In the annals of self-invention, Emilie-Louise Delabigne was an Olympian. Giving herself an invented first name that rhymed with the French for “your highness” and inserting spaces that made her surname seem more aristocratic, she also christened herself a “Comtesse.” In reality, Comtesse Valtesse de la Bigne was the teenage prostitute daughter of a prostitute mother. For single, working-class women in 19th century Paris, selling one’s flesh was one of the few routes for upward mobility. And how she rose!
As chronicled in the page-turning biography The Mistress of Paris: The 19th Century Courtesan Who Built an Empire on a Secret, Valtesse graduated from being a grisette (streetwalker) to a lorette (kept woman) to, ultimately, the surprisingly refined realm of courtesan–a high-priced, publicly revered mistress to wealthy and powerful men. Her lovers included military men, politicians, even painters such as Eduard Detaille. Emile Zola’s novel Nana was based in part on her, and Manet painted her portrait. When politician Leon Gambetta accidentally shot himself, the press wondered if Valtesse–his neighbor–was somehow involved, and she was also name-dropped in the scandalous anti-semitic milestone, the Dreyfus Affair.
She was a unique beauty, with red hair that was marveled at in society pages–which tracked her movements the way TMZ chronicles the Kardashians today. But looks alone are not what catapulted Valtesse to riches and public fascination. A classic auto-didact, she was a voracious reader, a savvy political observer, and an astute collector of art. It’s clear that distinguished men paid handsomely for her company both in and out of bed.
The sheer willpower of Valtesse reverberates off the pages of Catherine Hewitt’s book. Valtesse deposits her two sickly babies with her mother, paying for their keep. She sleeps with journalists in exchange for good press. She rarely if ever revealed any of her sorrows…it wasn’t becoming. And so, while the Herculean task of maintaining beauty, fashionability and mystique is carefully documented in this book, there are few hints of any real underlying sorrow. Was she really so calculating that true love never touched her? We get a clear view of the public Valtesse, but not enough of the woman in private.
Valtesse knew how to make people want more. This book does, as well. That hollowness at its cor e perhaps simply reflects a characteristic of its heroine. (Towards the end of her life, when she no longer needed to perpetuate a mythic status, Valtesse had her ancestors painted on the walls of her home. All but one were fictional.) Still, the easy-to-read, if cliche writing (“As voices hummed and glasses clinked, the staff move about silently, each performing his or her role to perfection.”) is a guilty-pleasure way to bone up on French history and social life from the 1850s to the turn of the 20th century.