Plessis, Alphonsine (1824–1847)
Plessis, Alphonsine (1824–1847)
Parisian courtesan whose brief, brilliant, tragic life inspired the novel and play La Dame aux camélias ("Camille") by Alexandre Dumas fils and the opera La Traviata by Guiseppe Verdi. Name variations: "The Lady of the Camellias"; (pseudonym) Marie Duplessis; (fictional names) Margaret Gautier or Gauthier; Marguerite Gautier or Gauthier; Rita Gauthier; Camille; La Dame aux camélias or La Dame aux camelias; Violetta Valéry. Pronunciation: AHL-FON-SEEN play-SEE. Born Rose Alphonsine Plessis in Nonant-le-Pin (Orne) on January 15, 1824; died in Paris on February 3, 1847, and buried at Montmartre Cemetery; daughter of Jean-Martin (called Marin) Plessis (1790–1841) and Marie-Louise-Michelle Deshayes (1794–1834); had about three years of education in a convent school; married Viscount Édouard de Perrégaux, on February 21, 1846; children: (with Count Agénor de Guiche) possibly a son (b. 1841).
Along with siblings, abandoned by her mother (1832); became a restaurant owner's mistress after her father left her in Paris (1839); was the mistress of Count de Guiche and may have given birth to a child (1840–41); was mistress of Viscount Perrégaux (1842–43); unmistakable symptoms of tuberculosis appeared, became Count Stackelberg's mistress (1844–45); had affair with Dumas fils (1844–45); had affair with Franz Liszt (1845); married Perrégaux, appeared at the Brussels ball opening the Paris-Brussels railway, and went into seclusion because of illness (1846).
In 1839, Alphonsine Plessis, aged 15, arrived in Paris from Normandy with her father, Jean-Martin (called Marin) Plessis. He left her with the Vital family, cousins of her deceased mother Marie-Louise-Michelle Deshayes , and returned home. A year later, the penniless, barely literate Alphonsine, who spoke with a strong Norman peasant accent, was circulating in high society. Nothing in her background would have predicted such a transformation, for her childhood had been a nightmare of poverty and abuse.
Alphonsine's father was a country peddler, the son of a drunken village prostitute (nicknamed "The Hag") and a seminarian, Louis Descours (d. 1815), who became a government-approved priest during the French Revolution. Marin was fairly handsome, a tall, slender, vigorous man with a bad reputation, for he was sly, impulsive, malicious, violent, and an alcoholic. In time, the peasants called him "Satan" and accused him of sorcery.
Her mother, an exceptionally beautiful, dark-haired woman, was affable, tender, delicate, and intelligent. She had noble ancestry, the Mesnil family, who had fallen on hard times when Alphonsine's great-great-grandfather had squandered the family's resources. His daughter Anne du Mesnil (b. 1735) married a servant, Étienne Deshayes. In 1789, their son Louis Deshayes (Alphonsine's grandfather), likewise a servant, married a cousin, Marie-Madeleine-Louise Marre . She had two daughters: Alphonsine's mother Marie and Julie-Françoise Deshayes . According to a local tale, Marie's real father was Louis' master, a noble who, with Louis' compliance, had exercised his droit de seigneur. The story typifies the difficulties confronting Alphonsine's biographers. Some records have been uncovered, but while anecdotal evidence from memoirs and such is abundant and detailed, it is also disputed and seriously lacks chronological precision. Hence, any account becomes strewn with qualifiers.
Marin and Marie married on March 1, 1821, after he promised to reform. They borrowed to start a notions-and-groceries store in Nonant-le-Pin (Orne), a village of some 500 souls about 13 miles by road east of Argentan and 100 miles due west of Paris. Their first born, Delphine Plessis (later Mme Paquet), was born in 1822, and Alphonsine followed on January 15, 1824. Marin's "reformation" had ended in a few weeks. His drunken rages only increased when Alphonsine proved not to be the son he had wanted. When the store failed, he returned to peddling, and the family moved from hovel to hovel, finally to a shack in Castelle on the Nonant-Gacé road. The end came when he tried to start a fire on the floor swearing he would burn his family. Marie and the girls fled to the attic and escaped incineration only because a passing messenger heard her cries, burst in, saved them, and beat up Marin.
The children were sent temporarily to an aunt at Trouillière while Marie hid out with friends, including the noblewoman Mme du Hayes . When du Hayes heard that an eccentric, wealthy widow, who spent her time in Paris and Switzerland, was seeking a maid-companion without children, du Hayes and others convinced Marie to take the job to save her life. So Marie embraced her daughters, left hidden in a wagon, and never saw them again. She died two years later in Switzerland of "a broken heart" and possibly tuberculosis.
Delphine was put in the care of a Mesnil uncle, trained as a laundress, and at 16 sent to a fine home. Alphonsine, aged 8, was much less fortunate. She was given to an impoverished relative at La Porte, Agathe Boisard , who at least saw that she got some schooling at a convent nearby. But after her first communion (at age 11), extreme poverty forced Agathe to make her beg her food from relatives and neighbors, returning home at night. Predictably, Alphonsine fell in with rude farmhands with whom she saw and heard more than a child should. Perhaps before she was 12 and before her first menstruation, she lost her virginity. One story says she seduced a 17-year-old servant named Marcel; that was his version. Hers was that she was 14 and was surprised at a roadside by a passing young noble, Viscount Théodoric de Narbonne-Pelet (1814–1901), who rewarded her with a new gold coin.
