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Archive for the ‘Harlotography’ Category

Impenetrable in their dissimulation, cruel in their vengeance, tenacious in their purposes, unscrupulous as to their methods, animated by profound and hidden hatred for the tyranny of man…  -  Denis Diderot, “On Women”

As I have written on numerous occasions, the fallacious notion of the prostitute as a specific type of woman, with characteristics that set her apart from all other women, is a relatively recent one.  Prior to the mid-19th century it was widely understood that transactional sex was a normal female behavior, one that any woman might engage in under the proper circumstances.  This is not to say that it was accepted and condoned; far from it.  But nobody imagined that a woman was entirely defined by the act, either, nor embraced the foolish fantasy that only women of a certain background or experience made the choice.  I have also often pointed out that women are far more pragmatic than men like to believe; many if not most of us, even those from relatively sheltered lives, are perfectly capable of trading sex for money or other advantages should the need arise.

Jeanne de ClissonCase in point Jeanne-Louise de Belleville, Dame de Montaigu, born in 1300 to the powerful Breton nobleman Maurice IV of Belleville-Montaigu and his wife Létice de Parthenay.  She was married off at the age of 12 to a 19-year-old nobleman named Geoffrey de Châteaubriant and bore him two children.  Geoffrey died young in 1326, and four years later she married Olivier III de Clisson, bearing him five children.  But while her first marriage seems to have been a typical one, the second one was unusually passionate for a 14th-century noble couple.  The two were extremely close, and Jeanne was very devoted to him…so devoted, in fact, that what would have been the easy and unremarkable life of a wealthy French noblewoman became remarkable indeed after her husband was executed for treason in 1343.

It happened like this:  in the early part of the Hundred Years War, there were two rival claimants for the title of Duke of Brittany; Charles de Blois was favored by the French and John de Montfort by the English.  Olivier was on the French side, but after he lost Vannes to the English in 1342, de Blois complained that Olivier had not fought enthusiastically enough, and accused him of having defected to the English.  Olivier responded, predictably enough, by defecting to the English, but was captured by French forces and beheaded by order of King Philip VI on August 2nd, 1343; in a particularly barbaric touch, his severed head was then displayed on a pole at Nantes.  Jeanne was devastated by his death and furious at the King and de Blois, and swore revenge on both.  But while a lesser woman might’ve been content with cursing them from afar, spreading rumors or bribing someone to poison the royal wine, Jeanne was no ordinary woman.  She promptly sold off all of the Clisson lands the King had not seized, purchased the three best warships she could find, and had them painted black and rigged with sails dyed blood-red.  To raise money for a crew and to win allies from amongst the other Breton noblemen (who were none too fond of the French to start with), she sold her favors to them and charmed them into swearing to support her.  Keep in mind she was 43 years old at the time, had borne seven children and presumably had only been to bed with two men before this; she must have had a powerful charisma.

But that charisma, however great, paled beside her hatred.  From 1343-1356 the “Lioness of Brittany” mercilessly hunted and pillaged every French ship she could find, slaughtering the crews except for one or two who would be released on shore to tell the King who it was that had done the deed.  At the Battle of Crécy (1346), she helped to secure an English victory by bringing in supplies on her ships.  And after King Philip died in 1350, Jeanne only got worse; apparently enraged at his having escaped her wrath by fleeing into Hades, she began specifically hunting down ships owned by French nobles, and whenever she caught one she would personally behead him with an axe and have his body thrown into the sea, despite the fact that she could’ve made tremendous profit by ransoming them.  Were this a Hollywood movie, she would have eventually caught up with Charles de Blois and given him his comeuppance, but real life is rarely so neat; de Blois not only outlived the Lioness by five years,Château de Clisson but was also made a saint (though the canonization was annulled by the next pope on request from the English-supported Duke John V of Brittany, whose side had eventually won).  By the time she was 56 Jeanne’s thirst for vengeance was apparently slaked at last; she retired from piracy, married Sir Walter Bentley (who had personally fought de Blois) and settled in Hennebont, France, where she died in 1359.  Her son, Olivier Jr, earned the sobriquet “The Butcher” for his fierceness in war; he obviously inherited that from his mother, whose ghost is supposed to haunt the ruins of the old Château de Clisson (which was destroyed during the French Revolution).

Jeanne de Clisson was neither poor nor disadvantaged; neither sexually abused as a child nor mistreated by a husband; and neither homeless nor addicted to any drug.  Perhaps it could be said that she was emotionally disturbed by the loss of her beloved husband, but if so it was a very lucid kind of madness:  Jeanne knew exactly what she was doing, and chose to sell sex as a means toward that end.  And though most whores have far more mundane goals than the death of a king and the downfall of an entire country, our choices are every bit as pragmatic – and often as temporary – as hers.

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Natalie wrote…that she was…madly in love with a woman…[who] outstripped all her other loves by a long way.  Rather vexed, I answered: “The best in your life was me! Me! Me!”  -  Liane de Pougy, My Blue Notebooks

Perceptive readers may have noticed that though I share a profession with the subjects of all of my harlotographies, I don’t think I would have gotten along with many of them.  This is especially true of the Grandes Horizontales of La Belle Epoque; while I admire their spunk and envy their income, most of them were possessed of character traits I find irritating or even repulsive:  among these are incredible irresponsibility, the tendency to use people and a pathological affection for falsehood.  Though the former two would probably have caused me greater distress had I known the ladies in person, it is the latter one which annoys me most as a chronicler of whoredom because it makes it almost impossible to declare anything about their lives with certainty, despite what biographers who have never personally known a whore (much less been one) seem to believe.  Case in point Liane de Pougy, whose statements about her exes (and herself) are usually reported as fact despite their conflicting with her earlier statements about the same people.

