The World of the Demi-Mondaines
A note from director Marta Domingo
When we meet Violetta Valéry, she is the most adored demi-mondaine in Paris. Demi-mondaines are today a completely obsolete social phenomenon that flourished during the period which began with France’s Second Empire (starting circa 1850) and went into the “Belle Époque” (ending in 1914). This period was characterized by a variety of excesses. Men of the privileged classes, “Le Beau Monde,” were preoccupied with enjoying life to the fullest, not giving much thought to violence or revolution, and even less to morality. There were often no limits to their deceptions, because spending a lot of money was almost a sport; they often squandered away whole fortunes, with little concern about the consequences for themselves or their families. This, then, was the ideal climate for the existence of the ladies of the evening.
We are dealing not with simple prostitutes but with women of much higher class. Some of these women achieved very high social positions, enormous political power and amassed fabulous riches. They were loved by kings, princes, maharajas and aristocrats, by politicians, military men, bankers and, last but not least, musicians and painters, whose art was influenced by their existence. An abyss separates these demi-mondaines from their miserable sisters, the common prostitutes who, after years of degradation, ended their lives in the morgue or a common grave.
These unusual women had names. Because reality and fiction are so fantastic, we often intertwine them and end up mentally seeing, walking hand in hand: “Nana,” Cleo de Merode, Emilienne d’Alençon, Lina Cavalieri, Liane de Pougy, Cora Pearl, Therese Lachman, La Belle Otero, etc. Many of these ladies arrived at old age enjoying their fortunes, many married wealthy and even aristocratic husbands, while others, undoubtedly the minority, secluded themselves in a convent overcome with remorse.
And alas! There are the nonconformists—those who need desperately to love and be loved, and who are secretly ashamed of what they are doing. In a crucial moment of their lives these “cold” creatures discover that they have a heart. What a nuisance! When they have accomplished all they have yearned for and when nobody is bothered any more about their past, when their future seems secure and all they need to do is enjoy a carefree present, there appears—without warning—love, all-powerful and overwhelming. The terrible problem is that the object of this love is generally a very young man with different principals and morals. All of a sudden her past rises from the grave, awakening her to reality; the present collapses and there is no future.
In literature, though on a different social stratum, we have the desperate examples of Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, both tragic victims of their heart. But in general, the demi-mondaine who was able to keep a cool head achieved a comfortable existence and a privileged station in life fairly quickly. But no matter how lucky, they were not spared a certain amount of humiliation, abuse, inhumane treatment and cruelty. Many became bitter and antagonistic toward men and fought back against their domination in the only way they knew: by toying with the weakness of these men’s senses and fooling their egos. The glory of the demi-mondaine is relatively short-lived and she knows it. She must take advantage of those years of splendor in order to take revenge and bring to their knees a whole section of society.
This is not an apology for vice, but courtesans have their place in history. Women of great beauty—and sometimes with beauty of lesser degree but brilliant intelligence—with strong determination, liberated (before liberation was an accepted way of living for women), cultivated and most sophisticated, launched new fashions and new modes of living. We only need to think of the highly accomplished Madame de Maintenon (favorite of the “Sun King,” King Louis XIV) or the exquisite Madame de Pompadour and the fascinating Madame du Barry (favorite of Louis XV) to realize that such women created styles and influenced the arts through patronage.
These demi-mondaines are gone forever. With women’s liberation has come not only a status of equality to that of men today, but also the right for women to do with their lives and bodies as they please. These creatures have left for us characters larger than life in a fascinating world which we are tempted to explore in all its glory and misery.
The World of the Flappers
What do the France of the 1850s and the United States of the 1920s have in common? It might seem, with nearly a century and an ocean between them: nothing! But due to certain circumstances, both worlds produced a special breed of women who, though their existence didn’t last long, wrote a very important page in the history of both countries. France had the demi-mondaines, who were prostitutes “deluxe,” and the U.S. had the flappers.
The flappers were far from being courtesans, but with their licentious, scandalous behavior and total disdain for authority, they had a lot in common with the demi-mondaines. They were not in it for the money, especially in the United States where there were so many rich heiresses; there was nothing that would stop them. The flappers’ only excuse was that they were very much the result of World War I, when most of these young women had experienced death and realized the fragility of life. After the horrors of the war, this generation could not accept the passivity of their elders, who nursed their painful memories in the comfort of their homes. Many young women found themselves without future husbands or lovers, for so many men of their generation had been killed during the war. They decided not to waste their lives accepting spinsterhood; they were going to enjoy life to the fullest. The more criticized they were, the more aggressive they became, always in constant revolt against the moral precepts of their parents.
Excess was their motto. They drank alcohol openly in the period of Prohibition, smoked in public through long cigarette holders, danced the provocative Charleston in jazz clubs, and organized “petting parties” where petting was the main attraction. Despite all the criticism, they were secretly admired, and they succeeded in imposing their fashions, hair styles and heavy makeup—which had previously been restricted to prostitutes—upon the public.
So, this atmosphere, where the morals and principals of a conservative society were constantly endangered by a new wave, could very easily set the stage for another Violetta Valéry! Let us make a brief survey of this world, from the comfort of our seats.
Marta Domingo is the director and designer of LA Opera’s production of La Traviata.