What exactly is meant by the Fair(er) Sex?  Are women less inclined to self-interest or deception than men?  Hardly likely.  The consensus appears to be that fair(er) sex simply means attractively feminine.  


My love is as a fever longing still,
For that which longer nurseth the disease;
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
The uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve
Desire is death, which physic did except.
Past cure I am, now Reason is past care,
And frantic-mad with evermore unrest;
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen’s are,
At random from the truth vainly expressed;
For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.


Fred MacMurray & Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 147 describes a woman who was thought to be fair but turned out to be ‘black as hell, dark as night’.  I’m no Shakespearean scholar – my take on the sonnet is that it is the angry and rather sad rant of a man disillusioned by a woman – his love neither reciprocated nor cherished by the object of his affection/obsession. 


Adam & Eve by Tamara de Lempicka

In other words, the guy in the sonnet is just like one of the poor saps in classic noir film – caught in the web of a woman who can manipulate him and cast him aside without a backward glance. The noir dame is a riff on a well established archetype, that of the femme fatale (French for ‘deadly woman’).  And don’t kid yourself that a deadly woman is just a gal who can wield a .38 with mortal accuracy – no way – a femme fatale speaks to the primal fear than many men have of female sexuality.  Just think Eve and the apple.  

20th Century femme fatales were prevalent characters in early Hollywood films and heralded the ‘modern’ woman of the post World War I era, at first typified by the kohl-eyed Theda Bara types, then later by the bobbed haired flappers of the 1920s. These ‘sexual vampires’, or vamps, would seduce a man taking from him his virility and independence and leaving him a shadow of himself. 



Among the early screen sex vampires was the French actress Musidora (born Jeanne Roques on February 23, 1889).  She was raised by a feminist mother and socialist father, both of whom encouraged her artistic abilities.  Her first novel was published when she was just 15 years old. 

Musidora (the name she gave herself, which is Greek for ‘gift of the muses’)  began her acting career at age 15, working with the novelist Colette who would become one of her lifelong friends.  During the very early years of French cinema Musidora began a professional collaboration with the highly successful French film director Louis Feuillade. 

Musidora became famous for her vamp roles in such film serials as LES VAMPIRES and JUDEX, in which she developed a persona comparable to that of Theda Bara (whose name was an anagram for Arab Death).  In addition to acting she directed and wrote many of her films. 

In November 1915, the walls of Paris were plastered with street posters that depicted three masked faces with a question mark as a noose, and the questions “who, what, when, where?”. The morning newspapers printed the following poem:

Of the moonless nights they are kings,
darkness is their kingdom.
Carrying death and sowing terror
the dark Vampires fly,
with great suede wings,
ready not only to do evil… but to do even worse.



The posters were advertising for LES VAMPIRES, a ten part silent serial, very surreal, in which Musidora played the role of a cabaret singer, Irma Vep (an anagram for Vampire).  The film wasn’t actually about Dracula style vampires but rather about a criminal gang-cum-secret society inspired by the exploits of the real-life Bonnot Gang.  Vep, besides playing a leading role in the Vampires’ crimes, also spends two episodes under the hypnotic control of Moreno, a rival criminal who makes her his lover and induces her to assassinate the Grand Vampire. 


Musidora as Irma Vep

The Bonnot Gang (La Bande à Bonnot) was a French criminal anarchist group that operated in France and Belgium during the Belle Époque, from 1911 to 1912.  The gang utilized cutting-edge technology (including automobiles and repeating rifles) not yet available to the French police. 

Originally referred to by the press as simply “The Auto Bandits”, the gang was dubbed “The Bonnot Gang” after Jules Bonnot gave an interview at the office of LE PETIT PARISIEN, a popular daily paper. Bonnot’s perceived prominence within the group (he was never actually its leader) was later reinforced by his high-profile death during a shootout with French police in Nogent. 

public enemy 1931

The Public Enemy

LES VAMPIRES was extremely successful, and Musidora went on to star in another popular silent serial JUDEX.  The director of JUDEX, Louis Feuillade, had made two earlier serials, FANTOMAS and LES VAMPIRES, about cunning criminals. Though popular with audiences, the serials drew criticism for glorifying outlaws. Similar objections would be raised in the U.S. in the 1930s by the depiction of gangsters in films such as THE PUBLIC ENEMY, and LITTLE CAESAR. 

aristide_bruantFeuillade addressed these concerns by creating the hero Judex.  Judex was a mysterious avenger who dressed in black and wore a slouch hat and cloak like Aristide Bruant (a French cabaret singer, comedian, and nightclub owner depicted in posters by Toulouse-Lautrec). This costume is strikingly similar to the costume of the later American pulp hero The Shadow. 

Judex anticipated later pulp heroes and superheroes in many respects. He was a masterful fighter, an expert at disguise, and boasted a secret headquarters in the subterranean passages beneath a ruined castle.  In true superhero fashion, Judex’s base of operations was outfitted with technological gadgets. He also had a secret identity Judex (the Latin word for judge) is a nom-de-guerre he had adopted in his quest for revenge. 

Musidora starred as Diana Monti in JUDEX opposite Rene Creste.   JUDEX was filmed in 1916 but delayed for release until 1917 because of the outbreak of World War I.  Feuillade didn’t consciously attempt to create avant-garde films; however, LES VAMPIRES and JUDEX have been lauded by critics as the birth of avant-garde cinema and cited by such renowned filmmakers as Fritz Lang and Luis Bunuel as being extremely influential in their desire to become directors. 

For an example of Luis Bunuel’s early surrealist work, probably inspired in part by LES VAMPIRES and JUDEX, you should check out his 1929 short film, in collaboration with the artist Salvador Dali, UN CHIEN ANDALOU (An Andalusian dog). 

musidora_vampUnder the tutelage of her mentor, Louis Feuillade, Musidora became a successful film producer and director.  Between the late 1910s and early 1920s she directed ten films.  Sadly, all but two of her films were lost.            

As Musidora’s acting career faded, she focused on writing and producing. Her last film was LA MAGIQUE IMAGE (1950) which was a homage to her mentor Louis Feuillade.  

Later in her life Musidora would occasionally work in the ticket booth of the Cinematheque Francaise.  I wonder how many of the patrons recognized her. 

Musidora died in Paris in 1957 and is buried in the Cimetiere de Montmarte.

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.