Scandalized by talk of her behavior, Agathe finally sent her to Marin, who placed her with a Mme Toutain , a laundress employing girls for 10 francs a month. But Alphonsine visited her father monthly, and in August 1836 he took her to Exmes to a 70ish bachelor reprobate, M. Plantier-Devoir, and left her for the weekend. She returned Monday evening with 20 francs for him. These visits became weekly, and she began skipping work. After inquiries, Mme Toutain quietly sent her back to her father, and Marin in turn gave her to Plantier as a servant. The word in the village was that she was being sexually exploited by Marin and Plantier. Marin was called before the mayor, warned, and maybe jailed briefly.
Plessis next became a servant at the inn at Nonant run by the Denis (Denais) family, either placed by her father or fleeing there. After a few months, during which she became ill for a time, Marin suddenly showed up and sent her as an apprentice and servant to an umbrella maker in Gacé (October 1838?). Two months later, he took her home with him. Rumors of incest circulated.
At this point, Marin decided out of fear or calculation to leave her with the Vitals, her maternal relatives in Paris. Partly by boat and by begging rides in wagons, they slowly made their way. Alphonsine later claimed her father had sold her to a band of Gypsies (Roma), a romantic tale but highly suspect. Marin returned to Nonant, fell ill (perhaps from syphilis), and died two years later (February 8, 1841) in utter misery.
The Vitals' little grocery had no need for Plessis, so they sent her to a laundress, Mme Barget —or so one version goes. Alphonsine's early years in Paris cannot be reconstructed with precision. She is variously reported to have worked as a laundress, a linen maid (lingère), an errand girl for a millinery shop, a hatmaker or dress-sewer, and a clerk in a boutique. Simply put, she was one of the tens of thousands of young working women who lived in garrets and did not always eat regularly. Thousands, among them Plessis, became grisettes, fun-loving charmers who thronged to public places and danced in halls and at street fairs. (The waltz, cancan, and soon the polka were veritable crazes in these years.) The girls' hope was somehow to meet an eligible bachelor, preferably monied, and marry. Latin Quarter students were especially sought after, and Plessis soon was noticed there, for she was becoming truly beautiful.
The most absolute incarnation of woman who has ever existed.
Testimonies are unanimous regarding her extraordinary attractiveness. She was tall for that time (5′5¾″), in figure svelte, if possibly too thin, and graceful to the last degree. Her skin was a fashionable translucent white. Her face was a perfect oval; her mouth very small; lips thin but still sensual; teeth regular and brilliantly white; hair velvety, variously described as dark chestnut or black, hanging in long ringlets to her shoulders (à l'anglais). Her most striking feature was her eyes: large, deep, very dark, with long lashes and full dark eyebrows, expressive, shining, devouring, sad, mysterious, altogether magnetic. As she matured, her persona joined a graceful restraint with a powerful sexuality, a melding which left men mesmerized.
During the week, Plessis worked long hours. Sundays after Mass, she and her friends would go looking for fun, probably hoping some man might pick up the tab, but she apparently lost one or more jobs for coming to work late on Mondays or skipping altogether. She led a hard existence and often went hungry. Tales later had it that she had been jailed briefly and that she had accepted money from the Russians to spy. A famous anecdote dates from this time. A prominent theater director and bon vivant, Nestor Roqueplan (1804–1870), related how he had encountered her at the Pont Neuf one evening standing "entranced" before a fried-potato stand. Young, pretty, delicate, and "dirty as an unkempt snail," she was nibbling on a green apple which she didn't seem to like. "The fried potato was her dream; I offered her a large cone." She blushed in happiness. A year or so later, he was astonished to meet her at the fashionable Ranelaigh dancehall being escorted by Count de Guiche.
In September 1839, a happenstance—a rainstorm—changed her life. She and two girlfriends decided to go to the festival at Saint-Cloud one Sunday. The day turned out rainy, so they hung around the shops at the Palais-Royal and finally sat down in a restaurant. The owner, nameless to history and variously described as a widower in his 40s or 60s and fit or fat, struck up a conversation and finally offered to meet them the following Sunday to take them to Saint-Cloud. The day came and the outing went happily. The man began to see them weekly, but it became clear it really was Alphonsine who interested him. One day in November after another outing, he asked her to go with him to inspect an apartment he had leased on the rue de l'Arcade. She was impressed by the place and then shocked when he said it was hers. A place of one's own was every grisette's dream. To seal the offer, he gave her 3,000 francs for expenses. (This was a huge sum; chambermaids and laborers earned about 350 francs per year.) So she crossed the line and became, when not quite 16, a kept woman, her entryway into a career as a courtesan at the pinnacle of "Tout Paris."
A courtesan has been defined by Joanna Richardson as a woman who is "less than a mistress because she sells her love for material benefits [but] more than a prostitute because she chooses her lovers." Unlike even top-grade call girls of later times, courtesans were celebrities. They inhabited a kind of social and moral limbo. Marriage in the middle and upper classes was about property, not love or sex except for the procreation of heirs. So extramarital affairs were viewed with indulgence, albeit much more so for men than for women. Courtesans were respectable in the sense of having an accepted place and role in the monied classes while yet regarded as "fallen" and hence unsuitable for marriage. Even so, many did end up marrying, some into the upper class.
