Cora Pearl - English Beauty of the Second Empire

In the glamorous, and brittle world of the Second Empire, no one glittered more among the demi-monde than the English courtesan named Cora Pearl.

 Cora was born Emma Elizabeth Crouch in Plymouth England probably in 1835, although in her memoirs which were published after her death, she claimed that she was born in 1842. The birth certificate that was reproduced in her memoirs, to prove that she wasn't lying, was clearly that of her younger sister Louisa! Her father,Frederick Nicholls Crouch, was an English composer and cellist, who gained a small measure of success as the author of a sentimental song, entitled "Kathleen Mavourneen". When Emma was young, her father deserted the family and moved to America, where he promptly remarried several times. At his death in 1896, it was estimated he had more than twenty children. Emma's mother told the children that their father had died, and promptly found a lover to help support the familiy. Emma and her new 'stepfather' did not get along, so she and her sisters were sent to a convent school in Burgundy where she learned French and deportment.

Kathleen Mavourneen: (1837)
Words Mrs. Marion Crawford
Music by Frederick Nicholls Crouch, 1808-1896
Very popular during the American Civil War, Mavourneen is Irish Gaelic for ‘my beloved.’

Kathleen mavourneen! the gray dawn is breaking,
The horn of the hunter is heard on the hill,
The lark from her light wing the bright dew is shaking,
Kathleen mavourneen, what slumbering still?

After her schooling was done, Emma moved in with her grandmother in London, and went to work for a milliner, which she found boring. What happened next sounds like something out of a romantic novel or a bad movie, but Emma claimed that one day she came out of church to find that her maid had disappeared. She was approached by a man who offered to buy her cakes. Not suspecting that he had ulterior motives, young Emma followed him to a gin palace where she got more than cakes. It was a classic case of a man getting a vulnerable young woman drunk and taking advantage of her. In her memoirs she claimed that she was only fifteen, but she was closer to twenty. In the morning he left her with a five pound note. According to Katie Hickman in her book Courtesans, while it sounds improbable, it was very common in the 19th century. However, given Cora’s penchant for strteching the truth and her rabid dislike of the man she called her step-father; it is possible that she was molested by him, and she created the story of her seducer to give an explanation for her career choice.

Having lost her virginity, Emma knew that she couldn’t go back to her grandmother’s house. She felt her only other option was prostitution. Even though she had a job working for a milliner, many young women who worked in respectable shops turned to prostitution occasionally because wages were low. Emma took a small room and soon began entertaining gentleman callers. Her luck changed when she made the acquaintance of Robert Bignall, owner of the Argyll Rooms, a popular dance hall where many of London’s demimondaine congregated. She became his mistress and when he took her to Paris, Cora fell in love with the city. When Robert returned to England and his family, Cora stayed behind. She took the name of Cora Pearl just because she fancied the way that it sounded.

Paris was the place to be in the middle of the 19th Century during the Second Empire. It had become the center of the civilized world. The beginnings of modern French poetry, music and art began during the Second Empire, although most of the innovations were not recognized until after it was over. By the time Cora arrived, Napoleon III was several years into his reign as Emperor of the French. Born Louis-Napoleon, he was the son of Napoleon’s brother Louis, and his step-daughter Hortense de Beauharnais. With his beautiful wife the Empress Eugénie he established a glittering court of balls and parties. He was also an inveterate womanizer, his lovers included Harriet Howard and the Countess di Castiglione. His most enduring legacy would be the decision to renovate and rebuild parts of Paris under the direction of Baron Haussmann, creating the Champs Elysee and many beautiful parks.

 Cora went through a string of protectors in Paris before she hit the big time. As she moved up the food chain, she made the acquaintance of Victor Massena, the Duc de Rivoli, the man that she called the first link in her golden chain of lovers. Massena was handsome, courteous, and highly sexed. Soon they became lovers, a relationship lasted six years. While Massena was considered her 'amant en titre', or official lover, he didn’t have exclusive rights over her. Cora had a string of lovers including the Prince of Orange, the heir to the throne of the Netherlands, who gave her a string of black pearls with which she was often photographed. One of her lovers talked about finding a ledger book listing the names of her lovers, the dates of their assignations, and the amount of money they had given her.

Courtesans in 19th Century Paris: Called Le Grandes Horizontales, the Second Empire and Belle Époque Paris often became celebrities in their own right. Many young women such as Eliza Lynch, Catherine ‘Skittles’ Walter, and Cora Pearl came to Paris to set themselves up as courtesans. Even actresses such as Rachel Felix and Sarah Bernhardt were courtesans in between stage roles. Many women were fleeing bad marriages, had been ruined or turned to prostitution because it was better than the alternative, poverty. A courtesan could be kept by one or several ‘protectors’ during the course of her career. She would only stay with a lover if he could provide her with a certain standard of living. If not, she would move on to someone else. The career of a courtesan was often short as she got older and her looks faded, and younger, fresher woman took her place. So many courtesans tried to make the most of their time, racking up jewels, houses, and expensive wardrobes. As Alexandre Dumas fils put it, "Women were luxuries for public consumption life hounds, horses and carriages."

