From the New York Journal of Books, June 11 2013
Courtesans and counts, poverty and princes, sex and wealth, a shortlived triumphant social arc ending too soon in tragic death—The Lady Who Loved Camellias by biographer Julie Kavanagh has it all.
Ms. Kavanagh is a well-established biographer and achieved international fame with her previous, definitive biography on the great dancer, Nureyev. This new book cements her well-deserved reputation. We are in Ms. Kavanagh’s debt for shining a light on this woman almost forgotten in the dust of history, allowing her legend to endure.
In lively prose Ms. Kavanagh meticulously recreates Paris and Parisian life at the mid-19th century. This epoch heralds the dawn of bohemia in the capital, where a charmingly beautiful naïf from the Normandy countryside uses her sexual allure, intelligence, and native business savvy to transform herself from a sweatshop laundress’s assistant to a leading courtesan with her own box at the opera, as well as other accoutrements of the well born and well bred.
Marie Duplessis becomes a fully-fledged member of the demi-monde, a famed courtesan who presides over her own salon of influential and powerful men such as the famous composer and pianist, Franz Liszt, and other artists and intellectuals of her time.
Born Alphonsine Plessis in 1824, in five short years (from age 17 to 23) as she climbed the ladder of trade in sexual favors, Alphonsine morphed into her avatar, Marie Duplessis.
While still plying her trade, she entered into a clandestine union—a mysterious, runaway “marriage”—by traveling to London with her future spouse, a scion of a noble French house. Shortly after her painful death (she succumbs to tuberculosis) the avatar becomes a muse. Marie never guesses that her greatest triumph would be posthumous, her life rendered into legendary and artistic immortality.
Who was Marie Duplessis?
The Da Vinci-like portrait of the enigmatic girl who loved camellias that appears on the front book cover provides part of the answer. A description written of her during that period by a Parisian contemporary and admirer, Jules Janin (as quoted by author Kavanagh), solidifies her persona:
“The curls of her black hair; her gloved hand which made you think you were looking at a picture; her handkerchief marvelously trimmed with costly lace; whilst in her ears shone two pearls from the East which a queen would envy. All these beautiful objects were as natural to her as if she had been born amidst silks and velvet, beneath some gilded ceiling of the grand faubourgs with a crown upon her head and a crowd of flatterers at her feet.”
This was Marie at the apogee of her fame and fortune. A year later, at 23, after illness ravages her body, she dies alone in a grand apartment (except for a devoted maid and two doting doctors), almost impecunious, far from the world that embraces silks and velvet.
Ms. Kavanagh unfolds the tale of Alphonsine from her birth into ruinous poverty to an abused mother and abusive, alcoholic father as she is forced to move from one hovel to another and mistreated by her itinerant sire—who, while she is a young adolescent, trades her sexual favors to old men for money to keep him supplied with cheap wine.
Still in her early teens Alphonsine makes her way to Paris and joins the working poor as a laundress and sometime dressmaker. In Ms. Kavanagh’s biography this is fascinating reading.
Aptly, the subtitle of the book separates the life and legend of Ms. Kavanagh’s subject. Ms. Kavanagh scrupulously unlocks Marie’s life from several sources: chiefly, Roman Viennes’ The Truth About the Lady of the Camellias (published in 1887), the aforementioned Jules Janin who wrote the foreword to the latter book, and Nestor Roqueplan’s Parisine (1868.)
Ms. Kavanagh exhaustively researched other primary sources, among them diaries, letters, and notes from Marie’s admirers. Marie left few of her own bits of correspondence, but the receipts of her purchases tell us much about her tastes and lifestyle. Ms. Kavanagh weaves these threads into the detailed tapestry of Marie’s short life.
Throughout the ages there have been famous courtesans. Sex appeal, intelligence, and charisma, however abundant in Marie, were not enough to earn her artistic legacy.
For this piece of the legend we turn to the great French novelist, Alexandre Dumas, père, and his son, Alexandre Dumas. Both at different periods were among Marie’s customers and admirers. The younger Dumas was in love with her and deeply affected by her death. He shared with his father his desire to write a novel about Marie Duplessis and with his father’s encouragement in 1848 (a year after her death) published to great acclaim, La Dame aux Camélias (The Lady of the Camellias). Dumas fils drew heavily on his firsthand intimacy with Marie.
In 1852 his play of the same name premiered in Paris and became a theatrical phenomenon with sold out audiences for decades.
Giuseppe Verdi, in the audience one night when the play first opened and already inspired by the novel to begin writing an opera about Marie, experienced the play as illuminating his way to create La Traviata.
Marie then became the tragic Violetta and La Traviata among the most popular operas of all time.
Ms. Kavanagh writes that diva Maria Callas, “identified with Violetta almost to the point of obsession,” and her portrayal remains definitive. New productions of La Traviata resonate for every age and the opera continues to evoke passionate responses to the poignant love story.
Ms. Kavanagh adds that there have been dozens of ballet versions based on The Lady of the Camellias including Sir Frederick Ashton’s 1963, Marguerite and Armand, created for and famously danced by Fonteyn and Nureyev.
The author also cites many film versions of The Lady of the Camellias, now renamed Camille for American audiences. Reputedly, states Ms. Kavanagh, no movie version exists greater than the 1936 production directed by George Cukor and starring Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor.
Curious, I rented Camille. Like multitudes of readers, theatergoers, opera and ballet lovers before me, I was moved, especially by Garbo’s superb performance. If you respond to the book the movie will simply cement your experience.
Reviewer Janet Levine is an author of four books and a freelance journalist with decades of writing under her belt including her political memoir Inside Apartheid.