Plessis, by nature an exceptionally fast learner, quickly mastered the ground rules of the profession. Whether sex was a grand passion with her can only be inferred, although it seems likely. Three other passions held sway without question: money, the theater, and gambling. As
regards money, she did not love it for its own sake. Once introduced to the world of wealth, she only wanted all the nice things it could buy. She did not, however, forget her origins; freely had she received, so freely did she give, reportedly 20,000 francs per year at her peak. Her lovers never accused her of avarice, only of heedlessness, of letting vast sums run through her fingers like so much sand into a well.
The restaurateur could not keep up the pace for long. He prudently withdrew, it is said. Or perhaps he lost out to a competitor. An oft-repeated story says that while they were at the Prado ballroom one evening, she caught the eye of Count de Guiche and in short order became his mistress. Others say she had one or more lovers before de Guiche took over. In the nature of things, it is all but impossible to reconstruct a secure succession of lovers for a courtesan. It is clear enough, however, that the relationship with de Guiche was by far the most important in establishing her in fashionable society.
Antoine-Agénor, count de Guiche, prince de Bidacher, and future duke de Gramont (1819–1880), was the heir to one of France's grandest titles but to only a relatively modest fortune because of the French Revolution's inroads. He would become a diplomat and finish, as Napoleon III's last foreign minister, by blundering into the catastrophic Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871). He had graduated (1839) from the École Polytéchnique and served briefly as an artillery lieutenant before resigning and becoming an elegant loafer and dandy. A six-foot tall Adonis, he reportedly had brief affairs with the actress Rachel (1821–1858) and the courtesan La Païva (Thérèse Lachman , 1819–1884) before meeting Alphonsine. He set her up in a fine apartment at 28, rue de Mont-Thabor, near the Tuilleries, and assumed the role of Pygmalion. Much enamored of her, he had her tutored in reading and writing, manners, dress, conversation, piano playing, and literature, and furnished her with a library of ancient and modern classics which she apparently read with pleasure. It is testimony to her intelligence and perhaps an innate sense of how to act that in a few short months she metamorphosed into a young woman indistinguishable in grace and taste from those to the manner born, at least in public. In private parties at her place, her peasant origins sometimes betrayed themselves in over-drinking and bawdy jokes and songs. She also changed her name to the more distinguished-sounding Duplessis and soon after dropped the plebeian Alphonsine for Marie. (Interestingly, her mother's death certificate reads "Marie Duplessis.") The idyll with de Guiche ended, however, in late 1840 or 1841.
One of the deepest mysteries of Alphonsine's life concerns a stay (July–November) back in Normandy in 1841. Frédéric-Romain Vienne, who was a close acquaintance from Nonant, says in his gossipy biography that it was no mere vacation, as her friends thought, but had been ordered by her doctor after a difficult childbirth at Versailles early in May. Vienne says further that she told him the father had taken charge of the boy's care but that the child had died from an infection a year later. Vienne went on to relate, however, that in 1869 a young man resembling Alphonsine appeared at her sister Delphine's door and asked to see a picture of her. He shed a tear and left after giving Delphine a card saying he was one "Judalet," a commercial employee in Tours. Delphine made inquiries. The local inn had housed no such guest, and the mayor of Tours informed her no Judalet lived there. Vienne is the sole source for this oft-repeated childbirth story. No records at Versailles confirm the birth. As for the alleged father, de Guiche is a strong possibility, but given the nature of her activities, one can only speculate.
Back in Paris, she led a frenetic existence, a " ballet des amants" to support her spending, writes Micheline Boudet . She became a favorite of the young lions of the Jockey Club and their witty, dissipated leader, Count Ferdinand de Montguyon; purportedly, seven made a pact reserving a day apiece with her each week. It was through the Club that she met the man often called the "great love" of her life, Viscount Édouard de Perrégaux (1815–1889). Whatever the case with her, he was more smitten than she. Perrégaux was a grandson of a famous financier whom Napoleon I made a senator and first regent of the Bank of France. He had joined the army in 1834, campaigned in North Africa, and resigned on April 6, 1841, as a cavalry lieutenant. His father died in June, so he and his elder brother inherited a huge fortune, although the family's trustees kept watch over it. He was dreamy and melancholic in the current romantic fashion, honest and gentle, but immature still, feckless, susceptible to "all the sentimental weaknesses," notes Johannès Gros. He bought a fine racing stable and plucked a top courtesan, Alice Ozy (Julie-Justine Pelloy, 1820–1893), from the duke d'Aumale. In the spring of 1842, however, he met Alphonsine, known to him as Marie Duplessis, and fell helplessly in love.
Perrégaux lavished money and attention on her without stint. He bought a cottage in Bougival, near Versailles, where they spent many enchanted days. In mid-July, they went off on a two-month tour of the German spas capped by Baden-Baden, where she allegedly won 50,000 francs gambling. On their return, they moved into an expensive apartment at 22, rue d'Antin. Quickened by gambling losses in Paris, the pace began to take its toll, allegedly 1,000 francs a day. The figure probably is inflated, but the picture is clear enough. The Bougival cottage had to go, while she pawned silver to pay ballooning debts.
