An English Courtesan in Paris

In the midst of France’s sumptuous Second Empire, their most celebrated, most infamous, most desired courtesan was… British.

eliza crouch cora pearlShe was Cora Pearl, or rather, she was Eliza Emma Crouch, or maybe she was Emma Elizabeth Crouch. She was definitely a Crouch though, who was maybe born in Plymouth, England in February of 1842? But more likely she was born in 1835. Her father was a composer and cellist who promptly abandoned his wife and six daughters to escape his debts in America and… fight for the American Confederacy during its Civil War? His choices were definitely not the best.

If you can’t already tell, there are a fair number of holes in the history of Cora Pearl, many of which have been filled in with vivid, salacious, and/or thematically-convenient stories and details, some from her lifetime, others from fraudulent documents over a century later. At this point, it’s a little difficult to separate fact from fiction, but maybe that’s how the conqueror of Napoleons want it…

Sucks To Be A Woman

Let’s set the scene: Victorian England! All prim and proper on the outside, oozing with seediness on the inside. At this point, women were mostly restricted to the home. When they did work, it was in a rather narrow lane of not particularly lucrative employment. Most working women were domestic servants, but you could also bother them at places like textile factories, breweries, bakeries, and laundries.

So, maybe they work in hellish conditions, save a little money up, and meet a nice fellah. Once he puts a ring on it, he gets all of her incredibly hard-earned dough. And anything else she owned. Until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, women in the UK were not considered their own legal entity once they got their MRS degree: anything she’d owned free and clear– property, money, hell, even copyrights on something she’d created– was surrendered to her husband. Women also generally didn’t inherit anything significant; sons got the good stuff like titles, houses, land, and money. Single women, however, were allowed to own stuff, so if you were a lady who owned something, best to not to let him make an honest woman of you.  

After Cora’s father left them, her mother, Lydia, moved a man of means into the house, which story goes, was Cora’s first glimpse into this particular way of the world. Either she couldn’t stand to live in the house and begged to be sent away, or she was sent away unwillingly; regardless, our future internationally famous-courtesan was sent to a convent Burgundy, France. There she learned things like French, etiquette, and according to some, the finer points of lesbian sex.

Get A Room

Soon, she was back in England, living with her grandmother in London. Armed with an education, she got a job! As an assistant in a hat shop. Don’t be fooled– this was not a as glamorous or as high-paying as it sounds. In fact, many young girls in this position often resorted to also becoming sex workers– a majority of them were kept mind-bogglingly naive, often without friends or relations in the big city, and with no real career prospects for supporting themselves, which added up to easy game for men in positions of power. Some were able to give it all up after marriage; others were not so lucky, dying in squalor of horrible diseases.

At 13, Cora was no exception to the hat-seller-part-time-prostitute scenario. The common lore is that she was invited by an older man into joining him at a gin joint where he got her drunk, raped her in her drunken (or unconscious) state and left her with £5 (roughly $750 in 2018) as payment. This incident supposedly left her with two feelings: 1) “an instinctive horror of men,” which seems fair, and 2) the sense that she had zero interest in love. This could be apocryphal, but it’s certainly representative of the kind of thing that did happen and it doesn’t seem insane she felt 

cora pearl

love served her far better as a transaction.

With her small fortune, she moved out of her grandmother’s house into a room in Covent Garden where she began her intentional prostitution. It wasn’t too long before she was the mistress to Robert Bignell, a wine merchant who was on the local council. Bignell ran a casino of sorts in his wine cellar where all strata of Victorian prostitute could be found: from the lower class girls who hung around the door hoping to nab a dude on his way out, to the better dressed, more passable women allowed into the wine-cellar-casino as entertainers, to the women who arrived with the upper crust guests. These women were courtesans– sophisticated, highly-paid women who were either mistressesor had multiple lovers that paid their living expenses. Cora saw her future.

When Mr. Bignell took Cora on a vacation to Paris, he returned to London alone. Cora had found her true love– the city of Paris. It was in the City of Love that this avowed stone-cold boss when from Crouch to Pearl: Enchante, Cora Pearl. Despite her sexy new name, she was back on the streets, starting her climb all over again.