Liane de Pougy, 1887Anne-Marie Chassaigne was born in La Flèche, France on July 2nd, 1869, the daughter of Pierre and Aimée Chassaigne; like so many others of her time she was educated in a convent, but unlike most of her peers she somehow managed to evade the nuns often enough and well enough to get pregnant at 16.  She eloped with the father, a young naval officer named Armand Pourpe, but predictably the marriage was both short and unhappy; she treated her baby son Marc as though he were a doll, and professed to be disappointed that he was not a girl so she could dress him up and fuss over him more.  When Armand was transferred to Marseilles she remained behind and promptly took a lover, Marquis Charles de MacMahon; when her husband later caught them in flagrante delicto he shot at them but only succeeded in wounding her wrist.  In response she sold her piano, abandoned her son and lit out for Paris on the first train she could catch, changing her name to “Liane” upon arrival.  She later wrote in her memoirs that her husband had “taken her violently on their wedding night”, supposedly traumatizing her; consider, however, that she was already sexually involved with him before they were married, and that this supposed emotional shock didn’t stop her from having sex with someone else as soon as he was over the horizon.  Furthermore, her arch-rival La Belle Otero claimed to have been raped at ten; one must wonder if Liane didn’t invent her marriage-bed ravishment so that she, too, could have a sexual horror story for those who responded to that sort of thing.  She also claimed that her husband was a brute who beat her, and that she had a scar on her breast from one such beating; perhaps, but it also provided a convenient excuse for her infidelity.

In Paris, the 18-year-old Liane immediately set out to become a courtesan, and learned the trade from the highly-respected Countess Valtesse de la Bigne.  Much to her mentor’s annoyance, Liane was bored by intellectual pursuits, but she was simply more attuned to the zeitgeist than the older woman:  it was a time when appearance and style were prized over depth and substance, as evidenced by the fact that, though utterly devoid of any acting talent, she was hired to headline a show at the Folies-Bergere on the basis of the impression she had made while attending the Grand Prix with the Vicomte de Pougy (whose surname she promptly appropriated).  So hopeless was she that Sarah Bernhardt, who had been given the job of teaching her to act, eventually told her, “when on stage, just keep your pretty mouth shut.”  But as with so many others up to the present day, this did not stop her from becoming a wildly popular celebrity; it started on the night of her debut, when she picked up the visiting Prince of Wales as a client.

Liane de Pougy (November 3rd, 1902)The ‘90s were the heyday of Liane’s career and the period of her infamous rivalry with La Belle Otero, played out in the various theaters and the dining room of Maxim’s restaurant, a favorite of the demimonde.  Though Otero became more famous and sought-after than de Pougy by about 1895, Liane was the wiser investor and the more careful bookkeeper, and appears to have had a larger number of less-famous clients compared with Otero’s smaller number of kings and princes.  Both women derived a sizeable secondary income from licensing their images for postcards, as was typical for courtesans of the time; as I have noted before, this period saw the beginning of the modern cult of celebrity, and the Grandes Horizontales were at the center of it.

Like most courtesans, Liane began to opt for longer-term arrangements as she aged; unlike most, not all of hers were with men.  In 1899 the American heiress and writer Natalie Clifford Barney became infatuated with her after seeing her at the Folies-Bergere, and though their lesbian relationship was very intense it was also very short because Barney kept insisting she wanted to “rescue” Liane from prostitution (a notion much more popular in America at that time than in France).  The two continued to have deep feelings for one another, though, and corresponded for the rest of their lives (see epigram).  Never one to miss a moneymaking opportunity, in 1901 Liane published a thinly-fictionalized account of their affair, Sapphic Idyll, which became a runaway bestseller and caused Barney considerable trouble with her straight-laced parents.  She also profited in another way:  when it became known that she was bisexual, she gained a small but profitable upper-class lesbian clientele.

Liane de Pougy in a detail of Une soirée au Pré-Catelan by Henri Gervex (1909)On June 8, 1910 the almost-41 Liane married the notably-younger Prince  Georges Ghika, after which she was called Princess Ghika.  Though neither as rocky nor as short-lived as her first marriage, this one was not without its major difficulties; the first of these came on December 2nd, 1914 when her son Marc, a French pilot in the First World War, was killed in action near Villers-Brettoneux.  Though she had never been close to him, his death precipitated a period of soul-searching in which she turned back to the Church, becoming a lay Dominican sister.  Though this phase did not last long, she remained devout for the rest of her life (though like many Catholics, she ignored sexual prohibitions she found inconvenient).  In 1926 Ghika ran off with a much younger woman, and while Liane’s diaries of the period brand him a pervert (whereas before he was described in glowing terms), the two did not divorce.  She consoled herself with lesbian lovers until he came back to her a few years later, and they remained together until his death in 1945; the latter period was not a happy one, however, and each had a series of extramarital girlfriends.

After his death she re-entered the Dominicans permanently as Sister Anne-Marie, and spent her last five years caring for physically and mentally handicapped children; she died at the Asylum of Saint Agnes in Lausanne,  Switzerland on December 26th, 1950, at the ripe old age of 81.  Her memoirs, My Blue Notebooks, were published posthumously.  Though many who wish to believe in such things have praised the “repentance” for her “sinful” past (most especially her prostitution and lesbianism) she proclaims in this work, the more cynical eye of this harlot sees instead the pièce de résistance of a long series of deceptions.  While her previous writings merely reinterpreted other people in her life, this one reinvented herself; and while the others were only intended to deceive mere mortals, this one was designed to pull the wool over the eyes of God himself.  And no matter what else I feel about her, I have to admire her for that one, grand, final act of chutzpah.

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When one enjoys full liberty, one must use it with the utmost moderation.  -  Victor Hugo, preface to Marion Delorme

Marion De LormeLast 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.

idelorm001p1Though 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).fictional Marion Delorme illustration  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.

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I wouldn’t have known what I know now if I hadn’t lived the way I have.  -  Kathleen Rockwell

Though there have always been women who made a career of directly accepting money for sex, the majority of those who have taken money for it – perhaps as high as 90% of them – did so casually or infrequently, and never thought of themselves as whores per se.  Indeed, it wasn’t until the 19th century that any woman who had ever done so was judged to be as “fallen” as those who made a career of it and eschewed marriage and domesticity.  But like all new ideas, this one did not catch on everywhere right away; though it was popular in the “social purity” movement and later became the standard definition among American Progressives, many women of the transitional period continued to take money for sex on an irregular and unpredictable basis, leading to considerable controversy among both contemporary and modern bean-counters as to whether or not they were “really” prostitutes.