Plessis began to see other men occasionally; she needed money and was tiring of Perrégaux's puppydog devotion. Also, the Perrégaux trustees probably stepped in to tell him to quit, and he reluctantly left town pleading family business. By early 1843, it appears, Alphonsine was on her own again. Men, mostly young, from all sectors—nobility, government, finance, the military—flocked to ask her favor. Not all were rich; but then, no one man could afford to keep her anyway. She tirelessly circulated at society ballrooms, restaurants, race tracks, and above all theaters. Managers gladly reserved her prime boxes on opening nights where she held court between acts for authors, actresses, and Jockey Club swells. She also held soirées at her apartment which attracted the likes of Eugène Sue, Théophile Gautier, Alfred de Musset, and Honoré de Balzac. Perrégaux, back after several months, dropped by occasionally. She granted sexual favors only as she pleased, but even rebuffed suitors still came around to enjoy the scene and be seen. (One not-so-subtle signal: for a few days each month her corsage contained red flowers.) She was captivating, seductive without really trying. As novelist Roger de Beauvoir put it, she was simply wonderful company—high praise from a renowned dandy and wit.
Oral tradition says she sojourned in Italy with an unnamed escort. In early summer 1843, she visited the German spas again. It is also alleged that she sought a respite by returning to Nonant and staying at Narbonne-Pelet's château but that Paris lured her back after a month. These travels may have been connected with concerns about her health. By the winter of 1844–45 at the very latest, she had contracted tuberculosis, "the white death," a plague which cut fearsome swaths through the populace at that time.
Plessis probably had been exhibiting some symptoms in 1842 when Perrégaux first took her to the spas. When or how she had become exposed is impossible to say. It may well, even probably, have occurred during her impoverished childhood. Clearly, her lifestyle per se was not the cause. Certainly it did not aid her fight against the disease, for even when she went to the spas she would soon grow bored with resting and drinking the water and revert to her usual rounds of dancing, partying, and gambling, activities which only intensified when she became convinced she had not long to live. Such behavior spawned a belief that her disease was the result of—and hence even divine punishment for—her sins. In point of fact, given the inability of medicine at that time to do more than alleviate its symptoms, tuberculosis almost certainly
would have killed her even if she had never attended the theater or partied away the nights or bedded any lovers. At the most, death only would have come a little later.
In the summer of 1844, Plessis found her last great patron, Count Gustav Ottonovitch von Stackelberg. He had been the Russian ambassador to Austria during the Congress of Vienna (1814–15) and was now in his 70s and retired in Paris. Extremely rich personally, married to a wealthy woman, and drawing a pension from the tsar, he was physically fit, an aged Don Juan, yet decent, fond, and caring. According to her perhaps-invented story, he approached her while she was visiting, unattended, the spa at Bagnères-de-Luchon (Haut-Goronne) and asked her to accept his support because she bore a striking resemblance to his daughter, who had died of tuberculosis. More than likely he was simply looking for a new love. She agreed, and he set her up in a splendid six-room second-floor apartment at 11 (today 15), boulevard de la Madeleine, a prime location facing the Church of the Madeleine.
Until her malady became acute in the spring of 1846, Plessis was at her zenith. Stackelberg deluged her with jewelry and money. Most courtesans had more money than taste, but not "Marie Duplessis," with her apartment full of art works and fine furnishings; her two coaches and high-stepping English bloodhorses coursing the boulevards and the Bois de Boulogne, where she was driven daily for some repose; her careful daily coiffure and daily new gloves; her wardrobe, smashing yet not showy, featuring many white or pearl-gray gowns which were often set off by lovely shawls and which eliminated muttonchop sleeves, lowered the waist, and introduced a new style, deeply cut in the back; her necklaces ("a river of diamonds"), rings, brooches, pins, bracelets, earrings, watches, and chains (her estate contained 78 such items, which sold for 24,912.50 francs). It remains one of the great mysteries of her time how a dirt-poor, abused, nearly illiterate peasant girl could become in record time a trendsetter of taste and fashion in the world's most sophisticated city, a paragon of grace, modesty, decorum, tact, and, simply stated, unimpeachable elegance. The most famous theater critic of the day, Jules Janin (1804–1874), wrote of Plessis that "unlike Lola Montez ," she was never "the heroine of any of the stories of ruin and scandal, of gambling, of debts and duel" to which others owed their vogue, for she never lost a touching sensibility. Wrote Alexandre Dumas fils, "She was one of the last of those rare courtesans who had a heart."
Plessis could be frank about herself, although she admitted, "I like to tell lies because they keep the teeth white." The actress Judith Bernat (1827–1912) recorded that Alphonsine, who admired her immensely, once confided:
Why have I sold myself? … Because the labor of a working woman would never have procured the luxury for which I have an irresistible need…. Despite appearances, I am neither avaricious nor debauched. I wanted to know the refined pleasures of artistic taste, the joie de vivre in an elegant and cultivated society. I have always chosen my friends….
And I have loved. Oh yes! Sincerely loved, but nobody has ever returned my love. It is the horror of my life. You are wrong to have a heart when you are a courtesan. You die of it.
