Scarlet Women: The Scandalous Lives of Courtesans, Concubines, and Royal Mistresses

Scarlet Women: The Scandalous Lives of Courtesans, Concubines, and Royal Mistresses

by Ian Graham

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466868175
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 01/26/2016
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 532,123
File size: 866 KB

About the Author

IAN GRAHAM is the author of THE ULTIMATE BOOK OF IMPOSTERS, as well as more than 200 children's non-fiction books on a wide range of topics. He has also written graphic novels re-telling classic tales by William Shakespeare and Daniel Defoe. In 2012 he was the joint winner of the Royal Society Young People's Book Prize and in 2014 he was shortlisted for the Educational Writers' Award.
IAN GRAHAM is the author of THE ULTIMATE BOOK OF IMPOSTERS, as well as more than 200 children's non-fiction books on a wide range of topics. He has also written graphic novels re-telling classic tales by William Shakespeare and Daniel Defoe. In 2012 he was the joint winner of the Royal Society Young People's Book Prize and in 2014 he was shortlisted for the Educational Writers' Award.

Read an Excerpt

Scarlet Women

The Scandalous Lives of Courtesans, Concubines, and Royal Mistresses

By Ian Graham

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2016 Ian Graham
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-6817-5



The woman who died in a Nice hotel room in 1965, La Belle Otero, was the last of a group of fiercely ambitious and competitive women known as les demimondaines. They inhabited a shadow world, particularly in France, where it was known as the demimonde (literally, "half world") — hence demimondaines. In view of their profession, these extraordinary women were also known as les grandes horizontales.

In the nineteenth century, France was enjoying the golden age of the Belle Époque following the Second Empire. During this prosperous and peaceful time, science, music, theater, and art flourished before Europe was overwhelmed by the horror of World War I. The most famous, or infamous, courtesans of this period were not shrinking violets. They made no attempt to hide their lifestyle from disapproving eyes. On the contrary, they courted publicity. They were as famous in their time as movie stars or sports stars are today. And, to make the biggest impression, they constantly tried to outdo each other in terms of their flamboyance, fashion, extravagant spending, grand homes, and outrageous scandals. Some of them amassed jewelry collections and palatial homes worth a king's ransom.

Unlike the courtesans of earlier centuries, we can see exactly what les demimondaines looked like — not approximate likenesses fashioned by flattering artists, but images of real life frozen in time by some of the first celebrity photographers. The photographs show women who, to twenty -first-century eyes, are often not striking beauties. They appear to be confident women, comfortable to be on show and under the gaze of observers. They often stare straight into the camera lens, courting it as they might flirt with a prospective client. But photographs taken using the slow film of the day, requiring long exposure times, can't convey the demimondaines' most valuable properties — their animation, the way they moved, the way they danced, the swish of their dress, the sparkle of their jewelry, their heady scent, and the sound of their voice. For those qualities, we have to rely on descriptions written by the men and women who knew them and observed them at work and play.

The Andalusian Volcano — La Belle Otero

One of the most famous, wealthiest, and most sought-after courtesans in Europe arrived in Paris in 1889, the year the city was host to the World's Fair. Known as La Belle Otero, she spent most of her life on the run — from her mother, from her school, and from ex-lovers. She would be feted by kings, but despite amassing a great fortune, she would die in poverty, the last of the great courtesans of the demimonde.

Agustina Otero Iglesias was born in 1868 near the port of Cádiz, Spain. Her mother, Carmencita Otero, had met her father, a Greek army officer called Carasson, there. They set up home outside the town, where Carmencita gave birth to four children, including Agustina. The family called her Nina. Carasson then moved his growing family to Valga in Galicia. When he discovered that Carmencita had taken a lover, he challenged the man to a duel. The challenge was accepted. As a military officer, Carasson expected to win, but the next time Nina saw her father was when his lifeless body was carried home after the duel.

