much the same way it was when she lived — whispered and scandalous gossip.