Klondike Kate, circa 1901Case in point: Kathleen Eloisa Rockwell, born in Junction City, Kansas, in 1873 (though she later claimed 1876).  Her parents had both divorced their spouses to marry each other, then in turn divorced after a move to North Dakota.  By the time Kate was five her mother Martha had again remarried to a wealthy businessman; until she was 15 she lived in a mansion in Spokane, Washington.  But after her stepfather’s business failed the marriage did as well, and Martha dragged Kate off to Chile, where her son from her first marriage was living; on the voyage there Kate accepted a young officer’s proposal of marriage.  Since Martha had entirely failed to grasp that “do as I say, not as I do” is an ineffective parenting strategy, she was aghast; she ended the engagement and upon arrival in Valparaiso enrolled Kate in a convent school.  No sooner had she graduated and started teaching kindergarten than she accepted another proposal, this time from a Spanish diplomatic attaché; she soon ended that one at the insistence of the school’s principal.  In later years, she claimed to have accepted over 100 proposals in her life, and broken all but a few of them; I suggest the reader view this as akin to courtesan’s claims of men committing suicide over them, or modern strippers’ staggering incomes that never seem to translate into actual bank balances.

Only three years after her arrival in Chile, Martha decided to return to New York; she soon asked Kate to join her there, but when she arrived in November of 1892(?) she found that her mother was both broke and too old to attract another rich husband.  Kate supported them both with a number of chorus-girl gigs until an old friend invited her back to work in a vaudeville theater in Spokane; there she not only sang and danced, but also made a cut from drinks customers bought her (it seems likely that her first tricks were picked up there).  When the Klondike gold rush started in the summer of 1897, Kate recognized it as a matchless opportunity; within a year she had put together the money to resettle her mother in Seattle and pay for passage to Canada.  She arrived in Victoria, BC late in the autumn, and discovered that the RCMP would not let women go any farther because the winter was “too dangerous”.  But like any good harlot, she refused to let the arbitrary declarations of cops deter her when there was money to be made; she therefore disguised herself as a boy and sneaked onto a cargo ship headed for Whitehorse, Yukon.

Klondike Kate, circa 1900She worked as a tap-dancer in Whitehorse for most of 1899, then joined the Savoy Theatrical Company when its new theater in Dawson opened in 1900.  Since she stood out in looks, talent and sex appeal from the other girls she soon attracted the attention of Charlie Meadows, who offered her $200 a week (about $5500 today) and star billing at his Palace Grande Theater, where she immediately became a huge hit.  Her show-stopper, the “Flame Dance”, included her twirling a huge swath of red chiffon about while singing and dancing; men threw money at her during the act, and she charged them to dance with her afterwards.  She is also known to have charged for company, but was extremely discreet about it; altogether, she later estimated she made about $500 a week beyond her salary, a total of about $30,000 ($815,000 today) by the end of 1900.  On Christmas Eve she was crowned “Queen of the Yukon” by her fans, and a miner named Johnny Matson (more on him later) fell instantly in love with her.

Unfortunately, she had recently begun a relationship with an ambitious Greek immigrant named Alexander Pantages, a former boxer and current bartender with plans to open a chain of theaters.  They opened the Orpheum together early in 1901, and with Kate as its headliner they were soon rolling in money.  But in the spring of the following year, Pantages realized that the gold was running out and suggested the two of them move to Seattle; Kate did not wish to leave Dawson, so they embarked upon a long-distance relationship.  Even after she finally came back to the US in 1903 or 1904, she wanted to tour while he was stuck in Seattle working on his dream of a theater chain.  While she was performing in Texas, Alex took up with a violinist named Lois Medenhall, whom he married on March 12, 1905; though their relationship had clearly been cooling for a long time Kate was furious and filed a breach-of-promise lawsuit against him in May, seeking the return of the $60,000 she had invested in his theaters plus another $25,000 in damages.  The affair upset her terribly, however, and she started drinking heavily; she settled out of court in April 1906 for a paltry $5,000, then moved to Fairbanks, Alaska, opened a hotel and performed at a nightclub called the Floradora.  Luck was not with her; the uninsured hotel burned down in 1907 and she left Alaska flat broke.

Klondike Kate, circa 1906Since she was only 34, she easily built up another career in vaudeville.  But there was not nearly as much money to be made in Seattle as there had been in the Klondike, and besides she was depressed and drinking; after a knee injury ended her dancing career for good in 1914 she had a nervous breakdown, and left Seattle to open a boarding house in Bend, Oregon (at which some of her boarders seem to have been whores).  Though money was tight, she preferred to do most of the menial work herself rather than sell any of her expensive jewelry; as she later told a biographer, “I can remember the queer looks on the faces of customers, seeing me up to my elbows in soap suds, with a thousand dollars’ worth of diamonds in each ear.”  She eventually built her business into a profitable enough venture to make large donations to the town’s volunteer fire department, but made the mistake of selling it in the early 1920s to start a restaurant in California…which promptly failed so badly she was forced to borrow money from the now-successful Alex Pantages.  The latter’s fortune did not last long after that, however; in 1929 his wife Lois was tried for killing a man while driving drunk, and Alex was charged with raping a young actress.  Though his conviction was overturned after two years in prison, he was financially ruined and died of a heart attack in 1936.

Kate married a cowboy named Floyd Warner in the late ‘20s, but that was over by the time she received a letter from Johnny Matson, who had never stopped loving her; he had read a newspaper account of the Pantages trial (during which Kate had been subpoenaed by the prosecution as a character witness) and decided to look her up again.  In that letter he proposed, and she married him in Victoria, BC on July 14, 1933.  He was still a miner and very solicitous of her welfare, so he insisted she spend the winters in Oregon rather than at his remote claim.  During this time she began to be invited to appear at miner’s reunions in Portland, and spent her winters training young Hollywood actresses in vaudeville techniques.  They lived happily this way until the winter of 1946, when she was notified that Matson had been found dead in the woods miles from his cabin.  Two years later she married another old admirer, an Oregon accountant named W. L. Van Duren, and was still with him when she died at the age of 83 on February 21, 1957.  Though she is not well-known in most of the US, she is still remembered fondly in Alaska and Oregon; in the former as the glamorous showgirl of her youth, and in the latter as the generous civic benefactress of her later years.  And despite what moralists like to believe, they were one and the same woman.

