Biographers are not supposed to admit having a favourite subject - it's a bit like asking a parent to confess having a favourite child - but I have to confess that there is one of my subjects for whom I've always had a special fondness. Cora Pearl: one of the world's great courtesans.
An Englishwoman by birth, Cora became one of the wealthiest and most famous women of the 19th century France. In her own country, however, she was never so well appreciated. On her only trip home, in 1871 during the Franco-Prussian war, hoping to be re-united with an exiled lover, Prince Napoleon, Cora tried to book a suite of rooms at the Grosvenor Hotel, the grandest of London's great railway hotels. She was recognised and humiliatingly thrown out.
I wonder what she would have made of the fact that this week in her honour, the hotel, based in Victoria, London, is about to open an luxurious Cora Pearl Suite, 'The Courtesan's Boudoir', the jewel in the crown of an recent 18 million pound refurbishment.
Although many of Cora's fellow 'Grandes Horizontales' are forgotten figures now, she herself was so flamboyant that many stories about her are still remembered. When an admirer sent her £1000 of orchids, she had them strewn across the floor and danced a hornpipe on top of them. She died her hair blue - and her dog to match. She filled her bath with vintage champagne and invited her admirers to watch her at her ablutions. On another occasion she is said to have had herself served up, naked, on a silver salver, the piece de resistance of one of her own dinners.
Who wouldn't enjoy these stories? Theatricality and extravagance were always Cora's trademark (and who knows, some of the legends about her might even be true) but they are not the reason I've always found her so intriguing. Far more interesting to me has always been the fact that an obscure and friendless young girl, only moderately good-looking, from a humble English background, was able to pull off such an extraordinary feat.
Sexiness and availability were never enough to succeed as a courtesan. Cora was also an extremely good business woman. At the height of her success she was said to have earned over 50,000 francs a month (£90,000). She owned several houses in Paris, a chateau, a world-famous stable; her jewels alone were worth over a million francs. Cora was one of the first women in Paris to wear couture (she was an early patron of Worth); make-up; lingerie. Best of all - and I speak as an Englishwoman - she bested the French at their own game.
As Cora's biographer I was invited to visit Guoman hotel's 'Cora Pearl Suite' in the last weeks of the refurbishment. Walking up the grand staircase, its columns painstakingly stripped back to their magnificent marble and gilt originals, I realised that I was seeing the hotel almost exactly as Cora might have seen it, had she not been so humiliatingly turned away. It struck me then just how far we've come; and that the very reasons Cora was turned away from The Grosvenor, back in 1871, are the very reasons that the hotel can now celebrate its most 'infamous would-be former guest.'
We no longer view Cora Pearl as a figure to be feared and shunned, to be hidden away from 'respectable' society. What we see instead are her intelligence and wit, her enormous sense of style, her independence of mind. She is, paradoxically, a strikingly modern figure: a woman who had the courage to be completely and wholly herself.
"Did I think Cora would have liked it?" I was asked as I entered the room. I looked round at the sumptuous silver and eau-de-nil boudoir, at the silk drapes, the orchids, ostrich feathers and erotic prints; gazed up at the enormous portrait of the lady herself hanging over the bed, poised as though giving her own personal benediction to whatever antics the thought of her might inspire on the velvety coverlets below.
Would Cora have liked it? Sacre Bleu! She must be laughing in her grave.
The Courtesan's Boudoir - The Cora Pearl Suite, in Guoman Hotels' Grosvenor Hotel, Victoria, London, is available for public booking from March.www.guoman.com/cora_pearl
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