Cora Pearl was a sensation during the Second Empire. Although she wasn’t conventionally beautiful, Cora was sexy, with an enviable figure. People noted her tiny waist and her beautiful bosom. But more important than her looks was her spirit. Cora knew how to have fun; she could be spontaneous and outrageous. Once at a dinner party, a guest broke an expensive glass. Cora impulsively broke the rest of the set to make him feel more comfortable. She also knew how to throw a party, when fireworks were all the rage in Paris, Cora had the best and the brightest. Cora also genuinely liked sex, which was not necessarily a job requirement for being a courtesan. She also had a way of flattering a man without sounding like she was trying too hard.

Charles Worth: Father of Haute Couture (1825-1895) Yes, the father of Parisian Haute Couture was an Englishman. How ironic given the enmity between France and Britain over the centuries. Born in the small town of Bourne in Lincolnshire, the son of a local solicitor, Worth worked for several London textile merchants before hopping across the Channel in 1846 to Paris. After he opened his dressmaking establishment in 1858, all of Paris came calling. His clientsincluded the Empress Eugénie and Princess Pauline Metternich as well as CoraPearl. Before Worth, the dressmaker responded to the wish of the client. Worth changed all that. He created the designs, and the customer lapped it up. Four
times a year, he displayed dresses worn by models at fashion shows. Clients made
their selection, as they do today, and had the garments tailor-made. Many of Worth’s steady customers were American and English heiresses, who willing came across the ocean to buy his clothes. And they were not cheap, a Worth gown could cost hundreds of dollars. Worth used the best fabrics and trimmings; incorporating elements of historical dress in his gowns. He was known for the meticulous fit of his clothes. Worth was the first designer to put labels in the clothes he manufactured.

In order to set herself apart from the other courtesans in Paris, Cora became renowned for her skill with horses. At the height of her career, Cora owned about 60 horses, and a fleet of expensive carriages in which to ride in the parks during the peak hours. It was Cora who started the fashion for courtesans to take carriage rides in the Bois de Boulogne.

Keeping track of the Bonapartes Cora Pearl seems to have had a thing for the men in the Bonaparte family. Among her many lovers and protectors were the Duke de Morny (1811-1865), half brother of Napoleon III (son of Hortense Bonaparte and her lover the Comte de Flahaut who was himself the illegitimate son of Talleyrand), but also Prince Achille Murat (grandson of Joachim Murat, King of Naples and Caroline Bonaparte, Napoleon I’s sister), as well as Prince Napoleon (1822-1891), the Emperor's cousin. Whew! That’s a lot of Napoleons. The only one it seems she didn’t sleep with was the Emperor of the French himself.

The Duc de Mornay’s early death in 1862 left Cora without a major protector. However, she soon took up with the Duc’s cousin, Prince Napoleon, the son of Napoleon I’s brother, Jerome, ex-King of Westphalia (and ex-husband of Betsy Patterson). Known as Plon-Plon, he was no Prince Charming in the looks department. Imagine a taller, fatter Napoleon, with greasy looking black hair.But he and Cora had a great deal in common, they both loved horses, dogs and the countryside. The prince only had one flaw and that was his jealousy. While itwas perfectly permissible for him to have more than one mistress, he wasn’t quite as keen for Cora to have more than one lover. He also had something no other lover had, the ability to have Cora deported. So Cora did what any good courtesan would do. She told her other lovers to lie low, while she catered to the Prince. After several months of having her exclusively, Cora slowly went back to her old routine. She didn’t do just because no man owned her, she also did it because she needed the money they provided to maintain her lavish lifestyle. Even though Prince Napoleon was giving her over ten thousand francs a month, it wasn’t enough. She now had two houses in Paris, and a country estate, the Chateau Beauséjour.

