Among the historical parade of feted ladies of pleasure, Cora Pearl stands out as one of the most famous and desired of all. The original article I wrote can be found here.
Nineteenth-century Europe was a heyday for the infamous courtesans, essentially high-class prostitutes who occupied a nebulous ‘demimonde’ (or ‘half-world’) just outside the strictures of proper society. The best known courtesans often became fabulously wealthy through their associations with aristocratic men. Though courtesans were never fully accepted among the cream of Europe’s elite, they were often able to live an unusually independent lifestyle, despite sometimes humble beginnings and disapproving clucks from their society sisters. And perhaps no one embodied the spirit of the 19th-century demimonde better than the notorious Cora Pearl.
Cora’s Life in England and France
She was born Emma Elizabeth Crouch, in 1835 or 1838, possibly in Plymouth, England but more likely in London. Little is known of her childhood, except that she inherited some musical talent from her father, composer and cellist Frederick Nicholls Crouch. She received an education in France, a country she adored and would later make her permanent home. Back in London, she decided to try her hand as an actress, a profession that in those days was practically synonymous with prostitution.
She embarked on a career, but soon found she was attracting more attention for her feminine charms than her acting ability. Though photographs and contemporary written accounts portray a woman who was striking if not a great beauty, Cora apparently possessed sex appeal in spades, along with great intelligence, wit, and an independent spirit. This suite of qualities drew the attention of hotel owner Robert Bignell, who showered her with gifts and took her to Paris, where she decided to stay. She changed her name to Cora Pearl and started out on dual careers on the stage and in the boudoir.
The Code of the Courtesan
Unlike common prostitutes, who haunted taverns and street corners and serviced all comers for a few pennies, courtesans operated in an unspoken matrix of rules and etiquette similar to the high society paradigm. They often received clients in their own opulent homes, drummed up controversy and business by making conspicuous appearances at the opera and other society functions, and generally expected (and got) fabulous sums in cash and gifts in return for their attentions. Often they became the well-paid mistresses of royal patrons, and raked in the benefits before moving on to be kept by the next wealthy benefactor.
Cora and the Duke of Rivoli
This was certainly true in Cora’s case, as her titillating act on the Paris stage captured the heart of the Duke of Rivoli, who bought her two houses, along with a staff of servants to maintain them. He also gave her a taste for gambling, a habit that would cause her a great deal of misery further down the line. But in the meantime, Cora lived the high life, trooping around in diamond-encrusted boots, serving herself up at parties on silver platters or in tubs of champagne, and gliding around in up-to-the-minute fashions by lauded designers like Laferriére and Charles Worth.
Cora’s Lovers and Fortunes
Her lovers included Prince Willem of Orange (who would later become king of Holland), Napoleon’s half-brother the Duke of Maynard, and the emperor’s cousin Prince Napoleon. The affairs were certainly lucrative; by the end of the 1860s, Cora owned several houses, stables with sixty fine horses, and millions of dollars worth of dresses, lingerie, and jewelry. Her career on the stage and elsewhere had made her the talk of Paris. But of course all good things eventually come to an end.
Gambling Debts and Ruination
Cora had never been particularly good with money, and when gambling debts began piling up in 1876, she began selling off her possessions, though she was still able to retain enough to live comfortably for a while. During the Franco-Prussian War, she opened up one of her enormous houses to wounded officers and nursed them back to health, all the while waiting for the return of her exiled benefactor, Prince Napoleon.
Unfortunately in his absence Cora drew the obsessive and unwanted attentions of Alexander Duval, who gave her all his money before shooting himself on her doorstep. Though he survived, rumors spread that Cora had left him to die without summoning help, and the ensuing outcry essentially ruined her. A move to London proved fruitless, as the scandal was already known there, so she returned to Paris, a shunned woman with no wealthy men to help put her back on her feet.
Cora’s Mysterious Funeral
Though she never sank into destitution despite all her setbacks, it was in relatively downscale surroundings that she died in 1886 of intestinal cancer. A star at the last, her funeral was arranged by an unknown benefactor who turned the affair into the most lavish the city had ever seen. Whoever this mystery man was, he made absolutely sure that the world would never forget Cora Pearl.
Hickman, Katie (2004). Courtesans: Money, Sex and Fame in the Nineteenth Century. Harper Perennial. ISBN: 0007743971.
“The Little Extras – The Society Divas: Cora Pearl.” The Divas Site. divasthesite.com