She adored flowers but found she was allergic to their odors. So she decked her person and apartment with wild flowers and odorless types, particularly (but by no means exclusively) camellias, a flower as sought after as orchids would become later. Was she known in her lifetime as "The Lady of the Camellias?" An oft-repeated story says she was given the nickname by an old charwoman at the Opéra. Dumas, however, said he invented it for his novel. Since there is no secure evidence of its use before her death, Dumas appears to have the stronger case.
As for Stackelberg, occasionally he was seen with her, but frequently she appeared alone in public. In order to tire her less, he began to host parties at her apartment. Sometimes she was the only woman present, often making a dramatic late appearance; at other times women were invited, among them on several occasions the notorious Lola Montez. Stackelberg remained content providing she honored "his hours," when he "paternally, prudently took his pleasure," writes Maurice Rat. The last man to be naive in such matters, he showed only mild jealousy if she entertained other lovers when he was absent or had left early.
Of these others, the best known are Alexandre Dumas fils (1824–1895), and Franz Liszt (1811–1886). Dumas, a fledgling writer, the illegitimate son of the great novelist, saw her at the Variétés theater in September 1844 and was overcome. Of the same age as she (20), handsome, gallant, witty, he was living mostly off handouts from his father. He wrote of her: "This mélange of gaiety, of sadness, of naïveté, of prostitution, this malady even which developed in her an irritability of feelings as well as an irritability of nerves, all that inspired in me an ardent desire to possess her." The affair, more an intense infatuation than a grand amour, cooled somewhat after a few months but continued for a year. By that time, he was too deeply in debt to continue. On August 30, 1845, he wrote to her that he must give her up. Two months later they parted for good after a petty quarrel—caused by his failure, it was said, to get tickets from his father for the premiere of The Three Musketeers. Obviously, love had died by then. (Forty years later, he reclaimed the August 30 letter at an auction and gave it to Sarah Bernhardt , whose performances as "The Lady of the Camellias" set the standard.) Plessis' affair with Dumas, banal as it may have been (as he later asserted), was to become for both a hugely significant event.
The affair with Liszt, an immense celebrity, the greatest pianist of the century, was mutually passionate but brief. His movements are well documented, so one can establish a quite accurate dating. Plessis likely had attended one of his concerts during his triumphant stay in Paris from mid-April to mid-June 1844. On October 22, 1845, he returned for a brief time before beginning, on November 19, to give concerts in Metz and Luxemburg and at some point in late November and December in Colmar, Nancy, Châlons, Rheims, Nantes, and Angers. After a January 1, 1846, concert at Rennes, he went to the Northeast and Belgium and did not return to Paris. He later wrote to Dr. David-Ferdinand Koreff on February 12, 1847, ten days after her death, affirming that they had been introduced in November. Hence, they must have been together only a week or two that month and then, until January 1, 1846, possibly a few days between his provincial engagements.
Janin's oft-quoted version of their meeting—that she had introduced herself to him and Liszt at a theater intermission and engaged Liszt in a long, animated conversation—is mostly an invention. In old age, Liszt recalled that he and Janin were at the Théâtre-Ambigu. Between acts Janin pointed her out and warned that she had him in her sights. The next day she asked Dr. Koreff, a mutual acquaintance, to invite Liszt to join her circle at her place. Liszt accepted and Koreff introduced them. A fashionable doctor, "half charlatan, half genius," writes André Maurois, Koreff had treated her with some success from winter to June 1845 for severe chest inflammation; he had also treated Liszt's mother Anna Liszt and Liszt's former mistress, Countess Marie d'Agoult , who wrote under the pseudonym Daniel Stern.
Liszt, aged 34, attracted women as easily as Plessis did men. She was swept away, and so was he, saying later that while he had no special liking for courtesans, she was an exception: "She had a great deal of heart, a gusto altogether ideal." In a long letter to d'Agoult (May 1, 1847), he called Plessis "the first woman with whom I fell in love"—a puzzling thing to write to one who had been his mistress for ten years and given him three children (including Cosima Wagner ). He was also forgetting his first love, Caroline de Saint-Cricq (d. 1872).
Plessis knew time was slipping away, and she was becoming desperate to escape to a new life. She told him, "I shall not live; I'm a strange woman, I shall not be able to cling to the life I cannot have and cannot bear…. Take me with you wherever you want; I shall not be a burden to you, during the day I shall sleep, in the evening you can let me go to the theater, and at night you can do with me what you want!" Liszt promised he would take her with him to Constantinople. But he could not take her with him to Weimar, where he held a court appointment, or to Vienna. Apparently he promised to meet her in Budapest, where he performed from late April to mid-May. He confessed decades later that the project was "one of the steps of life escaped at great cost, one of those I have most regretted." Realizing she was seriously ill, had he tried to soothe her with a hollow promise? Probably. And probably she knew it. He went on without her to Constantinople and would be at Kiev when he learned of her death. By chance, the night she died his recital would include Carl Maria von Weber's "Invitation to the Dance," her favorite waltz.
On February 3, 1846, a scant month after Liszt's departure for Weimar, she left for London with Perrégaux, and on February 21 they were married at Kensington by the Registrar for the County of Middlesex. Because bans had not been published, the French consul-general in London refused to ratify the marriage, making it null under French law. They separated almost immediately.
