Eliza Emma Crouch
December 9, 1836
|Died||8 July 1886 (aged 49)|
Cora Pearl (born Eliza Emma Crouch, December 1836 – 8 July 1886) was a nineteenth-century courtesan of the French demimonde who enjoyed her greatest celebrity during the period of the Second French Empire.
Eliza Emma Crouch was born in Plymouth in December 1836, just a few months before the introduction civil registration in England and Wales. She was baptised at St Andrew's Church, Plymouth together with her younger sister Hannah Lydia (born 30 November 1837) on 27 December 1837. Her subsequent use of her sister Louisa's birth certificate in her 1886 Mémoires, amended to appear as if it were her own, led to over a century of confusion over her date of birth. The exact date in December is still unknown.
Her father was the cellist and composer Frederick Nicholls Crouch who had married her mother the contralto Lydia, née Pearson, at St Paul's Church, Covent Garden in 1832. By April 1841 Crouch had returned to London, leaving his wife and daughters in Plymouth. In 1843 he went through a Roman Catholic marriage ceremony with Elizabeth 'Bessie' George and had two more children. He left for the United States in 1849 leaving both wives and families behind. With several young children to care for, her mother Lydia brought Richard William Littley into the household, who was to be considered a “stepfather” by her children. Emma was sent to a convent boarding school in Boulogne, France, but later returned to live with her paternal grandmother, Anna Maria (née Nicholls). Following the death of Frederick Nicholls Crouch's father, she married the former Secretary of the Royal Philharmonic Society, violinist, composer and arranger William Watts. In 1851, Emma and her sister Hannah were living with these grandparents in Jersey.
It was a life that Emma found confining, and her restless nature and innate curiosity rebelled. She defied her grandmother's cautions regarding the dangers that a young woman faced out in the streets unchaperoned. On her own one day, she accepted the advances of an older man who approached her on the street, allowing him to take her to a drinking den where he wooed her with cakes and plied her with alcohol, ultimately taking her virginity. Upon awakening, she found the man had left her a five-pound note — more money than she had ever seen. She was approximately twenty years old at the time and later said the encounter left her with "an instinctive horror of men." After her abrupt initiation into sex, she did not return to her grandmother's home, nor go back to her mother, but rented a room for herself in Covent Garden.
New life in London
On her own in London, Pearl made the acquaintance of Robert Bignell, proprietor of a notorious pleasure establishment, The Argyll Rooms. A combination of bar, dance hall, and women available for hire, it provided private alcoves and rooms where couples could retire for sexual activity. She soon vacated her single room and moved into a suite at the Argyll Rooms, becoming Bignell's mistress. Studying the life around her she realized that the life of the common prostitute was a tragic one, at best the women would end up "poor and degraded," at worst the future held "disease and death." She was determined to practice her trade with higher expectations. Her goal was to become the kept woman of select dedicated lovers, ones with the financial means to keep her in luxury.
Her involvement with Bignell lasted for some time. They travelled to Paris, posing as a married couple. So enamoured did she become with the city that she insisted that Bignell return to London without her. She was determined to remain in the French capital. It was at this time that Emma Crouch became "Cora Pearl," a fanciful name chosen to resonate with the new identity and future she hoped to craft for herself in Paris.
Life as a courtesan
Again on her own in a major metropolis, she adopted the name Cora Pearl and worked as a prostitute. She made a connection with a procurer, a "Monsieur Roubisse," who set her up in more suitable quarters, taught her the business rudiments of her new trade and tutored her in refining and broadening her repertoire of professional skills. She worked for him for six years.
Her first lover of distinction was the twenty-five-year-old Victor Masséna, third Duke du Rivoli, and later fifth Prince of Essling. He set her up in opulence, giving her money, jewels, servants and a private chef. He provided her with funds for gambling when she visited the casinos and racecourse in the fashionable resort of Baden, Germany. He bought her the first horse she ever owned, and she became an accomplished horsewoman; it was said "she rode like an Amazon" and "was kinder to her horses than her lovers." Her liaison with Masséna lasted five years. While cultivating Masséna, she was simultaneously sharing her favours with Prince Achille Murat, a man eleven years younger than Masséna.
By 1860, Pearl was one of the most celebrated courtesans in Paris. She was the mistress of notable aristocrats, the Prince of Orange, heir to the throne of the Netherlands, Ludovic, Duc de Grammont-Caderousse, and more significantly Charles Duc de Morny, who was the half-brother of the Emperor Napoleon III. The Emperor's brother generously contributed to the life Pearl demanded.
In 1864, Pearl rented a chateau in the region of the Loiret. Known as the Château de Beauséjour ("beautiful sojourn"), it was a luxurious residence with stained glass windows, expensively decorated and immaculately maintained interiors and grounds. Her boudoir had a custom-made bronze bath monogrammed with her initials intertwined in gold. The château was conceived for gala entertainments. There were rarely fewer than fifteen guests at the dinner table, and the chef was instructed to spare no cost on the expenditure for food. Pearl was known for devising entertainments of an unexpected and outrageous theatricality, of which she invariably was the star attraction. On one such evening, she dared the group assembled around the dinner table "to cut into the next dish" about to be served. The meal's next course was Cora Pearl herself, presented lying naked on a huge silver platter, garnished with parsley, and carried in by four large men.
Her most dedicated benefactor and enduring admirer was Napoléon Joseph Charles Paul Bonaparte, the Emperor's cousin. She met the prince in 1868 when he was forty-two years old. Their liaison lasted nine years, the longest relationship in Pearl's career. He bought her several homes, one a veritable palace: "les Petites Tuileries."
In 1860, Pearl made an appearance at a masquerade ball attended by the elite of Parisian society. She caused a sensation as a scantily costumed Eve, whose degree of nudity diverged little from the biblical original. Invariably enthusiastic about exhibiting her physical charms to an audience, she took the role of a singing Cupid in the Jacques Offenbach operetta Orphée aux Enfers, (Orpheus in the Underworld) performed at the Theatre Bouffes-Parisien in 1867. It was written that "Cora Pearl made an appearance half-naked on the stage. That evening the Jockey Club in its entirety, graced the theatre. All the names…of French nobility were there…It was a success of a kind…" The chronicle of the evening continued, "Apparently the beautiful Cora Pearl had already munched up a brochette ("skewer") of five or six historical fortunes with her pretty white teeth."
The high point of Pearl’s career as courtesan were the years 1865-1870. In his biography of Pearl, The Pearl From Plymouth (1950), W. H. Holden wrote that there was evidence that Pearl regularly sent money to both her mother in England and father in America. For Cora Pearl, money was for spending, for accumulating the luxuries of life and buying her way to a coveted perch in the upper echelons of society. Her jewel collection alone was valued at some one million francs; at one point, she owned three homes, and her clothing was made for her by the renowned couturier Charles Frederick Worth. As her career prospered, the gifts from her suitors needed to be both costly and imaginative. She pitted her admirers against one other, raising the price for her favours as the game between competitors escalated. In her heyday, she was able to command as much as ten thousand francs for an evening with her.
She dressed creatively, with the intent to provoke either shock or awe. Théodore de Banville wrote of her affinity for dyeing her hair bold colours. She was seen riding out in her carriage, her hair the colour of a lemon, dyed to match the carriage's yellow satin interior. She once appeared in a blue gown, her dog’s coat coloured to match her wardrobe. She was a proponent of the obviously made-up face, using makeup for her eyelashes, eyes, and face powder tinted with silver or pearl to give her skin a shimmering translucence. Jean-Philippe Worth, the son of the couturier Worth, pronounced her "shockingly overdone." In 1867, a drink came into vogue, inspired by Pearl, dubbed the "Tears of Cora Pearl." Alfred Delvau wrote a tribute to Pearl in Les Plaisirs de Paris (1867): "You are today, Madame, the renown, the preoccupation, the scandal and the toast of Paris. Everywhere they talk only of you..."