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Mountains are the same as in the old times,
But streams are never the same;
They keep flowing day and night,
So they can not be the same.
The men of fame are like the streams;
Once gone, they never return.
  -  Hwang Jini

My column on the kisaeng, theHwang Jin Yi movie poster Korean equivalent of geisha, opened with a sijo poem by Hwang Jini, the most famous and beloved of her profession.  In recent years, she has essentially become the archetypal kisaeng, and as in the case of Western courtesans her life has provided the inspiration for novels, a television show  and a movie; of course, these fictional treatments are considerably embellished and dramatized, and it’s difficult to tell history from folk legend from deliberate “improvement”.  In this case, the task is further complicated by the dearth of English-language sources on the subject, but there is still enough to enable a sketch of a most unconventional woman of almost superhuman charisma who made her own way in a society where that was simply not allowed.  Hwang Jini’s extraordinary presence and strength of will is a large part of why modern Korean women find her so fascinating; she is a splendid example of what I call an archeofeminist, a woman who uses her femininity to advantage rather than rejecting it.

She was born about 1506 in Kaesong, which lies in what is now North Korea.  Her mother, Chin Hyungeum, was of the cheonmin caste, but her exact profession is unknown; some sources say she was a kisaeng herself, though this seems unlikely given her poverty.  She was, however, extraordinarily beautiful, and attracted the attention of a young yangban (nobleman) named Hwang Chinsa, who took her as a mistress for a time.  They had one daughter, Jini, who from a very early age was recognized as exceptional both in beauty and in musical skill; it is said that she made the decision to become a kisaeng after a young man killed himself or pined away over her, and she realized such powerful appeal would win her fortune.  Now, it is very likely that the decision to send her to a kisaeng house was actually her mother’s; training started very early (sometimes as young as eight), so it hardly seems credible that she was already breaking hearts and making major life-decisions at such a tender age.  However, the very fact that the legend portrays her as choosing her own destiny demonstrates the strength of the impression she made on people.

In Jini’s day, Confucianism was still solidifying its hold on the upper class, and different schools of thought were still vying for control.  Though the kisaeng were technically of slave status, the government did not claim ownership of them until almost a century after her death; she therefore enjoyed a freedom later generations of kisaeng were denied.  After her training was complete she set out to earn a living, taking up almost immediately with a gibu named Yi Saeng.  Though some gibu were jealous or behaved pimpishly, this does not seem to have been the case with Yi Saeng, who appears to have been almost a father-figure to her.  The two took a long sightseeing trip to Mount Kumgang, with Jini (who by then was using her stage name, Myeongwol [“Bright Moon”]) obtaining their needs via casual prostitution.  This story illustrates several important points about her character: first, her ability even at so young an age (she was probably about 15 then) to deal with men as an equal, the hallmark of all great courtesans; second, her willingness to use her sexuality to obtain what she wanted; and third, her total lack of artificiality.  The latter was her most striking characteristic: she spoke her mind freely, with little of the formality which was the norm in Korean society; she generally went without makeup at a time when most kisaeng painted their faces elaborately; and she often dressed attractively but plainly, with very little jewelry.

Hwang Jini (portrait from Korean textbook, c. 1910)But her beauty, personality, intelligence, musical talent and skill at poetry allowed her to seduce men almost without conscious effort, and when she actually applied herself she was practically an irresistible force.  One of her conquests was a misogynistic government official named So Seyang, who bragged he would keep her for a month and then dismiss her without regret; at the end of the time he begged her to stay and she refused, composing a poem to tell him goodbye.  Another of her famous clients was a noted musician named Yi Sajong, with whom she is said to have lived for six years; given the extremely short professional lives of the kisaeng, this was presumably in her thirties, after she had made her fortune.  And a fortune it was; though it could not compare with the wealth of a yangban or even that of a successful European courtesan of her time, it was more than enough to support her in comfort until her death in 1560.  One of the reasons for this success was her ability to deal with men in a completely unsentimental manner, which allowed her to always pursue the most lucrative arrangement available without hesitation or regret; this has been romantically explained as the result of a tragic love affair in her youth resulting in an inability to fall in love again, but that is almost certainly a mere fiction invented by male biographers unable or unwilling to grasp just how pragmatic a whore can be.

There was only one man in her life who seemed to rise above the level of friend or valued client, and that was the philosopher Seo Kyung Duk, under whom she studied for a time.  He was the only man said to have been impervious to her charms, and though she may have at first viewed him as a challenge she eventually came to admire his strength and steadfastness:  she is known to have described him as one of the “three wonders of Kaesong”, the other two being the Pakyon Falls and herself (modesty was clearly not among her virtues).  Though she left her home at a young age, she returned for a number of visits over the years; it was a place of great natural beauty, and her appreciation for such is demonstrated not only in her poetry and her trip to Mount Kumgang (at a time when she could have been occupied far more productively), but also in the fact that she asked to be buried in a simple grave on a riverbank in Kaesong.  She wished to die in the same way she had lived:  practically, honestly, and without the ceremony and pretense which was the norm in her society.

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I killed those men, robbed them as cold as ice.  And I’d do it again, too…I have hate crawling through my system…I am so sick of hearing this “she’s crazy” stuff…I’m trying to tell the truth.  I’m one who seriously hates human life and would kill again.  -  Aileen Wuornos

In my harlotographies, I’ve tried to cover as broad a range as possible: from the ancient to the recently-deceased, from streetwalkers to courtesans, from the noble to the self-centered, from the wise to the deranged and from the famous to the infamous.  Three years ago this month I presented short biographies of the victims of the first known serial killer, and today the first woman to be herself so labeled:  Aileen Carol Wuornos.

Aileen Wuornos as a childShe was born in Rochester, Michigan on February 29th, 1956 to 17-year-old Diane Wuornos, who had married Aileen’s father, Leo Pittman, less than two years before.  Aileen never met him; he was in prison when she was born, and her mother had already filed for divorce.  Pittman was a schizophrenic with a long history of violent behavior, and hanged himself in prison in 1969 while serving another sentence, this time for child molestation.  In January of 1960, Diane abandoned Aileen and her older brother Keith, leaving them with her parents Lauri and Britta Wuornos; they immediately adopted the children and for many years allowed them to believe they were their parents.  Unfortunately, they were just as bad as the real parents; Lauri sexually abused his granddaughter, and Britta was both physically abusive and an alcoholic.  Like many incest victims, Aileen became sexually precocious; she had sexual contact with boys at school in exchange for drugs, cigarettes and other things she wanted, and when she turned up pregnant at 14 she named Keith as the father.  As was typical in 1970 she was sent to a home for unwed mothers, and the baby was given up for adoption.  A few months later Britta died of alcohol-induced liver failure, and Lauri threw his granddaughter out soon afterward.  Though she and her brother were placed in foster homes, Aileen ran away almost immediately and lived in a patch of woods near her old neighborhood, supporting herself via prostitution.