This strange episode has no ready explanation, although it is noteworthy that upon her return she immediately had her stationery, linen, and coach doors marked with a coat of arms and called herself the Countess du Plessis (not Perrégaux). Had she begged Perrégaux to lend her a patina of respectability by marrying her? Did he marry her out of pity, or love? Was he in some way deceived and then discarded? Had the affair been a ruse on her part to use a title to help her with Liszt? In a note to him, she confirmed that he could resume his liberty as he had requested. But what were their respective motives? At all events, the "marriage" was known to but a few, she was careful when and where she used a title, and in a trial on April 1 for nonpayment of debt to her lingerie supplier, she finally answered, with obvious discomfort, that she was not married.
Money troubles, never far from her door, had begun to mount. Stackelberg's subsidies had declined. Her clientele thinned as her health slowly ebbed. Doctors and prescriptions began to exact heavy tolls. Bill collectors thronged her antechamber, merchants were having to accept delays, and pawnbrokers began to see her maid frequently—19 times between March 1846 and January 1847.
In May, she rested for three weeks at Nonant but then returned to the whirl, only to leave again, this time for Spa, where, against her doctors' orders, she rode horseback and danced and gambled feverishly. On June 16, having used some pull to obtain a ticket, she made a sensational appearance in Brussels at the grand ball inaugurating the Paris-Brussels railway. She waltzed so beautifully that a great crowd gathered to watch. After this triumph, she sped off to Baden-Baden, Wiesbaden, and Ems. While at Wiesbaden, however, she fell seriously ill. Frightened, and remorseful over something she had done, she wrote a despairing note to Perrégaux from Ems saying she was "alone here and very sick" and begged his forgiveness. Did he reply? For whatever reason, he applied to rejoin the army that summer but was turned down.
In early August, she was back in Paris, quite sick now. Until October, however, she continued to go out to soirées, theaters, the Opéra, restaurants, and the track. The public noticed a weight loss, hollowing cheeks, a slight flush, a reddening of the eyes. And, of course, a worsening cough. From October on, she stayed home except for a daily coach ride. She moved her bed to a small room off the salon overlooking the street. There she could watch the world—her fading world—go by.
The course of her illness—arguably the most famous case of tuberculosis in history—can be measured by surviving prescriptions lists and doctors' bills. She exhibited the full range of symptoms: the cough and bloody sputum; flushing; insomnia; sweating; agitation and lassitude; sudden "recoveries" followed by further declines. She received the best medical care the times could offer. She had dropped Dr. Koreff that spring, saying she thought he was poisoning her; he had, in fact, been giving her a strychnine preparation, thus increasing, not lessening, her agitation. Consultants included Prof. Louis of the Hôtel-Dieu and Dr. Auguste-François Chomel, the king's physician. Her attendants were Dr. Marec of the Salpétrière, who saw her 39 times from mid-September to mid-November, and above all the renowned young Dr. Casimir-Joseph Davaine (1812–1882), who saw her 163 times from October until her death and to whom in gratitude she left a miniature portrait of herself now preserved at the Comédie-Française. She seemed willing to try anything, which makes her case a museum exhibit of pre-Pasteurian medicine. They prescribed a healthy diet fortified with asses' milk, beef gall, frog and snail concoctions, snake bouillon, and such; rest, which she often violated until near the very end; and a catalog of the current remedies, all of which, of course, could only treat symptoms. She was dosed with infusions, fumigations, injections, syrups, decongestants, soporifics, plasters, poultices, salves, blisterings, leeches, and for pain, morphine and opium.
Her visitors dwindled to a pitiful few. Besides her faithful maid, Clotilde , and Clémence Prat , a fortyish ex-courtesan who was her longtime procuress, there was Stackelberg, occasionally, and young men: an officer and son of a marshal, Count Pierre de Castellane (until he had to leave for Algeria); Édouard Delessert, wealthy son of the prefect of police; and for whole days Count Olympio Aguado, heir to a banking fortune. For some reason, until her last hours she forbade Perrégaux, who, it is said, at times came nevertheless when Clotilde told him she was asleep. She resolved on a last public appearance. It came on December 12, 1846, at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal for the debut of Dumanoir and Clairville's annual vaudeville revue, La Poudre de coton. She was borne to her box by a resplendently uniformed valet and his son. They left during the final number. (Another version gives January 15, which seems very late, and the revue as Les Pommes de terre malades.) An observer wrote of a woman, "or rather the shadow of a woman, something diaphanous and white, flesh and clothes."
On February 1, Plessis could barely breathe or speak. Davaine bled her and called in a priest from Saint-Roch. She had always been regular at Mass and lately had prayed long at a prie-dieu she had bought. She confessed and received the last rites. (Davaine left after a lunch which Clotilde duly noted as "ham for the praître, 2 francs.") She allowed Perrégaux to come in, and he remained to the end. Her last words were said to have been, "Despite everything, I loved them all!"
At 3 am on February 3, she suddenly sat up, wildeyed, gave three cries, then sank back on her pillows and expired. Perrégaux, stricken, performed the last duties. From the street below, the sounds of revelers drifted up, for the pre-Lenten carnival season was in full cry—a detail Verdi was certain not to overlook.
