I love the image of the woman on the Richard Hudnut Deauville face powder box. I’ve always thought of her as a courtesan dressing for her paramour — she’s just the right combination of innocence and decadence.  The face powder box dates from the early 1920s, but the image of the woman recalls an earlier time. While I love the blues and  rock ‘n roll, I’m also a fan of opera, and to me the woman in the design represents the beautiful but doomed Violetta Valery from Verdi’s  1853 opera La Traviata. Verdi based his opera on the novel Lady of the Camellias by Alexandre Dumas (the younger — it was his father who wrote The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo).

Marie Duplessis

Marie Duplessis

Dumas was born in Paris in 1824, and he was the illegitimate son of novelist Alexandre Dumas and dressmaker Marie-Laure-Catherine Labay. Dumas often tackled complex moral issues in his writings , such as the life of his fictional courtesan Marguerite Gautier. Dumas didn’t have to rely solely on his imagination to tell the story of Marguerite because she was a thinly veiled depiction of Dumas’ former lover Marie Duplessis.

Alexandre and Marie had a relationship that lasted only one year, and their affair was an open secret in Paris. It wasn’t until after Marie’s untimely death that Dumas began to write the story of the lady of the camellias.  Dumas was typical of the time in which he lived, he seemed to have no qualms about taking a mistress, nor about appropriating her life story for his fiction, yet he would write frequently about the evils of prostitution. In fact, Dumas went so far as to propose to the government that all street prostitutes be deported to the colonies — out of sight, out of mind. Not exactly an enlightened approach to public policy and social ills.

Marie’s life story was much different than Dumas’ romanticized version. She was born Rose Alphonsine Plessis in Normandy, France in 1824. Marie’s parents weren’t a good match, and when they split up Marie’s mother abandoned her own family and became employed as the maid to an English family living in France. Marie was left in the care of her father, who shipped her out to the boonies to live with relatives. She lost her virginity at age 12 to a farm hand, and by 13 she’d been returned to her father who began to pimp her out. Despite her earning potential Marie’s father shipped her off again, this time she went to stay with relatives in Paris who owned a grocery. She worked as a clerk in a hat shop and saved enough money to get her own apartment in the Latin Quarter. Because she was vivacious and pretty she soon came to the attention of wealthy men who could buy her a better life than she could afford on her own.

Her first benefactor lasted only as long as his money held out. Marie’s subsequent lovers were wealthier and more powerful in turn, and she was finally able to move out of the Quarter and into a sumptuous apartment on Boulevard de Madelaine. If spending money was an Olympic event,  Marie would have won multiple gold medals. She easily spent 100,000 francs per year on her personal upkeep, not including her staff. By the age of 20 she may have been the queen of the demi-monde in Paris — but she was also dying. Marie had consumption (tuberculosis) and it was destroying her. She knew she didn’t have long to live, and that knowledge, coupled with her deprived upbringing, undoubtedly fueled her compulsive spending and gambling habits.

Heroin Chic redux? An ad from c. 2007

Heroin Chic redux? An ad from c. 2007

Consumption has been common throughout human history. Ironically, during Marie’s lifetime women emulated the visible symptoms of the disease for fashion! People believed that the symptoms of the disease enhanced senstive, artistic dispositions. It was a kind of “TB chic” (just as the so-called “heroin chic” would have its day in the mid-1990s). The white skin, flushed cheeks, and luminous eyes were frequently achieved by using extremely dangerous substances. Among the potions used were compounds containing lead (many women died as a result of lead poisoning) and belladonna. Belladonna (the juice of the poisonous nightshade plant) was used to make a woman’s eyes bright as if she had a fever.

Greta Garbo in Camille

Greta Garbo in Camille

Marlene Dietrich may have presented a tragically romantic vision as she died in Robert Taylor’s arms in the 1936 film version of Camille (one of the many films based upon La Dame aux Camellias)  but Marie’s end was excruciating. Shortly before she died she had met and fallen in love with the composer Franz Liszt. The love may have been reciprocated, but Lizst didn’t take Marie on tour with him. This would have been the time when so-called Listzomania was sweeping Europe, so perhaps he thought better of taking a lover on a tour during which women fought over shreds of his hankies and gloves. Lizst left on tour, and soon afterwards Marie spent her last days in agony before death released her.

Theda Bara

Theda Bara

Marie was deeply in debt when she died, and her belongings were sold at auction — even her pet parrot! The auction drew crowds of people who were mostly interested in the vicarious thrill they could derive by handling the possessions of an infamous courtesan.

Among those in the crowd at the auction was author Charles Dickens. Of the crowd he said: “One could have believed that Marie was Jeanne d’Arc or some other national heroine, so profound was the general sadness.”

