A joyful celebration of the lives of famous courtesans from early Rome to early Hollywood, with the emphasis on their strengths (and not what some might consider their moral lapses).
Like most of Griffin’s work (What Her Body Thought, 1999, etc.), even this reasonably light-hearted subject is dense with ideas about relationships, women’s independence, beauty, power, body, and soul. It is organized by the seven virtues attributed to the most successful courtesans—timing, beauty, cheek, brilliance, joie de vivre, grace, and charm—in that order. Dancing in and out of each chapter, sometimes literally, are tales of courtesans chosen to represent the virtue on the table. In the chapter on “Brilliance,” for instance, we meet 15th-century Venice’s Veronica Franco (an honored poet as well as an honored cortigiano), the 17th-century Ninon de Lenclos (renowned for her wit), and the 19th-century performer Emilienne d’Alencon (who “played the role of a bimbo brilliantly”). As in the other chapters, Griffin uses her theme to launch a riff on, in this case, brilliance. For instance, she reflects on the light in the paintings of Tintoretto, on spiritual illumination, on sensuality, and on the sparks of intellectual give-and-take that fire the imagination. Many of her subjects are the courtesans—Les Grandes Horizontales—who decorated 19th-century France. Among them were Marie Duplessis (the model for Alexander Dumas’s La Dame aux Camelias); La Belle Otero (who gambled away the considerable fortune she earned as a courtesan); and Liane de Pougy (who later entered a convent). Curiously, Griffin also includes Marion Davies and Marlene Dietrich, who, if not exactly courtesans, embodied the virtues of the femme gallante. An epilogue offers the end-of-life stories of the historic courtesans and a glossary lists terms familiar to the demimonde. Who knew there were so many synonyms for “courtesan”?
Charming and graceful but with rich undertones—like the courtesans themselves.