In the jaded City of Light, where the shelf life of most gossip was three days at best, the 23-year-old courtesan's death reverberated for weeks. Her funeral, an expensive Mass at the Madeline on February 5, drew (contrary to Dumas) a respectable crowd. Although her death certificate omitted her title, as luck had it the proper hangings for a countess' funeral earlier in the day were still in place. Not two (according to Dumas) but at least five men followed her casket, crowned with white wreaths, through a cold, misty rain to the Montmartre Cemetery: Perrégaux, Aguado, Delessert, Vienne, and Alfred de Montjoyeux. Some accounts also cite Stackelberg and Alphonsine's sister, Delphine.
The sale of her property on February 24–27 attracted a jostling throng of every social hue. Charles Dickens, visiting in town, sniffed that the spectacle's monopolizing of the news proved that Paris "is corrupt to its marrow." The inventory belies Dumas' picture of creditors stripping even her bed hangings while she lay dying. The record of the sale fills 17 columns in Gros' book—fairly impressive, certainly, but far short of the standards set by, for example, some mistresses of 18th-century grandees. Clothing and linen came to 10,604 francs, including some 76 gowns; silver and jewelry, 30,889, of which 28,861 had been pawned; furnishings, including a clock once belonging to Pompadour and Du Barry , 32,245; books and paintings, 8,893; and stable, 6,386; total, 89,017 francs. The general quality was very high, testifying to her refined tastes. One odd exception was her bed, which the press had portrayed to a titillated public as worthy of Cleopatra (VII) . It turned out to be quite ordinary.
After the pawnbrokers and around 20,000 in debts were paid, Delphine inherited the balance. Delphine's daughter was the residuary, on the interesting condition inserted by Alphonsine that she never come to Paris.
As it happened, the death of Alphonsine Plessis heralded the passing of the Age of Romanticism. It died a year later in the Revolutions of 1848. Notable as "Marie Duplessis" had been, however, her renown soon began to grow, becoming over time one of Romanticism's most enduring remnants. The great engines of this transformation were the novel La Dame aux camélias (1848), by Dumas fils, and above all his play (1852) by the same name. Verdi's masterpiece La Traviata (The Wayward One), based upon the play, sealed her immortality.
Dumas learned of her passing in Marseille while returning from a tour of Spain and North Africa. Deeply moved, he hastened to Paris but arrived only in time for the auction. (Some accounts say he was present at her reburial shortly before.) His novel, written under the sway of youthful passion, contained a preface stating that the story was true, an authorial device dating back at least to Boccaccio. This assertion inevitably set off speculations as to what truly was fact and what was fiction. Was Marguerite Gautier (the name he gave the heroine) really Plessis in all respects? Was the lover-hero de Guiche? Perrégaux? Dumas himself? And so on. The only certainty is that he wrote with Alphonsine in mind. In simplest outline, the play—in the novel Marguerite dies alone and forsaken—tells of a young man (Armand Duval) and a courtesan who fall desperately in love. When his father tells her she must give him up because he can never marry a fallen woman, she nobly does so. Armand is shattered when, fulfilling her pledge, she coldly sends him away and takes up with another, older, man. But when she is dying of consumption, he learns the truth, and their love is renewed—too late. True love and repentance have redeemed her sordid past.
In the preface to the 1867 edition of his plays, Dumas wrote that "Marie Duplessis didn't have all the pathos-filled adventures that I have attributed to Marguerite Gautier, but only asked to have them. If she sacrificed nothing to Armand, it is because Armand didn't wish it." From this it seems clear that the novel and play, although containing very many true-to-life details, relate what Dumas imagined could have been. As André Maurois has observed, in real life Dumas "soon gave up any ideas of redeeming the Magdalene, whereas in the novel, Armand Duval tries to do precisely that."
The novel was a great success. It was, however, Jules Janin's hagiographical preface to the new edition of 1851, writes Tadeusz Kowzan, which truly launched the mythic version of Plessis' life and person as the tragically noble "Lady of the Camellias." Soon afterward, a writer of light comedies, Paul Siraudin, told Dumas he should draw a play from his novel. Antony Béraud likewise suggested one for his Théâtre-Ambigu. Dumas set to work. Many years later, he wrote dismissively of the play which made him rich and famous, saying he could not remember how but had dashed it off in a week by virtue of "the audacities and luck" of youth. The censors at first forbade its performance. Stories of redemption of prostitutes by love were hardly new, as witness Abbé Prévost's Manon Lescaut (1731), or Victor Hugo's Marion Delorme (1829), or Eugène Scribe's Adrienne Lecouvreur (1849). But it would affront taste and morals to mount a play in contemporary dress about a prostitute known personally by many and by repute to the general public. Count Morny nevertheless befriended the project; he lifted the ban when he became minister of the interior after the coup of December 2, 1851, which brought to power his half-brother, the future Napoleon III. On February 2, 1852, five years less a day after Plessis' death, the play opened at the Vaudville, with Madame Doche (Marie-Charlotte-Eugénie de Plunkett , 1821–1900) as Marguerite. It was a smash hit, running for 200 performances—fabulous for that time.
