Women have one mission in life: to be beautiful. When one gets old, one must learn how to break mirrors. I am very gently expecting to die. – La Belle Otero
Regular readers have probably noticed by now that most of the courtesans of whom I’ve written have two things in common: many die in their forties, and the details of their lives tend to be vague and often contradictory. For the former, I have no explanation except perhaps that “the light which burns twice as bright burns half as long”; a quick scan of the harlotographies will demonstrate that the causes of their deaths vary widely, from communicable disease to cancer to execution, which rather eliminates any common factor. But as for the vagueness of their biographies, that I can explain; it’s simply that when one is in the business of selling an illusion, the details of one’s life may become as fluid and embellished as advertising copy, and one’s biographers are forced to choose between conflicting reports from letters, rumors, the rose-tinted memories of favored clients, the gossip of rivals and the propaganda of moralists. Carolina Otero was unusual in that she lived to a greater age than any of the others I’ve written about, but typical in that it’s difficult to separate the facts of her life from the romantic legend of La Belle Otero.
One thing is for certain; she was definitely not the illegitimate child of a Greek nobleman and a gypsy from Cadiz. She was in fact born on November 4th, 1868 of a poor family in Galicia, nearly as far as it’s possible to get from Cadiz without leaving Spain. She was baptized Agustina Otero Iglesias, but changed her name to Carolina Otero sometime in her teens. As was not uncommon among the desperately poor of that time, her mother placed her as a maid when she was still quite young, and she is said to have been violently raped at ten; though I was not able to confirm this, it was not at all an unusual fate for pretty servant girls of the time, and could account for her sterility. About two years later she ran away to Lisbon with a boy named Paco in order to become a dancer, and though she later claimed to have married a handsome young Italian nobleman named Count Guglielmo when she was 14, this hardly seems credible considering that she had nothing to show for it and on other occasions claimed to have been the mistress of at least three different Spanish noblemen during the same time period. It does seem as though she married someone around the age of 15, but was divorced by the time she turned up in Barcelona as a 19-year-old café singer and prostitute.
She soon attracted her first long-term patron, who took her to Marseilles and financed her debut on the French stage; the affair lasted only as long as she needed it to, and soon she was billing herself as La Belle Otero, the gypsy dancer who had launched her career on funds she had won in Monte Carlo. By the early 1890s she made it to the Folies Bèrgere, where she soon became a star; by 1895 she was the most desired courtesan in Europe, and her list of patrons eventually included King Edward VII of the UK, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, Czar Nicholas II of Russia, King Alfonso XIII of Spain, King Alexander II of Serbia, Prince Albert I of Monaco, Grand Dukes Nicholas and Peter of Russia and a number of other noblemen and business tycoons. She did marry again in 1906, to an Englishman named René Webb, but this does not seem to have lasted very long. She claimed that six men had committed suicide over her, and though this was almost certainly just part of her hype it is known that at least one duel was fought over her. In August of 1898, she was filmed performing a dance called “La Valse Brillante”; the one-minute movie was played in music halls all over Europe, further increasing both her fame and her demand.
The late Victorian and Edwardian periods in France are referred to as La Belle Epoque, and while England and the United States were descending more deeply into persecution of whores France loved hers, especially Les Grandes Horizontales (as the great courtesans were called). They were in a sense the first modern-style celebrities; reporters followed them about to the opera, the theaters or Maxim’s restaurant (a favorite of the demimonde), and newspapers reported on their doings, including their pastimes and rivalries (such as the infamous competition between Otero and Liane de Pougy, who was less famous but probably wealthier). They even licensed their images for postcards (as Princess Clara did), producing a sizeable secondary income for the most popular.
Otero was sought-after until she was 50 years old, and retired just after the First World War to a large and well-appointed mansion; she had accumulated a fortune of about $25 million (about $360 million in today’s dollars), but neglected to adjust her extravagant lifestyle to her greatly reduced income and burned through it all in the next three decades. Probably the greatest contributing factor was her love of gambling in Monte Carlo, because unlike her fantasy persona she lost prodigious sums. The sale of her estate and the modest success of a musical based on her life (La Bella Otero, 1954) kept her going through the ‘50s, but by the time of her death on April 12th, 1965 she was living in a one-room apartment at the Hotel Novelty in Nice in a state of poverty nearly as abject as that in which she entered the world 96 years earlier. The last of Europe’s great courtesans had outlived her fame, her fortune and her era; France had turned her back on harlots and declared herself officially “abolitionist”, and the time when a woman of Caroline Otero’s profession could be an admired celebrity had faded with her wealth and beauty.
One Year Ago Today
“Backwards Into the Future” demonstrates how South Africa, once considered among the worst regimes for human rights because of its apartheid policies, is now moving forward on that account while the US slides steadily backwards.