Reprinted from The Writers’ Almanac:
It’s the birthday of French courtesan Marie Duplessis, born Alphonsine Plessis in Normandy (1824). She was a beautiful young woman: petite, dark-haired, and slim. She was working as a laundress at the age of 13 when her father decided that prostitution paid better. He sent her to live with a rich and elderly bachelor in exchange for cash. After a year, she went to live with cousins in Paris. For a time, she was kept by a restaurant owner, who gave her a place to live in exchange for her favors. It wasn’t long before she set her sights higher. She learned to read and write, and she studied a wide variety of subjects so that she could hold her own in any social situation. She started appearing at places where the rich and powerful were likely to be, and she attracted lots of attention.
She suspected she had tuberculosis when she developed a cough that only got worse. She was treated with everything from spa cures to strychnine to hypnotism. And through it all, she kept dressing up and holding salons and going to the opera. Having grown up in poverty, she couldn’t get enough of luxury. Noblemen from all over Europe would call on her whenever they were in Paris, and they brought her expensive trinkets, which she sometimes pawned to support herself between lovers.
She began an affair with Alexandre Dumas the younger when they were both 20 years old. He was a struggling writer, and he wasn’t able to give her lavish gifts like her other lovers. He kept her with him out in the country for a while, for the sake of her health, but she missed the lively Paris scene and went back to the city after a year. Finally, he couldn’t take it anymore, and broke it off with her, writing in a letter, “I am neither rich enough to love you as I could wish nor poor enough to be loved as you wish.”
Duplessis never answered Dumas’s letter. She was too ill, and she had begun an affair with the composer and pianist Franz Liszt. She wanted Liszt to bring her along on his concert tour, but he was afraid he would catch tuberculosis from her, so he left her behind. He promised to take her to Turkey one day, but he never saw her again. After she died at the age of 23, Liszt regretted not coming to her bedside, and said: “She had a great deal of heart, a great liveliness of spirit and I consider her unique of her kind. […] She was the most complete incarnation of womankind that has ever existed.”
Four months after Duplessis’s death, Dumas published his novel The Lady of the Camellias (1848). It’s the story of a courtesan named Marguerite Gautier, based on Duplessis. She breaks the heart of her lover — Armand Duval — to spare him from ruin. Dumas wrote it in four weeks. It was later made into a play, which in turn inspired Verdi’s opera La Traviata (1853).
- La Traviata. “Come. Clasp Me Like a Daughter.” (falstaffmusicblog.wordpress.com)