When one enjoys full liberty, one must use it with the utmost moderation. - Victor Hugo, preface to Marion Delorme
Last month, sex worker activists discussed the case of Patricia Adler, a sociologist who had promoted ridiculous whore stereotypes in her classes on “deviancy” for twenty years; she of course never bothered to consult actual sex workers or even fellow academics who had actually studied us, instead preferring to let students simply make things up under her (almost wholly ignorant) guidance. But while we were annoyed and insulted by her actions, we were by no means surprised by them; since time immemorial academics, artists, moralists, rulers and almost everyone else have considered prostitutes to be more like fictional characters than real people. As I wrote in “Projection”, harlots “tend to be dehumanized into symbols for other people’s psychological needs and problems…people project their own concepts onto us and imagine us as the external representations of those concepts.” The internet is the enemy of such projection because it allows us to speak for ourselves rather than allowing others to usurp that right, and because it allows real information about a person to be widely disseminated, thus disrupting the fictions. In modern times, myths and other tales about whores are thus limited to those told about fictional characters (including those played by real people in “sex trafficking” roadshows), and those we tell about ourselves (and can successfully bury the truth about). But it’s not always easy to separate fact from fiction when discussing the lives of courtesans who lived prior to the information age, and in some cases it’s practically impossible.
Case in point: Marion Delorme, a French courtesan of the 17th century. A few facts about her are well-known and not generally disputed: she was born on October 3rd, 1613, the daughter of Jean de Lou, sieur de l’Orme and his wife Marie Chastelain. She was rich, beautiful, well-educated and had little interest in conventional marriage, and her second known lover was Henri Coiffier de Ruzé, Marquis de Cinq-Mars, who was a favorite (and possibly lover) of King Louis XIII; she stayed with him until his death in 1642. In her twenties she became the hostess of a salon which after 1648 became a meeting place for the enemies of the powerful Cardinal Mazarin, and when he sent men to arrest her on July 2nd, 1650 they reported back that she had died suddenly on June 30th from an overdose of antimony she had taken to induce an abortion. And that is the extent of what we know for (reasonably) certain; everything else about her life is speculation, ranging from the highly likely to the highly dubious to the patently absurd.
Though she began working as a courtesan sometime after she began hosting the salon, it’s uncertain how quickly the former followed the latter; she is said to have been secretly married to Cinq-Mars, but presumably it was in both their interests not to reveal that so as to avoid interfering with their other partners. One of Marion’s was said to have been Cardinal Richelieu, who had first introduced Cinq-Mars to King Louis because he believed he could control the young nobleman and thereby influence His Majesty. But Richelieu had completely misjudged Cinq-Mars; instead, the young man told the King of the Cardinal’s treachery, pressed for him to be executed and tried to organize a noble rebellion against Richelieu. Alas, he was caught by Richelieu’s spies and executed in 1642. Marion was not implicated in the conspiracy, but it seems likely that her sympathies were aligned with those of her dead husband; when the civil war called the Fronde began in 1648, those who opposed Richelieu’s successor Cardinal Mazarin gathered at her salon. But some doubt her convenient death practically on the eve of her arrest; a legend claims that the officials sent to detain her were either deceived or bribed into reporting her death, that the elaborate funeral which followed was a sham, and that Marion fled to England, married a lord and lived to 1706.
None of those speculations test the limits of credulity, but they are only the beginning; other accounts claim she later had all sorts of adventures, eventually returned to Paris and died in abject poverty in 1741…which would have made her 127! And in his Illuminati, the writer Gérard de Nerval recounts a legend that she used esoteric means to delay aging, was actually 150 at her death, and was already involved in the circles of power when King Henry IV died in 1610. Furthermore, her involvement in court intrigue at a time later generations find fascinating ensured numerous fictional versions of her life; most notably, Victor Hugo wrote the drama Marion Delorme (1831) which was later adapted into opera by both Giovanni Bottesini (1862) and Amilcare Ponchielli (1885). It has also been suggested that the villainous Milady de Winter of The Three Musketeers is based loosely on Marion, which if true would be rather ironic given that Milady was the agent of the fictional Richelieu and Marion the (eventual) enemy of the real one.
In general, the lives of famous people who lived more recently are clearer to us than those who lived very long ago, and the more remote the era the more likely true biographical details are to be mixed with legends and myths. But when the subject is a whore, the truth tends not only to be harder to find (due to fabrications by the lady, her clients, her enemies and her clients’ enemies), but also harder to extract from the mythic landscape to which so many people would prefer to confine us.