But she did not stay there for long; by 16 she started hitchhiking around the Midwest, working mostly at truck stops, and was arrested for drunk driving in Colorado in May of 1974.  By the beginning of 1976 she had made it to Florida, where she was picked up while hitchhiking by Lewis Fell, the wealthy 69-year-old president of a yacht club.  He immediately fell in love with her and soon proposed; she accepted, and their marriage announcement even appeared on the local paper’s society page in May of 1976.  There the story might have ended had Aileen been merely the victim of a difficult life; as should be clear, however, mental and emotional instability ran deep on both sides of her family, and she was completely incapable of settling down to the comfortable situation of a trophy wife.  Instead, she insisted on drinking at bars and getting into fights; when she was jailed for attacking a bartender while on a trip home to Michigan (after her grandfather’s suicide), Fell came to his senses and had the marriage annulled.  She was arrested July 14th; her brother died of throat cancer three days later, and the annulment went through on the 21st.

Aileen blew through her brother’s $10,000 insurance policy in only a few months and returned to truck-stop prostitution, working her way back down to Florida.  But while she had been quite pretty in her teens, hard living and her volatile temper had faded that luster; it thus became increasingly difficult for her to make a living as a whore.  She was arrested for robbing a convenience store in May of 1981, and again for passing forged checks in May of 1984.  By 1986 she had just about hit bottom: she was arrested for car theft in January, then for attempted armed robbery of a client in June.  Soon after that, however, she met a hotel maid named Tyria Moore at a lesbian bar in Daytona Beach, and they moved in together; for a while Wuornos seems to have been happy in her way, and her earnings picked up enough for Moore to quit her job and let Wuornos support both of them.  But slowly, over the next several years, the chaos which followed Wuornos like a cloud returned and worsened.  In July of 1987, she got in a fight at a bar, then in March of 1988 with a bus driver.  And by the end of the following year, she had returned to where she was when she met Moore, and started robbing her clients…this time, killing them in the process.

Aileen WuornosThe particulars of the case are discussed in exhaustive detail all over the internet if you’re interested, so there’s no need to repeat them here.  Suffice to say that between December 1st, 1989 and November 19th, 1990, Aileen Wuornos murdered seven men – Richard Mallory, David Spears, Charles Carskaddon, Peter Siems, Troy Burress, Charles Humphreys and Walter Antonio, all with the same delicate little .22 caliber purse gun.  Moore was still with her at least until the fourth murder, but sometime after that they broke up and Moore went home to Pennsylvania.  She later admitted to knowing about the first murder, but claimed to have deliberately avoided asking about the others because she didn’t want to know.  Wuornos was a terribly sloppy criminal; she left a string of witnesses, fingerprints and pawned loot across Florida, and had the police been competent she would have been caught much earlier.  Wuornos was finally arrested on January 9th, 1991, and Moore the next day; she agreed to testify in exchange for immunity from prosecution, and even talked Wuornos into confessing on the phone.  In that confession, Wuornos claimed that every single one of the men had tried to rape her, and that she had killed them all in self-defense.

Predictably, credulous feminists swallowed every word and touted her as some kind of heroine; remember, this was the height of child sexual abuse hysteria.  But she was neither a heroine nor the “man-hating lesbian” some pundits claimed; she was merely an unstable sociopath whose restless, violent life had exacerbated her existing problems.  At first, she seemed to enjoy the publicity and continually retold her story to recast herself more and more as the victim, ignoring her public defenders’ entreaties that she remain silent and insisting she be allowed to tell her story in court.  When the jury at her first trial (for Mallory’s murder) compared her absurdly-embellished version with the original videotaped confession, any credibility she may have had disintegrated; it took less than two hours for them to convict her of first-degree murder, and she responded by screaming “I hope you get raped!” at them.  She was sentenced to death.  Before her next trial could start, she decided to “get right with God” by pleading no contest to the murders of Humphreys, Burress and Spears, claiming in her statement that though Mallory (who had a previous conviction for the crime) did indeed rape her, she had only feared the others would and killed them before they could do so.  She was given three more death sentences.

Wuornos spent the next decade on death row, her mental health deteriorating the entire time.  In 2001 she fired her legal counsel and stated that she was giving up appeals, but then insisted that the prison staff were torturing her by contaminating and even poisoning her food so as to drive her to suicide before her execution; she also claimed that they intended to rape her before she died.  During the last few years of her life she gave a a series of interviews to Nick Broomfield, who had already made a documentary about her in 1993 (Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer) and was in the process of making another (released in 2003 as Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer); the video below is the last such interview, made the night before her death.

She was executed by lethal injection on October 9th, 2002 after declining a last meal (she wanted only a cup of black coffee).  Her last words were, “I’d just like to say I’m sailing with the rock, and I’ll be back like Independence Day, with Jesus June 6th.  Like the movie, big mother ship and all, I’ll be back.”

There are some women I’m proud to share a profession with, and others I’m not; women like Theodora and Skittles show whores at our best, while women like Aileen Wuornos show us at our worst.  But I think her story is an important part of the picture, because it demonstrates once again that there is no one type of woman who sells sex, nor any consistent pattern to our lives and fates.

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Proper she was and fair…yet delighted not men so much in her beauty, as in her pleasant behaviour.  For a proper wit had she, and could both read well and write, merry of company, ready and quick of answer, neither mute nor full of babble, sometimes taunting without displeasure and not without disport.  -  Charles Ross, Richard III

All through history, many a famous or important man has met his downfall through careless or indiscreet relations with whores; I’ve featured the stories of many of them in these columns, and I’m sure you can think of a few on your own without my assistance.  But sometimes it happens the other way around, and a whore is ruined by her association with the wrong client; Elizabeth “Jane” Shore was one such case, though the beauty and charm which had placed her in harm’s way eventually secured her escape from it again.