Where the Heck is Prussia Anyway? In the 19th Century, not only was Italy not a united country, but Germany was also made up of a confederation of twenty-one states called the North German Confederation of which the Kingdom of Prussia in the 19th century was the leading state. At the time of the Franco-Prussian war, it accounted for 60% of the German Empire’s population. The country had emerged as the dominant power in Germany after the Napoleonic Wars.
Soon stories were swirling around Paris about the little English courtesan. It was said that Cora once had herself served naked on a silver plate at a fancy dinner (although this story has also been repeated about other courtesans, with Cora it wouldn’t have been out of the realm of possibility). She was also known to bathe before her dinner guests in a silver tub of expensive French champagne (ooh la la) and to dance naked on a carpet of orchids. Cora also knew how to spend money, at one point she spent thirty thousand francs in two weeks, a veritable fortune. In the winter months, she would serve fruit on a bed of Parma violets. Cora quickly figured out that in France unlike England, food actually mattered, she soon had her own personal chef named Sale. But her money not only went towards her lavish table but also to keep her in the height of fashion. Cora’s dresses were by Worth, one of the most expensive couturiers in France, her lingerie was the finest that money could buy; money was also lavished on jewelry and perfume. Cora lived in the moment, never worrying about how the bills were going to be paid. She developed a gambling habit, while traveling with the Duc de Rivoli, who finally ended the relationship, after paying her debts one too many times. But Cora wasn’t stupid; although she could be overly generous, she once sued the maker of her lingerie for overcharging her and won.

The 1860’s were the height of the Second Empire and Cora was one of the most famous courtesans in Paris. Her fame had also spread not just across Europe but also to the United States. Harper’s Weekly mentioned her in an article featured in the ? issue. And like most celebrities she had her critics who found her a bit coarse. Not that Cora cared a fig what other people thought. She died her dark hair red and blonde; she even dyed her dog’s hair blue to match one of her outfits (unfortunately the poor thing died).

Cora made her theatrical debut in Offenbach’s opera Orpheus in the Underworld playing the role of Cupid. As the daughter of a musician, and the sister of an opera singer, it seemed fitting that Cora should appear on stage. She made her entrance in a costume that seemed to consist solely of strategically placed diamonds; the soles of her boots were also covered in diamonds as well. They were later auctioned off for fifty thousand francs. Critics were kind but Cora only performed twelve times before she retired from the stage. Several students led a protest that Cora had been given the role of Cupid over a professional singer, and they disrupted the performances by hissing and booing. For Cora it was just another lark, she never had any attentions of making the stage a second career.

But the end was drawing near. Prussia was making noises, and Napoleon III pulled French troops out of Mexico, leaving his cousin Maximilian, who he had set up as Emperor, holding the bag. Instead of doing a cut and run, Maximilian decided to fight for the country he had grown to love against the forces of former President Benito Juarez, who was no doubt helped out by the US (you know how we love to meddle). Maximilian was shot in front of a firing squad in 1868. Whether out of guilt of abandoning him, or genuine affection, Napoleon decreed that the court would go into deep mourning, which meant fewer parties and lots of black clothing. Fortunately, Cora looked fetching in her Worth mourning gowns. However, no sooner was the mourning period over; then France declared war on Prussia.

Cora proved that she was more than just a frivolous courtesan by offering up her homes as hospitals for the wounded. She paid for the doctors, the medicine and anything that the soldiers needed out of her own pocket. The end of the war less than a year later was not just the end of the Second Empire; it was the end for Cora Pearl. Nothing was the same for her again. Napoleon III and the Empress had fled to England, along with Prince Napoleon. Cora went to England to join him there, the first time she had set foot back in native country in over twenty years. The visit was not a success. The plan was for her to stay at the Grosvenor Hotel, but when management found out just who their new guest was, they refused to let her stay.

The Franco-Prussian War: Yet another war that was started over who got to be King, this time of Spain. Isabella II had abdicated and Prussia wanted Prince Leopold, a member of the Hohenzollern family to replace her, which did not sit well with France. There was also the release of the Ems Dispatch which played up insults between the French ambassador and the Prussian King, which inflamed public opinion in both countries. The war raged on for almost a year, ending the Second Empire,and causing numerous casualties. The winner was Prussia with its superior army and artillery. Germany was now a unified country. They also ended up with Alsace-Lorraine, which stayed part of Germany until the First World War. Oh and Spain, after all that trouble, Alfonso XII, son of Isabella II, became King in 1875 after a short lived republic.

I have never deceived anybody because I have never belonged to anybody. My independence was all my fortune, and I have known no other happiness; and it is still what attaches me to life.”

After a few months, Cora returned to her beloved Paris, now under the third Republic. Times had changed; the mood was somber and conservative. No more glittering parties, no more social whirl. Prince Napoleon continued to support Cora until 1874 but there were few men with the resources or the inclination to keep her in the style to which she had become accustomed. And Cora wasn’t used to economizing. She ended up at one point 200,000 francs in debt, having to sell one of her beautiful houses to pay it off. It was then that Cora met the man who would be her ultimate downfall.

