A biographer debuts with the astonishing story of Comtesse Valtesse de la Bigne (1848-1910), who rose from poverty and prostitution to enormous wealth, influence, and controversy.
Hewitt—who studied French literature and art, pursuits that led her to the woman she calls Valtesse through much of the tale—begins with the serendipitous discovery in 1933 of some of Valtesse’s vast art collection. The author then retreats to the 1840s and tells us the compelling story of Valtesse’s mother, a woman who returns much later on to threaten her daughter’s hard-won status. Born as “Louise,” Valtesse was fortunate with her stunning good looks (lustrous red hair her most striking feature), and although she began as a street prostitute, her looks, good fortune, and insatiable desires to read and learn transformed her quickly into a highly desirable companion for powerful men. She eventually amassed a fortune, educated herself broadly, collected priceless works of art, associated with some of the great artists of her time, including Manet and Édouard Detaille, lived in great opulence, and became a glittering celebrity. Hewitt’s work is nonjudgmental and even, at times, drop-jawed admiring. Every new twist in Valtesse’s life brings surprises. She published books that sold well, created works of art for popular shows (one attended by Buffalo Bill), dazzled the south of France, and survived some potentially damning court cases (two involving her mother). Hewitt shows us Valtesse’s circumspection, as well: her great care to avoid scandal (one episode, sex on a train, threatened and then diminished) and her preparation for retirement. The author’s diction is at times a little conventional and even clichéd. She writes, for example, that Valtesse “had won the heart of Paris.” But her intriguing portrait shines through.
A thoroughly researched and clearly written account of a determined and talented woman and of an era.