Jane Shore (18th century engraving)She was born in London about 1445 to John and Amy Lambert; her father was a wealthy dry-goods dealer who helped to finance King Edward IV’s wars against his Lancastrian cousins, and so the future courtesan was exposed from a young age to noblewomen from whom she learned courtly manners.  She was also well-educated, and though these preparations may seem to have been meant to prepare her for her future profession, it was actually unintentional; in fact, the constant and ardent attention paid her by wealthy and important (but married) men (including William Hastings, later King Edward’s Lord Chamberlain) seems to have inspired the Lamberts to choose a husband for her hastily and unwisely.  She was married sometime after 1460 to a wealthy goldsmith named William Shore, but the marriage was a loveless one; in fact, it appears to have been a sexless one as well, because the grounds for her eventual annulment was that the marriage was never consummated.  Given his wife’s beauty and the fact that he never remarried, it seems safe to conclude that Shore was a closeted homosexual; he certainly never interfered with Elizabeth’s social life, and sometime soon after Edward’s restoration to the throne in 1471 she became his mistress.

Though Edward IV was a notorious womanizer, Elizabeth quickly became his favorite; he described her as “the merriest harlot in the realm” and after the annulment of her marriage in 1476 he formally extended his protection to William Shore.  This favor was probably asked of him by Elizabeth, who unlike most royal mistresses used her influence not to gain favors or gifts for herself, but instead to win mercy for deserving men who had incurred the royal wrath.  As Sir Thomas More wrote of her many years later, she “never abused [her influence] to any man’s hurt, but to many a man’s comfort and relief.”  Even the Queen, whose name was also Elizabeth, liked and accepted her; in fact, it is likely that she changed her name to Jane around this time as a show of deference to her.  This nobility of character won the lasting respect of the King; though he generally discarded his mistresses as soon as he tired of them, he remained close to Jane until his death on April 9th, 1483.

It was after that death that her troubles began, however.  She briefly became the mistress of the late King’s stepson, Thomas Grey, Marquess of Dorset, but it was not long before William Hastings renewed his two-decade-old suit and she took up with him instead.  She also remained friendly with the Queen, and carried messages between her and Hastings.  The subject of these messages was undoubtedly her brother-in-law, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who had been declared “Lord Protector” over her young sons (and the kingdom) by the dying Edward IV.  Anyone who is familiar with Shakespeare knows why the Queen was afraid:  Richard immediately imprisoned the young princes “for their own protection”, then had them declared illegitimate and set about destroying everyone whom he thought might be loyal to his brother and the boy Edward V.  On June 13th he accused Jane and the Queen of trying to destroy him via witchcraft at Hastings’ request; the women were imprisoned, while Hastings was immediately beheaded in the courtyard of the Tower of London.  In some way which is unclear to history, Richard was persuaded to relent slightly on the witchcraft charges; they were never pursuedThe Penance of Jane Shore by William Blake (c. 1793) against the Queen, and Jane’s charge was reduced to “promiscuity”.  She was forced to do penance by walking through London barefoot in her petticoat, carrying a candle and singing hymns.  But if Richard hoped to humiliate her by this treatment, he was sorely disappointed: the crowds who had gathered to gawk were instead struck by her beauty, moved to pity by her condition and impressed with the dignity she displayed during her ordeal.

One of the admirers she won that day was Thomas Lynom, Solicitor General to the newly-crowned King Richard III.  After her penance Jane was confined in Ludgate prison, where Lynom visited her often and soon fell in love with her.  He asked the King to free her so he could marry her, and though Richard tried to dissuade him from what he considered a foolish action (and even wrote a letter to John Russell, the Lord Chancellor, asking him to persuade Lynom to give up the idea), he eventually gave his permission; Jane was pardoned, married Lynom, and bore him a daughter named Julianne.  And though Lynom lost his high position in August of 1485 (after Henry Tudor defeated Richard and became Henry VII), he got a new (though lower) government job, and Jane lived the rest of her days in middle-class comfort.  Sir Thomas More met and befriended her in her old age, and wrote that she was still a merry companion with a quick mind and a tender heart, and that one could still discern traces of her youthful beauty.

She died at last in 1527, at about the age of 82, and was buried at Hinxworth Church in Hertfordshire.  Some biographies erroneously claim that she spent her declining years in poverty, but this is not so; it is the fate of her character in an Elizabethan play named The True Tragedy of Richard III, which predated Shakespeare’s treatment by several years.  This confusion of historical dramas with history is not unusual; historians are still trying to untangle the historical Richard III from his wholly-villainous portrayal by Shakespeare and other Tudor dramatists.  Jane is mentioned frequently (as “Mistress Shore”) in the Richard III of Shakespeare, and is a major character in many other works of the period (plays, novels and even poems).  There was also an 18th-century drama about her life, and three different silent movies (though oddly enough, no talkies).  But as we have so often seen in the lives of the courtesans, truth is stranger than fiction, and real historical events more fascinating than the attempts of authors to improve on them.

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I Lais, once of Greece the pride,
For whom so many suitors sigh’d,
Now aged grown, at Venus’ shrine
The mirror of my youth resign;
Since what I am I will not see,
And what I was I cannot be.
  -  Julian the Egyptian

Lais of Corinth by Hans Holbein the Younger (1526)As I’ve written many times before, it’s difficult to know which details of the lives of courtesans are true and which are false, and which of the latter are embellishment or exaggeration and which outright invention on the part of the lady herself, her admirers, her enemies or her biographers.  And that’s just the modern courtesans; the biographies of those of the ancient world often trail off into legend and myth.  But the problem with writing about Lais is simultaneously simpler and more maddening: there may have been two hetaerae by the same name living at almost the same time, whose biographical details became confused with one another; or, there may have only been one Lais who sometimes looks like two because stories about other courtesans became mistakenly attached to her.  So though I’ll do my best to straighten things out, I cannot promise to fully untangle a skein it has taken over twenty-three centuries to tangle.

