Otero, Caroline (1868–1965)
Otero, Caroline (1868–1965)
Spanish-born dancer and courtesan who flourished in Paris' Golden Age, known as the Belle Époque. Name variations: La Belle Otero; Augustina Otero; billed in New York as Countess Carolina de Otero; (nickname) Lina. Born Augustina Iglesias Otero (but took the name Caroline Otero after her older sister Carolina died as a child) in the village of Valga or Balga, in the Spanish province of Galicia, Spain, on November 4 (or 24), 1868; died in Nice, France, on April 10, 1965; daughter of a Spanish Gypsy (Roma) prostitute and an unknown father, possibly a Greek noble; did not attend school, but spoke French and English; married at 15 (divorced).
Toured in cabarets in eastern Spain and southern France (1882–89); made debut on the legitimate stage at the Eden Musée in New York City (October 1, 1890); went on first European tour (1891–92); appeared in Paris at the Cirque d'Été (1892); went on world tour (1894); appeared in Paris, including the Folies Bergère (1894–95); went on Italian tour (1896–97); returned to New York (1897); gave lastperformance in London in the revue Come Over Here (November 1913); retired from the stage (June 1914).
Referred to as one of 19th-century Paris' "grand horizontals," La Belle Otero ostensibly made her living as a Spanish dancer, although it appears that she had a lucrative side business in the boudoir. Born Augustina Otero in Galicia in 1868, one of seven illegitimate children of a Cadiz Gypsy (Roma), she took the name Caroline Otero after her older sister Carolina died as a child. Her father was possibly a Greek noble. At 11, Otero was raped and rendered infertile; at 12, she ran away from home; by age 15, she had wandered through Spain and southern France, acquiring a trio of lovers and an Italian husband whom she claimed in her memoirs was "as handsome as Bizet's Toreador," but whom she abandoned to pursue a dancing career in Marseilles.
She eventually found her way to Paris, where she performed at the Cirque d'Été and other music halls, then joined the Folies Bergère where she became renowned for her wild Spanish fandango as well as for the real jewels adorning her famed bosom. (Reportedly, her breasts inspired the twin cupolas of the Hotel Carlton in Cannes.) Otero by no means limited her dancing to the stage, but performed in restaurants and cafes as the spirit moved her, arousing the male patrons in attendance to near frenzy. After viewing her after-hours show at Maxim's one evening, the cartoonist Sem remarked, "I feel that my thighs are blushing."
During Otero's music-hall days, the writer Colette , who was then performing as a pantomimist and sometimes shared the bill, was occasionally invited back to Otero's house for supper. In her memoirs Mes Apprentissages, Colette writes of Otero's boundless energy and huge appetite. ("When finally she pushed her plate aside, it would be after it had been emptied four, even five times.") After dinner ended at ten, Otero would frequently dance until two in the morning for her own pleasure. "Throwing her robe aside, she danced in her chemise and swirling silk petticoat," wrote Colette. "The sweat ran down to her thighs. She'd grab a sauce-spotted napkin from the table and wipe her face, her neck, her armpits. Then she'd dance again and again."
Otero's reputation in the boudoir was as formidable as her fandango. Numbered among her lovers were the crowned heads of England, Spain, and Serbia, the kaiser, the Russian grand dukes Peter and Nicholas, the duke of Westminster, the French premier Aristide Briand, and the
Italian writer Gabriele d'Annunzio, most of whom she met during her many dancing tours. While she was performing at New York's Eden Musée, she lived with the manager, a man named Jurgens, who at the end of her engagement stole the box-office receipts so he could follow her back to Paris. In her somewhat overblown autobiography, Otero modestly suggested that all men fell dead over her. In fact, several did, noted Cornelia Otis Skinner : "Comte Chevedolé, a prominent member of the Jockey Club, blew his brains out after he had squandered his fortune on her. An explorer named Payen offered her ten thousand gold francs for one night of her lavishments and when she turned him down, put on a similar brain-blowing performance in the Bois outside the Chinese Pavilion where they'd first met."
During her heyday, Otero lived on what was then the rue Georges Bizet in a magnificent house run by 15 servants and a private secretary. She dressed garishly, flaunted her vast array of jewelry, and drove around town in an oversized blue satin upholstered carriage pulled by four black horses. It was not unusual for the dancer to show up at a party wearing a daringly décolleté evening gown with her entire collection of jewelry adorning body parts from head to ankle. On one gala evening, she was decked out in three pearl necklaces (one a former possession of the Empress Eugénie ), eight bracelets, ten ruby clips, a pearl and diamond tiara, and her famous diamond bolero, a piece valued at 2,275,000 gold francs which she kept in the vaults of the Crédit Lyonnais. (She often performed in the bolero, at which times two armed gendarmes were stationed in the wings.)
Although she amassed great wealth, Otero had a lust for the gambling table and lost money as fast as she made it. When she abandoned her career at 45, claiming she wanted to retire "in full beauty," she had already squandered most of her fortune. Gradually, she sold off her elegant furniture and jewelry piece by piece, after which she took a one-room apartment in Nice, where she lived for the rest of her life. Although she grew somewhat fat with age, she retained a touch of flair, reminiscent of the age in which she lived. "When Otero departs," wrote Anne Manson in Guilleminault's La Belle Epoque, "there will depart with her the last symbol of an epoch, superficial, light and at the same time virtuous, covetous toward others yet madly extravagant in its pleasures, full of faults but not without its splendor." Caroline Otero died in 1965, at age 97.
Guilleminault, Gilbert. La Belle Epoque.
Lewis, Arthur H. La Belle Otero. Trident, 1967.
Otero, Caroline. Le Roman de la Belle Otero. Paris, 1919.
Richardson, Joanna. The Courtesans: The Demi-monde in 19th Century France. World, 1967.
Skinner, Cornelia Otis. Elegant Wits and Grand Horizontals. NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1962.
La Belle Otéro (Fr. film), starring Maria Felix , 1954.
Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts