The life of dancer and courtesan La Belle Otero, which began on this day in 1868, offers a fascinating insight into sex, power, money, class and fame in the Belle Époque. While a courtesan’s core competencies were technically the same as a streetwalker’s, her USPs were sophistication, poise and the wealth and/or prestige of her client base. In the words of Émilienne d’Alencon, another of the era’s great “horizontales”: “sleep with a bourgeois and you’re a whore, sleep with a king and you’re a favourite”.
Otero, born of modest Spanish origins and christened Agustina, was apprenticed in her twin vocations in Lisbon at the age of just 12, performing nightly in a cabaret where she was afterwards sold for “private dances”. The ruthless exploitation continued when she moved to Barcelona where, now a worldly 14, she fetched ever greater prices as well as a lover who gambled much of her money away (which she would later manage all on her own). With France in her sights, Otero took her own career in hand, adopted the name Caroline and left her faithless beau behind.
Paris in the era of the Exposition Universelle was hungry for novelty and exotica, and the beautiful Otero was duly launched on the capital with publicity stunts which omitted no Spanish cliché – castanets, guitars, even a bull fight. It worked: her dancing engagements sold out, Paris fell at her feet, and from then on she shared her name with the epoch: La Belle.
A subsequent trip to New York in 1890 saw Otero greeted by enormous crowds and rapturous press coverage, and she was pursued through the city by tycoons and autograph hunters. Erotic allure was now big business and Otero profited from it handsomely. Between the rise of mass-market posters, postcards and magazines in the late 19th century, and the dawn of the movie star in the 1920s, there was a period when women such as Otero represented ideals of feminine sexual magnetism. As such she inhabits a weird twilight zone of celebrity; like a pre-recording-era virtuoso, she left little but her image behind, making it almost impossible at this remove to recreate the scale of her fame in our imaginations.
New York had taught the ambitious Spaniard that there were big bucks to be made in a single evening if she chose her clients with care, and from now on the heads on her pillow were as often as not crowned. Kings, grand dukes, emperors, as well as a Shah of Iran and Khedive of Egypt all took turns paying homage (and cash). Had they courted concurrently the League of Nations might have been formed much earlier.
It was an arrangement of mutual self-interest in which the suitor got A-grade arm candy, Otero wealth and independence in an era when women very rarely had their own bank accounts. Otero flaunted the wages of sin, and whether on stage or on the street was usually weighed down with so much bling that it looked “as if a chandelier had been pulverised” in the memorable words of one journalist. She knew how to retain press interest with memorable stunts, and was possibly the first of many celebrities to insure body parts, in her case her legs, at $80,000 (each).
Newspapers encouraged a rivalry which pitted the sensual, passionate Otero against the delicate, cultured courtesan Liane de Pougy, who later ridiculed Otero as “la Belle Virago”. But novelist Colette, for instance, felt no compulsion to choose between Otero’s Frida and de Pougy’s Agnetha. She was drawn to both women and fascinated by, among other things, Otero’s appetite. “There are few beautiful women who can guzzle without lack of prestige,” she commented approvingly, not shy of seconds herself.
There was a shadow side to Otero’s fame. Her siren-like allure drew a number of men to dash themselves on the rocks of her indifference, including her American promoter who gassed himself while simultaneously inhaling the perfume from one of Otero’s scarves. Her own irresistible temptation was the gaming table, and she gambled away money as quickly as she earned it, if not quicker, being at one stage 8 million francs in debt to the casino.
The end of the 19th century marked the end of Otero’s best years. And by the end of World War I, which brought down a number of her royal ex-lovers, Otero had taken the hint and retired, settling into bourgeois respectability in Nice. But sadly she was hypnotised again and again by the spinning of the roulette wheel. And as she tried her hand in the Monte Carlo casino, there was a reminder of former glory to mock her in her decline; a nude painting, depicting Otero alongside de Pougy and d’Alencon, which dominated the Salle Blanche.
Once the lean years arrived they went on and on. Otero finally died in 1965 at the age of 97, having exhausted the anecdotes which were all she had left of her fame. “She was constantly talking about her past, and I was not listening any more,” complained a neighbour who knew her in later life. “It was always the same: feasts, princes, champagne.”
Tomorrow: more suicide, more champagne