Some sources say she was born in Hyccara, Sicily in 421 BCE, and died in Thessaly in 340.  That’s a long lifespan, but not impossible even for the time; however, if she was only one woman the legend about her death – that she was stoned by the native women out of jealousy –  would certainly have to be false, since I hardly think even the greatest beauty of her age (as she was reputed to be) would still be capable of inspiring murderous jealousy at 81.  If the story of the murder is true, she would either have to have been born at least forty years later or to have been two women.  However, I am highly suspicious that it is indeed true, because it sounds a lot more like a tall tale men would make up than actual female behavior; while women are certainly capable of murder, we generally don’t do it in big groups unless there’s some sort of ritual involved.  If the death date is accurate, I think it’s much more likely Lais died of old age in her bed…but that makes a much less lurid story.

The account of her origin is no less interesting, but far more credible: her birthplace, Hyccara, was conquered by the Athenians in 415 BCE and its entire population sold into slavery.  Lais ended up in Corinth, and as she matured into a beauty won her freedom in much the same way Rhodopis did.  Some modern authors claim that the elder Lais was born in Corinth and the younger in Hyccara, but since the town was depopulated years before the birth of anyone who was still young in 340, this hardly seems likely.  The two-Lais theory is undermined still further by the fact that though there are solid contemporary references to her in the early 4th century BCE, those which take place later are entirely anecdotal.  The philosopher Aristippus (435-356 BCE) was one of her clients and mentions her in two of his writings, and in his play Wealth (388 BCE), Aristophanes states that she was kept by a man named Philonides.  By contrast, the accounts of famous men who were said to have sought her out in the mid-4th century (such as Demosthenes and Myron) are unverified by contemporary sources; furthermore, the story that she set an absurd price for one man while giving herself to the philosopher Diogenes for free is also told about Phryne, with Demosthenes playing the part of the King of Lydia.

There is one last factor which makes the one-Lais theory far more likely than its rival: the woman who died in 340 (and was buried in a tomb decorated by a statue of a lioness holding a ram in her forepaws) was supposed to have moved to Thessaly to live with a handsome young man named Hippostratus, with whom she had fallen in love.  Now, poets adore the romantic notion of a successful courtesan giving it all up for love, but in truth this rarely happens; most often, it’s older, retired courtesans who take up with much younger men rather than young ones running off with boys their own age.

So though we cannot be sure, the facts of Lais’ life seem to be these: she spent her later childhood and early teens as a slave, and was trained as a hetaera; after a while one of her admirers bought her freedom and she quickly became popular.  She charged very high fees and indulged herself in many of the extravagances common to her profession; she even developed her own exclusive perfume.  But by her early thirties she began to slow down, allowing herself to be kept by a succession of wealthy men rather than accepting a large number of short-term clients.  As she got older still she took up with Hippostratus and moved to Thessaly, and eventually died of old age.  But her legendary beauty and reputation attracted stories as honey attracts flies (even stories that were also told about others), and eventually there were too many of them for just one woman’s lifetime to contain…so some not-quite-as-clever-as-they-imagine historians decided to split her into two.Lais in Hades by Gustave Cortos, print by Luis Falero (1902)

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[She was] the most elegant of women, having the most aristocratic taste and the most exquisite tact:  she set the tone for a whole area of society.  -  from her obituary

Marie Duplessis by Édouard ViénotAs we have seen before, it’s not unusual for the lives of whores to become the stuff of legend, often to the point where the real woman is either lost under the embellishment  or people forget there was ever a real woman in the first place.  Such a woman was Marie Duplessis, whose real story was far more interesting than the romantic legend later created from it.  She was born Alphonsine Plessis on January 15th, 1824 to a ne’er-do-well Norman father and a mother who was the last of an impoverished noble family which had been reduced to servility; her mother died when she was six and her father raised her alone until she was fourteen, when he sold her to a band of gypsies.  Yes, this is her actual story, stranger than the fiction by which most modern people know her, and as you will see it only gets better.

The gypsies took her to Paris and put her to work in a dress shop, but by fifteen she discovered that prostitution was far more lucrative and allowed her to pay off her indenture in less than a year (many “trafficked” women still make the same choice for exactly the same reason today).  Her exceptional beauty and charm won her a devoted following, and at 16 she attracted her first important client:  Agénor de Guiche, later one of Napoleon III’s ministers.  It was at this time she took the name Marie Duplessis (the “Du” prefix connotes a noble family, an honor she felt her mother’s ancestry entitled her to) and wisely invested in tutors who taught her not only to read and write, but also educated her in history, geography and other subjects she needed to converse intelligently with men of the ruling class.  By the age of 17 she was involved with Comte Edouard de Perregaux, but because he could not give her all she needed she did not devote herself to him exclusively; another patron, the Count Von Stakelberg (a Swedish diplomat in his eighties) bought her a house in the Boulevard de la Madeleine.

Marie Duplessis at the Theatre by Camille RoqueplanLike so many other courtesans, she established a salon in her residence, and many of the Parisian cognoscenti gathered there; among them was Alexandre Dumas fils, the as-yet-undistinguished son of the famed adventure novelist.  The two fell in love in September of 1844 (only a few months after the publication of his father’s most famous work, The Three Musketeers), but the relationship was not to be; Dumas was far too poor to support her, and by August of 1845 she had had quite enough of his jealousy toward those who could.  But as we will see, the relationship actually worked in reverse, and Marie brought Dumas far more wealth than he ever gave her.  Her next lover was the famous composer (and infamous womanizer) Franz Liszt, but by spring of 1846 he had moved on and she entered into a marriage of convenience with Perregaux.  Because this was an English registry-office marriage transacted without benefit of clergy it was not considered binding in France, which suited Marie just fine: she could share her husband’s title without having to observe any of the restrictions that come with matrimony.

