Continued from Part I
One of the oldest restaurants in Paris is Lapérouse. A veritable institution of La Belle Epoque, it features tiny clues as to the real goings on behind the closed doors of its infamous private dining rooms. Tell tale scratch marks on the mirrors are sure to pique la curiosité…Legend has it that Lapérouse was (and perhaps still is…) where the rich and powerful patriarchs of high society would arrange their discrete rendez-vous with the superstars of La Belle Epoque: The courtisanes. These assignations came at a hefty price, and when diamonds were offered up as payment for an evening’s entertainment, they didn’t hesitate to scratch the mirrors with them to ensure they weren’t cheap glass. The marks are not only a testament to the high-octane desirability of the grandes horizontales as they were called, but also proof of their steely business acumen.
To understand the courtisane-mania of La Belle Epoque, one only has to think of Kim Kardashian and the near-hysteria of her followers. These women rose from their humble origins to attain significant wealth, influence, and freedom in a society that strictly limited women’s roles to that of daughter, wife and mother. That sex was the only way out is nothing new. In the Paris of La Belle Epoque, an estimated 8,000 prostitutes pounded the pavement, plying their trade in appalling conditions. Only a mere handful rose to the top, thanks to their exceptional beauty, intelligence and esoteric talents.
The ebullience of the age propelled them to stratospheres untouched by prosaic morality. As the famous Goncourt publishing brothers asserted: They break the monotony, the correctness, and the order of society, they add something wild to the world.
The day Natalie Clifford Barney first set eyes on the most notorious courtisane of them all, Liane de Pougy, it was love at first sight. Natalie, like many a maharajah, banker, prince, industrialist, poet or politician before her, literally threw herself at Liane de Pougy’s feet. Liane was at the apex of her glory, the Queen of the Courtisanes, known as La Divine. A classic beauty with a penchant for pearls, she had already amassed a small fortune and was especially astute when it came to working her brand. Not only was she a star performer at the Folies Bergères, but she would go on to create a women’s fashion magazine and launch a literary career as a writer.
Liane finally succumbed to Natalie’s ardor, when she appeared on her doorstep disguised as a page boy and professing to be a messenger of Sappho. Their passionate love story, which Liane immortalized in her roman à clé “Sapphic Idyl,” was a rarefied piece of performance art.
It bears noting that while sheer determination propelled both women to center stage, money ensured their freedom. Unconstrained by morality, hypocrisy or fear, they were at liberty to openly express their homosexuality – much to the delight of the demi-monde of la Belle Époque.
Liane de Pougy commissioned René Lalique to design the moonstone ring in the Galerie des Bijoux as a gift to her Moonbeam, the name she gave Natalie.
The nocturnal bats Lalique sculpted in silver were a symbol of the sapphic love that united the two. The provocative inscription, Tant me plaît que tu souffres de me comprendre et de m’aimer, captures the high drama of their relationship.
Natalie Clifford Barney did suffer tremendously, as Liane refused to give up her status as the Queen of the Courtisanes and the life of luxury it procured.
Their correspondence, recently published in 2019, reveals the tensions between the two women, as their idyll was coming to an end.
In one letter, Natalie implores Liane: Yet you can now well-afford to love people for who they are, rather than what they can give you. But you cannot see this, and that is why I so resent your life which puts everything in a balance of false values.
Her pain is encapsulated in a single line: Why must you hurt me so, in order to give pleasure to others?
Liane’s response was both lucid and pragmatic: You know full well that if I had the means to live happily ever after, I never would have allowed any man to touch me. Your clarity is far from brilliant enough, nor sure enough, Moonbeam, to guide me along a straight path.
Ultimately, Natalie’s lavish lifestyle was subsidized by family money, while Liane’s was hard-earned. Her modest origins had left their mark, and the fear of poverty both haunted and compelled her to keep working.
Later in life, her beauty intact, Liane de Pougy married a Romanian prince. After a lifetime’s experience of earthly delights and debauchery, she turned to her Catholic faith for solace. Once widowed, she became a devout auxiliary member of an order of nuns, and took the name of Sister Anne-Marie Madeleine de la Pénitence. She died at 83, in her suite at the Ritz Hotel in Lausanne, which she had converted into a sparse, monastic cell.
Natalie Clifford Barney pursued her literary career and the many amorous adventures that deeply informed her art. She became the revered hostess of one of the most exclusive literary salons in Paris, held in her home in Paris. She died in 1972 at the age of 95.
Compelled once again by la curiosité, one can still follow the clues that lead to 7, rue Jacob, where, if the heavy porte cochère is ajar, one can peer into Natalie Clifford Barney’s courtyard, and just about discern the Doric columns of her secret Temple de l’Amitié.
But that is another story…
Jean Chalon, Liane de Pougy. Courtisane, princesse, sainte. Flammarion, Paris, 1994.
Natalie Clifford Barney & Liane de Pougy, Correspondance amoureuse. Édition de Suzanne Robichon et Olivier Wagner. Introduction et postface d’Olivier Wagner, Gallimard, Paris, juin 2019.
Lorraine Chesterman Holl is a Canadian freelance writer who has lived in Paris for 27 years. She has an extensive experience in advertising, having worked as a Creative Director for international agency networks, both in Canada and in France.
Lorraine Chesterman Holl @morvan_forever