La Dame aux camélias went around the world in many languages. With it, Dumas fils became "the father of the modern social drama … [and] brought the theater into direct touch with life again," writes F.A. Taylor. He neither attacked nor defended courtesans but only told, with obvious sincerity, a powerful story. Yet, while a product of the new Realism, it is steeped in Romanticism. Dumas unerringly pushed button after button of his audiences' emotional psyche: sexual license, love, guilt, purgation, redemption, death—an intoxicating potion. As a tear-jerking melodrama, La Dame aux camélias has had few, if any, equals. It became a warhorse for scores of actresses, notably Eleonora Duse (1858–1924), Helena Modjeska (1840–1909), Edwidge Feuillère (1907–1998), and above all Sarah Bernhardt, who played in Camille, as English-speaking audiences know it, over 2,000 times, many while on tour in America. (The title Camille derives from the first American production, Matilda Heron 's Camille, or The Fate of a Coquette, in 1857.)
When the play (which was also made into a ballet) began to fade in the 1920s, it continued in motion pictures, notably with Yvonne Printemps (1894–1977), Norma Talmadge , and Micheline Presle (b. 1922). George Cukor's Camille (1937), with Greta Garbo (1905–1990), Robert Taylor, and Lionel Barrymore, remains the classic film version. Changing tastes and mores after World War II, however, sounded the knell for frequent stage and film performances of what had been for a century probably the world's single most popular play.
Not so the story's run as an opera, an art form where outdated language and conventions can be swept aside by great music. Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901), after reading the novel, mentioned it as a possible opera. He attended one of the play's first performances in Paris in 1852, possibly the debut. According to his family's tradition, he responded to it instantly and began composing in his head before the final curtain. La Traviata became the opera he had promised to Venice for the spring of 1853, but Il Trovatore occupied him more—he composed them simultaneously—until its debut on January 19. Thereafter, he worked on La Traviata at breakneck speed. The score was still incomplete only two weeks before the debut, and he finished the orchestration during rehearsals. His librettist, Francesco Mario Piave (1810–1876), fortunately could cope with last-minute changes. His text was mediocre as poetry but a truly masterful condensation of the play, e.g., wisely reducing its five acts to three. Also, Violetta Valéry (yet another name) was now transfigured into a heroine who even wins the father's approval.
Verdi evidently felt personally moved by the story. He was a widower but living openly with a singer, Giuseppina Strepponi (1815–1897), in defiance of bourgeois morality. (They later married.) To what extent his personal situation affected his response is debated. Possibly it was related to his desire to have the opera given a contemporary setting, thus involving him in the same struggle with moral conventions as Dumas. He gave in, reluctantly, when the producers insisted on a setting in the reign of Louis XIV. The opera was not given in contemporary dress until 1909; since then the utmost freedom has reigned as to setting and costumes.
The debut on March 6, 1853, was the most famous flop of Verdi's career. The Violetta, Fanny Salvini-Donatelli (1815–1891), met the vocal challenges but was inadequate in a role demanding high acting skills. And when she announced she was dying of consumption, the audience burst out laughing: she weighed a reputed 285 pounds. The tenor and baritone also were unsuitable and unhappy, as was the rest of the cast. All felt disoriented in this unconventional work, Verdi's only "chamber" opera, containing as it does no grand choruses or spectacles. In letters, Verdi pronounced it "an absolute fiasco," but added, "I believe that the last word on La Traviata was not said last night." He was overreacting, for the nine-performance first run earned at least average receipts. Still, "Fiasco!" resounded everywhere.
A revival—with more revisions than Verdi cared to admit plus longer rehearsals and a more carefully chosen cast headed by a splendid Violetta in Maria Aldighieri-Spezia (1828–1907)—opened, again in Venice, on May 6, 1854. It was a colossal triumph. La Traviata remains perhaps the best loved of all Verdi's operas and vies with Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème (1896) and Tosca (1900) for the title of the most performed. Among the greatest Violettas have been Adelina Patti (1843–1919), Nellie Melba (1861–1931), Luisa Tetrazzini (1871–1940), Amelita Galli-Curci (1882–1963), Rosa Ponselle (1897–1981), Bidu Sayão (1902–1999), Licia Albanese (b. 1913), Maria Callas (1923–1977), and Teresa Stratas (b. 1938).
Marie Duplessis, Marguerite Gautier, Violetta Valéry—had they obliterated Alphonsine Plessis? Not altogether. Her mythic personage lives on at her tomb.
On Mardi Gras, February 16, two weeks after her death, Perrégaux had her body reburied (still at Montmartre) and commissioned a square, white-marble tomb crowned by an urn. Much later, Dumas fils in his will charged his nephew and descendants to care for it in perpetuity. As fate would have it, Dumas asked to be buried at Père Lachaise but instead was interred at Montmartre not far from Alphonsine's tomb. As for Perrégaux, he died in 1889, having lived his last 30 years in a furnished house in Chantilly. He never remarried.
The tomb is near the main entrance, in Division 18, Line 4, No. 12. Almost at once it became a shrine for poor young people, working women and prostitutes, and romantics of every age. It is said that the site has never lacked fresh flowers. The inscription, simple yet eloquent, gives only her real name, her dates of birth and death, and the first two words of the 130th Psalm, which speaks to her suffering and Perrégaux's sorrow at the end: DE PROFUNDIS … "Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, O Lord."
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David S. S. , Pottinger Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus, Centre College, Danville, Kentucky, and author of Clemenceau: A Life at War (1991)