The man who had killed her father moved in with the family and married Otero's mother. One by one, the children left home or were sent away to live with relatives. Nina was sent to boarding school, but her mother refused to pay her school fees, so Nina had to do cleaning work to pay her way. She was desperately unhappy, so she started sneaking out of the school to dance for customers at a local café. She enjoyed the attention and applause. A boy called Paco introduced her to the café owners, who asked her to come back and entertain their customers. Paco became her first lover when she was only twelve years old. He not only took her virginity, but also took the money the café owners paid her to dance. He wouldn't be the last man to use her to line his pockets.

When school officials found out what she'd been doing, they locked her in her room at night to stop her from getting out. Despite her tender age, Nina clearly wasn't easily intimidated, because she took the first opportunity to escape and run away with Paco. The young couple fled to Lisbon, but it didn't take the police long to find them and bring Nina home. She constantly argued with her mother, who eventually threw her out. She went straight back to Lisbon and searched for Paco. While she was there, the man in the next hotel room introduced himself. He was a theater director. He'd heard her singing and liked her voice so much that he invited her to perform at his theater. She was too young to sign a contract, but when she explained that her father was dead and she couldn't ask her mother to sign for her, the director let her sign the contract herself.

Stage Debut

Nina's first appearance at the theater was a huge success. Inevitably, many of the men who flocked to see her vied for her attention and company. The first was a wealthy banker prepared to pay whatever it took to have her. He offered her a private residence of her own and as much money, jewels, and fine clothes as she wanted. But he insisted that she must leave the theater. And he told her she could do it legally with a clear conscience, because her contract was worthless — she was underage when she signed it. She left the theater and moved into her new accommodation. Life was sweet, but with little to do and no admiring audience, she soon got bored. She craved younger company, especially Paco's. She made her escape from the easy life and chased after Paco, who was now in Barcelona. One night, she went to the opera. The men in the audience couldn't take their eyes off the beautiful stranger. One of the men who gathered around her was Paco, stunned to find that the beauty attracting all the attention was his little Nina. They moved into a flat together, and with Paco's help, she found work at the Palais de Crystal. However, Paco gambled most of her money away. She realized that she'd have to leave him or he would bankrupt her.

She left to join an opera company touring Portugal. As usual, she was a great success, especially with the men in the audience. One of her admirers was Manuelo Domingo, the heir to a wine -making fortune. He chose a dramatic way to get her attention. He sent the chief of police to kidnap her! It worked. He gave her so much money for whatever she wanted that she was able to salt away a fortune and accumulate quite a collection of jewelry. Her life seemed idyllic. Then one day, the chief of police came to see her again. This time he brought a message from Manuelo's father, who thoroughly disapproved of his son's liaison with Nina and the vast sums of money he was spending on her. She was told to leave the city. When she refused, she was arrested and jailed because she had no identity papers. Another admirer, Count Tirenzo, came to her aid and managed to have her released. The experience taught her to despise men who could buy influence.

She began a relationship with her gallant rescuer, Count Tirenzo. She was content for a while, but inevitably, it didn't last long. The moment she saw an Italian opera singer called Guglielmo performing, she was infatuated with him. The feeling was mutual, and so it wasn't long before the couple married. However, he continued to see other women, and like Paco, he was an inveterate gambler. During a visit to Monte Carlo, she had to settle his gambling debts. On her return to their boarding house one night, she spotted a woman leaving their room. Not only was her husband having an affair with the woman, but he had gambled away the woman's life savings, too. Nina left him and fled to Marseille, where she took lessons in singing in French. After a spell in the hospital with typhoid, she moved into an apartment that yet another admirer, the comte Savin de Pont-Maxence, had rented for her.

It wasn't long before her health and her desire for male company returned. A young Spaniard called Auguste Herero became her next lover, but she kept him secret from her older benefactor, Savin, who was still paying her bills. She found work as a singer at the Palais de Crystal in Marseille. Another young man, the son of a brewer, was pursuing her, too. All went well onstage until one night when some of the audience hissed at her. It was the first time she'd experienced an unappreciative audience, but she soon discovered that the hissing had been arranged by a woman called Felicia, the jealous lover of the brewer's son.

