Whereas yesterday's Cora Pearl was eccentric, charming and a little cold-hearted, today's Victorian courtesan, La Païva, is straight-up eerie. Like, so eerie that a lot of people thought she was a vampire. My hand to Baby Jesus, people actually believed she was a supernatural being. Let's back up:
She was born in the Moscow Jewish ghetto in 1819. As legend would have it, she was the daughter "of a witch and a broomstick handle" (251). Huh. Well, that's you off to a roaring start. She got married young, had a baby, and then went, "Meh. Bored." and buggered off to Prussia, leaving her husband and child behind. She met the composer Henri Herz who took her as his mistress, got her all dolled up and took her to Paris.
She hooked up with some more powerful people, including the writer Theophile Gautier. Gautier, who I guess was just a buddy, would help advise her on career strategy and help her pick out her clothes. She was worried that her clothes might accidentally make a bad impression when she went to London, so she "asked him to procure her a supply of chloroform, which she intended to take should she not succeed. Gautier duly did so" (252).
Woooah, woah woah, Gautier, you are the WORST Sassy Gay Friend EVER. If her clothes don't get admiration, she's going to kill herself? Look at your life, look at your choices.
Thankfully, it never came to that, because she was walking "bow chicka wow wow" and quickly ensnared several aristocratic patrons. Her exotic accent and looks, with her long black hair
"You wanted to sleep with me, and you've done so, by making me your wife. You have given me your name . . . I behaved like an honest woman, I wanted a position and I've got it, but all you have is a prostitute for a wife. You can't take me anywhere, and you can't introduce me to anyone. We therefore must separate. You go back to Portugal. I shall stay here with your name and remain a whore" (252).
Well that's a buzzkill. They remained legally married for 20 years, but as far as I'm aware, they never saw each other again.
Her house wasn't comfortably opulent, it was terrifyingly opulent--big, gothic and formal. She, being Russian, was far more comfortable with her house at Arctic temperatures, so everyone except her was always freezing. "This woman is not built like the rest of humanity. She lives in icy air and water, like a kind of boreal dragon in a Scandinavian myth" (255) "And with strangely Faustian irony, it was impossible to get a drink of water. The water pitchers--'cathedrals made of crystal which it would take a water carrier to lift'--were simply too heavy to pick up" (254). On top of that, her lover, Count Gigolo Puberty von Moneybags, didn't seem to participate in the salon. He just lurked in the background, silently, putting everyone on edge.
She appeared to be a woman who aged quickly and unflatteringly. Many were ceasing to find her attractive, except her young stud-muffin, who would continue to love her TILL DEATH. One member of her salon noted that she, oddly, had red armpit hair, lots of wrinkles and that under her makeup, "another face was visible from time to time, the terrible face of a painted corpse" (255). Frankly, I'm amazed she was as successful a courtesan as she was, but then again, some men find Evan Rachel Wood attractive, so what do I know?
She and her boyfriend, Count Playboy Zygote von DollaMakeMeHolla, carried on for several years. Her legend grew and he bought her a castle, and they were very, very happy, Angelina-and-Billy-Bob-ing their way around Europe, creeping out and fascinating people in equal measure. Rumors began to abound:
1.) Some said that she hired a man for her castle "whose sole job was to open and shut the castle's 150 windows; this task took him every day from six o'clock in the morning until midnight, until he dropped dead from exhaustion" (255-6).
2.) Others said that her gardeners "were fined fifty centimes for every leaf found on the ground . . . and Madame de Païva herself collected the fines at dawn" (256).
3.) "She had a horror, it was said, of animals and children, and when one of her horses threw her when she was out riding, she took a gun and shot it" (256).
4.) One man deeply admired her, but was not rich. He pleaded for her favors so frequently that she finally agreed to be his if he'd bring her "ten thousand francs in small-denomination notes
Eventually she divorced her husband and married Count BadTasteMcGee Von StillRicherThanGod. The Franco-Prussian war broke out and since her husband was Prussian, they naturally had to move out of France. Her popularity had been steadily in decline for years, but like the biggest and best train wrecks, people couldn't look away. When they moved back to Paris after the war, "she was hissed at by audiences in theatres, and her husband was publicly horsewhipped in the Champs Elysees one day" (257). Guys, nothing rounds out a story like the inclusion of a horsewhipping.
She died in 1884 at the age of 65. Some claimed "that no one ever knew what happened to her body; that she had no tomb, and that she never lay in consecrated ground. . . . [but when] Von Donnersmarck's second wife, young, well-born and beautiful, was exploring the upper rooms of her husband's castle one day when, stumbling into a chamber in one of the top towers that before had always been carefully locked, she came across the corpse of La Païva, perfectly preserved in alcohol" (257).