One of my favorite things to do in Paris—really—is explore the cemeteries. The most famous one is Père Lachaise, where a host of celebs are buried, including most famously Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison. But it is also a great place for learning about the great courtesans of the Belle Epoque. As an example, Chopin is buried there, the lover of George Sand—a scandalous lady if ever there was one—and so is Colette, in whose novels, such as Gigi and Chéri, courtesans are a major theme. But the great cemetery for Paris courtesans is really Montmartre, which is also a lovely place to take a shady, quiet walk in central Paris—right around the corner from the Moulin Rouge —so we take our Shady Ladies Tours Courtesans of Paris tour there, as you can see in the feature photo.
There are many famous people buried in Montmartre, such as Stendhal and Berlioz. But courtesans and their friends (lovers, artists who portrayed them, etc.) are a special theme. The most famous grave in the cemetery is that of a woman whose name you will not know, Alphonsine Plessis. But you will probably know her as the Lady of the Camellias or La Traviata (or Camille as she is known in the Cukor movie, where she is played by Greta Garbo). She is a fascinating person, almost unknowable today because the myth her lover Alexandre Dumas fils made out of her after she died—the whore with the heart of gold, more or less—is so strong that it overwhelms the slight biographical record. Even her grave was erected for her by someone else, the young aristocrat who secretly married her and is part-inspiration for the role of Alfredo in Verdi’s opera. It is still a site of pilgrimage in Paris today: you almost always find it surrounded by camellias, left by her admirers.
There are lots of other scandalous people in the cemetery too. Alexandre Dumas, fils, is there, for instance, as is the composer Offenbach—lover of the great courtesan Valtesse de la Bigne, whose amazing bed we see on the Shady Ladies Paris tour. And all these things are interconnected. For instance, Valtesse’s favorite book was The Lady of the Camellias, and she once showed the (by then) elderly Dumas around her art collection. But when he asked to see her famous bed, Valtesse, snappy as ever, apparently replied “But maître, it is far beyond your means.” Another prominent grave is that of Degas, whose paintings of ballerinas often include the gentlemen who supported them (though modern viewers generally don’t realize who they are of why they are in the picture).
Yet another grave is that of the great dancer Nijinsky, who scandalized unshockable Paris by miming the action of dry humping a nymph’s scarf in the ballet Afternoon of a Faun. One of my absolute favorites is
the grave of Louise Weber, a famous dancer at the Moulin Rouge known as La Goulue (the glutton) from the way she finished off customers’ drinks as she passed by them while dancing. La Goulue was a friend and favorite subject of Toulouse-Lautrec and one of the most famous dancers of the cancan (popularized by Offenbach in his operetta Orpheus in the Underworld) —which is where the Shady Ladies Paris tour group is doing the cancan in the featured photo. So come do the cancan with us yourself on the next Shady Ladies Tours Courtesans of Paris tour: we’ll let you in on the secrets of Paris’ racy history, the Paris of where aristocrats and artists mixed with courtesans and dancers—the lively, sexy period known as the Belle Epoque.
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