Marie’s life was brief, but she achieved immortality through Dumas’ work. Her story has been told many times in film and on stage, and she has been portrayed by actresses such as: Greta Garbo, Eleonora Duse, Lillian Gish, Theda Bara, and Sarah Bernhardt.

Marie’s funeral was reported to have been extravagant — drawing a crowd of hundreds. She is interred in Montmarte Cemetery.

 

 

 

I can recall seeing a photograph of the As The Petals face powder box (manufactured by the Lazell Company) in Laura M.  Mueller’s book “Collectors Encyclopedia of Compacts, Carryalls, and Face Powder Boxes”. I thought it was one of the most beautiful boxes I’d ever seen – and I hoped that someday I’d add one to my collection.  When the box finally popped up for bids on eBay I was determined to win it, and I did. At that time (several years ago), it was the most expensive face powder box I’d ever purchased (it was a little over $100). It dates from the 1910s, is in remarkable condition, and I’ve never regretted buying it.

The design on the box has always reminded me of the dancer Isadora Duncan, considered to be the mother of modern dance. Just as the woman on the powder box, Duncan had a fondness for long flowing scarves (more on this later) and she danced in her bare feet.  I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Isadora was the inspiration for the design on the box.

The dancer was born in San Francisco in 1877. Her family moved to London in 1899, and it was there in the British Museum that she and her brother Raymond immersed themselves in every aspect of the culture of ancient Greece.

“To bring to life again the ancient ideal! I do not mean to say, copy it, imitate it; but to breathe its life, to recreate it in one’s self, with personal inspiration: to start from its beauty and then go toward the future.” (Isadora Duncan, The Art of the Dance)

By 1910 Isadora had borne two children – Deirdre (with theater designer Gordon Craig) and Patrick (with Paris Singer, one of the heirs to the Singer sewing machine fortune).  On April 19, 1913 the children, accompanied by their Scottish nanny, were being driven from Isadora’s townhome in Neuilly-sur-Seine to the Trianon Palace Hotel in Versailles.  The car stalled after narrowly avoiding a collosion with another auto.  The chauffeur got out to crank the machine back to life, but he’d neglected to set the hand brake. The car rolled across the Boulevard Bourdon and plunged into the Seine, where tragically the children and their nanny perished.

Isadora was devastated by the loss and fled to Corfu to spend time with her brother and sister. It wasn’t long after her trip to Corfu that she traveled to Viareggio with the actress Eleonora Duse. Duse had been involved in a lesbian relationship with Italian feminist Lina Poletti, and so the rumor mill ground out stories about the nature of the friendship between the two women.  Because some of the correspondence between them has survived, it appears that the rumors were true.

Isadora was a free spirit who refused to accept the status quo for women. In her quest for a life unfettered by conventional expectations she was drawn to post revolutionary Russia, and moved to Moscow in 1922. Conditions in the new Soviet Socialist Republic were bleak, and when the government failed to make good on their promises to her she returned to the West after only two years.

During her time in Moscow Isadora had become a Soviet citizen due to her marriage to the poet Sergei Yessenin - who was 18 years her junior.  Isadora spoke few words of Russian, and Sergei spoke no foreign languages, so it must have been chemistry that drew the two together. Yessenin was a talented and popular poet, but he was addicted to alcohol and when he was intoxicated he was inclined to rages that frequently ended in violence.  It was no surprise to anyone when Sergei left Isadora and returned to Moscow. Sadly, he soon suffered a mental collapse and was institutionalized. He was released in December of 1925 and attempted suicide by cutting his wrists (and writing a farewell note in his own blood!). When that attempt failed, he succeeded the next day in hanging himself from some heating pipes in a hotel room. Sergei was only 30.

Earlier, I had mentioned that Isadora had a penchant for wearing long flowing scarves – in fact it was one of the reasons that the As The Petals face powder box reminded me so much of her.

On September 14, 1927, Isadora wrapped a long hand painted silk scarf around her neck and got into a car with Italian mechanic, Benoît Falchetto. As the car pulled away Isadora waved to a group of friends, reportedly saying “Adieu, mes amis,  Je vais à la gloire!” (“Goodbye, my friends, I am off to glory!”). The scarf fluttered dramatically behind her, but as the car picked up speed it became entangled in the spokes of one of the wheels and tightened around Isadora’s neck.  The dancer was yanked out of her seat and over the rear of the car, and then dragged along the cobblestone street to her death.

In the years following her demise, the quote attributed to Isadora was revealed to have been false.  Because Isadora had been driving off with a handsome (and much younger) mechanic, the friend who had supplied the quote thought that the truth would be embarrassing.

Isadora’s actual last words were “Je vais à l’amour” (“I am off to love”).

Isadora was a rebel, and so she appealed to the so-called second wave of feminists during the 1960s. For an interesting take on Isadora Duncan see the 1968 film, “Isadora” starring Vanessa Redgrave [You may need an old machine -- I believe that the film is available only on VHS].