Her brilliant career was not to last, however; like so many 19th-century children of poverty she had contracted tuberculosis (or as it was called in those days, “consumption”), and by the summer of 1846 she knew she was dying.  She visited every specialist in Europe, but there was no cure.  By September she was no longer able to work, and none of the clients who eulogized her after her death did anything to ease her suffering; as Nickie Roberts wrote in Whores in History, she was “abandoned by all her former lovers and friends except her faithful maid Clothilde – and her creditors.”  She died on February 3rd, 1847, less than three weeks after her 23rd birthday.  And though her lavish funeral (paid for by Perregaux and Von Stakelberg) was attended by hundreds, her possessions still had to be auctioned off to pay her debts.

camille deathThat was the real story: a motherless young woman, “trafficked” at 14, who paid for her own education and became one of the most successful members of her profession at an age when modern women are still called “children”, then died of an incurable malady which would have claimed her no matter what because antibiotics had not yet been invented.  But a spurned lover decided to twist that into a morality play, making Marie – or as he renamed her, “Marguerite Gautier” – a “fallen woman” who dies young as a result of her dissolute life; he also created a fictional version of himself named “Armand Duval”, who convinces her to give up her life as a courtesan and thus saves her “virtue” before she dies.  The lover was of course Alexandre Dumas fils, and the novel was La Dame aux Camelias (“The Lady of the Camellias”), published only a year after Marie’s death.  It soon made him far wealthier than she ever was; it became a bestseller, then an extremely popular play, then in 1853 a Verdi opera named La Traviata (“The Fallen Woman”).  The book has remained constantly in print since then, the play and opera have been performed innumerable times, and there have been three different ballets and a dozen movie adaptations (the most famous being Camille (1936), with Greta Garbo as “Marguerite”).  I’m sure most of you have seen or at least heard of one or more of these fictional representations of Marie Duplessis (especially if you read Tuesday’s column), yet I doubt more than a few of you – if any at all – knew anything of her real story before today.  Some things never change:  today, as in the 19th century, most people prefer to embrace romantic nonsense about “fallen women” and how awful it is to be a whore, than to recognize the simple, unvarnished truth.

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With integrity unquestioned, a heart ever open to appeals of distress, a charity that was boundless, she is gone; but her memory will be kept green by many who knew her sterling worth.  –  obituary, Washington Evening Star

Prohibitionists who vomit out nonsense about whores “selling our bodies” demonstrate by their use of the phrase that their comprehension of male sexuality is an absolute vacuum.  Their lurid description of the mythic “john” who “hates and dehumanizes women” and thinks of harlots as disposable collections of holes is as far removed from the typical client as the average neofeminist is from a normal woman; if it were true there would be no regulars and very few happy hookers.  Furthermore, a creature such as the “antis” imagine would pay as little as possible for his pleasure, yet in reality bargain-hunters are no more common than men who are willing to pay as much as they can comfortably afford; this is why good brothels have always been lucrative.  And while the women in such places may be among the most beautiful available and the accommodations the most luxurious, one of the most important features of the expensive bordello is its discretion; most men who can afford luxury prices cannot afford publicity, so the success of a madam who can both run a fine house and keep her clients’ secrets is a virtual certainty.  And Mary Ann Hall, who ran the most successful brothel in 19th-century Washington, D.C., was so exceptionally discreet she actually vanished from history for over a century after her death.

Washington view 1852She was born in 1814, but nothing is known of her life before she arrived in the capital in the mid-1830s.  She prospered in her profession, though, catering to the Washington elite, and by 1840 had saved enough money to build a large, three-story brick house at 349 Maryland Avenue.  The residence was shrewdly placed; though she got the land cheap because of the proximity of a flood-prone canal, it was also only four blocks from Capitol Hill, near the Smithsonian Institute.  As her business flourished and traffic to the area increased, her property value soared; by the time the Federal Provost Marshal cataloged the city’s 450 brothels in 1862, Hall’s was the finest and most respected.  And due to the patronage of countless politicians, it was protected from the periodic revenue-trolling raids conducted by corrupt police on equally-legal but less-well-connected houses.

The aforementioned catalog estimated there were 5000 prostitutes in the city, the majority working for brothels of various sizes (Mary Ann had the most at 18) and the rest streetwalkers or courtesans in private residences.  It cannot be assumed that this number was in any way representative of the harlot population either before or after the Civil War; many of them were probably transients and camp followers there to capitalize on the massive buildup of troops, contractors and other war-related temporary residents, and most of those “brothels” were probably nothing more than incalls shared by at most two or three girls.  Many of them were located in the same general area as Mary Hall’s, which was also home to a number of industries and businesses catering to the nearby military encampment.  After the war, a severe housing shortage resulted in the entire district being redeveloped with tiny, cheap houses called “alley dwellings”, mostly occupied by former slaves and recent immigrants.  Unsurprisingly, the crime rate skyrocketed in the ‘70s, and though Hall’s business continued to be profitable the area’s blackened reputation surely dissuaded some of her clientele.  At the same time the “social purity” movement arrived in Washington, and busybody socialites descended on the district to “rescue” their “fallen sisters” from degradation (undoubtedly making their husbands even more reluctant to visit the neighborhood). By 1878 she had had enough and retired, renting the house first to another madam and later to a women’s clinic; she died of a cerebral hemorrhage on January 29th, 1886, at the ripe old age (for the time) of 71.

graves of Liz and Mary Ann HallWithin a few years, her name lapsed into obscurity and it is unlikely any historian would ever have put together the few records which specifically named the prominent and highly-eulogized lady buried in an expensive tomb at the Congressional Cemetery as a madam.  Ironically, the factor which eventually brought her story back into the light was the same thing which made her last few  years of business more difficult: the descent of her neighborhood into a slum.  An acrimonious family dispute over her estate forced the sale of the brothel, which in 1892 was purchased by the Institution for the Education of Colored Youth (a school for black children).  By the turn of the century the “progressives” were blaming all of Washington’s crime on the “bawdy houses” and “degraded negroes” in the southwestern part of the city; in 1914 prostitution was criminalized and the police (at the instigation of First Lady Ellen Wilson) launched a crusade to “eliminate” the problem by repeated raids and throwing the poorest residents of the district out of their homes.  At the beginning of the Great Depression the government bought up nearly all the land in the area, and by 1934 had razed most of the buildings (including Mary Ann Hall’s); eight years later a temporary building for wartime office space went up on the site, and after it, too was razed in the 1960s the area became a park.

Finally, in 1989 Congress decided to build a new Smithsonian wing, the Museum of the American Indian, on the site, and dispatched a team of archeologists to excavate it before the work of construction was to begin.  And though the building’s foundation revealed nothing of interest, the contents of its trash heap caught the archeologists’ attention; they included “gilt-edged porcelain, corset fasteners, seeds from exotic berries and coconuts and bones from expensive meats, including turtle,” plus hundreds of corks from an expensive brand of champagne.  Archival research then unearthed the history of the place and its mistress, and though we now know her name and a little of her fame, the identities of her clients and the details of their preferences and activities will forever remain her secret.

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