Marie du Plessis, the real Lady of the Camellias
A myth was beginning to take shape. Who was Marie DuPlessis that so captured the imagination not just of the son of one of France's greatest living novelists but of composers and choreographers through the past century?
Her real name was Rose Alphonsine Plessis and she was born in Normandy on January 15, 1824. On her father’s side, her grandmother was a prostitute, and her grandfather was a priest. Her father, who owned a drapers shop, was a drunkard and a brute. Her mother, Marie-Louise Deshayes, came from a far more respectable background, and clearly married down, living to regret it. Her mother eventually left her father, obtaining employment as a maid to an English family in Paris, and placed Marie and her younger sister with a cousin. Her mother later died when she was 8. Her father, who had no use for her, continued to farm her out to relatives where she lost her virginity to a young farmhand when she was 12. When her guardian learned of the incident, he returned young Marie to her father.
Marie was 13 when her father decided that she could make more money on her back then working for a laundress. He sold her to a seventy year old wealthy bachelor named Plantier who used her for a year and then sent her back to her father. Eventually her father decided he’d had enough of being responsible for her, so he sent her off to live with relatives in Paris, who were grocers. Marie eventually moved out, taking cheap lodgings in Quartier Latin, bouncing around from one form of employment to another, including working as a clerk in a hat shop.
Marie Duplessis was a beautiful young woman, with a petite figure and an enchanting smile. By the time she was 16, she had learned what other pretty girls in her position had learned, that prominent men were willing to give her money and pay her way in exchange for her company. She decided to give up working in a dress shop for little money and become a courtesan. She applied herself to learning to read and write more fluently, and to stay abreast of current events so as to be able to converse on these topics with her clients.
Her career started when she and two girlfriends, stopped for a snack in a restaurant near the Palais-Royal. The owner, a widower by the name of Nollet, took a fancy to her and soon installed her as his mistress, with an apartment on the Rue de L’Arcade. After about a year, Nollet could no longer afford Marie. One evening she was seen at the theater by Count Ferdinand Monguyon, who could better afford to keep her in the style to which she rapidly became accustomed.
It was around this time that she changed her name from Rose Alphonsine to Marie. She told a friend from her village that she had named herself after the Virgin Mary, but she might also have named herself after her mother, or after Mary Magdalene. Marie was a regular at a church dedicated to the Saint. She also added the faux noble 'du' to her name.
The names of Marie's lovers read like a laundry list of the aristocracy of France, including Agenor de Guiche, the future Duc de Guiche-Gramont, who whisked Marie off to the spas of Germany for the summer. There is a possibility that Marie had a child by de Guiche in 1841, and that de Guiche placed the child with foster parents. The child was later thought to have died of pneumonia. At one point, 7 of Marie’s lovers banded together to keep her, buying her a bureau with 7 drawers where they could keep their clothes. Another of her lovers was the witty Comte Edouard de Perregaux, who had been a member of the French Calvary in Algeria. He had inherited a fortune which he proceeded to spend entirely on Marie.
In 1844, when Marie was 20, she was kept solely by the elderly Count de Stackelberg, whom she met while at the baths in Bagneres. He had been the Russian ambassador to Vienna, was married and wealthy. He told Marie that she reminded him of his daughter who had died young. Even though he paid the bills, imported horses for Marie from England, and rented boxes for her at all the best Parisian theaters, he could not give Marie the love that she craved, the love that she never got from her father.
Marie had finally hit the big time as a demi-monde. She was able to move from the Quartier Latin into a beautiful flat on the Boulevard de Madeleine. The apartment was furnished with Louis XV furniture, silk hangings on the wall, and books galore. At the time of her death, Marie owned 200 books. She continued to educate herself, learning to speak French without a Norman accent and to read and write with ease. Her days started at 11 in the morning when she woke up, had a cup of chocolate, read for a little bit, and then spent several hours deciding what she would wear. She would then either take a walk in the park or a ride in her carriage. Her days were now filled with shopping, and getting ready for the salons and parties that she attended, or a night out at the theater or the opera.
At one point she was spending over a 100,000 francs a year on her upkeep, not including clothes, carriages, servants, rent and travel. She was also a compulsive gambler. Like most young women who had led a deprived childhood, Marie was like a kid in a candy store after getting his allowance. She spent partly out of boredom, and partly out of an almost compulsive need for luxury. As if she knew already that she didn’t have long to live and wanted to cram as much life as possible into a few short years.
For all her excesses, she still managed to look like a startled virgin. The actress Judith Bernat described Marie in her memoirs as “Very slim, almost thin, but wonderfully delicate and graceful, her face was an angelic oval and her dark eyes ahd a caressing melancholy, her complexion was dazzling. She had an incomparable charm.When Judith asked Marie why she sold herself, Marie replied that the labor of a working girl would never have afforded her the luxuries for which she had an irresistible craving.
