The Paris Courtesans and Their City Haunts

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The Paris Courtesans and Their City Haunts
The French have arguably more words to describe the oldest profession in the world than any other language. Putain, salope, racoleuse, grue, catin, poule, poufiasse – the list for “prostitute” goes on and on, with more words added every generation. The most innocuous– and probably still the kindest moniker– is la dame de la nuit. In addition, in 19th century France, there were other commonly used names for the different levels of prostitutes, starting with les grisettes. These were the working-class girls who were part-time prostitutes, their poorly paid work forcing them into turning tricks to supplement their income. The name derived from the grey (gris), coarse clothing they wore. Les lorettes were considered the next step up – women who supported themselves solely by prostitution, or possibly being the kept mistress of just one man. However, a courtesan, also known as “une grande horizontale,” was none of these, even though she may well have started out her career being called any of the above. (Coco Chanel, for example, who rose from extremely humble beginnings, became une grande horizontale, before her incredible talent, albeit originally financed by a wealthy lover, gave her the independence to choose her own lovers as and when she wished.) An Officer Making His Bow to a Courtesan 1662 painting by Gerard ter Borch, held at the Museum Polesden Lacey. Photo credit © Polesden Lacey, Wikimedia. Public domain A courtesan, although still using sex to fund her lifestyle, was much more than a five-minute, hourly or even nightly transaction. Being good in bed, although clearly a prerequisite for being a true courtesan, was only one factor that elevated just a few of these women to the unimaginable wealth, prestige, influence and notoriety that they ended up possessing. The most famous courtesans had several things in common: an innate intelligence and a self-taught education which they applied assiduously in learning everything they could about entertaining, running a house, servants, acquiring the right accent, being at the cutting edge of fashion, and always being interesting, excitingly different. (The exceptions were high-bred courtesans, who for whatever reason, were no longer protected by families and husbands and, without their own wealth, fell back instead on rich patrons.) The lower bred courtesans, however, also possessed charm and wit in abundance, and an indefinable allure, a je ne sais quoi, that fascinated men to distraction. Many were beautiful, but not all, although most had wonderful bodies, the palest of skins, the tiniest of waists, the softest of shoulders. These were women who although not strictly accepted in high society, still managed to influence fashion and inspire playwrights, authors and artists, while mixing easily with not only the powerful and titled in the land, but also enchanted even the royal. Their rewards were immense: fine houses, jewelry, clothes, money and, peculiarly, freedom. Distribution of Prostitutes in Paris, 1836 – University Library. Photo credit © Alexandre Jean-Baptiste, Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Lead photo credit : Cora Pearl and Prince Achille Murat (1865). Photo credit © Louis-Jean Delton, Wikipedia. Public domain

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After some dreary years in the Civil Service, Marilyn realized her dream of living in Paris. She arrived in Paris in December 1967 and left in July 1969. From there she lived in Mallorca, London, Oman, and Dubai, where she moved with her husband and young son and worked for Gulf News, Khaleej Times and freelanced for Emirates Woman magazine. During this time she was also a ground stewardess for Middle East Airlines. For the past 18 years they've lived on the Isle of Wight.


    2021-02-12 10:52:49
    Very interesting! Thanks for this article.....femnists in their own way...the era didn't permit any more freedom for women. fascinating....


    • Marilyn Brouwer
      2021-02-14 04:51:46
      Marilyn Brouwer
      Thank you for your comment Marla. They were all incredibly strong women who chose their own path in life and made the very most of whatever assets they possessed and acquired the ones they didn't. One particular courtesan gave lessons to MEN in all aspects of love making to please women. A feminist indeed!


  • Beth Gersh-Nesic
    2021-02-11 08:17:45
    Beth Gersh-Nesic
    Brilliant, Marilyn, as always. This is a fascinating and entertaining article. Thank you so much for the valuable history lesson too.


    •  Marilyn Brouwer
      2021-02-11 09:46:22
      Marilyn Brouwer
      Lovely to hear from you Beth. There were so many fascinating courtesans with diverse histories, it was hard to choose only two! Thank you for your kind comment. Keep safe!