• Into the Rabbit Hole

Ep 26: Cora Pearl, Extra AF and Ready to Party

If a famous quote could be turned into a person, then “Well behaved women seldom make history,” would be Cora Pearl. A French Courtesan, social celebrity, and all around drama queen.

But she wasn’t always this way.

Cora Pearl was born Emma Elizabeth Crouch in Portsmouth England in 1836, though she would claim to be born in 1842 in her memoir. 7 seems like an odd amount of years to shave off your age.

She grew up in a very loud household. Her parents were musicians, her father a popular composer at the time, and she had 15 siblings.

In her memoir she said:

“I was born to hear a great deal of noise, if not to make it. There was in my case a kind of predestination to clatter.”

In 1847 her father abandoned the family and went to the United States to supposedly escape his debts. While in the US he fought in the civil war, and some of his songs grew to be quite popular with the aristocracy. Can you guess what side he fought on?

The south.

He also married another woman, still married to his first wife, mind you. And had a few more children. Meanwhile, his first wife, Emma’s mother told her and her other children that their father had died. She then immediately found herself a french lover.

She really had no chance to be anything other than dramatic as fuck with these two as her parents.

Her stepfather was not a kind man and immediately shipped many of the children off to boarding school, including Emma. After she completed her schooling in France, Emma returned to England and moved in with her grandmother in London to work as a milliner’s assistant.

Unfortunately, while in London she was violently attacked. In her memoir she describes the attack saying that she was walking home alone from church one day when she was approached by a middle aged man who said he would give her cake. She followed innocently to a nearby bar, but was instead given gin and raped. When she awoke later in a hotel room she found that the man had left 5 pounds on the nightstand.

However, the accounts of this attack differed from each source. The basic story is the same, but some of the details are different. In some, she was leaving the shop in which she worked and was then seduced by this man. In others, she willingly went with and had sex with the man as an easy way to make money. Others still, believe that this might have actually been a story about some assumed abuse from her stepfather.

Whatever the truth is, this encounter ended up opening the door to her becoming a prostitute. She moved out of her grandmothers house and rented a room in Covent Garden where she began entertaining her gentleman callers, one of which, was a man by the name of Robert Bignell.

Robert Bignell was the owner of a famous dance hall turned brothel/gambling house known as the Argyll Rooms. She soon left Covent Gardens and moved into a suite at the Argyll Rooms as Bignell’s mistress. It was through him that she discovered her love for the city of Paris.

She was so in love the city and it’s opulence that she moved there, leaving behind Emma Crouch, and stepping into her new identity Cora Pearl.

Cora knew that life as a Victoria prostitute was often grim and usually ended in death and disease but she was determined not to let that happen to her. But seeing how easily she had become Bignell’s mistress she knew she could have a better life than what would be expected of a girl like her.

It should be noted that at this time prostitution was legal in Paris. You only had to register and undergo routine health inspections.

In Paris, she met a man by the name of Monsieur Roubisse, who groomed her to enter high society. In 1860 she made her societal debut and was supposedly an instant success. With her tiny waist and “bountiful bosom” she quickly became a favorite. But people liked her for more than just her figure. She was impetuous, exuberant, and passionate. Not to mention Extra AF.

She had a string of high class “protectors”, as they were called, starting with Francois Victor Massena, Duke of Rivoli. He showered her with money and gifts, including her first horse. She immediately fell in love with horses and her skill helped her to stand out from the crowd even more. She would go on to a have as many as 60 horses. It was said that “she rode like an amazon” and treated her horses better than her lovers. The Duke of Rivoli would also pay for Cora to go to the gambling dens, one or her favorite pastimes.

By 1860 she was one of the most celebrated courtesans in Paris. Some of her other famous lovers included, Prince William of Orange, heir to the netherlands. The Duke of Morny, half brother of the king Napoleon III. Her longest and most lucrative relationship was with that of Prince Jerome Napoleon.

He bought her several homes, including a small palace called “Les Petites Tuileries” and gave her access to the royal palace so that she could visit him.

On top of the gifts, a night with Cora Pearl was no cheap thing. It cost $10,000 Francs at least. That comes out to over 100,000 dollars today. For one night. And that was just for the “pleasure of her company”, they also had to pay for anything they did together, like gambling.

But it wasn’t her lovers that kept her in the spotlight, it was her outrageousness. In a time when France was known for its extravagance, she was the poster child.

In her memoir she wrote:

“I bathed in pink marble basins, I slept long hours on sofas with the smell of rare flowers, which conjured up dreams of enchanted palaces, and when I awoke, the reality was still finer than my dreams!”

