The Grosvenor Hotel recently opened a lavish suite in the style of a sumptuous French boudoir in honor of the illustrious nineteenth century Parisian courtesan, Cora Pearl – who was famously turned away from The Grosvenor, then the grandest hotel in London, in 1870.
Here, Katie Hickman – author of the best-selling biography ‘Courtesans’ which features a chapter on Cora Pearl – will answer our questions about courtesans and the life and times of Cora Pearl, explaining why the two themes are synonymous with the high-glamour and decadence that it’s hoped The Cora Pearl Suite itself now exudes.
Who was Cora Pearl?
Cora Pearl (whose real name was the much less glamorous Eliza Emma Crouch) was an Englishwoman who became one of the most famous and celebrated courtesans of mid-nineteenth century Paris.
What was a courtesan and why are they associated with glamour?
There is no getting away from the fact that a courtesan was a ‘professional woman’ – she accepted money (and jewellery and houses and horses etc.) in exchange for her sexual services. She differed from an ordinary prostitute (although she might well have begun her ‘career’ as one) in that her cachet was such that she was able to choose who her lovers were – often for her own pleasure as well as theirs. The riches and independence and the luxurious lifestyles adopted by these women is the reason they are remembered today. (Although I would say that in France they remember them more readily than we do in England – our great courtesans are largely forgotten, and this is why I wrote my book ‘Courtesans’: to rescue them from oblivion.)
Why is Cora Pearl one of the courtesans still remembered today?
Cora Pearl is remembered because she was one of the richest, most successful, and most flamboyant courtesans in what could be described as the great Golden Age of courtesanry: that of nineteenth century France.
With which famous figures was Cora Pearl associated?
She had a string of aristocratic (and rich) lovers that she called her ‘golden chain’. The most famous of them were the Duc de Morny, the Emperor’s half-brother, and Prince Napoleon, the son of Napoleon I’s brother and therefore the first cousin of the French Emperor.
Would it have been unusual for a courtesan to have been turned away from a hotel?
Hmmm. This is quite difficult to answer. Courtesans were very ambiguous figures. Respectable people – most especially women – were not supposed to know of their existence, but at the same time they moved in very high circles indeed (in male company, of course). So they chose very carefully the places where they went and, on the whole, a courtesan would never have risked going anywhere too public.
In her early days, Cora was refused entry at the casino in Baden-Baden, a very fashionable place at the time, until she was rescued by an aristocratic admirer, the Duc de Morny, and was then (according to her memoirs, not necessarily true) allowed entry as his guest. This is the only other example I know of her being refused entry anywhere.
Most courtesans would not have risked going to places frequented by high-society women, as it was out of the question for them to mix socially with them – everyone would have been shocked by the very idea of this, most especially the men! But in France, courtesans of this period enjoyed a very high degree of freedom. My own theory is that Cora probably did not think she would be recognised at the Grosvenor, which is why she made this mistake
Why do you think Cora Pearl chose The Grosvenor on her visit to London?
She chose the Grosvenor because it was the best hotel in London – but of course!
How does the Cora Pearl suite at The Grosvenor compare to the boudoirs that Cora would have been used to?
The Cora Pearl suite is a beautifully modern interpretation of what a late nineteenth century courtesan’s boudoir might have been like. Cora would have loved it.
The suite features a two-foot high oil painting of Cora – where did this picture originate from?
The picture was originally a photograph, one of the best known ones that exist of Cora. Note that she is wearing her signature pearls.
What’s the significance of the free-standing, infinity bath in the Cora Pearl suite?
Cora was alleged to have invited her friends to watch her bathing in a tub filled with champagne.
The suite also features orchid detailing. What is the significance of this?
Another of the legends surrounding Cora was that when an admirer sent her £1000 worth of orchids, she threw them on the floor and danced a hornpipe (a kind of dance) on top of them.
What do you think Cora would have liked most about the suite?
I think she would have loved the whole idea of it – her revenge from beyond the grave!
The Grosvenor is also introducing a cocktail in honour of Cora, named ‘Tears of Cora Pearl’. Do you think that Cora would have enjoyed one of these?
Cora Pearl was actually rather frugal when it came to her own habits – she looked after herself and was known not to drink very much. The ‘Tears of Cora Pearl’ – a Belle Époque champagne drink – was named after her because of her fame and notoriety, not because she liked strong drink.
About Katie …
Katie Hickman is a historian and novelist, and the author of the bestselling biography ‘Courtesans,’ featuring Coral Pearl, which was published to much critical acclaim in 2003. She is the author of six other books, including a second best-selling history book ‘Daughters of Britannia’, about the lives and times of British diplomatic wives. Her other works include two travel books and three novels, the most recently of which are the linked historical novels, ‘The Aviary Gate’ and ‘The Pindar Diamond’. Katie lives in London with her two children, and her husband, the philosopher A.C. Grayling.
What would you like to know about Cora? What do you think about The Grosvenor’s most illustrious visitor? Please leave a comment and let us know …