Cora Pearl (1835-8 July 1886) was a famous courtesan of the 19th century French demimonde, born Emma Elizabeth Crouch.
Her date and place of birth are disputed, as she was believed to have forged her birth certificate, giving the date as 23 February 1842, and the place as Caroline Place, East Stonehouse, Plymouth, though it is more likely that she was born in London in 1835, and the family moved to Plymouth about 1837.
Her father was the cellist and composer Frederick Nicholls Crouch. Pearl had inherited enough musical talent to perform the role of Cupid in an 1867 production of Jacques Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld.
While she was still trying to find her way in London, Pearl became involved in a life of prostitution, and happened to meet several reasonably wealthy men who were interested in becoming involved with her for more than just an evening's amusement. These men needed little convincing, as their main concern was an involvement with a woman who was pretty, and who could be socially acceptable, intelligent, witty and discreet. This was her doorway into life as a courtesan.
She became the mistress of Robert Bignell, the proprietor of the Argyll Room. Together they visited Paris, a place she fell in love with so much that she refused to return to London with Bignell. In Paris she adopted the name of Cora Pearl, and embarked on a theatrical career, but was more successful for the sex appeal she exhibited than any other talents. Cora had learned excellent manners at the convent school she had attended in her youth, which helped her appeal to wealthy men. Cora's theatrical reputation quickly began to spread, and it was not long before several rich and powerful men of France were involved with her romantically. Although she had little money, she began wearing dresses by Charles Worth and Laferriere with the idea that her appearance of wealth would attract wealthy men to her, and she was right.
Victor Massena, the Duke of Rivoli, became her first major benefactor around this time. However, while with him, she developed a serious gambling habit, and after bailing her out financially one too many times, the Duke ended their affair. But she was developed new benefactors, including some of the richest, most powerful men in Europe.
A skilled craftsman of the time earned between two and four francs a day, she earned 5,000 a night. Her extravagant income allowed her to perform acts such as dancing nude on a carpet of orchids and then bathing before her dinner guests in a silver tub full of champagne, and no one seemed bothered by her Cockney French, or her frank self interest. According to Duc de Grammont-Caderousse, "If the Fréres Provençaux served an omlette with diamonds in it, Cora would be there every night."
Her lovers included, Prince Willem of Orange, son of King William III of the Netherlands; Prince Achille Murat, grandson of Joachim Murat; and the Duc de Morny, Napoleon III's half-brother. Morny, described by one historian as "a taller, handsomer edition of the Emperor," has been said to be the most intelligent and distinguished of her lovers, with an insatiable sexual appetite.
As mistress of the Emperor's brother, she felt important enough to rent the little Chateau de Beausejour on the banks of the Loiret outside Orleans in 1864, where she spent a small fortune entertaining. A few years after Morny's premature death in 1865, Cora became the mistress to Prince Napoleon, cousin to Emperor Napoleon III. He bought her two homes in Paris and supported her financially until 1874.
Pearl's activities had earned her great wealth. By the late 1860s, she owned several houses, stables, the finest wardrobe and extravagant jewellery. British accounts reported that one bill for lingerie from a supplier in Paris came to more than £18,000.
Pearl's lifestyle did have a cost. One wealthy man, Alexandre Duval, harassed her constantly, never ceasing in his attempts to manipulate her. He threw large sums of money at her, and was extremely jealous of her involvement with other men. Her attempts at ending the relationship were unsuccessful. When she finally was able to end the affair, he came to her home, produced a gun and shot himself on her doorstep. (Duval was severely injured, but survived.) Pearl did not summon for help, nor contact the authorities. Instead, she retreated into her house, and went to sleep. Rumours of the incident spread quickly, and abruptly ended her theatre career. She fled to London, thinking that a change of scene might improve her spirits and her reputation, only to find that rumour had traveled faster than her ship.
Her attempts at continuing her career as a courtesan in London were unsuccessful, as few men of wealth wanted to have her as an acquaintance. Returning to Paris, Pearl was dismayed to find that much had changed. The admirers of the past were gone. A new conservatism prevailed, and like London, no wealthy men would take her on.
Her gambling habit continued, and she soon learned that shopkeepers and casinos expected to be paid promptly, one of the life skills Pearl had never mastered. However, she no longer had a wealthy benefactor to pick up the debt. In desperation, around 1876 she began to sell her possessions, first slowly, then ever faster, and returned from time to time to a life in prostitution. She lived in relative comfort for ten years despite her rising debt. By 1886, desperately ill with intestinal cancer, Pearl was forced to move to a shabby rooming house, where she died in poverty and virtually without anyone taking notice.
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