Did Marie like Marguerite ever fall in love? She admitted as much to Judith Bernat, sounding like the character from La Dame aux Camellias, telling her that while she had loved sincerely, no one had returned her love. “That is the real horror of my life. It is wrong to have a heart when you’re a courtesan. You can die from it.”
What made Marie so successful as a courtesan was her candor, (she once stated that lying kept her teeth white!) her flashes of gaiety, and above all her world-weariness, brought on by the futility of her lifestyle, and the consumption that would soon take her life. In the meantime, she enjoyed her life, her dogs, her carriage outings in the country, gambling and throwing dinner parties where authors liked Eugene Sue, Honore de Balzac and Theophile Gautier were guests. Still, Marie longed for security, and true love.
She first met the man who would make her immortal when they both 18 in 1842. He was unsuccessful while she was infamous. Alexandre Dumas fils was the illegitimate son of the famous writer and a laundress. He was struggling to become a writer in his own right out of the long shadow of his famous parent. They met again two years later in 1844 when they were both 20 at the salon of Madame Prat, a hatmaker who lived near Marie. Their affair lasted one year as Dumas struggled to keep up with his more worldly lover. He spent what little funds he had, and when he ran out, he tried his luck at the Baccarat tables. He borrowed money, and was insanely jealous not only of the Russian but of the other lovers that Marie had kept on.
In the meantime, the consumption that eventually killed her was slowly growing worse. Marie tried every cure known at that time, including mesmerism. At Dumas insistence, she tried giving up her social life, spending time with him in the country until boredom overcame her and she fled back to her beloved Paris. Finally Dumas could take it no longer and he set her a ‘Dear Jeanette’ letter. The letter read in part, “I am neither rich enough to love you as I could wish not poor enough to be loved as you wish.” Later after her death, Dumas recovered the letter and presented it to Sarah Bernhardt when she played Marguerite Gautier on stage.
Marie did not reply to Dumas’s letter. She was too busy, and too ill, plus the final love of her life had just arrived in the form of Franz Liszt. Liszt had recently separated from his long-time over Countess Marie d’Agoult. He was 30 and had recently returned from a concert tour of Europe. Marie saw the musician in the lobby of a theater and introduced herself to him. They remained in the lobby chatting throughout the third act. Marie, insisted that her doctor, who knew Liszt bring him to one of her receptions. The doctor willing obliged, and by the end of the evening the musician and composer was her latest conquest.
The relationship was not long-lived, although Liszt later told an acquaintance that the woman he called Mariette was the first woman he’d truly loved. When he left for his next concert tour, Marie begged him to take her with him, claiming, “I know I shan’t live. I’m an odd sort of girl and I can’t hold onto this life that’s the only kind I know how to lead and that I can’t endure.” Liszt promised to take her to Turkey later in the year, but it was too late. He never saw her again. Later on he regretted that he had not been at her bedside.
In her weakness and fear that all of her friends would desert her as she became increasingly ill, Marie allowed herself to be persuaded by her old lover the Comte de Perregaux to marry him. They were married in February of 1845 at Kensington registry office in London, but they quickly separated and never lived together and husband and wife. The marriage was also not legal in France, although that didn’t stop Marie from using the title and creating her own coat of arms. Despite his marrying Marie, his fear of what his family would think kept him from having the banns were published in France which was all that would have been needed to make the marriage legal.
The last year of her life was spent running from one doctor to the next, from one rest cure to the next, in the fruitless attempt to stave off death. Her debts were also mounting as one by one her protectors fell away. She was buried in the cemetery at Montmartre. De Perregaux had her reburied two weeks later in a better burial plot that he had purchased. Five months later, Dumas immortalized her as La Dame aux Camellias. In his version, Marguerite Guatier sacrifices the love of Armand Duval (AD just like Alexandre Dumas) to save him from ruin. He wrote it in just four short weeks.
The first edition sold out 12,000 copies, but it didn’t continue to sell well. It wasn’t until Dumas adapted it to the stage, that Marie’s story reached a wider audience. The play opened almost five years to the day of Marie’s death at the Theatre du Vaudeville. It was a great success. Verdi was among the theatergoers, later he was inspired to create La Traviata which premiered in Venice two years later which only added to Marie’s legend.
Although he wrote several plays and books, nothing came to near to the popularity of La Dame aux Camellias. Later in life, Dumas became obsessed with what he considered the wickedness of prostitution and proposed to the government that all unmarried women be drafted and taught a trade in state schools to keep them off the streets. Also that all street walkers be deported to the colonies.
Marie’s death made his career. In writing La Dame aux Camellias he was finally able to have the Marie that he wanted, the one that had eluded him during her lifetime.