When Auguste and Nina arrived at a club one night and discovered Felicia there, Nina flew at her and hit her with a chair. The two women had to be dragged apart. Nina was charged with assault, but the case was dismissed. The episode taught her that all publicity, even bad publicity, was good for business. The scrapes she got into attracted even bigger audiences to her stage performances. One of the many people who came to see her was her estranged husband, Guglielmo. He begged for her forgiveness and promised to pay back all the money he had lost at the gaming tables. She took him back and they moved to Paris. However, he showed little enthusiasm for finding work. Nina wasn't working either, and her money was running out. One night, Guglielmo packed his bags and left. She never saw him again.

La Belle Otero Is Born

Nina's life was about to change dramatically. On December 30, 1889, she performed at a soirée dressed in a toreador's costume. She later posed for photographs in the same costume, a daringly figure-hugging red and gold outfit. She danced for an audience that included influential figures in the Parisian club and theater scene. She was immediately offered three months' work at the Cirque d'Été (Summer Circus). It was called a circus because it had opened as a tent circus, or big top, in 1836, but the original tent was replaced by a stone theater in 1841. Press reviews of Otero's performances there were ecstatic. One newspaper called her La Belle Otero, and the soubriquet stuck. Her fame and her strikingly good looks, a doll-like face framed by dark curly hair atop a tightly corseted hourglass figure, attracted titled admirers like moths to a flame. At the age of twenty-one, La Belle Otero had arrived.

She made such an impression that she was soon receiving invitations to perform in other countries. One of the influential persons who saw her was Ernest A. Jurgens, the manager of the Eden Musée in New York, an odd mixture of waxworks museum and theater. Jurgens had traveled to Europe to find a way of raising money to replace funds he had taken from the Eden. He'd been using some of its box office receipts to fund his own projects. When he saw La Belle Otero, he invited her to return to America with him. In September 1890, they sailed for the United States. She worried about how American audiences would receive her. And her worst fears seemed to have been realized when the audience hissed at the end of her first performance. But they also threw flowers. She was confused. Did they like her or not? Jurgens reassured her that hissing was a sign of approval in the United States at that time. Press reviews were gushing in their praise.

Predictably, she became Jurgens's mistress. They tried to keep their relationship hidden, but when they had a very public row, the secret was out. When they parted, Jurgens lost his job at the Eden and became a theatrical agent, but he seems to have enjoyed little success. His tendency to treat other people's money as his own sealed his fate. Newspapers reported that his actors were turning up to fulfill bookings he said he'd made, but then found that there was no work for them. Jurgens had taken commissions from the actors, but never made the bookings. In desperation, he appealed to Otero for help in repaying the missing money. She later claimed she had no idea how serious the situation was and so she refused to help. Twelve hours later, he killed himself.

The Suicide Siren

Otero made enough money in the United States to make her financially secure, but she gambled it all away in Monte Carlo. This didn't concern her, because her many admirers were happy to pay her bills. The vicomte de Chênedollé spent his entire fortune on her and then blew his brains out. In fact, so many men killed themselves over her (at least eight) that she became known as the Suicide Siren.

She received lucrative offers of work all over Europe. While she was working in Moscow, her customary coterie of admirers included Russian aristocracy and royalty. She became the lover of Grand Duke Peter Nikolaevich, grandson of Tsar Nicholas I. He was besotted with her and she was very fond of him. He lavished gifts and money on her, and begged her, "Ruin me, but don't leave me." When their relationship became public knowledge, she was suddenly in great demand at high society parties. While she was in Russia, an Algerian-born cameraman, Félix Mesguich, who worked for the Lumière company, filmed her performing her Valse brillante dance. The one-minute film made her one of the world's first film stars. It also got Mesguich thrown out of Russia, because a Russian army officer was shown dancing with Otero. Russians were outraged that one of their revered military officers had been turned into a music hall entertainer. Mesguich was immediately escorted to the border.