Scandal: L'affaire Duval
At age thirty-seven, Pearl found herself involved in an incident that would result in an irreversible downturn in her fortunes. She had become embroiled in a relationship with a wealthy young man, Alexandre Duval, ten years her junior. His obsession with her was so intense, he spent his entire fortune on sustaining his liaison with her—giving her jewels, fine horses and money. It was reported that at one point Duval gave her an exquisitely bound book, a hundred-page volume where each page was bookmarked by a one thousand franc bill. Pearl ultimately dismissed him, a finality that Duval could not countenance. On 19 December 1872, Duval went to her home, it is believed, with the intention of killing her. The gun he brought accidentally discharged, wounding him. Initially near death, he eventually recovered. Nevertheless, the consequences of what had occurred proved disastrous for Cora Pearl's reputation. Publicized as l'affaire Duval, the scandal caused the authorities to order Pearl to leave the country.
She was expelled from Paris and left for London and later moved to Monaco and Nice. The contents of her Paris home were sold.
The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 brought at its end a new French republic and a cultural as well as political shift. The era in which Pearl had achieved her greatest success was over. The Third French Republic saw a diminution of aristocratic privilege and a resurgence of conservative values. She was no longer able to attract the titled men who had been her prime clients. In 1874, her long tenure as the mistress of Prince Napoleon ended at his request. He wrote her a touching, carefully worded letter of regret; he could no longer sustain the emotional and professional toll the relationship required of him.
Pearl was slowly forced to liquidate the fortune she had accumulated. While not destitute, by 1880 her financial situation had become dire. In 1873, she sold her rue Chaillot home. By 1883, she had returned to common prostitution, taking an apartment above the shop of a coachbuilder on the avenue Champs-Elysées, where she received clients. In July 1885, she was forced to sell her chateau in the Loiret.
Her reduced finances did not abate her passion for gambling. Habitually committed to playing for large stakes, she was now restricted to betting modest amounts. Julian Arnold, an old acquaintance, encountered Pearl outside a casino in Monte Carlo. He later wrote in his memoirs: "I found a woman seated on the kerbstone and weeping pitifully. She appeared to be about fifty years of age, handsome…but much bedraggled." She told him that she had been turned out of her apartment, her few belongings seized by the landlord in lieu of rent. She had no place to go, and she was hungry and in misery.
The Mémoires de Cora Pearl had been greatly anticipated when it became known that Pearl was writing her autobiography. Published in 1886 in Paris and subsequently in England in London. She claimed to have sent relevant pages to her former lovers, offering to anonymize their names if they paid her. In the event, most names were altered but many have now been identified.
In the early 1980s, William Blatchford claimed to have located the Memoirs of Cora Pearl, which he said had been published in 1890, after Pearl's death. Supposedly an earlier version of the book published in 1886, this volume purported to date back to an earlier date, perhaps even as early 1873. Decidedly more frank and sexually explicit than the 1886 memoirs, their idiomatic English - expressive of a provincial, unsophisticated use of the language - convinced many people of the work's authenticity when the memoirs were published by Granada under the title Grand Horizontal, The Erotic Memoirs of a Passionate Life. However, Blatchford turned out to be a pseudonym adopted by the real author of the 'memoirs', Derek Parker, a former chairman of the Society of Authors, who later admitted that he had hoaxed Granada.
Soon after the publication of her memoirs, Pearl became seriously ill with intestinal cancer. Her biographer Holden wrote: "The various accounts of Cora spending her last days in dire poverty in one squalid room are very much exaggerated." She died on 8 July 1886. Obituary notices appeared in the London and Paris papers. Her remaining possessions were disposed of in a two-day sale in October 1886. She was buried in Batignolles cemetery, (plot number 10, row 4), in a grave leased for five years. After those five years, what remained of her body was removed to an ossuary and the grave was re-used.
- Holden 1950.
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- Richardson 1967, p. 26.
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