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The Lady’s Not a Tramp: History's Greatest Courtesans

The following is a list from the book Uncle John's Bathroom Reader History's Lists.

For most of recorded history, women had just a handful of options open to them: they could marry (hopefully to men of means), they could teach, they could join convents, or they could do something a little more exciting …like becoming mistresses to the rich and famous. These eight are among history’s best-known high-class ladies of the night.

1. PHRYNE (Fourth Century BC)

As a child, she was called Mnesarete (Greek for "virtue"), but because she was born with sallow skin, she was called Phryne (Greek for "toad"). Still, Phryne became the most successful and sought-after courtesan in ancient Greece, commanding 100 times the going rate. Supposedly, she was even the model for the sculpture called Aphrodite of Cnidus, one of the most famous works of Greek art.

Lust Rewards: Phryne became incredibly rich thanks to her liaisons with powerful men in Athens. According to legend, she even offered to pay to rebuild the city walls of Thebes, which had been destroyed by Alexander the Great in 336 BC, but there was a condition: the new wall had to contain the inscription “Destroyed by Alexander, restored by Phryne the courtesan.” Her offer was declined.

Around 340 BC, Phryne was accused of affronting the gods by appearing nude during a religious ceremony. At her trial, the orator Hyyperides -her defender and also one of her lovers- ripped open Phryne’s robe and exposed her to the court. Why? He considered it a legitimate defense. She was, after all, the most beautiful woman in Athens, and someone that gorgeous must be on good terms with Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, no matter what codes of conduct she appeared to have broken. It worked. The judges ruled in Phryne’s favor.

2. THEODORA (497-548)

Theodora’s father died when she was young, so her mother sent the girl to work, first as an actress and then as a prostitute.

Theodora became the mistress to a politician named Hecebolus and then caught the eye of Justinian I, the emperor’s nephew. Justinian was so enamored with Theodora that he wanted to marry her, but Byzantine law forbade royals from marrying mere actresses (and prostitutes, presumably), so his uncle changed the law and Justinian and Theodora became husband and wife.

Lust Rewards: Justinian ascended to the throne in 527, and together he and his wife ruled Byzantium (also known as the Eastern Roman Empire). Theodora proved to be a gifted politician -she helped to create a new constitution to curb corruption, expand the rights of women in divorce, closed brothels, and founded convents for former prostitutes. When she died at around the age of 50, she had been empress of Byzantium for more than 20 years. Historians consider her to be the most influential and powerful woman in the empire’s 1,100-year history.

3. VERONICA FRANCO (1546-91)

Like mother, like daughter: Veronica Franco was the privileged offspring of Venetian courtesan Paola Fracassa. She studied Greek and Roman literature and learned to play the lute. After marrying and divorcing a doctor, Franco consorted with politicians, artists, philosophers, and poets. She became an accomplished poet herself and celebrated her sexual prowess in writing -her book Familiar Letters (published in 1580) was a collection of 50 letters written to her lovers, including King Henry III of France and the Venetian painter Jacopo Tintoretto.
Lust Rewards: In the 1570s, Franco lost most of her money to thieves, but it was her overt sexuality that was her undoing. In 1580, she was charged with immorality and witchcraft by the Roman Inquisition courts. She managed to avoid conviction by giving an eloquent speech in her defense, and then a wealthy patron named Domenico Nenier came to her aid. She never regained her former glory, though: Veronico Franco lived out the rest of her life in a section of Venice populated by destitute prostitutes.

4. NELL GWYNNE (1650-87)

Eleanor “Nell” Gwynne had a troubled childhood in London: Her father left the family when she was young, and her mother drowned in a pond after a drinking binge. Young Nell sold oranges to get by, but by the time she was 15, she’d also started working as an actress. Famous playwright John Dryden wrote roles for her, and she proved to be a comedic talent. With fame cam wealthy men -eventually, Gwynne became a courtesan, cohabiting with members of the English nobility, including Charles Sackville, the sixth Earl of Dorset, and King Charles II.

Lust Rewards: Gwynne’s main man was King Charles II, and she was his mistress exclusively from about 1670 until he died in 1685. They had two sons, and Charles built her a mansion near Windsor Castle. On his deathbed, Charles pleaded with his brother, James II, to “not let poor Nell starve.” James II carried out those wishes, proving for Nell Gwynne until her death two years later in 1687.