From English Prostitute to French Pearl

Now let’s set the French scene: France was in the midst of its Second French Empire, lorded over by Napoleon III, nephew of the Napoleon. Napoleon III started out as just a measly president of the French Republic, but in true Napoleonic fashion, when he was denied his second term, he decided to just turn the country back into an empire and claim the top job for himself. This was the era of the demimonde, meaning “half world,” a word Alexandre Dumas coined for the opulent, debauched culture of the French upper class in the 1850s. Lots of gambling, promiscuity, and lavish spending on clothes, homes, and servants. Think the Kardashians on steroids.

Victor MassénaHer first entree into this swanky club was with a wealthy young buck named Victor Masséna, Duke of Rivoli, Prince of Essling. He was enamored of her, setting her up with servants, a private chef, money for gambling, and jewels. He also bought her her first horse and she was quite the equestrian, described as “…an Amazon…” It’s said she was nicer to her horses than to her lovers, but horses are decidedly less troublesome. Her five year affair with the duke didn’t stop her from cavorting with other men, like Prince Achille Murat, an older man.

It’s not long until she is the courtesan in Paris. Her high-flying lovers included Ludovic, Prince of Orange, Duc de Grammont-Caderousse and heir to the throne in the Netherlands as well as Charles Duc de Morny, the half-brother of Napoleon III. Later, she bagged yet another Napoleon– Napoleon Joseph Charles Paul Bonaparte, cousin of Emperor Napoleon III. He was her longest liaison, lasting almost a decade.  

Entertaining such important, rich men meant she needed the pad to match, so she rented a chateau in Loiret that had impressive gardens, stained glass windows, and a custom-made, massive bathtub she would fill with Champagne to bathe in. Napoleon Joseph Charles Paul Bonaparte (the cousin) bought her “Les Petites Tuileries,” a veritable palace.

With a sizable income from generous lovers, she lived a ostentatious, theatrical life. Legend has it, at a dinner party she hosted, she excused herself to check on the next course and reappeared, carried in on the silver platter, wearing nothing but parsley. She dyed her hair crazy colors, often to match her outfit or activity, opting for a vivid yellow to match her carriage’s upholstery, or blue to match her dress. Cora was no fan of the “No makeup” makeup lewk, rocking a full face, including iridescent powders to make her face shimmer, so really we can thank her for this highlighter craze.

courtesan cora pearlMoney talks, so talk: A single evening with Cora Pearl would purportedly cost you ₣10,000 (very roughly around $50,000 in 2015). Her jewelry collection was estimated to be worth a million francs (roughly $5 million in 2015). Her clothes were specially made by the famed House of Worth, the haute couture of the day. Still, she apparently sent money to her mother in England and even to her shit, absentee-dad in America. Daddy issues, man. Her mind are what men paid for– her theatricality, wit, fierce independence, and creativity is what men were paying the big bucks for. They could get laid anytime, in any way, for for cheaper.

Despite being famous as a courtesan, Cora was admitted into the events of the highest levels of society. She made no attempt to conform once there either– at a masqued ball she dressed– or rather didn’t– as Eve in the Garden of Eden. She appeared as a half-naked Cupid in Offenbach’s Orphée aux Enfers in front of all the members of the most exclusive haunt of French nobility, the Jockey Club. A newspaper quipped “Apparently the beautiful Cora Pearl had already munched up a brochette [skewer] of five or six historical fortunes with her pretty white teeth.”

But, all things must end. And egomaniacal autocrats wielding large armies often speed up these ends. In 1870, Otto von Bismarck starts the Franco-Prussian war. Basically, von Bismarck wants to unify all of Germany, so he can have the whole thing, so he provokes France into war in order to get the southern German states onboard, using the ol’ common enemy trope.  During the war, Cora turned her homes into military hospitals and gave vast sums of her own fortune to the war effort– didn’t stop Germany from winning. To everyone’s shock and awe, Germany absolutely trampled France, and far quicker than anticipated.