When Otero returned to Paris, she finally achieved her ambition to appear at the Folies Bergère. Her performances received rave reviews. Everyone wanted to meet her, including Edward, Prince of Wales, who would later become King Edward VII. He often sent for her to join him and dance for him in the evening. In return, he gave her a hunting lodge near Oise, but he had an ulterior motive for this generous gift. It provided a secluded place for them to meet more discreetly outside Paris.

Her fame spread far and wide, and occasionally in surprising ways. Her breasts are said to have inspired the shape of the cupolas on top of the Hotel Carlton in Cannes — although it could just have been a bit of clever promotion by the hotel.

At lunch one day, she was introduced to an Englishman called Thompson. He begged her to go with him to London the same day. She said she would go with him for a price, because she was supposed to be collecting a large sum of money needed to pay her dressmaker. In addition, her failure to meet her commitments at the Folies Bergère would incur a heavy penalty. He agreed to pay. In fact, she owed her dressmaker and the Folies nothing, so she pocketed the money. After an enjoyable visit to London with Thompson, he asked her to give up the stage and he would pay her way. She accepted his offer and she was soon living in luxury near the Champs-Élysées. However, Thompson proved to be very jealous and possessive.

When she resisted the romantic advances of a young man, he shot himself. Newspaper stories named Otero as the reason for his suicide. Thompson was furious and refused to believe her protestations of innocence. His suspicions seemed to be confirmed while she was away working in Berlin. He put a private detective on her tail, who reported her every move and meeting, including assignations with other men. The next time he left home, he never returned and he stopped paying the bills. Nina would have to return to the stage and earn her living again. She had no difficulty finding work.

While she was working onstage in London, she struck up a friendship with one of the richest men in Britain, the Duke of Westminster. He introduced her to Kaiser Wilhelm II. She spent some time in Berlin with the kaiser, but never felt entirely comfortable with him or with Berlin. She busied herself with offers of work from all over Europe and America. And she collected lovers wherever she went.

Her success as a courtesan and her effect on men made enemies. During a visit to her native Spain, a spurned admirer tried to shoot both of them. She survived, but he didn't. On another occasion, the mistress of a man who had fallen for Otero shot at her onstage. Each attack made headlines and increased her fame. Even more people wanted to see her. She made professional enemies, too. When she appeared in a production of Carmen, singing the lead role, professional singers objected to a music hall performer and courtesan like Otero being hired for the job.

A Simple Life

When World War I broke out in 1914, Otero threw herself into raising money for charities. At the end of the war, she thought she was too old to return to her former career and retired from public life. She had saved enough money for her retirement, but she couldn't stay away from the gaming tables. Inevitably, she lost it all. She had to sell everything she owned to settle her debts. By 1941, she was living a simple life as a recluse in a small hotel in Nice.

In the afternoon of April 11, 1965, a chambermaid smelled burning and traced the smell to Otero's room. She knocked on the door, but got no answer. The police were called. When they broke in, they found Otero lying dead on a daybed. She'd suffered a heart attack after putting a pot of food on her gas ring. Newspaper reports of her death referred to her fiery, hot-blooded personality. One called her "the Andalusian volcano." One of the most colorful characters of La Belle Époque and the last of the great courtesans had gone.


Excerpted from Scarlet Women by Ian Graham. Copyright © 2016 Ian Graham. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
1. Les Demimondaines,
2. The Petticoat Behind the Throne,
3. The Ancient World,
4. Honored Courtesans,
5. Meanwhile in Britain …,
6. Princes of Pleasure,
7. The Americas,
8. Asia,
9. And the Rest …,
The End Of An Era,
Appendix: Courtesans, Concubines, and Royal Mistresses,
Further Reading,
About the Author,
Also by Ian Graham,

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