Drawn—or forced—into a life of wealth and power, the courtesans, royal concubines and mistresses of history offer a rich look into the lurid depths of the world’s monarchies. With rulers trapped in loveless marriages and harems of lovers populating societies from Byzantium to China, there are scores of extraordinary women who changed history via their beauty, charm and, above all, guile.
Some women were drawn to the profession for riches; others saw the lucre as an escape from abusive relationships, crushing dowry debt and hopeless employment prospects. A few, especially in the demimonde of Belle Epoque France, gained celebrity; even fewer became empresses. But many proved fascinating, and Ian Graham details the most captivating among them in Scarlet Women.
Spanning centuries and civilizations, Graham’s book presents a survey of some of the most incredible women in history. Paste corresponded with Graham to discuss his research, the American courtesan and the future prospects of the profession.
Paste: What engendered your interest in the courtesan as a historical figure?
Ian Graham: I had written a book modestly entitled The Ultimate Book of Impostors. One of the impostors was Mata Hari, the Javanese temple dancer who, in fact, wasn’t Javanese or a temple dancer. When I was researching her, I found that she was repeatedly described as a courtesan. I had only the most superficial knowledge of what a courtesan was, so I started reading about them and discovered the 19th-century French courtesans, the demimondaines—extraordinary women like La Belle Otero, Cora Pearl and La Paiva. And that eventually led to me writing Scarlet Women, which ended up including royal mistresses and imperial concubines.
Paste: A running theme throughout the book is that no matter when these women lived—from ancient Greece to the Belle Epoque—they tended to be extraordinary, like the outspoken and thoroughly educated Aspasia in 470 B.C. or the 14th-century poet Veronica Franco. What is it about the courtesan lifestyle that attracted women whose education, intelligence and wit were above the norm?
Graham: I think the main attraction is pretty obvious—the potential for wealth beyond most mortals’ wildest dreams. In addition, the courtesans and royal mistresses also enjoyed more independence and control over their own lives than most women of their time. Some of the women were educated and clearly very intelligent and resourceful, but others were not and had to work hard to attain the skills and knowledge they needed. It wasn’t unusual for a successful courtesan to have been trained by her mother. Courtesans had to know how to behave in high society and how to hold a conversation; knowing something of the domestic and international affairs of the day was useful, too, so they had to be literate. The rewards for those who got it right could be enormous.
It’s also worth saying that not all of the courtesans and royal mistresses “were attracted” to the career as a deliberate choice. In many cases, it was literally a matter of survival. Without any of the welfare, bank loans, credit cards, fair pay legislation, help for the homeless, etc. that we enjoy today, women were often forced into prostitution simply to survive, to keep a roof over their head or put food on the table. For many of them, whether they had been thrown out by their family, orphaned or shackled to a feckless drunk or gambler of a husband, there was simply no other way to survive. For example, Liane de Pougy became a courtesan after escaping from a husband who had shot her. Mata Hari also escaped from a violent husband. La Belle Otero was sent away from home and then ran away altogether after her father was killed by her mother’s lover, who then moved in with the family.
Paste: Some courtesans rose to power themselves—an altogether different kind of extraordinary. Could you talk about how Empress Theodora, a famed Byzantine child prostitute, and Wu Zhao, a Chinese concubine, grew to lead entire nations?
Graham: Well, in some cases, women just got lucky. They won the lottery! Theodora was a child prostitute who found herself in the right place at the right time by accident, and she was noticed by a man who ended up becoming emperor, so she went from child prostitute to empress by luck. Her life could easily have been very different, and we might never have heard of her.
In the case of Wu Zhao, she was also the beneficiary of a lucky turn of events. As a childless concubine when the Chinese emperor died, she would normally have been sent away from the palace, but, probably because of feuds and plots within the emperor’s family, she stayed in the palace and was able to maneuver (and possibly murder) her way to power. A more interesting concubine was Cixi. She also started off as an unremarkable concubine, but when the emperor died, Cixi was the only concubine with a son, the emperor’s son. Unlike European royal mistresses, whose offspring could not inherit titles or property, the sons of Chinese imperial concubines could, so Cixi’s son became emperor and Cixi became dowager empress. He was so young that she also became co-regent, making decisions on his behalf. As the power behind the throne, she became more and more powerful until she exercised total control over China.
Paste: It can be difficult to comprehend why royalty needed mistresses, and how they grew to be somewhat publicly accepted. What is it about monarchical systems that made the rise of the prominent courtesan possible?
Graham: Royal mistresses are a natural consequence of the loveless marriages that kings were pressured into. Royal marriages were used as a way of uniting royal houses and thereby forming powerful military alliances, so they were more to do with power, national defense and wealth than love. Kings ended up marrying women they had no interest in. Some kings (George III, for example) did not meet their queen until the day of their marriage. As a result, kings looked elsewhere for companionship. And whoever their gaze fell upon had little choice but to “play ball,” even if they were married. In fact, kings preferred married mistresses, because married mistresses were more respectable and it wouldn’t cause a scandal if they fell pregnant with the king’s illegitimate offspring. Husbands were often bought off by giving them titles, land, money, etc. The fact that kings and princes commonly took mistresses inevitably attracted the interest of ambitious courtesans, for whom a royal patron was a prize catch that could set them up for life.
Paste: American readers may be surprised to find some of our own in the book. How did America, so late to the historical game and lacking a monarch, fare when it came to the demimonde?
Graham: I wanted to include something “home-grown” for American readers, but it was very difficult to find anything. Throughout most of recorded history, right up to World War I, Europe had no shortage of kings, princes and dukes, so it might be described as a “target-rich environment” for courtesans. And because Europe was largely peaceful during the 19th century, all of these titled men had little to spend their money on other than fun, so the courtesans made a beeline for them and hunted them until they surrendered. America, however, didn’t have the same aristocratic tradition for obvious historical reasons. America was also quite isolationist in nature until the 20th century, deliberately avoiding any involvement in the alliances and wars between the countries from which many of its citizens had fled, so Europe was intentionally held at arm’s length.
One American who stands out in the context of courtesans and mistresses is Clara Ward, who deliberately searched for a European aristocrat who could give her a title. She got what she wanted and became the Princesse de Caraman-Chimay … and then left her husband for a gypsy violinist, but she kept the title!
Paste: Your book spans centuries, from the earliest civilizations to women who died in the 1960s. Will the courtesan lifestyle continue into the present, even if it’s in a different form? One could easily imagine the world breathlessly following the Instagram account of a princess’s part-time model boy toy, or a singer plucked from YouTube and being spirited away to Monaco to perform private concerts for the Prince.
Graham: Well, never say never. But the last flowering of the old courtesan culture, in Europe in the 19th century, was brought to an end by World War I. And the world has moved on since then. Society has changed. Deference and privilege haven’t gone, but they’re different now. The aristocracy can’t insulate itself from the rest of society as it used to. The nobility doesn’t have the power—or in many cases, the wealth—that it used to have. And a free press scrutinizes the powerful and wealthy as never before, so they can’t get away with as much as they did in the past. The leaders of society don’t inherit their positions any more; they are elected and they get to the top on merit, so their behavior (public and private) matters more now than in the past.
Of course, wealthy and powerful people, both men and women, will always attract the interest of others for all sorts of reasons, including romance, ambition, curiosity and greed (concubines reappeared in China when it embraced capitalism). But I think the days of the flamboyant demimondaine have gone. The death of the last great European courtesan, La Belle Otero, in Nice in 1965, marked the extinction of the species.