Napoleon III is captured by the Germans and with that the Second French Empire exits left and France, once again, becomes a republic. The rest of Napoleon’s family scooted on over to England– Cora in tow– to avoid German siege. Despite being part of the French imperial entourage, Cora was asked to leave the Grosvenor Hotel on account of her, ahem, reputation. Ironically, that very same hotel now as the Cora Pearl suite you can stay in!

Cora returned to Paris, but the party of the Second Empire was officially over. Prince Napoleon (the cousin) very reluctantly broke off their affair. Her incredible spending left her with very little money, so she found herself slowly selling everything off.

Her career took a turn for the worse in 1872 when her rich, ten-years-younger lover, Alexandre Duval, lost his shit. He’d become consumed by his affair with her and, according to sources, spent his entire fortune on Cora. When she tried to get rid of the lunatic, he showed up at her house with a gun– always a great move. During a tussle with her staff, the gun misfired and he was wounded. He almost died, because this is a time when the common cold could kill you, so you should really not be messing around with bullets, but the whole violent thing scandalized French society. She was subsequently ordered to leave the country. Again, she was told to leave because someone else tried to kill her. Logic.

Get Another Room

By 1883, she was renting a room above a carriage builder on the Champs-Elysées, turning tricks. Didn’t stop her from gambling though. Unfortunately, luck was not with her and she was evicted from her apartment, all her remaining belongings were confiscated for unpaid rent.

An old acquaintance of hers spotted the 50-year old Peal outside a Monte Carlo casino one night. He wrote of the encounter, “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 published her memoirs, in 1886, but it was a flop despite the eager anticipation from readers. They were hoping for salacious stories and a reveal of all her high-powered lovers, but instead they got a watered down version that failed to satisfy. In the 1980s, an author claimed to have found her real memoir, which was as sexy as hoped, but it was revealed to be a fraud.

Cora died on July 8th, 1886 of intestinal cancer. Her obituary appeared in newspapers in both Paris and London. Her funeral costs were anonymously paid by former lowers and she is buried under Emma Eliza Crouch, in grave in Batignolles Cemetery (plot 10, row 4), though it seems there’s no marker anymore.

So, how do you drink like Cora Pearl, “…the renown, the preoccupation, the scandal and the toast of Paris…”?

A New York Times article from 1867 makes mention of a drink called Les Larmes de Cora Pearl— the Tears of Cora Pearl– sold by the famous gourmand and journalist, Baron Brisse. I haven’t been able to concretely nail down what this was, but it was more than likely Lacryma Christi wine relabelled.

Mount Vesuvius

Lacryma Christi is a sweet, Neapolitan wine made from grapes grown on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. The name is Latin for “tears of Christ” because it was said one day Jesus was just sitting there weeping because Lucifer fell from heaven and his special tears sprouted some special grapes. Before Jesus was crying, the Roman god Bacchus was crying about the beauty of the area and his tears made the grapevines on Vesuvius. Whoever you believe was sobbing, doesn’t hurt that the region has rich, volcanic soil and a Mediterranean climate.  

NYTimes ArticleSo, the joke was, these were the reigning saucy angel of Paris’ tears– Cora Pearl. In the New York Times article it states: “… Baron Brisse is right in calling his brand the ‘Tears of Cora Pearl,’ The price o the ‘Tears’ is seven francs the litre. ‘Not so dear as her smiles,’ says a Parisian wit.”

Despite these wines once being super popular in American-Italian restaurants, and still cheaply available in Naples, Cora’s namesake sounds like an expensive bottle, so feel free to splurge on what looks good to you. The region produces reds, whites, sparking, and rosés plus fortified dessert wines.

Lacryma Christis are not wines you really want to sit around apparently: if you choose a white, you’re going to want to drink it within a year of the vintage; the reds give you a little more wiggle room, but still, you’re looking at only maybe four years after the vintage year.

Mastroberardino lacryma christiMastroberardino offers up a bottle of red Lacryma Christi for roughly $20. Feel free to print out her picture and tape it over the label. (This is a great wine for pizza, which doesn’t seem in keeping with what Miss Pearl would’ve been eating, but never turn down an opportunity to eat pizza).


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