Mademoiselle Cora Pearl

She was rich AF and bougie as all hell. In 1864 she rented a chateau in northern France, known as the Chateau de Beausejour. The luxurious residence was complete with stained glass windows, a fleet of carriages, outrageously expensive decorations and immaculate grounds. Her bedroom included a custom made bronze bath with her initials monogrammed in gold. Just in case you ever forgot whose house it was.

She loved to entertain and throw crazy parties. At one dinner party she told her guests to prepare to “cut into the next dish” about to be served. Which ended up being Cora herself. Served naked on a huge silver platter, garnished with parsley, and carried in by four men.

She would dance in her birthday suit in front of guests or bathe in champagne. She would commission artworks of herself, such as a marble statue of her curvaceous figure. I imagine it stood in the middle of her garden maze as a prize.

She was way beyond her time when it came to fashion, often dyeing her hair colorful hues. Much like we do. Supposedly one time she dyed her hair the same yellow as the carriage she was riding in, and another time she dyed her dogs fur to match her outfit. She would also mix her face powder with silver or pearl to give her face a nice shimmer. So we have her to thank for the awesomeness that is highlighter.

At one point she went to a high society masquerade ball dressed as a notoriously accurate Eve, wearing only a few well placed leaves. She also dallied with the theater, appearing in the operetta Orphee aux Enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld). In the play she appeared on stage as Cupid in nothing but a diamond studded bikini. Which later sold for 50,000 francs.

One reviewer wrote of her performance:

“Cora Pearl made an appearance half-naked on the stage. That evening the Jockey Club in its entirety graced the theatre. All the names… of French nobility were there.”

And it wasn’t just the men of the age that were obsessed with her. Women of the elite were just as enamoured. They liked her loud personality and bold style.

If she were alive today I’m pretty sure she would be an instagram influencer and youtube beauty guru. Probably without all the sex work though.

In 1867, Alfred Delvau wrote a tribute to her in which he said:

“You are today, Madame, the renown, the preoccupation, the scandal and the toast of Paris. Everywhere they talk only of you...”

But the high life couldn’t last forever.

In 1870, the Franco-Prussian war came. Cora’s homes became military hospitals and much of her fortune was donated towards medical care for soldiers. But the real problems for Cora came after the war when a much more conservative government came to power in France.

Her opulent lifestyle and flagrant promiscuity were no longer the norm. The gentleman that she had gained so much from left her, including Prince Jerome. Though from what I’ve seen, he did continue supporting her financially to an extent.

With less men coming to call she could no longer be as choosy, which led to her involvement with a young man by the name of Alexandre Duval. She was not overly fond of him, but he allowed her to maintain her extravagant lifestyle. However, it soon became clear that he was dangerously obsessed with her. With his increasingly concerning behavior and rumors that his family was soon to cut him off financially, Cora broke it off with him.

Alexandre was not pleased with this, so he decided if he couldn’t have her then no one could. On December 19th 1872 he showed up at her house. After a quarrel with the servants, he pulled out a gun and tried to force himself in. In the struggle to get in, he somehow shot himself, and was seriously wounded.

The gossip mill would say that Cora left him to bleed on her doorstep until the morning, but in actuality she brought him inside, sent for a doctor, and sat by his bedside all night. He eventually made a full recovery, but Cora’s reputation was shot, and her downfall continued.

Some sources say that it was after this scandal that the authorities forced her to leave the country.

It wasn’t until 1874 when she received a letter from Prince Jerome stating that he would no longer pay any of her bills that she was finally forced to face reality. Over the next ten years she sold off her assets bit by bit – the houses, the horses, the jewelry. But it wasn’t enough. Some historians believe that if she had liquidated it all at once she might have had better chances, but she couldn’t bear to see it all go, and her gambling addiction would have assured her ruin.

By 1883 she had returned to straight forward prostitution, taking middle class clients, and living in a small flat.

By 1885 she sold her last remaining assets and moved into a boarding house. In a last ditch effort to reclaim her fortune she wrote a memoir.

The book was greatly anticipated, but ended up not selling well. She had changed the names of her high profile lovers and the details were not as salacious as the public had hoped. Proceeds from the book did not save her like she had hoped, but in the end it wouldn’t matter. She died that same year on July 8, 1886 from intestinal cancer. She was 51.

Her death was reported in newspapers around the world, and a former lover anonymously paid for her funeral. She was buried in Paris under her birth name Emma Eliza Crouch.

I took this straight from my source (Allthatsinteresting) because I like the way they worded it.

“Cora Pearl’s unlikely journey from poor English schoolgirl to one of the richest courtesans in all of France is much more than the story of a high-end escort. It’s one of shirking convention and reclaiming one’s independence in the face of the patriarchy.”

I’ll leave you with one last quote from Cora herself.

“I have never deceived anybody because I have never belonged to anybody”

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