5. CORA PEARL (1835-86)

Emma Crouch was born in Plymouth, England, to a British musician and womanizer who deserted his family and moved to America. At around the age of 20, Emma worked as a milliner, dabbling in prostitution to augment her low wages. During this time, she met Robert Bignell, owner of a dance hall, and became his mistress. He took her to Paris, where she was enamored with the 19th-century Bohemian atmosphere. When Bignell returned to England, Emma stayed behind, changed her name to Cora Pearl, and became the city’s most famous courtesan.

Lust Rewards: Cora Pearl had a series of lovers in high places, including the French statesman Duc de Morny, the half-brother of Napoleon III, and the Prince of Orange, heir to the throne of the Netherlands, who gave her a string of black pearls that became her signature ornament.

Pearl was known for her decadent ways -she once had waiters carry her naked on a silver plate into a fancy dinner, and she sometimes bathed in a tub of champagne in front of her dinner guests. But a shooting at one of her mansions led to her expulsion from France. She ended up indigent, living in a boardinghouse, where she died at age 51 of stomach cancer. In her memoirs, she left no regrets: “I am far from posing as a victim; it would be ungrateful for me to do so. I ought to have saved, but saving is not easy in such a whirl of excitement as that in which I have lived.”

6. MADAM DE POMPADOUR (1721-64)

When Jeanne-Antionette Poisson was nine years old, her mother took her to see a fortune teller, who said that the little girl would grow up to be the mistress of a king. That seemed unlikely for the daughter of a disgraced French financier and a courtesan, but Jeanne-Antionette eventually made good on the prophesy. In 1745, she was invited to a costume ball at the Palace of Versailles. Jeanne-Antionette dressed as a shepherdess -King Louis XV was dressed as a tree. Within a month, she was his mistress.

Lust Rewards: Louis gave Jeanne-Antionette her own coat of arms and the title “Marquise de Pompadour,” or Madame de Pompadour. Louis doted on her, and Madame de Pompadour spent fortunes on gems, art, and ornate porcelain. She also became one of Louis’ foreign policy advisors, and even encouraged him to fight the Seven Years’ War with England, which ended in France’s defeat. The public blamed her for the war’s devastation, but Louis remained loyal to her. She died in 1764, still a member of the royal court.

7. MATA HARI (1876-1917)

By the time Margaretha Geertruida Zelle MacLeod was 18, she’d married a Dutch colonial army officer who was twice her age and moved with him to the Dutch East Indies. They had two children, but their marriage was on the rocks from the start- Margaretha liked the company of other men, and he liked to drink. Eventually, they divorced, and with little money and no skills, Margaretha turned to dancing and prostitution to make ends meet. In 1902, she moved to Paris, where she gained fame as an exotic dancer. Two years later, she was a sensation, flaunting her sexuality with Indonesian-derived dance and a new name: Mata Hari.

Lust Rewards: Mata Hari became the mistress of wealthy industrialist Emile Etienne Guimet, and she was famous for a cabaret striptease in which she was left wearing only a bejeweled bra and an ornamental headdress and armbands. But she still had ties to the Netherlands, which allowed free entry into Germany. And as the Germans and French got entrenched in World War I, she became an object of concern for the French military.

No one has ever proved that Mata Hari was (or wasn’t) a German spy. According to some researchers, she took money to spy on the French because she was drowning in debt, but never actually participated in any espionage. Others claim she was a German operative with the code name of H-21. Whatever the truth, she was arrested and executed by firing squad in 1917 at the age of 41. Documents concerning her trial have been sealed, not to be opened until 2017. Stay Tuned.

8. SHADY SADIE (1861-1944)

The closest thing the wild American West has to a famous courtesan is Josephine “Sadie” Marcus. At 18, Josephine ran away from home to join a traveling theater company as a dancer. While on tour, she romanced Tombstone, Arizona, deputy sheriff Johnny Behan; she liked the area so much that she moved there and became a prostitute, earning her the nickname “Shady Sadie.”

Lust Rewards: In her early 20s, Sadie met famed lawman and gambler Wyatt Earp, who already had a common-law wife named Mattie Blaylock. But Blaylock was addicted to laudanum -an opiate used to treat headaches- and Shady Sadie won Earp’s heart. No marriage records exist, but Sadie adopted the name Earp by 1882, and the couple traveled the West, gambling, hunting for gold and silver, operating saloons as far north as Alaska, and running horse races in San Diego.

Wyatt Earp died in 1929, but Shady Sadie lived until 1944. When she passed away, she was cremated, and her ashes were interred with Wyatt’s remains in Colma, California.

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The article above was reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader History's Lists. Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts.

If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!


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Calling one of Theodora's professions "actress" takes a bit of liberty. Search the Intertubes for "Theodora Geese" for the explanation.
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