His name was Alexandre Duval. Twelve years younger than Cora, incredibly handsome and wealthy, Alexandre wouldn’t take no for an answer. His family had made their fortune with a chain restaurant, the 19th Century equivalent of Denny's. He basically stalked Cora. If times had been different, Cora would have stuck to her guns and continued her refusals. But a girl had to eat, and Alexandre was swimming in francs. However, Cora soon bankrupted him, and with no more money, no more Cora. His family wasn't about to let him ruin the family business by giving him more money. What happened next is a matter of conjecture; Cora left the story of what went on that fateful day out of her memoirs. Unfortunately Cora’s silence contributed to the perception that she was cold-hearted.

Duval showed up at Cora’s house and tried to force his way in. He waved around a gun which he proceeded to use, shooting himself in the side on her doorstep. Cora either called immediately for help, or not realizing the seriousness of the situation, shut the door and went upstairs to bed. It seems hard to believe, that after being so generous during the Franco-Prussian war, that Cora would all of a sudden turn cold in the face of a man in pain. Whatever the truth, rumors spread that Cora had cruelly left him injured. Although Duval survived, her reputation was ruined. She was asked to leave France. Cora spent time in Monte Carlo with a friend who was being kept by the son of the Prince of Monaco. After a discreet amount of time, Cora came back to Paris, but her days of glory were over. There would be no more rich protectors. In dire straits, she was forced to have to sell her mansions that she adored, and her expensive jewelry and artwork.

Indigent, she ended up in a small boarding house, where she died in 1886 from stomach cancer. She was only 51 years old. Only twenty people attended her funeral, which was paid for by the few of her lovers that were still alive. Before her death, her memoirs were published in a slim volume with all the names changed to protect her lovers. But readers quickly deduced who they were. The rest of her belongings were auctioned off after her death for a small sum. Cora was buried under her original name of Eliza Emma Crouch at Batignolles Cemetary in grave #10, Row 4.

Cora Pearl’s life can be seen as a cautionary tale of what can happen to a woman without the protection of marriage. It also illustrates the dangers of living in the moment and not preparing sufficiently for the future. But then Cora wasn’t prepared for the party to end. And she had no regrets about the way she lived her life. As she wrote in her memoirs, "I have had a happy life; I have squandered money enormously. I am far from posing as a victim; it would be ungrateful of me to do so. I ought to have saved, but saving is not easy in such a whirl of excitement as that in which I have lived. Between what one ought to do and what one does there is always a difference."

Cora would have disappeared from history if it were not for her memoirs, which paint a vivid picture of life during the Second Empire. She also lives on in Emile Zola’s classic novel Nana as Lucy Stewart. Of course, in Zola's novel, Nana comes to a bad end just like Cora.

Courtesans – Katie Hickman, Harper Collins, 2006
Virginia Rounding, Grandes Horizontales: The Lives and Legends of Four Nineteenth-Century Courtesans. London: Bloomsbury, 2004.
Seductresses – Betsy Prioleau, NAL/Penguin, 2006
Book of Courtesans – Susan Griffin
World’s Wickedest Women – Margaret Nicholas
The Courtesans: The Demi-Monde in 19th-Century France - Joanna Richardson,London: Phoenix Press, 2000


Eliza Knight said…
Great blog Elizabeth!!! Courtesans have always fascinated me.
Thanks Eliza. Courtesans have always fascinated me too. And Cora was one of the more outrageous ones. I have a few more of them up my sleeve that are pretty interesting.
Unknown said…
So you found your lady who had herself served on a silver platter. Excellent! I was hoping you would. These women are fascinating. I wonder what it is that makes them rise above everyone else and make their lives extraordinary? Keep it up. I love reading your blog..

I'm not sure Cari. I think there has to be an inherent survivor instinct, that keeps them going, despite all the odds against them. Something that tells that them that they are different.
Bearded Lady said…
oh I love a good Courtesan story. Cora Pearl is fascinating. I had heard the silver platter story but never knew if it was true. Have you ever read Courtesans: Money, Sex and Fame in the Nineteenth Century by Katie Hickman? It is really good.
Cora Pearl was buried at Batignolles Cemty July 1886 spendidly (not unmarked as stated). 1949 she was moved to Pere Lachaise Cemty. The city of Plymouth request me to return her to her birthplace where a commerative stainless steel obelisk stands at Prominade Plymouth waterside with other notables are honored..Great nephew; Frederick W N Crouch V Outer Banks N.C. USA
Anonymous said…
Cora Pearl fascinates me. I live in India and given the social upbringing my family has its a lot like what Pearl faced. I can totally understand her free spirit. Some of us are like that and we get so desperate to get out our way and take control of our lives that it may at times be destructive. Pearl lived in another time where she perhaps would have fewer choices and where telling a woman that not walking down the aisle leads to downfall. Fortunately I don't. :)

Popular posts from this blog

The Many Lives of Beryl Markham

Scandalous Women in Fiction: Irene Forsyte

Royal Princess, Royal Scandal - the sad life of Princess Margaret