Grandes Horizontales: The Lives and Legends of Four Nineteenth-Century Courtesans, by Virginia Rounding. Bloomsbury. 352 pages. $25.95.
We live in the Age of Hype, in which the most tedious and pedestrian of celebrities is smothered with accolades from glossy magazines and glossy trash TV alike.
Comes now Virginia Rounding, who brings us the opposite - a book in which the most fascinating, glamorous and excessive creatures of an excessive age, the French Second Empire, are presented in a package so tediously written that it nearly extinguishes their glitter.
Fortunately, Rounding's subjects - the four leading courtesans of Paris, circa 1852 to 1870 - were such outrageous women, in an era in which outrageousness was prized, that their tale can survive even this moribund telling.
The French have long held to the sensible view that prostitution lends stability to society by absorbing the excess sexual energy of men with time and money on their hands. In the Second Empire, an age of ostentation, flash and finery, next to which the Roaring 20s of the United States look dull by comparison, they took that proposition one giddy step further and elevated the most glamorous and mysterious of these women to demigods.
And Rounding, a dutiful researcher, can get away with pedestrian writing thanks to her inspired choice of subject.
Here we learn of Marie Duplessis, who found her way out of a life of drudgery and poverty by taking a series of prominent and wealthy lovers, including Alexandre Dumas. Marie had an obsession with lying, and when asked why, she once replied, "Lying whitens the teeth."
Ultimately, Verdi would base the opera La Traviata on Marie's short (she died at age 23) and dissolute life. (She was a compulsive gambler and spent 5,000 francs a day, day in and day out, at a time when French schoolteachers earned 300 francs a year.)
And of Blanche de Paiva, the mysterious Russian-Jewish courtesan whose sexual allure held the wealthy men of Paris in thrall.
La Paiva possessed a burning ambition, a will of iron and, before she was done, enough financial wherewithal to commission the legendary Hotel Paiva on the Champs-Elysees, which took 10 years to complete. There, she held court at twice-weekly dinners for a select and transfixed audience.
Rounding's third celebrated harlot, Apollonie Sabatier, also known as La Presidente, was more than a match for Marie or Blanche. She held court at her own Sunday evening salon, which read like a listing of the intellectual elite of the time. She also went through men like Kleenex, but only one seemed to "disturb her equilibrium" - the poet Charles Baudelaire.
The disturbance was mutual. She inspired some of the poems in Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal ("The Flowers of Evil"), and at one point he wrote to her nervously, "I do not believe, Madame, that women in general realize the full extent of their power, be it for good or evil." Another time, in an essay titled "My Heart Laid Bare," Baudelaire would opine that woman were "abominable" and "vulgar" and "should be regarded with disgust."
Both sentiments, clearly, were born of the poet's obsession with the maddening Apollonie.
Rounding wraps her account with one Cora Pearl, "the English beauty of the Second Empire," who came to Paris at age 15 and captivated men from Prince Napoleon, cousin to the emperor, to Willem of Orange, the eventual king of Holland.
In her own memoirs, Cora wrote of preserving since her youth "an instinctive hatred against men," but she was happy to play along with the preconceptions of males around her that women were more than just sex objects - they were also expensive status symbols. And the lengths that she went to attract those males were audacious. "She was the first person to color her hair yellow and to think of making her eyelashes iridescent, of illuminating her eyes, making her forehead shimmer and powdering her flesh with silver, frost, snow, milk, stars and pearls," wrote Gustave Claudin in Mes Souvenirs.
It was showy, it was shallow and it was extravagant, and it all ended soon enough, of course, with the Franco-Prussian War, the raising of the white flag by Napoleon III and the ascension of Bismarck.
One writer of the time blamed the high-profile prostitutes of high society for the collapse of the entire house of cards. J. de l'Estoile wrote bitterly that "The garnish of decadence, familiar to Parisians, ... ruined the country, and blind Paris took a malicious pleasure in seeing the daily parade of bitches who were consuming France."
Ah, but what a party while it lasted.
These are women, as famous in their time as any woman of our time, who held men spellbound in a debauched age when the sated and the jaded were hard to spellbind.
More than a century later, it is hard to put down the book without wondering: Where have they all gone?
Steve Lovelady is a former editor-at-large for Time Inc. and managing editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer.