From the Pre-Revolutionary period to the 3rd Republic 1770-1870 - Part VII

7 June 2023


Zoom lecture

Sex, Theater and the Music hall:

The Courtesans of the Belle Epoque

with Sylvie Koneski

The profile of the celebrated courtesan (or spy?), Mata Hari in 1910
The profile of the celebrated courtesan (or spy?), Mata Hari in 1910

With nearly 300 cafés-concerts and 40 theaters, the Paris of the Belle Epoque was full of places where the bourgeois come to amuse themselves. Advertized on colorful posters, the names, faces and bodies of the Belle Otero, Liane de Pougy, Cléo de Mérode, Emilienne d'Alençon, Lina Cavalieri and Mata Hari (false courtesan or real spy?), were guaranteed to move the crowds. From the Casino de Paris to the Olympia, via the Alcazar and the Folies Bergère, the "cocottes" competed with each other without mercy.


Caroline Otero and Mata Hari are known for their sensual dances, Emilienne d'Alençon and Lina Cavalieri conquered the theaters, while the angelic Cléo de Mérode acquired international fame thanks to her training as a ballerina. A private mansion, a car, rivers of diamonds, furs... the "cocottes" were paid fortunes by their lovers in order to offer themselves the lifestyle of great ladies: According to Emilienne d'Alençon: "When you sleep with a bourgeois, you are a whore. When you sleep with a prince, you are a favorite.” Some even improvised themselves as journalists: Liane de Pougy became editor-in-chief of the weekly magazine L'Art d'être jolie, and Lina Cavalieri gave her beauty advice in the monthly magazine Femina.


"Courtesans are an exception, wrote Simone de Beauvoir, not because of their talent ... but they enjoy a power and a great independence that women did not possess at that time."

La Belle Otero, ca. 1895
La Belle Otero, ca. 1895

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